Economic impact analyses present a relatively new and unique way of looking at the complexities of a region’s spending (though the theory behind the methodology is in its golden years, the technology is barely decades old and constantly evolving). And, like most other highly academic and technical research methods, the presentation of results can tend toward the bland, less accessible side of the spectrum. But researchers are relying on a time-honored technique for helping people get excited about economic impacts—storytelling. Here, we review the storytelling tactics employed by the National Farm to School Network to communicate the results of their economic impact study in an engaging manner.
Laying the Groundwork
The National Farm to School Network introduces the overall story arc for their report on bringing healthy foods from farm to school in the form of an executive summary. The summary starts with a clear statement of the organization’s purpose: “To strengthen the connection communities have with fresh, healthy food… at schools.” The summary then elaborates on the inciting moment of its story—that even though farm-to-school supply chains are thought to economically benefit local economies, there’s little empirical evidence to support that assumption. But Farm to School wraps up its executive summary with hints of the resolutions to come through a more rigorous methodology and two specific case studies.
When it comes to interpreting results, Farm to School fulfills its early promise of relying on a more rigorous and all-encompassing research methodology. First, the results are expressed in as many specific and technical ways as possible (which helps solve the problem or comparability between this study and others). Second, to add clarity to the myriad result tables, the study includes colored text and orange call-out boxes which give context to specific bottom-line results making the numbers easier to understand and appreciate.
Building The Story
Methodology and Detailed Inputs
Farm to School dedicates a hefty portion of the report to framing the analysis and outlining methodology. Four of the nine sections (Economic Impact Assessments, Current Research, Methods, and Survey Findings) explore issues with past reports, idiosyncrasies of the study areas and industries, and recognized research—all of which shape the assumptions and inputs which the study brings to the model. The inputs are then presented within the introductory text to the results tables allowing the reader to compare what went into the model and what came out.
Upping the Production Value
The study starts from square one with the reader, progressing from a glossary and introduction (in that order) in the beginning before taking the reader through the latest research and then the results. This arrangement, if followed as prescribed, guides readers through the layers of research that went into creating the report in a way that doesn’t leave those who are unfamiliar with economic jargon behind. It also creates a climactic build up to the results section with great dramatic effect.
Storytelling by Design
Farm to School opted for a PDF format for the report which performs as well online as it does in printed or booklet form. The navigational aids built into the report include full-page photos as section breaks (which make section divisions easy to spot when quickly scrolling online) and color-coded sections and call-outs. The use of color is restrained and consistent. Orange emphasizes key terms or numbers. New thoughts or results are signaled by green headings or frames.
All the high notes from the introduction—the need to demonstrate the program’s economic significance, need for more rigorous methodology, better understanding of the industry and its supply chain—echo in the discussion section at the end of the report, bringing the dedicated reader full-circle. The discussion section starts with a recap of what the report set out to find and what it discovered.
Passing the Torch
The discussion section wraps with a call for other researchers to repeat the first-of-its-kind methodology in the report for other geographies and school systems. The section even shares the primary data collection survey with advice on how to encourage respondents to participate. The section concludes with a call to other farm to school stakeholders “to use the methodology framed in this report to conduct additional assessments evaluating the economic impacts of farm to school procurement, so that we may compare case studies in different locations, involving different commodities, scales, and numbers of producers, and relying on different supply chains.”
Conclusion and Follow-Through
How the study helped get results
The report got the attention of farm-to-school programs and practitioners all across the US and Canada. The findings of the report served to bolster support for farm to school provisions in the Farm Bill, and inspired new language in the bill which would make it easier for schools to require “local” or “regional” as a product specification in a food procurement request.
Folding elements of storytelling into an economic impact analysis isn’t on its own a panacea. But those who have crafted their studies using storytelling techniques have found their work to be more engaging, memorable, and shareable for their readers. Though seemingly superficial, framing the analysis within a story has proven to be a humanizing and effective way of getting legislative traction for causes, funding for programs, and interest from communities on the whole and for the better.
Hungry for more?
See how other organizations used the storytelling techniques described above as well as a few other clever tricks of their own. Click on the logos below to read more: