Research Summary #1

Research Summary #1
September 18, 2001

SPNO Social Capital Formation Case Study: Halton Food for Thought

Halton Region

Halton Region has a population of 340,000 (1996), with projected growth to 535,000 by 2011. It is part of the Golden Horseshoe with Burlington and Oakville as major municipal centres in the southern part of the region, and smaller municipalities such as Milton and in the northern areas, which are more rural. Halton is a relatively affluent region, although the growth of poverty and hardship among members of the community have been documented in the last decade. The Halton Social Planning Council and Volunteer Centre (Halton SPCVC) has served the region since 1984.

Halton Food for Thought Program

The Halton Food for Thought Program was initiated by the Halton SPCVC through a community partnership involving local school leaders, the Halton Public School Board, the Regional Public Health Department and community agencies involved in school programs such as the YMCA. These Community Partners, with the funding support of the Trillium Foundation and the Canadian Living Foundation, hired an Intergenerational Coordinator in early 1998 to support and launch school-based literacy and breakfast programs. The Coordinator was based at and supervised by the Halton SPCVC, although she reported to the Community Partners for planning and program development purposes. By mid-1998 the Community Partners decided to focus on school-based food programs (Halton Food for Thought), although Halton SPCVC continued to provide support to school literacy programs (Celebrating Literacy) with half-time of the Intergenerational Coordinator.

Halton Food for Thought supports school-based breakfast and snack programs accessible to all students (i.e. universal, not targeted to low income children) and promotes programs on the basis of their nutritional and socialization value as contributing to the learning and development of school children.. Halton Food for Thought started supporting six existing school programs in 1998 and had increased that number to 23 total programs by the spring of 2001, covering about half of the public schools in Halton Region. These programs serve 5,000 students and involve the participation of more than 300 volunteers.

Research Process

The research for this case study was conducted from late April through mid-June 2001. Following a lifeline analysis, personal and telephone interviews were conducted with participants involved in coordination of the overall Food for Thought Program as well as with principals, teachers, parents and volunteers participating in specific school-based breakfast and snack programs. A group discussion was also held at one high school with the principal, parents, community volunteers and students who ran a snack program. Site visits were also made to two other school-based programs for observation and informal conversations with program participants, including younger children. Documentation on the program was reviewed. Finally, two self-administered questionnaires were completed by the volunteer participants in one of the school breakfast programs. These tools attempted to get a sense of the “bonding” and “relationship-building” elements of the breakfast program from the participants’ point of view.

Lifeline Analysis: Community Capacity-Building Process

The lifeline analysis of Halton Food for Thought suggests the following main phases of development:

Pre-Program Status, 1988-96:

There is a community memory of school food programs existing in Halton from as early as 1985. During the economic recession of the early 1990s and with initiation of downloading and cutbacks to income and service supports in mid-decade, there were growing concerns about child hunger and nutrition in some communities in Halton Region leading to the initiation of food programs independently in six schools by 1995.

Program Initiation, 1997-98

In November 1997, the Halton SPCVC brought proposals for Food for Thought and Celebrating Literacy programs forward to a large community consultation representing about 30 community groups, which enthusiastically endorsed both. This led to the recruitment of leadership (Community Partners), securing foundation funding (Trillium and Canadian Living), and hiring an Intergenerational Coordinator early in 1998 to devote part-time to the development of each program. The Community Partners limited their focus to Halton Food for Thought by early 1999.

Initial attempts to promote school-based food programs encountered some difficulty because of the stigma of “poverty”. A shift to promote the nutrition and learning dimensions of the existing six school-based programs in the region plus the commitment of the support of a newly appointed Superintendent of Community Relations at the Halton District School Board gave new impetus to the initiative. By the end of 1998, three new school breakfast programs were started to bring the total in the region to nine and giving some momentum to program expansion.

Program Development and Growth, 1999-2001

The Halton Food for Thought Program under the leadership of the Community Partners and with the staff support of the Halton SPCVC became identified in the region as the major information and development resource for school-based food and nutrition programs. The stigma of school food programs was overcome by the nutritional, learning and community benefits for all participants. The Canadian Living Foundation extended its funding support and involved Halton SPCVC in the development of Best Practices Program Standards for school nutrition programs. Seven new school programs were set up during 1999 for a total of sixteen in operation by year end.

Most significantly in 2000, the Halton District School Board made a two-year budgetary commitment to support the organizational infrastructure (staff organizing/coordinating support) to the program through the auspices of the Halton SPCVC. The Board also included its community partnership with the Halton SPCVC in its Strategic Plan for 2000 as a model for further development in other areas. By the spring of 2001, Halton Food for Thought had expanded to 23 schools, covering half the public schools in Halton Region.

Applying the Community Capacity-Building Process Framework

The SPNO has developed a Community-Capacity Building Process framework for the analysis of its case studies that follows this sequence:

Assessment of capacity

  • determination of the potential for capacity development and viability of community initiatives.

Project capacity

  • ability to develop a leadership group to undertake the community initiative.

Partnership capacity

  • ability to extend or expand the community initiative by increasing participation of organizational partners to sponsor, lead, or resource the development.


  • ability for the initiative to continue through the commitment of the ongoing support of community, system, and/or institutional processes and structures.

Applying this framework to the development of Halton Food for Thought suggests the following insights into community capacity-building strategies:

  • A convergence of interests and opportunities “inspired” what became the Food for Thought Program, rather than a specifically defined, targeted need or issue (e.g. child poverty or hunger), indicating the importance of organizational flexibility and a preparedness to adapt to the energy of the community.
  • Two levels of leadership has emerged to carry the program — a small core group of Community Partners and a network of “collaborating” partners focused at the program delivery level (e.g. local and corporate business involvement). Expansion of the core group may not be the issue for sustainability as much as careful “succession” planning for the core leadership group as current members leave for whatever reason.
  • The Halton District School Board’s commitment to two-year infrastructure support for Food for Thought through the Halton SPCVC may be the transition to sustainability for school-based food and nutrition programs in the region. While an encouraging development, the longer-run question for the Halton SPCVC is whether it should remain the coordinating body for Food for Thought beyond such a transition period.
  • Finally, related to sustainability is the scale of infrastructure required. Maintaining some support to existing programs plus expanding to additional schools will require some review and planning for the level of coordination and resource support needed for an ongoing program.

Analysis: Social Capital Measures

As the first in a series of case studies, this program provided an opportunity to test out some research tools that will be improved and refined in subsequent applications. One of the school breakfast programs distributed two survey questionnaires to program volunteers. These attempt to get a measure of social capital evident in or associated with the program activity.

Twelve program volunteers responded to the questionnaires. Analysis of the response indicates the following:

  • There was strong sense of shared group norms, belonging and equality among the program respondents, several expressed concern about others dominating the group. The weakest measure was the degree to which people felt they could trust some of their “private feelings” with some people in the program. Only one respondent strongly agreed and five agreed, whereas five were unsure and one disagreed on the question of trusting other participants with their “private feelings.”
  • On personal affirmation and growth, responses remain favourable, although a little weaker than for norms and sense of group membership.
  • Although not as strong as the sense of identification with the group, three-quarters of respondents did express the presence of “a strong sense of caring for each other in the program”. Ten had made new friends as a result of program participation, which is interesting since the program had only been operating for six months.

Ten respondents completed a Social network Index questionnaire, which showed that:

  • They identified 55 people they knew through program involvement, three-quarters of whom were new acquaintances.
  • Respondents indicated they were much more likely to seek advice from other program participants about the program (67.2%) than ask them for help outside the program or engage in other more social or personal relationships with other volunteers.
  • Still, respondents would ask for help outside the program from more than 40% of the other volunteers they know in the program.

Analysis: Connecting and Linking Strategies

The SPNO also wishes to learn from its case study research about what connecting and linking strategies are used and under what conditions they are employed to facilitate the formation of social capital.

Program participants formally interviewed for this case study, which included both members of the Community Partners and local school program leaders, did give testimony to the benefits of the Food for Thought Program at the community level in ways that are very consistent with the social outcomes identified in the social planning model for social capital formation. Their responses are consistent with desirable outcomes of social equity, social justice, social cohesion and social inclusion.


  • The core set of bonding relationships critical to program success seem to be among parents-principals–teachers. Parents are reluctant to send their children to a program perceived to be for poor or neglected children. In the same way that parents and program organizers see the principal’s support as critical, so also principals see parent support and leadership as essential for the school to take on an additional responsibility outside its regular educational mandate.
  • When the school-parent relationship is committed to the initiative, the next critical set of relationships is with volunteers and other community contributors (e.g. local businesses). As well as program beneficiaries, the children are also part of the bonding process as indicated by several examples offered by interviewees.


  • At the local school program level in Halton, bridging may be observed in the ways that schools and program organizers reach out for wider community support for the program. Local business involvement with food donations or volunteers is a common example.
  • The major bridging issue for the Halton Food for Thought Program, however, is the four-fold expansion of school-based breakfast and snack programs to other schools throughout the region, which meant overcoming the generally held negative perception that these were programs for poor or neglected children.
  • Community partners and local program leaders also identified other examples of bridging activity that do two things:
    • expand the school breakfast/snack programs (e.g. One principal concerned about the results of a Public Health Department dental screening for his school was referred by the Public Health official, one of the Community Partners, to the Intergenerational Coordinator, who helped the principal set up a fruit and vegetable snack program); and
    • make other important connections for individuals and groups (e.g. connection made between Public Health’s dental health function and YMCA’s community programs; a parent’s inquiry to Food for Thought for other family support led to the connection to the YMCA for eventual development of a new after-school program).
  • A regional program consciousness has been created through Food for Thought that also serves as a bridging function. This is much different than before Food for Thought when school programs were fewer, more isolated, and not regionally coordinated.


  • The development of a relationship with the Canadian Living Foundation that led to extended two-year staff support funding, which diverged from the Foundation’s previous funding practice.
  • The Program’s Coordinator also participates on the Foundation’s working group to develop Best Practices Program Standards, which are intended to become the basis for school-based breakfast program accreditation.
  • The strong connection with the Halton Region Public Health Department exists at both the community and program leadership levels. This commitment led to a Public Health Department dental health assessment of the nutritional quality of all school breakfast and snack programs.
  • The Halton District School Board commitment of infrastructure support to the program for a two-year period is a major achievement. This could be termed an act of institutional trust in community capacity and leadership. As well, the Board has directly referred to its relationship with Food for Thought and the Halton SPCVC in its Strategic Plan for 2000 as a model community partnership.

Organizational and Practice Perspectives for Social Planning

Organizational Asset Base:

There appear to be two major sets of resources and capacities that the Halton SPCVC brings to formation of social capital in the Halton Food for Thought Program.

Joined Community and Institutional Trust

It is clear that the Halton SPCVC is highly valued and respected in the Food for Thought Program by all the principal leaders in the community and in the public sector. Referred to by one Community Partner from the public sector as an “anchor with a community mandate”, the Halton SPCVC was accepted from the outset and remains perceived as an “honest broker” for the development and implementation of a community-based regional program that joins local capacity with public institutional commitment and cooperation.

Recognized Competencies

The advantage of the Halton SPCVC’s position of trust with the major core and collaborating partners for the success of the program is solidified by the demonstration of knowledge and competence in research and policy analysis, volunteer recruitment, training and support, collaborative orientation with other organizations.

Strategic Leadership Positioning and Outreach

One way to activate the organization’s stock of social capital in the region is to reach out and make contact with other leaders and institutions in the system. This “vertical bridge-building” is part of the strategy of the Halton SPCVC’s Executive Director.

Establishing and Exercising Reciprocal Advantage

Members of the Community Partners group accept a sense of responsibility for the Program without feeling that their involvement is a burden. Organizationally, “situating” the Community Partners at the Halton SPCVC maintains it as a “shared ownership” project. The Halton SPCVC uses its infrastructure to fulfill the administrative requirements of the Program. Community partners actively participate in joint planning and decision-making on program development. There is a mutual and reciprocal benefit that has become an accepted norm in the program’s development.

Practitioner Skill Set:

The current Intergenerational Coordinator’s skills and style were characterized as ‘exemplary” by several interviewees when questioned on what is required to perform the program and field development role.

Personal and Professional Qualities

This kind of community and program development practice demands practitioners respected for their personal integrity and their commitment to working patiently and enthusiastically with a wide variety of people at multiple levels. A positive, outgoing attitude that expresses belief and commitment to the issue and project are essential. A warm, engaging, and personable approach is highly desirable to work with community volunteers. Sensitivity to differences within the community and among program participants is also important. Openness, flexibility, and responsiveness to the concerns and ideas of others are crucial to working effectively with other professionals and volunteers in this kind of program. Reliability is important with regard to follow-up on decisions, since a person in this position is carrying the credibility of a number of partners into the community work.

Knowledge and Skills

An appropriate rather than specialized knowledge base is expected with an ability to refer people to more specialized and detailed information as required. The other major critical skills for a practitioner in a program of this kind are:

  • Communications and Use of Information.
The practitioner must be able to communicate clearly and effectively to people in all walks of life when working in such a large region with such a large group of volunteers.
  • Networking Skills.
The practitioner involved in this kind of program must establish a network of people and information resource to draw on for referral and other consultative purposes. Most important is the ability to connect people to each other and to recognize the opportunity to make the appropriate connections.
  • Relationship-building Skills.
At an individual level, this capacity derives from networking in that it involves knowing how to follow-up initial contacts and support the development of working relationships. The practitioner should also know how to employ community-building strategies, such as providing regular information and updates to different participating communities that facilitate their identification with the larger initiative.
  • Broader Perspective.
The field practitioner must also have the “big picture” and a sense of the potential future direction of program development, which is especially important in supporting program leadership in decision-making.

September 18, 2001