Talking about SNAP to many of our traditional supporters can be like talking to our teenage kids about sex. We know we really should do it and it will be good for them, but we’d rather put it off, because the conversation is probably going to go south. We’ve all stuck our fingers on the mousetrap many times and watched it SNAP on our sensitive little digits.
Foodstamp challenges are nothing new. FRAC have been pushing them and have a toolkit on their website. But I thought I would share my personal perspective on how to execute one for maximum benefit to your organization.
Who can really turn their back on heavy involvement with SNAP outreach these days? People need food help, and it doesn’t matter whether the food passes through our warehouses first or not. As traditional sources of donated food have shrunk, making sure that people are taking full use of federal benefits has become more important than ever.
You can only get so far with promoting SNAP before someone on your board or a donor is going to get outraged about your food bank spending scarce resources promoting a federal benefit.
You cannot say the words ‘food stamps’ to someone without eliciting a visceral response. Sometimes it unlocks fears of ‘there but for one paycheck go I’ or other reactions that run the gamut from outrage about fraud to outrage about disempowering people by paying them to be ‘losers in a winner/loser society.’ Emotions run high, and so does lack of knowledge about what food stamps actually are and do.
How can you begin to get this knowledge over and get people to step out of the trenches of their assumptions and take a different view of the world for a while? I’m discovering that a ‘Food Security Challenge’ is a great way of doing it.
You may have read the recent press coverage of Newark Mayor Cory Booker’s ‘food stamp challenge.’ He committed to living on food stamps for a full week and regaled us with up close and personal accounts about burning his yams and becoming grumpy without his coffee. After getting through the week, he announced to the press that he was going to run for Governor.
As CEO of the Foodbank of Santa Barbara County, my job is to find those yams and get them out to the Corys of this world. Surely a single week of little money for food wasn’t too much to handle. How about a month? If I could live on food stamps for a month, it would give me more of the true flavor (or lack thereof) of the challenges that our clients face every day.
Could a picky eater like me with my rice vinegar and my jasmine tea make it through on $6 a day? (this is the rate in Santa Barbara County, based on higher cost of living). What kind of help from the Foodbank and our member agency programs could I get to supplement the SNAP? Cory ran for Governor after a week, maybe after a month I could run for Secretary-General of the UN…
I started my Food Security Challenge thirteen days ago, so I’m nearly half way there.
The idea is that throughout each of the four weeks, I explore a different aspect of living on food stamps, from signing up for CalFresh (California’s name for the food stamp program) to finding out what nonprofit services are available to me as a resident on Santa Barbara’s Eastside; from learning how I can grow some of my own food, to seeking resources to help eat healthy with limited funds. During week three, the Challenge encompasses a national perspective, with a visit to food distribution centers in Chicago and a meeting with Feeding America about the national food stamp situation. I will spend part of the final week of the Challenge living in my car, turning to the services in the community that people and families who have recently become homeless might experience.
So, some readers are laughing by this point and wondering whwther there are actually any hungry people in Santa Barbara. Truth is, there are only 11 more counties in all 58 California counties which are more food insecure than Santa Barbara. So maybe there is trouble in paradise.
So here is my advice about running your own challenge.
ELEMENTS OF THE CHALLENGE:
NAME IS KEY: FOOD SECURITY CHALLENGE
Not food stamp challenge, because the message we are trying to get over is that food stamps alone are not enough to provide food security. It also sets up a wider focus that will allow you to promote the totality of your agency’s and partner’s activities.
PLAN AN EVOLVING SCHEDULE OF ACTIVITIES AND EVENTS
To keep the message alive for a week, for a month, requires an evolving story with fresh twists and angles. The more this can be planned in advance the partners. Look at what programs are happening and how can they build in? Who would you like to interview or involve and use the challenge as the basis to do this.
GET A VARIETY OF PEOPLE ON THE CHALLENGE
Our version of the challenge is just me as the Foodbank CEO being involved. (My family declined to participate – because daddy/hubby can take his publicity stunt and shove it). This singular participation is fine locally, because I operate in a relatively small media market, and we work with a local PR company, so it is possible to get a lot of media exposure. But in a larger media market you would want to get as many different groups as possible taking part: board members, young people, foundation staff, media people. More people means a multiplier factor in terms of types of stories. Part of the fun of our local challenge was that I encouraged people to phone the Foodbank if they saw me cheating.
FIND THE RIGHT MEDIA PARTNERS
We made an agreement with a widely-read local free weekly magazine, the Santa Barbara Independent to be the main media partner. I produce an article once a week for each of the weeks which is featured in their online addition, with more detailed coverage in the print edition at the beginning and end of the challenge. We found that a lot of other news outlets were also interested in running stories too.
LOCAL IS BETTER
Booker was looking for national press (which given his next step was hardly surprising). I think our food security challenge has been such a success because our focus has been local. No one on the other side of the country gives a darn about some whiny food bank CEO in supposedly frou frou Santa Barbara is bringing his work home with him for a month. But locally this was challenge has ignited a lot of interest. The media want to deal with ‘the plight of the needy’ and they have their go-to stories in Christmas, but what about in the early time of the year, when no one gives two hoots about your regional food bank?
If you personally are taking the challenge it is great to take advantage of what services would actually have available to you. Unless you live in a gated community miles from nowhere, you will have some kind of distribution nearby. If you are in some suburban neighborhood, well that just highlights the ‘new’ face of SNAP participation.
I have been visiting all the local distributions I would be able to access. I don’t actually take the food, but note what I would have received and then go buy it somewhere else. (The same is true with the SNAP money. I operate with $200 to represent the total amount of money I would have received for a month of SNAP)
BLOG AS THE FOCUS FOR BUILDING COMMUNITY
I created a separate blog to post regular updates on my exploits. Traffic is pushed toward the blog from other sources, from our own website and from my limited tweeting ability. One of the coolest added benefits of the blog is that it has created a forum for individual families to their share stories in the comments section. Responses to blog posts are a great way for people to go public about an issue they would be very reluctant to weigh in on in any less discreet type of media. I have been responding personally to the comments, which builds up trust and will perhaps encourage people to allow us to be more specific in using their stories in wider media.
SNAP DISCUSSION IS THE BEACH HEAD FOR A MORE DETAILED UNDERSTANDING OF THE WIDER RANGE OF YOUR PROGRAMMATIC AND ADVOCACY ACTIVITIES
Once you get blog readership, then you can begin to feature programs as I did by inviting a local supervisor to attend one of our Healthy School Pantries, which contains a Calfresh/SNAP outreach component.
INVOLVE THOSE ADMINISTRATING SNAP
As well as highlighting your own outreach efforts, Involve local DSS or whoever is the administrative body for SNAP in your region – I went to interview three staff members at different levels about their challenges, myths, how they deal with public perceptions and of course the challenge of politicians doing demonstrations outside their front door because they want to cut down on ‘rampant SNAP fraud’ because they can’t actually think of anything constructive to do, so this will be a nice easy piece of red meat to throw to the crowd. This helps strengthen future relations as well.
KEEP A STRONG FOOD FOCUS
I have featured recipes, detailed lists of what food I got from distributions or purchased with my SNAP money. I also let people in on my bargain hunting and comparison shopping. People are very interested in this kind of micro level food stuff. I am also keeping a food log of my meals which our dietician will be looking at. These activities also give the opportunity to bring in local chefs to help you make the most of what you have, and this provides another good media angle.
FEATURE A WIDER GEOGRAPHICAL PERSPECTIVE AT SOME POINT
It will be easy enough for you to find a state, National dimension and Feeding America – You know how it is, people are always interested in how things are so much worse/diiferent somewhere else. I will be interviewing Brady Koch the SNAP outreach czar at FA and attending a SNAP outreach and distribution sponsored by Greater Chicago Food Depository, which will take place on the South Side of Chicago.
CONSIDER A PUBLIC FORUM
This is a great way to wind up the challenge. Local political representatives can be invited. After the media interest, you should be able to get a larger attendance than normal for this type of event.
KEEP HAMMERING HOME THE MAJOR EDUCATIONAL POINTS
For us, the main goal is to get over the idea that SNAP plus local services equals an effective safety net. Lessen that equation in any way and the whole thing doesn’t work.
Food Literacy and empowerment is not ‘nice’ it is essential. The type of practical nutrition and cooking training we do is vital for those who are facing a potentially bland diet with little funds to put toward good food. This is about skills that people can utilize your food effectively with, rather than pat recipes. These skills are especially important to be able to make good use of fresh produce.
The Food Security Challenge is not a gimmick; yes it’s proving great to promote the Foodbank’s work in this little understood area, but it’s also chance for me personally to keep in direct touch with how the Foodbank is trying to move people from hunger to health.