Return to Sender: Food for Social Return on Food Investments

August 3, 2016

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

Image Removed

In this issue, I’d like to take you (virtually) with me and Lori to the Shropshire area of England, where Lori recently gave a presentation on local and sustainable food purchasing programs to a conference held at beautiful Harper Adams University, the largest agriculture university in the UK.

I joined her at the International Farming Systems Association conference as a guest of the university, and was delighted to meet Mat Jones, a leading practitioner in Social Return on Investment assessments – a method for measuring impact that I think has what it takes to become the next new thing for community food organizations, foundations, and city-oriented food and health programs.

At last, a way to document the value of what we do to the bean counters who make decisions!! And perhaps to access the under-used power of public bonds, employee pension plans, and ethical investment funds, where investing in a safe thing is as important as having a public benefit.

My call to action at the end of this story will ask you to share the SRoI idea with any city administrators and ethical fund and pension plan administrators you may know, so we can speed up adoption of this powerful, practical and easily-mastered tool.

A Messy Business

I think the idea hit me with such force because we spent our time before and after the conference exploring the area close to Harper Adams, which included a full-out tour of some great museums – mostly dedicated to displays showing the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, which surprisingly began in this bucolic countryside. It was as if our tourist activities were designed to showcase how SRoI adds another whole level of meaning to our understanding of any activity. So I’ll add a view comments on what we saw in our free time, as well as the speeches and articles we learned from.

It was an eerie experience to see the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution, which made possible so many advances in knowledge and living standards, at the same time as we learned about SRoI.

We stayed in the town of Ironbridge, named after the first successful iron bridge in the world, a tribute to grandfather Abraham Darby’s invention that could produce iron on what we now call “an industrial scale” (though the Industrial revolution, importantly, was as much about household dishware and pottery as iron). Grandson Abraham Darby built the bridge as a showpiece of what iron could do. He went broke financing the bridge, which nevertheless succeeded in proving to the world that iron and coal were the economic future.

Owing the entire industrial revolution to a family that went broke establishing it does show  that the job of evaluating Return on Investment (RoI) shouldn’t follow iron laws of business wins and losses.

The same goes for canals that were built in the area to promote trade, some of them finished just as the railway, the engine of the iron age, made them obsolete. They now yield huge dividends to the British economy as showpieces for the multi-billion dollar tourism industry.

The SRoI is designed to manage just this kind of messy business.  Some projects makes lots of money for participants but have little general impact of economic value. Some projects make little money for the participants, but have a very long tail of benefits. I’m thinking of our last stop in Stratford on Avon, just before we flew home from nearby Birmingham. Four hundred years later, two cities — one in Stratford, England, and one in Stratford, Canada —  depend on Shakespeare-inspired tourism, and thousands of celebrated actors and English professors have built lucrative careers from the bard’s writings. The rate of return on hiring an acting troupe to perform at Shakespeare’s elementary school when he was a schoolboy, an event that inspired him to become a playwright, is easily a billion dollars to one.

Life is a messy business, but that’s all part of life offering hundreds of ways for an investment of money or effort to pay off, including a Social Return on Investment.

Why social return needs separate treatment

Standard measures of RoI or Cost-Benefit Analysis logically include social return, Mat told Lori and me, during a long dinner at an Ironbridge restaurant overlooking the iron bridge.

But calculating social return isn’t a skillset of conventional accountants, he says, and the line items they work with don’t often match value-adding activities that need to be looked at. Increased public engagement, increased rates of volunteering, and innovative partnerships linking business, social agencies and governments are all of obvious value for society, most would agree. But where would they fit on the books, and how would they be given a dollar value?  

The S for Society has to be the first word in SRoI, Mat says, because it’s specific to environmental and social benefits, where “the exact stakeholders and beneficiaries aren’t always clear, and the results aren’t  directly monetary,” he says. I want to know if school meals reduce childhood absenteeism and increase parental involvement in schools, he says, and solid information on these kinds of things is vital to people planning school budgets. We don’t want to be stuck in a situation where the only thing we can say about local school meals is what their economic multiplier effect was in terms of local jobs. “We have to tease out results that go beyond the multiplier effect,” he says.

Doing a SRoI evaluation also requires strong listening skills, he says, that can pick out the nuggets in comments from members of grassroots community groups. That’s how we get to track “low frequency/high impact” results, the longshots akin to the actors brought to Shakespeare’s class. We have to listen to hear about the child with learning disabilities who landed a good job as a result of volunteering on a school meal program, a game-changer in the life of one student, with an economic value that may well cover the costs of one year’s meals for a classroom. “we need to be able to foreground such results,” Jones says.

That resonated with my experience, where I saw many examples of longshots scoring points that won the game. It’s what the term “the long tail” was designed to make clear.

A 2011 report Jones and his team did on a Food for Life Partnership school program in 2011 included food sourcing benefits, food literacy and cooking skills development within the food industry and among school administrators, improved links between schools and farmers, increased capacity of farm organizations to respond to new opportunities, increased capacity of school caterers, and improved thinking on the subject of whole school approaches.

An academic article he and his colleagues at University of the West of England wrote, in a 2013 edition of Sustainability on a “whole school approach” to school meals and a school garden, gives an idea of how far afield Jones will go to look for SRoI.  He developed line items for such results as increased teacher skills in horticulture, increased community participation in the school, an ongoing partnership with a local farm, increased parental interest in school curriculum, improved discussions about meal choices  between parents and their children.

If you Google or Firefox “Social Return on Investment,” you will find all sorts of brief summaries of useful information that I find it hard to improve upon.  

So I will only make three additional points that I think are most relevant to people who work on food issues related to cities.

First, SRoI is a good form of ESL for civil society leaders. We need to learn Economics as a Second Language!!

Being in a social justice group doesn’t mean being indifferent to how much money a program costs taxpayers and other investors, and how much the taxpayers and other investors get back in return. In fact, the more social justice programs “pay off,” the more we’ll see of them. It’s a way of advancing social justice, and of organizing good programs that deliver results.


This attitude is especially important at the local government level, because money is very tight there.

Second, SRoI is a good way to turn the conversation from the cost of social investments to the huge return on social investments.

If a local government spends a million dollars on buying local and sustainable food, and that brings 2.5 million new dollars into the local economy thanks to the “multiplier effect” (Alice takes the $500 from her sale of radishes and spends $500 on a bicycle, and the owner of the bicycle store celebrates by taking the family to a local restaurant for dinner, and so on), while also creating $2.5 million in added value (more participation and less waste in the school meal program, less absenteeism from school, more parents willing to try composting, and so on), we’ve turned a cost into an investment that pays for itself. So let’s focus the conversation on what we will get by spending money carefully, knowing in advance what our economic targets are, and planning to achieve them.

This attitude is especially important at the local level, partly because money is so tight, and partly because we need to think of local governments as investors. Too often, the things local governments spend our money on – police, firefighting, roads, schools, libraries, and so on – are seen as expenses, not investments that save us money in the long run.

Third, SRoI is perfectly suited to food because food is so rich in multi-functionality.

It’s a rare day when a food program only has one or two benefits – improved nutrition for the consumer; and improved income for the farmer, for example.

On a good day, and with a good program, food  can deliver at least ten benefits – nutrition for eaters; sales for a farmer; work for a chef; volunteer experience for the student engaged in food preparation; teacher uses a lunchtime experience to enrich the school curriculum later that day; reduced cost of hauling away food waste; reduce global warming emissions because of less food packaging and less food waste;  tasting a new vegetable, and willing to give it a try again; great discussion in class about whether to launch a garden at the school; kids convince their parents and brothers and sisters to try a garden at home.

Until now, that multi-functionality has been hard to  classify; now we know how to classify it – as a great Social Return on Investment.

Wayne Roberts

Dr. Wayne Roberts is best-known as the manager of the world-renowned Toronto Food Policy Council from 2000 to 2010. But he did lots before (see his Wikipedia entry) and has done lots since. Wayne speaks, consults, coaches, tweetslinks inFacebooks, and Read more.

Tags: building resilient food systems, community investments