Evaluating the impact of a food co-op

The establishment of food co-ops appears to be a promising solution for improving geographical access to nutritious foods, diet quality, and the vitality and well-being of community life, for small communities in particular. The evaluation thus enables us to determine whether the expected effects on access, nutrition, vitality, and well-being have been achieved.

To assess the real effects of establishing co-ops, the EffICAS team uses questionnaires. Analysis of the responses reveals whether changes have occurred in buying habits, perception of the food environment, diet quality, individual health, and the vitality and well-being of community life as a result of the co-op’s opening.

Gathering information

In the EffICAS study, citizens living in communities where food co-op projects are being developed fill in questionnaires before and after the co-ops open.

Recruitment strategies

Ideally, a significant number of people from the population of interest would respond to the initial questionnaire (pre-establishment) and subsequent ones (after the co-op has opened). A large sample makes it possible to account for possible loss to follow-up and to maintain the ability to compare data in order to detect effects over time.

There are a number of ways to help recruit survey respondents. The best way is to travel to communities to recruit participants, and to have a resource person to recruit and help participants fill in the questionnaires.

As this avenue proved impossible in the EffICAS study—the first data collection (2021) took place in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic—various communication strategies were used to publicize it and to recruit participants:

  • Creation of an advertising campaign on Facebook and Instagram;
  • Advertising on the radio, in local newspapers, and parish bulletins;
  • Posters presenting the study in public places in the communities under study;
  • Presentation of the study at municipal council meetings, boards of directors, or provisional co-op committees;
  • Promotion of the study in the social networks and contacts of various provincial, regional, and local players;
  • Involvement of citizens in the study to raise awareness in their community;
  • Survey of interest in participating in the study by a polling firm using the residential telephone numbers of people living in the communities concerned;
  • Questionnaires mailed to all postal addresses in the community under study.

Tools used in the EffICAS study to assess effects

The evaluation tools could be used in other situations, such as to take a snapshot of the situation at a given point in time, or to evaluate the changes that have occurred following the implementation of an intervention on the food environment.

These tools, came from the work of other researchers and public health organizations, take the form of questions to be inserted into a questionnaire that would be submitted to the target population. Depending on what is needed, these tools can be used separately, together, or in combination with other tools.

Interpretation of results

The evaluation of effects can be based on a comparison of the results obtained with the anticipated effects. But to properly interpret these results, it is useful to examine the context’s potential influence on them. This review could also be used to identify factors that have influenced the establishment of the co-op and the production of effects.

For example, if no change has been observed in the frequency of fruit and vegetable consumption among the target population, but the new co-op does not sell fruit and vegetables, it is difficult to conclude that its establishment is not increasing consumption. Rather, the lack of effect observed should be qualified by the fact that access to fruit and vegetables in the community has not improved.

Here are a few ideas for examining the context. Involving people from the community in which we work encourages richer reflection.

  • Did the intervention go as planned?
    The effects of an intervention that has not taken place cannot be evaluated. It is also important to know whether the intervention took place with less intensity than planned, or whether certain components were not put in place.
  • What was the food access in the area like before the co-op was established?
    Were there many businesses offering nutritious foods, or did the area have poor access to these foods?
  • Is there a variety of nutritious foods for sale at a reasonable price in the co-op?
  • Has the community embraced the new store as a place to shop? If no, why?
  • Are community members customers of the co-op? If so, how often do they buy food?
  • Do customers buy food with nutritious foods? If no, why?
  • Is the customer experience positive (quality of service, opening hours, payment methods)? If no, why?
  • Are there any contextual factors external to the co-op that could have influenced the achievement of objectives (e.g., change in unemployment rate in the region, major food supply difficulties, natural disaster, negative event in the community, negative political climate)?
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