Consulting the community

You also need to ask questions of your likely food co-op customers  to find out if this is something they want or would use if it was available.

There are various ways of consulting local people, for example informal conversations, a questionnaire, focus group or participatory appraisal. What you choose will depend on how much time and what funding you have and how many people you wish to consult.

If you want to consult several hundred people, then a questionnaire is likely to be the most feasible option. If you want to talk to only 10  people, then informal conversations or a focus group may be your best choice.

Questionnaires

The questions you ask will depend on what you are going to sell and why the food co-op is being set up, but common themes could include asking:

  • Where do you buy food now?
  • Do you have any problems with getting certain foods?
  • Would you be likely to use a food co-op?
  • What days and times would you go there?
  • What sort of products would you like to buy?
  • Would you be interested in volunteering for the food co-op?

Many food co-ops are set up to improve access to fresh fruit and veg, and hence to improve people's health. So you might like to ask about people's current consumption of fruit and vegetables. It may also be useful to ask how much people spend on particular foods per week to give you an idea how much they might spent at the food co-op.

As with any survey, there will probably be a bias in the responses as those who bother to fill them in are more likely to feel positively about the idea of a food co-op. So be careful what conclusions you draw from analysing the answers. The length of the questionnaire is also crucial: make it too long and the response rate could be low. Greenwich Community Food Co-op advises that an early version of its questionnaires had 34 questions, including sections on personal health and smoking. But only 15% of those approached completed such questionnaires. Learning from this experience, they now use a short questionnaire of just six simple questions, with a much higher response rate.

Key things to think about:

  • It is much better to ask closed questions i.e. with a list of options or tick boxes. It will be much easier to count and compare the answers than if you ask rather 'open' questions, to which different people will respond in very different ways.
  • Do you need to translate the questionnaire for areas where English is a second language for many people?
  • Can you offer any incentives for completing the questionnaire, such as a free gift or prize, which may increase the response rate?

Participatory Appraisal

Participatory Appraisal is a method that some groups use to consult communities, and can be used to help you work with a community to find out if a food co-op would be welcomed. The method uses pictures and plain language and so often works well with people who don't like filling in forms. This can be great fun and breaks down barriers, but using visual methods is also a more immediate and striking way of, literally, 'seeing' a problem. The methods can help you reach the most socially excluded people who might not otherwise take part in consultation processes. Participatory Appraisal also enables members of the community to think creatively and suggest the kind of community-run projects they would like to see in their area.

Some examples of this approach can be found in a Sustain report Reaching the Parts: Community mapping: Working together to tackle social exclusion and food poverty. It can be downloaded from: https://www.sustainweb.org/page.php?id=565

Before starting this type of community consultation some points to consider are:

  • What is likely to happen as a result of your consultation? Be realistic about what can be achieved. You don't want to get people's hopes up, then not fulfil them
  • What might be the costs of organising and publicising a public event to bring people together?
  • It may be good to ask a trained facilitator to run an event.

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