Time for a Change?

Today I will be attending the third biannual Closing the Hunger Gap conference. This is a group that comes together to explore, test and execute sustainable food security strategies and to build a national movement to enact systemic change.

I went to the first one, six years ago in Tucson and at that point we were the ‘wild-hearted outsiders.’ Today’s conference, with well over 500 attendees is much more like a gathering of the clans. Things are happening, and those things are speeding up.

I have been posting less frequently on the ‘From Hunger to Health’ blog over the last couple of years. Part of that is a recognition that these mediations – about the future of food banking, emergency food and the role of our organizations in making lasting improvements in people lives – have gone mainstream. They are no longer a ‘that would be nice’ consideration, or something that only ‘organizations with money coming out of their ears’ have the time and resources to undertake.

head sand
At staff meetings they were proud to take things to a granular level

Only organizations who truly have their head in the sand can avoid conversations at some level about “what happens beyond the food.” These are the opportunities to take complementary approaches to building and maintaining long term food security in a communities, whether they be rural, urban or increasingly, suburban.

In this blog, I have been encouraging us to leverage this food machine we have created, and invest our food and networks in more long-range ends. Simplicity is so appealing and we clung to it for so very long, but the world is not getting any simpler. The lives of those we work with and the maze they face to try to find a way out of poverty or poor nutritional health are ever more complex.

If you think I’m sitting in my rocker with my corn cob pipe looking back on a job well done, then I’m not. The work is only starting. Now is the time to dream bigger and enlarge the nature of the discussion about what it is possible for us to do together.

In the past, I had hoped for a national campaign against poverty with organizations cooperating at a local level to help people with an interconnected range of life challenges. At the same time we would hold the local/national politician’s feet to the fire. This would force the political infrastructure to understand how tens of millions of their fellow Americans are living now, and that we can’t just continue blaming them for everything about their situation.

Movement in this direction still seems slow, retarded by individual national organizations’ desire to maintain their ‘USP’ (unique selling point) with supporters and to stand out from others occupying a similar space. We still need to continue this work, but to succeed, I think we cannot purely rely on the moral indignation of Americans – who once aware of the need – will approve swift action to end food insecurity and create pathways out of poverty through living wage ordinances, health and child care subsidies. If the last nine months have shown anything, it is that the way people receive messages around poverty and food security are more complex than we imagined.

This was focusing on a national movement about a negative. What about a national movement focused on a positive: helping each other be healthy.

This means a partial pivot to a focus on the positive advantages of maintaining and improving your health through good nutrition and related activities. In our work in Santa Barbara, we’ve seen the benefits in terms of empowering those we work with by changing the daily conversation of our interactions to be about ‘how can we help each other be healthier so we can live more joyful lives’ (sorry, I live in California. Joy is not an option.)

This approach has shaped the steady evolution of how we deliver services from the ‘here’s your bag of food, thank you for waiting and good luck!’ of previous times, by the wrap-around education and services of our Healthy Community Pantries. These will be gradually superseded by the ‘place-based’ community-building activities of Community Food Access Centers. At each stage, the relationships with those we serve have deepened – not as a way of fostering dependency, but as a way of building healthier communities.

We always knew that the food alone was only part of why people came to us, but we have also discovered that empathy is only a starting point. How can we be truly empathetic if we are not trying to help that person change their situation. I am not talking about the proud senior taking a food box or the mentally-ill homeless person who is desperately struggling to keep things exactly as they are. I am talking about the vast majority of food insecure families who are one slip-up or financial setback away from eviction, bankruptcy or incarceration.

Empowerment is hard to give someone.  Ultimately, they have to take it for themselves, but we can create the conditions where this is possible. In one of our ‘Nutrition Advocates’ groups (peer to peer nutrition education and leadership) the group really wanted to be ‘led’ as opposed to figuring out what their focus project might be. So empowerment is also a process where people have to see what is possible and dip a toe in before jumping. Especially in situations where jumping never worked out well in their lives in the past.

The next stage of evolution for our organization is contained in the slogan: ‘EDUCATION FOR ALL, FOOD FOR ALL WHO NEED IT.’ We are proposing a pivot where the Foodbank becomes the recognized hub of food literacy, food knowledge, cooking and general health knowledge. To make a change in the health of our service area, we offer to help everyone in it.

Yikes.

That’s enough to give everyone the shakes. However, I don’t really see any logical alternative progression for the road we have already begun on. The idea is that we would provide both online and in-person training for kids, families and others. If you can pay, you pay. If you can’t, your training is free. If you want to pay it forward, then you sponsor others as well as your family. Each interaction would contain a service element and some general education about the local food system as a whole.

People are always complaining about donor fatigue. So here is a good way of engaging donors from an early age in the joy of food, the joy of working alongside each other and the joy of helping others. (See, there’s more of that joy creeping in…)

This is not something that be launched immediately, it needs to be built up to. Groundwork is required to build knowledge and receptivity to the Foodbank’s expanded role in the ‘food life’ of the community. We already have the trust of people – donors, volunteers, local infrastructure and services –  and that is something we can use as a strong foundation. Our first stage in this ‘change the conversation’ about the Foodbank was our leadership in the Santa Barbara County Food Action Plan. This groundwork will also include increased partnerships with schools, children’s museums, farms.

The word will be out there that the Foodbank cares for the nutritional health of all, and they put their food where their mouth is (or some other unfortunate metaphor) by providing food for those who need it. The total package.

But, you scream, this will muddy our USP, and people will stop donating to our organization because they don’t want to pay for the education of those who aren’t ‘needy,’ ‘indigent,’ or any other of those ugly, ignorant words. Our experience thus far is that we can operate successfully in two spheres. We hit the food insecurity message strong and trumpet the work through the usual channels. These other messages use different channels, sometimes requiring the creation of new ones.

New ‘public health’ funding models are required too for an endeavor that will be nothing if not expensive. Think what success looks like though. Nutritional health becomes a common endeavor, not just for the well-off. It becomes something that binds the community together, rather than one more thing that splits it apart.

Call me a dreamer, but the dream starts today. In 2008 we began this journey, at a time that people told us to ignore those distractions and focus all our energy on the urgent challenges of today. In 2017, the same calls are going to come again. SNAP is on the chopping block, there is a basic lack of understanding of the drivers of poverty by those clutching the levers of power. Surely, now is the time to retrench and struggle with now, now now.

If history has taught me anything, now is the time to strike out anew.

I’d welcome your ideas and experiences.

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