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The Food Equity Innovation Challenge

The Food Equity Innovation Challenge was a collaboration between the Philanthropy team at CFT, the City of Dallas, and the State Fair to incubate projects that operate strategically across the food ecosystem. The ultimate goal was to bring more fresh, affordable food to neighborhoods where access to healthy food is a persistent challenge leveraging the significant assets that exist across the nonprofit sector.

The project also aimed to break down silos among funders, and between funders and the community, using participatory grantmaking and direct engagement with impacted residents. CFT’s contributions to the Challenge were funded through the W.W. Caruth, Jr. Fund under its health focus area.

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When the Challenge launched, 20% of Dallas County residents experienced food insecurity and did not have convenient access to fruits and vegetables through a local grocery store. There are many groups working to solve for some aspect of the broken food system including churches, food pantries, community-based organizations, academic institutions, hospitals, policy advocates, and public health authorities. They face ongoing challenges related to coordination, funding, and capacity.

The same problems around coordination exist on the funder side. CFT and the City of Dallas Office of Economic Development partnered on the Challenge out of a recognition that we were both seeking to fund food initiatives and should not require grantees to go through separate processes. In addition to dollars, the City’s Office of Innovation brought access to an online platform to crowdsource solutions. By accepting solutions from anyone — including individuals — and making them all visible on the site for comments and up-votes, the site radically democratized the process of identifying innovations in healthy food access, creating room for new voices to be heard. The following sections describe the process in more detail, with links to relevant resources.

Our Approach

The Food Equity Innovation Challenge was a first-of-its-kind effort that evolved iteratively. We are grateful to the participants — most from nonprofits as well as several individuals — who stepped out of their comfort zones to participate. Each section below describes the phases of the project that took place between June 2019 and March 2020.

  • In this phase, we invited the community to share food assets on an interactive map built by buildcommunityWORKSHOP’s analytics team. The assets were classified according to a framework representing the five interdependent elements to the food ecosystem.

    Food Access System

    Access the Food Assets Map here

  • About 40 professionals working in the food system, primarily in Southern Dallas, were invited to a discussion at the State Fair in June 2019. The goals of the gathering were trust building and visioning. They shared insights and asked key questions. A summary of the convening was compiled into this report.



    Given the importance of community voice in this phase, we aligned this effort with the City of Dallas Innovation Office’s launch of the Food Idea Innovation Challenge. The website enabled community members to submit ideas to reduce food insecurity. It was open through November, 2019 and widely marketed to Spanish and English speaking communities.

  • Five design teams were formed from individuals representing organizations across the food ecosystem to improve access to healthy food through collaborative, systems-focused approaches. They combined their own expertise with the asset maps and community-generated solutions to develop innovative proposals that were submitted to CFT and the City of Dallas.



  • A review panel representing national experts on food innovation, CFT, the City of Dallas, and the State Fair came together to evaluate proposals. Participants in the Challenge also had an opportunity to review each other’s solutions and offer constructive feedback with the goal of improving the proposals’ chances for success.

What we learned:

Food Equity Innovation Challenge – By the Numbers

The Food Equity Innovation Challenge ended just as the pandemic began in March 2020. In terms of engagement, this effort was a great success. 



Registered Platform Users


Published Ideas


Comments & Votes



Design Team Members


Collaborative Meetings


Submitted Proposals

CFT funded two exciting projects that reflect some out-of-the-box thinking stimulated by this format and proved resilient in the face of the pandemic’s closures and disruptions.

Building from a community suggestion, GROW North Texas proposed to plant food forests across the city to provide fresh food to community residents. A food forest is a designed system which mimics the layers of a natural forest ecosystem, planted with edible perennials to provide a source of fresh, local food. In partnership with Giving Grove, which is a national organization dedicated to promoting sustainable urban food forests, our local affiliate installed a demonstration orchard at Owenwood Farms and has several other sites under development.
Sharing Life proposed a cloud-based inventory management and ordering platform for food pantry services. Using a food pantry often requires long wait times for food that may not meet the client’s preferences or nutritional needs. The technology solution, piloted in partnership with Brother Bill’s Helping Hands and the North Texas Food Bank, aimed to provide food insecure households access to a client-choice food pantry through their mobile device. Since implementation, the mobile ePantry solution has provided significant value to food pantry clients in both time savings and greater accessibility. As Sharing Life continues to innovate with additional technology, ePantry is now a common referral source for North Texas Food Bank agencies inquiring about online ordering for their pantry clients.

Reflections on other aspects of the challenge can be found in these blog posts by Nadine Dechausay, Dr. Froswa’ Booker-Drew, Dr. Kelly Varga, Heather Lepeska, and Thor Erikson.

As Thor Erikson, the facilitator hired by CFT to support the design teams, expressed in his blog, the Challenge provided critical and uncommon space to share experiences, ideate, and challenge the status quo. By upending some of the normal power dynamics between nonprofits and residents, between funders and nonprofits, and even between private philanthropy and City funders, it created uncomfortable moments. In retrospect, we realize we should have invested much more in technical assistance for the design teams to overcome these issues. In a sector as fragmented as food systems, innovators needed more time and coaching to strategically align, and unfortunately, the onset of the pandemic made this additional work impossible.

Questions? Contact our experts.

We’re here to help you make an impact in your community.

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Nadine Dechausay
Chief Strategy & Insights Officer

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