Community gardens are shared spaces that confer both physical and social benefits to participants (Draper and Freedman, 2010; Litt et al., 2011). These spaces are found in both rural and urban settings, across socioeconomically diverse neighborhoods, at workplaces, places of worship, social service sites, and in schools. With growing interest in food system solutions to address poor health outcomes related to preventable chronic diseases, organizations and researchers are examining the value of community gardens as interventions to promote individual health and community well-being. Research indicates that community garden participation improves access to fresh, healthy foods (Allen et al., 2008; Evans et al., 2015; Poulsen et al., 2014) and increases fruit and vegetable consumption(Alaimo et al., 2008; Hanson et al., 2017; Litt et al., 2011). In addition to these physical benefits, research also documents a variety of social and communal benefits, by expanding social capital, stabilizing neighborhoods, and cultivating relationships (Glover et al., 2005; Gorham et al., 2009).
Much of the research focuses on case, cross-case, and intervention studies within geographically specific locales. Draper and Freedman (2010) conducted a comprehensive literature review on the benefits, purposes, and motivations of community gardening in the United States. Of the 55 studies reviewed, case studies comprised 40% and interventions comprised 45%. This mirrors extension research, which emphasizes case and multisite case studies on individual programs (see examples in Blaine et al., 2010; Landry et al., 2015) or on specific topics within community gardening, such as garden design (Bradley et al., 2014) and management (Drake and Lawson, 2015a).
One outlier is a recent, comprehensive study by Drake and Lawson (2015b) that surveyed 445 community garden organizations from across the United States and Canada representing 8550 gardens that focused on community garden benefits and challenges. Respondents agreed on more than 75% of the primary or secondary benefits: food production and access (99.7%), nutrition/improved diet (99.5%), social engagement/well-being (99.5%), exercise/physical activity (98.6%), individual personal satisfaction (97.8%), education specifically about gardening (96.7%), environmental benefits (95.9%), intergenerational activities (94%), education (86.1%), intercultural communication (85.1%), and neighborhood revitalization (78.7%). These findings were further supported by the results of an open-ended question in which participants identified food production, social engagement, education, and nutrition as the most significant benefits. The authors noted, “While some academic literature focuses on a particular outcome—food production, nutrition, community engagement, etc.—it seems that organizations may accept multiple and varied outcomes.” Although this study provided a comprehensive lens toward program benefits, it did not demonstrate a process for achieving consensus among diverse stakeholder groups on the central outcomes that should be considered for an integrated development and evaluation model for community gardens.
The practice of community garden support is often a “complex web of interactions across scales as communities, local and extra local non-governmental organizations, and government agencies plan and implement community gardens” (Drake and Lawson, 2015b). In short, a patchwork of highly contextualized agencies and programs, which vary from town, municipality, county, and state, delivers garden support. Part of this complex web of garden support agencies are local county extension offices, which assist community gardeners in various technical and educational capacities through workshops, site visits, demonstration gardens, and plant clinics, to name a few services. Because of the diversity of stakeholders, the many potential services provided by extension, and the variety of physical and social outcomes, extension agents need a consistent framework for community garden program development and evaluation. We believe that a set of broadly applicable impact indicators for a program logic model would provide an outcome-driven framework to inform such efforts (Israel, 2001).
Impact indicators provide a clear and concise means for positioning community garden programs to address questions of program efficacy and impact. As such, it is critical that these programs clearly define, capture, and communicate their impacts (Starr and Hattendorf, 2013). Impact indicators also help to outline and evaluate pertinent strategies to address the challenges related to garden loss, including declining participation, lack of interest by gardeners, and loss of land (Drake and Lawson, 2015b).
Logic models provide an effective framework for educators and other key stakeholders to develop program plans for the development and evaluation of community garden programs based on agreed-upon outcomes (Israel, 2001). Table 1 outlines the short-, intermediate, and long-term outcomes included in the logic model framework. This framework facilitates program evaluation to extend beyond simply measuring learning outcomes by allowing stakeholders to specify intended behavioral and conditional impacts of community garden programs.
The outcome types used in a logic model for educational programs.
In the planning phase, these impact indicators (a vision of success) would be used to develop program objectives to guide the overall evaluation framework and associated evaluation tools (Israel, 2001). The logic model identifies a causal relationship between the program (inputs, activities, and participation) and its intended outcomes using a program theory of change. Israel (2001) explains that by organizing programs in this manner, the programs can measure, learn, and improve intended outcomes and make proactive changes if needed. In addition to supporting program planning and evaluation efforts, logic models can be used to communicate a community garden’s purpose and efforts and can be integrated into grants and funding. The present study addresses the need to develop these indicators as part of community garden planning and evaluation activities.
Developing a successful community garden program is a collaborative effort predicated on the ability of key stakeholders to effectively evaluate and communicate success. The purpose of the study was to demonstrate the use of a framework for program development and evaluation that stakeholders, including extension, can adopt to show program outcomes. It did so by using an innovative tool, the Delphi technique, which a breadth of stakeholders can adopt. The objective of the study was to identify the most meaningful outcomes (short-term, medium-term, and long-term) that could be included in a program logic model and be used to measure the success of such programs.
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