Toxic Charity : How Service Providers Can Hurt Those They Help (And How to Reverse It)

Previously in these pages we have questioned whether some of what we do to help clients through our distributions and programs might actually be having a negative effect on the long term health and independence of those clients. Earlier this year I interviewed Jan Poppendieck about her book Sweet Charity, which addressed some of these concerns.

Today on ‘From Hunger to Health’ provide a review of another book, Toxic Charity by Robert Lupton, ED of Focused Community Strategies (FCS) a respected community development organization operating in inner-city Atlanta.

Bob Lupton

The book was published last year, and this piece also draws elements from an interview with the author that took place this week.

What does it say to you?

Let’s start out with a little Rorschach test on your attitudes to our work. How does the following quote land with you?

Give once and you elicit appreciation;

Give twice and you create anticipation;

Give three times and you create expectation;

Give four times and it becomes entitlement;

Give five times and you establish dependency.

Does it piss you off? Do you default to a stance that everyone deserves enough food therefore dependency doesn’t even come into it? Or maybe you kind of agree with it. Whatever your response, I would bet that you will find a lot to chew on in Robert Lupton’s book.

“Food in our society is a chronic poverty need, not a life-threatening one. And when we respond to a chronic need as though it were a crisis, we can predict toxic results: dependency, deception, disempowerment.”

His basic supposition is that a lot of what NPOs and churches do to assist people has a negative rather than a positive result. He is not questioning people’s motivations, but rather the unintended consequences of rightly motivated efforts. He believes that if ‘emergency’ relief does not transition to development in a timely way, then compassion becomes toxic.

Excuse for gratuitous picture of the Toxic Avenger, for those of us of a certain age, with a certain fondness for Grade Z movies.

He provides an ‘Oath for Compassionate Service,’ which is meant to be a guide to the provision of services:

The Anatomy of Giving

Lupton describes his own experience of handing out boxes of groceries from one of his church’s food pantries. He began studying the facial expressions and the how recipients seldom gave him eye contact. The body language of the recipients was head and shoulders bent slightly forward, self-effacing smiles and meek ‘thank yous.’ He observed how quickly the  response to charity devolved from gratitude to expectation to entitlement. He then observed his own part in the ‘anatomy of giving.’

Step right up...

“I expected gratitude in exchange for my free gifts. I actually enjoyed occupying the superior position of giver (though I covered it carefully with a façade of humility). I noted a hidden irritation at those who voiced their annoyance when free food stocks ran low. I grew weary of filtering through half-truths and manipulative ploys as I sought to equitably dispense resources.”

After 6 years of running homeless shelter kitchens I would have to agree with Bob’s observation of the attitude he observes in himself and others. He says that doing for rather than doing with those in need is the norm. Add to it the combination of pity that can become patronizing with unintended superiority and charity becomes toxic.

Big is Bad, Small is Good

Lupton spends a good chunk of his book looking at the sometimes misconceived results of church foreign aid trips, and disempowering nature of aid to Africa, but he also provides a detailed demolition job on the work of TAP (The Atlanta Project) born out of Jimmy Carter’s desire to eliminate poverty in Atlanta prior to the 1996 Olympic Games.

JC (the other one) and MJ at a TAP Event in 1993. It almost makes your nostalgic…

This top down approach to community development spent countless millions to leave behind a situation that was actually worse at the end of it. He also looks at the Faustian bargain that was the Salvation Army’s acceptance of a mega donation from the Kroc Foundation to build huge Kroc Centers that would centralize a vast array of social services. While this is convenient for the economies of scale of the service providers, it has the effect of drawing people from miles around to access the services and so distorting the normal societal fabric of the area around.

Asset Based Community Development – The Ninja Star version

Lupton favors the Asset Based Community Development (ABCD) model (More on this in a later post) and his own organization in Atlanta operates on the smallest neighborhood by neighborhood approach. He also musters a pervasive though depressing argument about the effectiveness of microloans overseas and the reasons why they would not work in this country, except for with first generation immigrants. (He has nice things to say about ex-Feeding America CEO Vicki Escarra’s new organization, Opportunity International).

Working for Parity of Relationships is key

Lupton talks about ‘Parity vs Charity.’ That it is a very delicate undertaking to develop authentic parity between people of unequal power. But relationships built on reciprocal exchange (what he calls holistic compassion).

When Justice and Mercy Meet

Lupton identifies compassion as a powerful force, a stamp fo the divine nature within our spirits. It lies within us all – from tender child to hardened criminal – waiting for the right trigger to set it off. Mercy is a power that compels us to acts of compassion. He indicates that the Bible places equal emphasis on both mercy and justice. “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” (6:8, NIV)

He breaks this down:

Act justly. Justice is fairness or reasonableness, especially in the way people are treated or decisions are made.

– Love mercy. Mercy is compassion, kindness or forgiveness shown especially to someone over whom a person has power.

“Twinned together these commands lead us to ‘holistic involvement’. Divorced, they become deformed. Mercy without justice degenerates into dependency and entitlement, preserving the power of the giver over the recipient. Justice without mercy is cold and impersonal, more concerned about rights than relationships. The addict needs both food and treatment. The young woman needs both a safe place to sleep and a way out of her entrapping lifestyle. Street kids need both friendship and jobs. Lupton identifies that mercy combined with justice creates:

– immediate care with a future plan

– emergency relief and responsible development

– short term intervention and long-term involvement

– heart responses and engaged minds

“Mercy is a door, an opening, an invitation to touch a life, to make a difference. But it is not a destination.”

I believe that this resounds heavily within our work in ‘emergency’ food provision. We know that the vast majority of what we are now dealing with is the chronic situation not the emergency one. It is time we owned up to the responsibilities and possibilities of what we are involved in.

What is the real ROI that we are seeking with our billions of pounds of food? Those who read this blog will know that I believe that this return is in terms of a huge impact on the preventative healthcare of our communities and by using food banks to leverage and co-lead community development efforts.

What is the way from here to there? How do we transition from emergency relief to development? We could do worse than follow the steps suggested by Roger Sandberg, Haiti Director of the NGO Medair. He describes a progression of three steps:

1. Relief – Responding to the initial need. (We’ve already achieved this).

2. Rehabilitation – This overlaps with the first stage. It is anything that increases the capacity of a local community enabling them to respond to future crises. (This would include nutrition education and empowerment programs that a food bank can run or champion, and I am sure you can suggest lots of other things at this point in the continuum.

Lupton promotes food bank-supported food cooperatives as a replacement for food pantries that ‘offer free food at the price of recipient’s dignity.’ The cooperatives he mentions in his book are run by Chad Hale of the Georgia Avenue Minestries.

This organization is a member of the Atlanta Community Food Bank. Co-op members pay $3 biweekly dues for $30 worth of groceries. (More on the pros and cons this approach in a later post – if anyone wants to share any experiences, that would be great).

3. Development – This overlaps the other stages too. Development work is long term. It seeks to raise the standard of living and the quality of life for a population over many years. (This corresponds to the work a food bank can do creating jobs, assisting with community organizing and partnering with coalitions to work on long-term change in service areas).

Lupton believes that currently, the food bank network as a whole still remains on the sidelines of these efforts. Many food banks have great untapped potential to be involved in community development, but are shying away from it for a number of reasons.

 “Erik, I’m glad that this discussion is coming up. It is encouraging that an increasing number of food banks are reconsidering a more community developmental approach.”

It is not unfair to Lupton to say that he doesn’t necessarily have a lot of answers about what the role of food banks should be in fostering this community development approach. He is clearer on the negative effects of some of what we do now.

That means it is up to us to create this vision for ourselves, in collaboration with our communities and our member agencies.

There is a lot of potential for new ideas and scaling of existing ideas. These are exciting times to be a food banker.

AFTERWORD: I normally stir up the odd vociferous reaction to my posts, and these sometimes upset those on the political left and the right equally. This is usually an indication that I am on to something interesting in my waggling of tooth nerves. The latest post is no exception. People are way too polite it seems to leave stinging comments on the actual blog, but send me emails instead, which is a shame. I am happy for a little public pushback.

The reactions to the Toxic Charity entry largely indicate a concern that this is some kind of right-wing agenda to ‘blame the poor’ for their situation and to cut them off from help. I don’t see it this way at all. I see it more of a case of ditching kind but ineffectual  low-touch help and replacing it with long term relationship and commitment to make change in the community (which is the best help of all).

I think it is one of those situations where when we touch a sensitive area, then everyone retreats to a defensive position, sensing criticism and judgment and thinking they hear the things they are expecting and dreading to hear. I’m the most sensitive, touchiest little soul there is, so I am just assuming that others are the same.

It may be very uncomfortable for people to deal with Lupton’s criticisms of things that are close to our hearts, but I think if you look into what he is recommending in its place: Asset Based Community Development, you will see that this is not some kind of harsh ‘fend for yourself’ approach, but involves us helping each other in a deeper, more lasting way.

As I get into this work, I find the default approaches of left and right to be increasingly unhelpful and out of touch with my experience of the world. 

Food Pantries with Case Management build both Measurable Food Security and Self-Sufficiency

Some of the themes that have been bubbling up in recent posts have concerned food banks searching for ways to impact client’s lives for the longer term, and then how we might be able to measure that improved food security and self-sufficiency.

This week I am looking into the success of the Freshplace pantry in Connecticut, a collaboration between three community organizations: Foodshare, the regional food bank, the Chrysalis Center, which is a social service agency, and the Junior League of Harford, a volunteer organization.  The difference between Freshplace and traditional food pantries is that Freshplace members meet with a Project Manager during their first visit, and then monthly, to discuss and set goals for becoming food secure and self-sufficient. Clients come up with their own goals that they want to work on, which are not imposed by the Project Manager. Nutrition education and a Cooking Matters course are also offered to memebers.

This program has benefitted from having an ongoing evaluation from its inception by a team from the University of Connecticut’s, Institute for Clinical and Translational Science headed up by Katie Martin PhD from the Department of Allied Health Sciences. Katie’s research background is in food security, community food security work, and food assistance programs.

Downloads are available here with the top level Freshplace Research Update as well as a Case Management in Food Pantries Research Brief. I spoke with both Katie and later with Foodshare’s CEO, Gloria McAdam to see what practices or ideas we could take from Freshplace.

 
Katie Martin

Katie, tell me how you came to be involved with the Freshplace project

They had been working for a few years on the notion of a food pantry that could address some of the underlying issues of poverty that were creating the need for food. I talked to them about evaluating this program and in 2009 I joined their advisory group, strategic planning group as we were concurrently developing the program and the evaluation.  Freshplace opened in July of 2010, and right from the beginning we’ve been conducting a randomized control trial of Freshplace where we recruit people from regular food pantries because we want to see how this intervention compares to these other traditional pantries. We randomized 100 into each group and have been tracking the same 200+ people for over a year now and will conclude our 18 month data collection in December.

What has the Freshplace group shown versus the control group in terms of effect on improving food security?

We’re in a very poor neighborhood in a poor city (Hartford) and half of all of the people we began the study with were experiencing significant hunger, cutting back the size of their meals or skipping meals because there isn’t enough food.

The bit the Hartford Tourist Board want you to see.

Over the year, Freshplace members were half as likely to remain in that category. We’ve seen increased food security and also increased self-sufficiency, which are both significantly higher than in the control group.

In the area of diet quality we’ve also seen significant improvement in fruit and vegetable consumption.

The one real challenge area is that we haven’t seen real declines in consumption of fat from snack and other unhealthy food. That means we still have some work to do.

How do you measure these areas?

We have been looking at three main outcomes:

FOOD SECURITY – For which we use the USDA food security module with its 18 questions,

SELF-SUFFICIENCY – For which we have been using the Missouri Self-Sufficiency Scale, which measures changes for 10 different indicators including income, employment, education, housing, transportation, physical health, mental health, child care.

QUALITY OF DIET – The consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables, fiber and also fat and snacks. For this, we’re using the Block food frequency questionnaire.

So, tell me a little more about Freshplace in action.

Clients can attend twice a month for food and once a month to meet with a project manager to discuss what areas they are interested in working on. Those goals are then reviewed in a supportive way.

That’s always kind of been an issue in terms of us demonstrating what we’re doing is improving food security because of the limited amount of a person’s total diet that is derived from a pantry’s food. The other unknown has been that we don’t really know how many different sites people are attending.  How did you deal with that in your study?

In our population, people are going chronically to different food pantries on average two to three times per week averaging up to four different pantry providers accessed every month.  I think a key piece that I think you write about beautifully in your blog is the notion of how food banks around the country are now starting to question how much longer they are going to be able to increase poundage and numbers of people served without significantly investing in preventative measures – whether health and nutrition education and empowerment  or the advocacy to change things. I’ve argued for a long time that hunger is about more than just food and that I think the data that we see nationally and we’re seeing at Freshplace is that even when people are going to multiple food pantries multiple times a week and they’re getting food and they know the system of how to engage in it to the best of their abilities, that it is still not enough to increase their food security. This is reflected by our food insecurity rates nationally really remaining untouched.  I think it’s time for a different way of approaching this issue.

What is the specific model of case management that they are using?

It’s based on the Stages of Change approach, coupled with motivational interviewing.

The idea is that we’re not telling folks the changes that they need to make, but working with them to determine what issues are most important in their life and what are the potential barriers that they encounter that are holding them back from reaching those goals. This type of model is used in some other types of work like HIV prevention, in trying to encourage people to have safe sex using that type of motivation and behavior change model.  We actually did a little bit of research through Foodshare of all of the partner agencies that receive food from the food bank to ask them whether they were providing case management in their pantry and what specific other services they provide just to get a handle on how unique or not unique Freshplace might be within the bigger field.  About half of the food pantries that responded said that they did offer some kind of case management, half did not.  But of the half who said they did, very few of them actually meet monthly and do a follow up. Most consider case management as giving a referral or a brochure with some other type of information.  This isn’t enough. A good Project Manager can be empowering when using motivational interviewing and in recognizing that people go through stages in their readiness to make changes in their life.  If we can engage in a relationship with clients where they trust us, we can have a dialogue where they know they’re coming back in a month and we’re going to do a follow-up with them and ask how they’re doing and what their issues are.

Obviously the food is an excellent motivator for people to return for the monthly interview, but how do people reach the point where they’re food secure enough to exit the program, or would anyone want to leave and turn down free food?

We always knew that we didn’t want this program to be another dependency program where people would stay on it for years.  We wanted this to be something that we could help give people a hand up and that they would want to and be able to move on. We spent some time really deciding what graduation from the program really means and giving clearer expectations so that when people come to Freshplace, they know from the beginning that there are expectations that we will offer a lot of support and services and programs, but you need to want this too so we’re going to meet with you and make sure that you’re making changes.  If you’re really just coming for the food, then I think right now we give maybe three to six months of that time to really monitor are they not making any progress towards their goals and if not, if they’re really just coming for the food, then there are other food pantries in the community that offer that.  So they’ll be discharged to allow other people to join the program.

There is currently a lively debate in the broader non-profit world about focusing all our attention on those who are able to improve and change their lives, because they are the ones that can deliver us the metrics of success that funders want. In the food banking arena, this would be ensuring the continued ability to feed all people; those with mental illness or who just can’t provide for themselves.  I think it is key to build in some avenue out for those who can’t or won’t or who are simply not ready to take on this wider change element. They would still be served to the best of our care and ability, but we wouldn’t waste their time and our money on these particular types of intervention resources.

Yes. I think we face a dichotomy in our country about the issue of hunger. When I describe the work that I do, people will often say, “We’ll always have hunger.”  Even though people don’t like the idea of people going hungry, there’s also this kind of acceptance that there will always be people in need. Now there are definitely those who fit into the category you just described, say those facing severe substance abuse, mental health issues, engrained generational poverty who need traditional food bank services.  But I would argue on the other side nationally there are millions of Americans right now who are food insecure and not sure how they are going to feed their family at the end of the week or the end of the month and I feel very uncomfortable with accepting that. I think from the bottom up we need to work with people and empower them and build those relationships so they can be ready to make changes, but from the top down we need to ensure that in our country that if people are trying their best to get a job or are working one or two jobs, they should be able to have a living wage where they should be able to go out and afford enough food for their family.

So this expanded group of Americans who are benefitting from our services, the 1 in 6. Aren’t a lot of this new group added by the recession able to look after themselves and might find the case management approach patronizing and disempowering? They might think that they just need a break or a few more hours work or a few more benefits. Can this group really benefit from the Freshplace approach?

I think they can. Those who have fallen on hard times need more than a bag of food. They need the ongoing support and link to a range of services rather than just short term food security. We can help them build their job skills to get a better job, and they can help us in our advocacy work to press for the policy changes that will help them long term.

With our own programs we’ve initially kept close to schools basically because that’s a place whereby we can tap into deeper more long term relationships with clients and build what we call their food literacy. However we’re now looking more closely at the thinking behind and impact of our more classic types of distribution. I think in the past the philosophy was to find a poor part of town and carpet-bomb the area with cans of food, hoping that this ‘shotgun’ approach would hit the right people and improve their lives. We did serve a bunch of people who really needed the help, and some who really didn’t need the help but weren’t foolish enough to turn down some free food. We certainly did little to change the long term health or prospects of either group. Do you think it is important to transition away from these traditional mass distributions? I mean it’s not like we have as much food available to us as we used to.

I think you’re right that so often we look at low income communities and say there’s so much need, there’s so much poverty, there’s so many problems we kind of throw our hands up and just say, “Well, let’s just provide food.”  I think a different approach is sorely needed, which says that these are communities that have assets and rich human and social capital, which If tapped, can do amazing things. We need to work with folks to find out why they’re struggling so much.  What are the barriers in their lives?  Again, it takes more time than simply giving food. And I think often Americans like the quick fixes.  Programs like Bridges out of Poverty (Watch out for an upcoming post on their work) are enabling people to really self-investigate what are the issues that are holding them back in their lives. But to truly be most successful, this requires the community as a whole to say ‘how do we look at the issue of poverty in our community and how are we all involved?’  That addresses employers and schools and the bigger picture which impacts all of us. Otherwise we will stick to our quick fixes and continue to spin our wheels.

Traditional food banking makes us feel great about charitable giving, but we’re not making an impact on food security or self-sufficiency or diet quality. That’s why Freshplace offers a different model, that if we can analyze it and find out what’s really working and how we can replicate it, then it could provide an avenue for a longer term approach to dealing with hunger. Clearly, this model is not going to be feasible for every food pantry. They might serve 500 people in a week, how could they possibly provide case management for 500 people in a week?  And I would say, you won’t, but I think that you could target a small segment of that group that you feel would be most ready to make these changes or people who would like to get off of that food pantry line. You could work with them and monitor their changes over time, so you would have that longitudinal data and with the expectation that hopefully six months from now they’re no longer in that food pantry line.

Some food banks may have the financial resources to hire a case manager and deal with issues that aren’t necessarily food related.  The challenge for other food banks is, ‘how do I partner with other organizations that have these skills or specialty to really provide a range of services that cover more of the spectrum of issues covered by the Self-Sufficiency screener?’  What kind of models do you think would work for that partnership?

My interest is in translational research, making sure that things are meaningful on the ground. An academic study is not as much use if other people can’t use this information.  One of the things that we did with Freshplace is to partner with the social work program at the University of Connecticut with the idea that many communities that already have food banks often probably will have some university or college setting that would have a social work program and those social work students need hours in the field of working.  They need that expertise and experience so that can be a way.  We’ve had two women who’ve come through the social work program who’ve worked with the paid case manager through Freshplace who are getting their hours towards their degree and I think that’s a model that other communities could use to partner with other existing programs in their area that wouldn’t necessarily require a lot of funding.

I then spoke with Gloria McAdam, CEO of Foodshare.

Gloria J. McAdam

Gloria, the results from Fresh Place are looking very promising. I understand that you are aiming to scale the program – are you just planning on providing your own case managers or cooperating with other nonprofits.

Our original vision with the Freshplace model was to be able to replicate it throughout our service area.  For example, in the City of Hartford, which is only 17 square miles, there are currently around 90 food pantries.  Since most of these pantries give out meager amounts of food and offer no other services, this structure forces clients to go from one pantry to another, just to put food on the table.  We believe that a much smaller number of pantries, probably 10-15, who operate on the larger scale that Freshplace does and provides these additional services, could serve people much more effectively.

We could do a better job of getting people the food they need for sustenance as well as providing additional services and supports that would move those families toward self-sufficiency.  Our next step with this project is a replication manual and to start identifying new partners for expansion.

In addition, we are considering the idea of hiring a case manager on Foodshare’s payroll who would rotate among a few smaller agencies to test whether case management can also work in smaller food pantries.  We are just in the thought phase of this idea – what would it look like, what would it cost, which agencies might be interested and where would the funds come from.

That’s great work Gloria, thanks to you and Katie for sharing and keep us informed as things progress.

Essential New Guide to Nutrition Education Resources from Why Hunger?

It’s great to have a nonprofit’s name in the form of a question. It is a good way of having the conversation with the community already having begun before you open your mouth. In the case of Why Hunger? this conversation has been going on for 35 years, ever since singer and activist Harry Chapin first posed the question and then even better, got together with founding (and current) Executive Director Bill Ayres to do something about it.

The organization is a grassroots support organization that tries to build the movement against hunger and poverty by amplifying the voices of innovators who we think come from the grassroots.

Harry Chapin

At the recent Feeding America national summit, I met with Harry Chapin’s daughter Jen Chapin, who is a wonderful singer-songwriter, who some in the western region may remember from her address and performance at a conference in Tucson last year hosted by the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona.

Jen Chapin, Board Member of Why Hunger?

I also had a chance to speak with Jessica Powers, director of the National Hunger Clearinghouse at Why Hunger? Below are excerpts of my discussion with her.

Jessica Powers, Director of the National Hunger Clearing House, Why Hunger?

The organization has been working on an essential new resource for those running nutrition programs which has just been made available.

So tell me a little bit about the types of support that Why Hunger? provides.

We do training and technical assistance.  We do capacity building through some small grant programs, and we also use the vehicle of storytelling a lot.  We try and find out about innovative approaches that people are using, and we try to amplify those voices to a wider audience in order to inspire people about things they could try in their own communities.

Can you give me an example of what you are working on?

Sure.  Through our grassroots action network, we currentlyhave 3 food desert projects that we’re working on.  The technical title is ‘building community power to eliminate food deserts’, and we’re working in Southwest Arizona, in the Mississippi Delta, and in Central Coast California.

And what we do is we bring together different stake holders who are working on food systems issues who may not be talking to each other currently, so that might include ranchers, people from public health, people from the school system and food bankers.  And then through a facilitative process, we talk about the history of that area, how they got to the current situation that they’re in and what their vision for the future is.  Our role is really to facilitate moving that forward that we actually think the community should determine for themselves what is the best solution for them, but that our role is to help move that forward by being sort of a consistent presence and helping with any challenges that arise in moving the work forward.

Tell me a little bit about this guide which is now available for people to download from your website. [DOWNLOAD HERE]

The National Hunger Clearinghouse works on capacity building for emergency food providers, and we focus mainly on food pantries and smaller agencies.  Through that program, we had a lot of conversations with people, and they kept saying that there was a lot of innovation happening in food sourcing and nutrition education, and it was really hard to find out what was going on and to find a place which could be a hub for that information.

We did research and created program profiles on a host of organizations that are working on those 2 different issues.  And so we organized them sort of by strengths.  So in the nutrition education guide, we’re looking at programs that maybe are better at working with diverse communities.   Some are better at evaluation.  And the idea is that people can then tailor it to the program that works for them in their area.

(The ‘From Hunger to Health’ blog is also cited in the guide, so let’s hear it for cross-promotion, folks!)

Self-Promotion – Promoting someone you’re committed to spending the rest of your life with.

Has your organization done any work to uncover the roots of hunger, and answer that tricky question, “Why?”

Yes, in many ways, that is our mission. We have a Food Security Learning Center on our website which is an encyclopedia of food system issues. Everything from water to community food assessments to race in the food system, youth in the food system etc. We have a particular lens, which is that we want to see healthy nutritious food available to people.  So the articles are definitely written with that lens.  But I guess the big thing that we do is try to disseminate information and try to share stories with a wider audience.

Damn, I remember my college days when wearing a button could solve the most intractable of human problems. What happened to the world??!!

What do you think food banks could do or be involved in that they are not currently as a whole involved in?

I think that we all acknowledge that the root cause of hunger is poverty, and if we’re not talking about poverty and solutions to that, then we’re spinning our wheels. So I would challenge food banks to do more of that, to talk more about wage disparity, to talk more about living wages and healthcare and things like that, that are forcing people into the position where they need emergency food assistance.

This came up in the speech by Matt Habash, last year’s winner of the John Van Hengel Award (Prestigious food banking award), and he was encouraging people to make that link to poverty.  But in subsequent sessions that I attended, people from other food banks were saying, “Oh my god, I can’t go near that because it’s a political hot potato, and it’s outside our wheelhouse, etc.” Are there other things that they could do?

It is not only a case of the food bank using its own voice. They could be sharing more information and insights with the agencies that they work with, and helping them build their advocacy skill set.  They can also use State Associations as more of the political voice.

I think it is a question of framing.  It has to be about opportunity.  The whole childhood hunger piece, when you talk about children having an equal opportunity to become leaders, to become educated.  I think that’s something most people can agree on regardless of their party politics.  And I don’t think that people talk about that enough.

So are you suggesting that food banks take more of a leadership role in putting together coalitions and becoming the backbone organization for a wider variety of community organizations?

Yes. Increasingly we’re seeing that there is a political movement that wants to privatize charity. That means putting the burden onto the food banks, so I think food banks need to stand up to this.  When you look at the total pie of food distribution, food banks are still a relatively small piece in this country and so they can’t be expected to take on such an increasing burden, and I think they need to be more vocal about that.  I think when we have discussions that are based solely on poundage or distribution or logistics or supply chain, then it sort of takes away from our ability to say, “Hey, wait a minute, this is supposed to be an emergency response, not a long-term solution,” right?

Thanks, Jessica, and thank you for your work in putting together such a great guide.

Are Non-Profits afraid of Competition? How can we tackle the root causes of hunger in America? Tough Questions from a Community Grantmaker – A dialogue with Mari Ellen R. Loijens, CFRE.

Mari Ellen Loijens

Is there a life after food banking? Apparently so. Mari Ellen Loijens worked in development for Second Harvest Foodbank in Santa Clara and San Mateo County from 2000 to 2004, and is now the Chief Philanthropic Development and Information Officer for the Silicon Valley Foundation.

Of course it is every fundraising professional’s secret fantasy to then go on to work at a foundation and give it away rather than have beg for it. (Without appreciating the challenges that go with such a responsibility). So what’s the difference between your time in the food bank looking out, and outside the food bank looking in?

When I was at the food bank, the needs were constantly growing. There was no single year where we had to feed less people than the year before, and I had a strong sense of urgency about the growing need. Now that I’m outside, it seems like it’s endless and I’m more anxious for real solutions to the issue.  It’s sort of like being an emergency room doctor, and your concern is how to bandage all the wounds for those who need immediate assistance. Then when you walk outside the emergency room, you think, “How can we avoid the people going there in the first place?”

That’s a question a lot of food bankers are asking themselves. Like me, they’ve seen the capacity of food banks grow with their success at fund raising and their ability to bring more food in to their service area. This has created more ongoing demand, so it’s kind of a spiral.  How do you think that food banks could get out of this demand spiral and move towards a long-term solution?

We really need to look at some policy changes.  We are a very wealthy nation and the notion that we have so many people who turn to others for such a basic need is troubling.  Clearly there is something wrong with a system in which many children go to school hungry.

Food banks and other nonprofits are always very reluctant about stepping into these waters, because they worry about offending donors whose political slant may lead them to believe that we are just ‘enabling’ people.  How can we navigate these waters?

Want to dip your toe in…

I think that the problem is that we focus too narrowly on just food.  If you only think, “I need to feed people,” and you think, “That’s my only issue,” then we’re back to the doctor in the emergency room who would be saying: “I’m trying to get people to stop bleeding, and it’s so expensive to keep using up all these wound dressings. So the solution is that we need more money for more wound dressings.”  It’s a symptom he’s dealing with, not the cause. In the same way, hunger is the not cause, it is the symptom of a greater problem in our system. This comes down to something like minimum wage.  Do we have a living wage?  Are people able to earn enough where they live in order to take care of something as basic as food and shelter? We have got to move beyond pushing for increased SNAP (food stamp) benefits and into the bigger issues like: How do we make sure people, who are able, can earn enough money to feed themselves and their families?

So, are you saying that hunger is a symptom of the condition of poverty, or of something else?

I think poverty itself is also a symptom. I’m not a socialist or a communist. I don’t believe that everyone should make the same money, but I do believe that Americans, if asked, would say it’s wrong to have a system which forces people to constantly be in abject  poverty and unable to get out of it, even if they are working hard, perhaps at multiple jobs.  At some point, we are going to have to make decisions about how we pay for our beliefs and values. In the same way we are asked to make tough decisions now about taxes and how we want to pay for the things that we believe our country needs, such as roads or to provide the fire and police services that we want. In the same way, we have to ask ourselves the question: if we think it’s wrong for a child in a developing country to make a dollar a day sewing t-shirts, how are we going to provide an adequate minimum wage so that people in America who work a whole day can feed themselves and provide at the most basic level for their families?

And so how do you see the situation in America now?

I think we have an unspoken social contract in this country which prevents people from moving up out of poverty, and much of that is as a result of not have a living wage in most places.  We also do not have systems in place that update the minimum wage as the cost of living modifies in an area.  The systems that we do have reward the wealthy and do not help the poor.  This means we have to really look at our whole social contract as a country and our value system and say, “Have we set in place laws that support the values that we claim are American?”

Bumper sticker seen outside Santa Barbara’s swankest hotel.

This is the point in the conversation where people begin to squabble about the meaning of the ‘American Dream.’ I see an unspoken fear in many donors I talk to. I would preface my comments by pointing out that these donors are caring and generous people who sincerely want to ‘pay it back’ and provide some level of support for those in need within their communities. However, they may have a voice deep within them, that reminds them how hard they had to struggle and sacrifice to get where they are, so why should they make it easy for someone else? They often don’t see the incredible daily sacrifices and struggles of those in poverty who can find no success story on the back of their struggle.

Whatever the sentiment, Uncle Sam gets pressed into service to wag that finger.

This is why food banks have been so successful, because there is a lot of interest in ameliorating the symptoms but a deep fear of taking the plunge to actually deal with the causes. Either donors are concerned that they will be heavily taxed and lose what they worked for, or they fear that the fabric of American society will change and everyone will expect things to be provided for them without working for them. Consequently they see America losing its ‘can do’ spirit of entrepreneurship and resourcefulness. The type of change that is required to actually deal with a problem is too scary. The same thing is true for issues of immigration, health care and the rest of the sad litany. This means we have to stand around with our hands tied or else harken back to some previous time in our country’s history where these problems were better hidden.

I think a new consensus for action needs to arise that returns the much-loved but threadbare teddy bears of left and right political philosophy to the nursery shelf, and for us to admit that we have grown out of them. They’ll always have a fond place in our heart they were both great in key moments at getting us to the point we are now at as a nation, but now they are getting in the way as our nation enters maturity. These security blankets are getting under foot and gridlocking our ability to do what we do best as Americans – which is to fix something in a no-nonsense straight-forward way.

“I’ve been manhandled so much, I don’t remember whether I’m Republican or Democrat.”

I know from over a decade of working to assist either the homeless or the struggling, that the amount of people sitting on their gluteus maximus and freeloading their way from society (amongst poor people, anyway) is absolutely tiny, just as the amount of people defrauding SNAP benefits is a minuscule amount in relation to the total. Are we going to allow an obsession with preventing the enabling of a few who don’t want to help themselves hold us back from making huge achievements as a country for the vast majority of Americans who work so incredibly hard?

Sounds great, we should import that stuff to America! (Cheaply, of course)

Can you imagine what greatness we could achieve as a nation if we weren’t all so consumed with fear about being able to get affordable medical help, or that we will be living in abject poverty as senior citizens? Modern free market economies are driven by so much advertising and marketing, that are showing people all the things they need to have in their lives to be happy. These forces provide a huge encouragement for people to produce more and earn more. If we can provide a counter-balancing support safety net for all Americans, it won’t extinguish this desire for more – which is equally part of the American temperament. The two can complement each other perfectly well. It’s not exactly a shining city on a hill, but it’s a workable system where we can all move forward at our own pace and to our own ability.

Forgive me for that. As a food banker, if you see a pile of pallets, then your natural inclination is to climb on top of them and start spouting off…

That’s quite all right, Erik. Keep breathing. Seriously, though, I think food banks need to get get braver about legislation. You need to move past the daily problem of feeding people, and start to collaborate with others that can focus on solutions and really start to ask the difficult questions of, “What’s the issue?”  Yet for reasons that you mentioned, like when you referred to SNAP fraud, I think food banks are very afraid sometimes of moving in that area, because if you did a survey of people you feed and even one person said, “Well because I don’t feel like working.”  That’s a terrible, terrible fear of food banks. Suddenly, no one might want to fund their food bank, because there is one person whose is working the system. So essentially, we are ready to punish and live in fear of that one person.  Well, there is always going to be someone working the system.  There are people who go to emergency rooms, because they don’t feel like paying for a doctor. We absolutely can’t set up systems to deal with that one person. We look at the big issues in our country like educations reform and how healthcare reform and you hear about those things all the time. I would love to hear our country talk about poverty reform.  How we are going to help make a sweep of changes that would impact the base line of our country and help bring people who are essentially stuck because it’s impossible to move on or move out.

So, who do you think are the right people to lead this movement or does it need to come from a ground swell at a local level?  

I think both. That is how the civil rights movement happened.  You start with that real grass roots movement from people who are experiencing the issues and people who support those people.  Then at some point you get the attention of people in a power position with legislation to be able to move those issues forward.

You mentioned that food banks are timid on the public policy front.  What else do you think food banks could do to make this happen? 

Well, I really like the ideas espoused in your blog about how your food bank is working on regarding entering the preventative healthcare arena. I do think that when you start to see yourself as part of a wider system rather than just an individual issue, then you are able to address bigger issues that have bigger impact. Poverty is not the root cause.  People became poor for a reason. The fact that they are poor is not the issue.  The fact that they became poor and can’t get out of being poor is the issue.

This requires food banks to build broad coalitions with other social service agencies in their service areas, some who may be member agencies and some who may not.

That is a challenge, because there is often reluctance for everyone to sit down and have a substantive dialogue about how do we move things forward?  The subtext from non profit leaders can often be: “I don’t really want to be in a room with them.  I don’t want to compete with them.”

Hey, you’ve been in some of the same rooms as me!

That’s the truth about a lot of nonprofits is they’re just completely uncomfortable with the idea of competition, and if I had the answer to this issue, I’d probably be able to save the world.

Nothing wrong with a little friendly competition.

Well, we’re non profits. Competition is way too business-like and vulgar for us, right?

Yes, you’re very sensitive souls. But, it has to start with non profits admitting it is an issue. Then I think, speaking as a funder, that there is a clear role for funders in facilitating this issue. I think it’s all power dynamics. The one with the power has the obligation. Foundations really have the obligation to reach out to the nonprofits and say, “I really want to know and I really want to understand what’s going on.  Why is this collaboration and conversation not working for you? Where they don’t have to sit in front of their competitor and say what their fears are. We can ask who would you want to collaborate with and how, on what terms?”  I think having an honest dialogue is what moves things forward. This sort of thing needs to occur one on one or in small groups. Large gatherings can neutralize everyone’s desire to make anything happen.

I think what you say about the competition angle is very interesting, because it’s kind of taboo to talk about nonprofits competing. To be a good non profit citizen, you can only talk in the language of shared impact and collaboration. It might be very liberating for people to also have a conversation about competition and to say it is absolutely all right. I presume there is fear that we would be acknowledging duplication of service if we acknowledged competition. Certainly something for people to consider starting a discussion about in their service area.

How do you think food banks and other human services and nonprofit should be thinking about evolving their funding streams over the next few years?

I think if you are looking for systems change, at some point that goes against the grain for sustainability, right?  You want to be working towards your services not being needed anymore. The ideal is that you want to be able to talk about what system changes are you creating, so that you should have to provide fewer and fewer services every year?  That should be the big boast.  “Last year we fed 200,000 people, but this year, thanks to our hard work, we only have to feed 150,000.”

But every nonprofit organization in the world is afraid to do that, because then they assume that the funders will come back and say, “Oh, you need less money this year.”  And so the organization declines.

I think that there is a new generation of funders that have a very different way of thinking, and that what people really want to see are problems solved.  People are tired of the same problems staying around for generations and generations.  You’re right, though. Every nonprofit I know like to boast about how they did even more; served even more. It is a treadmill. But this new generation of funders comes from a very different way of thinking that would say: “No, no, no. The metric I care about is not how many people you serve, but that you made systemic changes so you will have to feed fewer people moving forward.“ It is a way for your organization to evolve to be truer to its mission.

Mari Ellen, thanks so much for your ideas and for your work supporting non profits.

Divided We Stand? Facing the challenges of Collective Impact, Corporate Philanthropy, Earned Income and more – A dialogue with Jan Masaoka, ED of CALNonprofits.

Jan Masaoka

Jan Masaoka is a leading writer and thinker on nonprofit organizations with particular emphasis on boards of directors, business planning, and the role of nonprofits in society. She has recently assumed the mantle of Executive Director of the California Association of Nonprofits. (CalNonprofits).

She is Editor-in-Chief of Blue Avocadothe essential online nonprofit magazine with an amazing 63,000 subscribers. For 14 years she was executive director of CompassPoint Non-profit Services (www.compasspoint.org), a consulting and training firm for nonprofits based in San Francisco and Silicon Valley.

She is an eight time designee as one of the “Fifty Most Influential People” in the nonprofit sector nationwide. Her recent book with Jeanne Bell and Steve Zimmerman, Nonprofit Sustainability: Making Strategic Decisions for Financial Viability, (Jossey-Bass, 2010) has quickly become a vital tool for nonprofits to truly assess the financial impact of their range of activities. (I will explore the teachings of the book in another post.) My conversation with her was an opportunity to revel in her rich experience and take-no-prisoners plain talking. This makes everything she says not so much a condemnation of how things are, but an invitation to question, question, question. And we can’t have enough of that.

Jan, you are new in your position at CalNonprofits, yet already you are involving the organization in a major initiative to get nonprofit staff, volunteers and clients signed up to vote (for the recent California elections). I have noticed that some nonprofits shy away from such activities in their direct service programs because they are fearful that some donors might say they are ‘becoming political.’ How can you deal with that?

First of all, this is non-partisan voter registration to get out the vote. We’re not telling people how to vote. We are saying that whatever the ideals and values that brought you into contact with the non-profit sector, vote with those values.

Nonprofits are not outside of communities, they are the ways that a community organizes to take care of itself. But I also think that we don’t just serve people, we represent them. Anybody that’s serving children with disabilities, for instance, is also representing them. There is a lot of heavily lawyer-scrutinized information in the Legal FAQ’s section of CalNonprofit’s website which indicates what nonprofits can and can’t do in this area.

LOOKING UP AND DOWNSTREAM

In my discussion with Jan Poppendieck, she touched on the need for food banks and similar organizations to put more emphasis on looking up and downstream from what their own particular level of involvement was with clients.

This is vital. I can think of an example of a shelter program for runaway kids that used to be funded by the government. They received a fee for service based on a performance outcome basis. The designated outcome was reuniting kids with their families, and they would receive a certain amount of money for every kid they reunified with his or her family. But if you look downstream and think about it for 10 seconds you realize that with some kids, reunification is a good outcome but for many others, it is no. There were a lot of kids being returned to abusive homes or to a home where drugs were being used all the time. The nonprofit realized they needed another goal, of more long-term shelter for those kids who didn’t have good homes to go back to. They received no government money for this, so they had to raise it. And then looking upstream, they realized they had to advocate to get the policy changed that specified unification as the only goal. If they had only thought of themselves as a little factory of unduplicated units of service they might have remained focused on the unification numbers. But because they are representing this part of our community, they had to find the best outcome for them even if it didn’t mean they got any money for it. Standing on the sidelines is easy, but is no longer an option if we want to achieve big things.

 GOVERNMENT, BUSINESS AND NONPROFITS

We hear a lot about the supposed realignment of the roles between government, business and nonprofit organizations. What is your take on this?

I think it’s about smoke and not fire. I just read in today’s paper that some country music star is going on a tour, and in each of 25 cities, he’s going to buy a house mortgage free for a veteran there. That’s wonderful, and great publicity for him. Unfortunately this is not really an example of private dollars helping veterans in a significant way, it is more about winning a lottery, and that is no way to help those around us. We have over a million veterans in the United States and he’s buying houses for 21 of them. So I think that the idea that private money is going to supplant the need for government money will never be true.

I‘m jes’ tryin’ to help best I can. Don’t be dragging me into your whiney little blog.

 So, kind of like with Tom’s shoes concept, which sounds great (and full disclosure, my ten month old, Mia Regina has a ‘metallic tweed’ pair she received at her baby shower) but actually does little to build a sustainable way for people in those countries to create the businesses to help provide shoes for themselves. 

Tom’s Metallic Tweed Shoes for Baby

Yes. I member a California foundation that poured millions and millions into working with the schools and weren’t getting much in the way of results and someone explained that they had really only put in about as much as the lightbulb changing budget for the Los Angeles Unified School District. These problems are too big for most foundations to move the needle on, or for government to excuse themselves from.

What about the ways in which businesses and nonprofits can work together more? Don’t you think that businesses are starting to approach some things like a nonprofit and vice-versa?

Businesses always absorb what is the culture of the day, in order to sell their products. So for example there was a time when paisley prints were radical and wild. So people who wore paisley or had long hair practically saw this as being anti-corporate. Then business took that over and people with long hair were in commercials for cars. I think that right now we have a similar cultural view, which is about doing good in the world and being community-oriented. Don’t get me wrong, it is important and valuable, but I think like every other cultural movement business uses this and when the cultural movement passes, business will pass too.

Maybe if he hadn’t been wearing a paisley hoodie…

But, corporations are run by and made up of people (just ask Mitt Romney) so those people can always express their generosity and concern about the world, despite the business imperative. We’ve come a long way from Johnson and Johnson’s shareholders suing the company when it attempted to divert some dollars to philanthropic activities. Helping the community is always smart business, so I don’t see that changing.

Sure, but when doing good crashes up against consumerism is where things often grind to a halt. So, for example, all the people who are passionate about sustainable agriculture might not want to realize that the most significant thing they could do about reducing the energy cost in agriculture would be to stop eating lettuce. Lettuce uses more energy cost related to the nutrition it provides than any single produce item on the planet. And yet you don’t see environmentalist calling for the end to eating lettuce. So I think that it can become a symbol of how we want to do things and see ourselves, but we don’t really want to make any changes to our consumer lifestyle.

COLLECTIVE IMPACT

COLLECTIVE IMPACT

On a local level, how do you think that nonprofits can collaborate and get some kind of collective impact?

I think the way that food banks work with their member agencies is an excellent example of bona fide collective impact that is generating extra value. For the most part, the smoke around collective impact and collaboration is not about something that genuinely works but creating the appearance of something that’s going to work. Almost all of these efforts are funder-driven and the funders put money into them and when the funders take the money out, it collapses. And that suggests that it’s it’s not a business model that works.

 So what sort of examples can you give where that’s happened?

Foundation after foundation has created local collaborations and they’re around many different areas. Sometimes they are focused around a particular neighborhood and they’ll create a collaboration of different nonprofits and businesses to work on that neighborhood. Sometimes they might be a collaborative of something like domestic violence shelters working across 6 counties or the like. Many of these collaborations have grown organically over time, so they actually work. But others failed, like the Hewlett Foundation’s neighborhood improvement initiative and Annenberg’s initiative in public schools, the San Francisco Foundation’s Lifeline collaborative. They were put together in a way that didn’t make business sense for any of them and so when the outside money disappeared, the collaborations evaporated. So the collaborative initiatives that last are the ones that genuinely make sense for people and almost all of them are started by the nonprofits themselves, not by funders and their consultants.

I think funders have got to build on existing community strengths. And if there is not an organic community strength in that particular community then maybe you can’t fund them successfully.  Maybe you have to look for a different community or maybe you have to take a longer view and say maybe there are 6 or 7 weak organizations in that community but let’s take a longer view of building their strengths. Instead I think what tends to happen is that a foundation that wants to work in a particular community or field and they see 5 or 6 weak organizations, then they figure if they just had a consultant to bring them together for collective impact, then it will all work out. It won’t.

One of the things that keeps nonprofits honest is that we get feedback from the market and we have two markets – a client or patron market and then we also have a funding market, so we have to work in both of them. Whenever you’re in a situation when you don’t have to work with those markets, then things can go wrong and you’ll never know it. That’s kind of like back in the old Soviet Union when the state decided  what a factory should produce. There was no reason for anybody to get any better. Any institution that is not kept in check by some kind of market goes bad and doesn’t know it.

And so how can a foundation avoid getting into that situation then?

They can support community-based efforts as opposed to starting their own initiatives. I visited a foundation recently and they had on the wall a large poster that they had created with a circle. And in the middle of that circle was their logo, very large. And then around the outside of the circle were other foundations and nonprofits. They said to me that this represents our view of how we collaborate with other people and I felt like – No! – this represents your view of how you’re in the center of the universe.

EARNED INCOME

I did a recent post about earned income for nonprofits. What is your take on this area?

A former consulting client of mine, for example, was running an organization they did a lot of psychological counseling for people and families across the spectrum. They received funding to support this work and then when that funding declined, they focused more on earned income. So, they were able to successfully grow their earned income side, and their budget didn’t look any smaller. But if you look closer, they’re now primarily serving people that can afford to pay rather than across the economic spectrum. And I think that this story writ large has been the hidden story of the move toward earned income.

You don’t feel that this can be balanced by having scholarships or sliding scales?

I think it can be mitigated and it’s a partial answer for some organizations but we need to be alert that so far at least many of the earned income gains have come at the cost of helping middle class people rather than economically disadvantaged people.

Many food banks resell purchased food or require a shared maintenance fee of a few cents a pound for some food items that they provide to member agencies. Some food banks don’t do that but we have found that in situations where there is no fee, it leads to inefficiencies with organizations taking more than they need.

So you introduced in a market element, right?

Yes, we’re not charging individuals, we’re asking organizations to take a financial stake in what we’re doing.

You should realize that I’m not trying to sound like I’m anti-earned income. I’m just saying earned income is not a replacement either for charitable dollars or government money.

I read your recent Blue Avocado post “In the Titanic Recession, Which Nonprofits Get the Lifeboats?” and this touches on the ideas you have just expressed about a shift from services to the very poor.

Yes, nonprofits that provide “the most basic anti-poverty for the poor and homeless failed at around twice the rate of more mainstream services.” Also, only about 16% of foundation funding is targeted to low income communities.

Which you lay at the doorstep of the focus on “innovation, social enterprise, outcome metrics and the coolness factor.” Jan, this is hitting me where I live!

It should! But I think food banks are hardly the type of organizations that are in this situation. They are doing some of the most important and pressing human work. And these and other organizations are where the money and focus should go.

Thanks Jan. There is a lot to think about there. Please continue to challenge us.

Making a drama out of Food Literacy education

Hamlet: “Alas Poor Cauliflower, I knew him. A fellow of infinite recipe possibilities and cancer-busting properties.”

Why am I suggesting we make a drama out of a crisis? Pray, indulge me for a moment. First, let me suggest that there are a myriad reasons that cause people’s relationship with food to go out of balance:

scarcity at a young age,

• feelings of low self-esteem by not being able to currently provide for the complete nutritional needs of a family,

• body and health image issues as a result of family and societal pressures,

• lack of other ways to deal with stress and emotional issues,

• lack of empowerment around nutrition and health.

Gregor Samsa awoke one morning to discover that he had been transformed into a Happy Meal.

All of this stuff is both complicated and layered deep within us. Clearly, receiving a expensive color leaflet on healthy eating or receiving generalized nutrition education at too early a stage is not going to do much to counter any of these deep-seated issues. It will not change people’s behaviors around health and food.

Our approach at the Foodbank in Santa Barbara County has been to focus on the practical and interactive. Kids won’t eat vegetables. Absolutely. Kids will eat vegetables that they have had a hand in figuring out a recipe for, or cooking, or having had a hand in growing. Equally absolute.

Preparing incredibly-edible Beet Pancakes at one of our ‘Pink and Dude’ Chef Programs for Middle School kids.

Nevertheless, given the deep seated issues and the power of family and societal pressures (like the $12 billion McDonalds spent on advertising last year) make it clear that wholesale transformation requires a number of education/empowerment approaches that appeal to and engage people in different ways.

That is why live drama is such an appropriate approach to deal with this area. Since the time campfire storytelling gradually became replaced by dramatized depictions of the messy complexity of life, drama has been a powerful tool to bring about self-awareness and stir action.

Food insecurity can be fought when people feel empowered around food, to look after themselves and their families and begin to demand that their communities are organized in a way that makes sure everyone has enough to eat. Food literacy can be attained when people are able to see and begin to break down the ‘programming’ around food that they and others around them have allowed to grow up since they were still in their mother’s womb.

For the sake of full disclosure, I should reveal that my early writing background in England was as a dramatist. When I was still at college, I actually got all of my friends to join the Drama Society so that they could vote for the Society to perform my play as their next production. While this egotistical attempt to warp current reality to fit my own view of it might later prove an important life-skill, at this early stage it blew up in my face, when the Drama Society met again in secret to pass a new rule that new members couldn’t vote for 90 days. (And I’ve kept away from politics ever since…)

Nevertheless I carried on and wrote a number of plays and had some moderate success with some productions on the London ‘fringe’ (or ‘Off-off-Broadway as it might be termed in the U.S.) As a young man, powerful theater productions certainly changed the way I thought about a lot of things in life, and experiencing them in a small theater (preferably in the round) where the actors are practically spitting on you, helps you internalize things in a way that staring at a screen never can.

Fascinating as Erik’s trips down memory lane are, how can this really help shape young people’s attitudes to food and health? Well, my experience and those of others suggests a number of avenues.

Let me start with the more widescreen approach. Last night I attended the opening night of ‘Café Vida’, the new production by LA’s respected Cornerstone Theater Company. It is part of ‘The Hunger Cycle’, nine world premiere plays about hunger, justice and food equity issues.’

Agreed, that makes it sound worthy but dull, something aimed at the intelligentsia rather than those who might more urgently be touched by these issues. Cornerstone’s approach is to work with the community and have a playwright draw together strands and stories that come from extensive research and workshops with people. The play was written by Lisa Loomer and directed by MICHAEL JOHN GARCÉS

This approach was certainly effective with ‘Café Vida’ which looked at Chabela, a woman recently released from prison who is fighting to get her daughter back from foster care and who lands a job at the titular café which is run by Homegirl Catering, the offshoot of Homeboy Industries, the work-generating nonprofit for ex-gang members started by Father Greg Boyle in LA.

The play opened with a welcome recognition of the wider issue of hunger that was the intellectual starting point for this blog.(“I’m hungry for success, “I’m hungry for a father, but I’ll take any man that puts up with me” etc) and with Chabela struggling with her body image.

Through the course of the play, food becomes not the weight dragging her down, but the chance for empowerment that she has been casting around for. She has to learn about food and cooking, and even risks cooking Kale for her abusive husband. (Needless to say she’s brave.) There are funny and honest scenes about the homeboys and girl’s scorn for composting or growing food (you can imagine the hoe/ho’ jokes…) or the humiliation of having to be a waiter and trying to keep a happy face no matter how rude the customer.

Lynette Alfaro

Chabela is play by Lynette Alfaro, who was herself in very similar situations (jail, struggling to reclaim daughter etc). The point of this approach to drama is the transformative effect of the people who involved in the production as much as the family, friends and others in the audience.

I went to see the play, because I have been in discussion with Cornerstone for a number of months about using their approach with local writers and performers in Santa Barbara to look at the issues of food literacy and insecurity that we are engaging with.

Productions like this can serve as a powerful advocacy tool for those involved in the provision of food or emergency services. It stops the discussion getting stopped with some people on the level of ‘charity for the needy,’ or ‘encouraging people to be lazy and not work to provide for themselves’ and that’s even before we get into the subject of food stamps…

However, I believe there is a vital next step for the use of drama in this area. That is within the actual programs that serve people, utilizing scenes and songs devised by young people themselves.

We have to rewind a few years again to the late 90’s. Coming to Santa Barbara from England (I didn’t realize you made your millions and then moved to Santa Barbara, but that’s another story) I hooked up with an organization called City@Peace, which uses drama and the arts to teach conflict resolution and mediation skills to teens. They work a mixture of ‘at-risk’ kids, those sent to a Court High School, those directed to the program by juvenile Courts and a sprinkling of theater nerds, and each year they work to put on an original production at a local theater with scenes and sometimes songs written and acted by kids.

I received an Artist in Residence Award from the (now defunct) California Arts Council to teach scriptwriting and film making at the program. The program can have a powerful affect on the kids who become involved, keeping them out of trouble and helping them look at their lives in a different way. (In fact one of the kids from that program that I taught, James, now lives around the corner from me – happy, hard working and well-adjusted, when that seemed an impossible dream just a few short years ago. The program is still going strong now with an upcoming production ‘Echoes’  this month.

I will be speaking to City@Peace in the next few weeks to explore the possibilities of a co-production with them as well that might focus on these areas.


One byproduct of these would be short pieces, using drama, comedy and music to explore some the issues around food in the family, in the school and in their lives. We would hope to put together a small troupe who might want to perform at some of our after-school programs like Healthy School Pantry. This would draw more people to the program, and deepen the messages coming out of the existing approach to empowering people around food and providing the food and skills to do. These skits could also be videoed and used in PSAs and in other forums.

Those who attended the Feeding America National Summit in Detroit last month witnessed a performance by the city’s Mosaic Youth Theater. Mosaic included a couple of raps/performance pieces on nutrition and eating habits. While this was on a fairly surface level of ‘kids saying what adults want them to say’, there was nevertheless some powerful stuff that would truly resonate with an audience of teenagers as much as an audience of well-oiled food bankers.

I would encourage organizations around the country to consider the possibilities of partnerships with local theater and educational companies in these areas. In a development sense, these activities can help you tap into foundations and donors with more interest in arts/education than with human services, so there may be funding available that is not going to dilute your current funding. For those in the programmatic area, building entertainment and involvement into your programs is clearly the way to go forward.

More news from SB on this front as it develops.

Going Beyond SNAP: Food Bank Nutrition Advisors and Advocates in the Community

We are hopefully past the days when human services programs are ‘done’ to people via a one-way transmission of goods or services by well meaning and sometimes efficient program staff.

Yet we do still operate in a nonprofit sector where organizations with wonderful development departments can successfully raise money for programs that can be packaged and sold easily, but have little impact beyond the short term.

Proving that impact, specifically the health impact, is a big part of the focus of this blog, but my concern today is the ongoing refinement or reconfiguration of programs – not by the program staff (who might want a quiet life after all the stress of getting the damn thing off the ground and keeping it from falling apart) but by those who are supposed to be the recipients of the program. You know, people.

So in the food area of human services, it comes down to things like having distribution programs at times of the day and days of the week that are convenient for the community, not for the food bank or food pantry; providing the kinds of food that people want (and that are still good for them); structuring the execution of the program in an empowering and sustainable fashion etc. It still comes down to people.

There is a little information on this people power in one of the standing pages of this blog, but here is a chart I recently put together which demonstrates the approach to community leadership and direction of programs that we are trying to engender here in the ‘paradise’ of Santa Barbara (remember, despite Ashton and Mila visiting us last week for a getaway from the white-hot intensity of the media spotlight, there are only 11 Counties out of 58 in CA which have more food insecurity than us. Funny, that didn’t make it into the travel brochures).

This is an early stage flow chart, so apologies for squeezing so much humanity into pastel colored shapes and spearing them with so many arrows. Such is the cruelty of the programmer.
(Double click on the picture to enlarge it)
Our whole deal is trying to build meaningful relationships with people to empower them to transform their lives and communities through a focus on nutrition and health. So follow the arrows up above and try and figure out what the hell is going on.
We have classic kinds of outreach in the community, where bilingual outreach staff are reaching out and trying to build trust. Trust is important in an area like CalFresh (or SNAP or Food Dtamps or…wait for them to change the name again next week) outreach, where there are a lot of fears around signing up for food stamps. (Will my first born have to join the military etc). We find that the food bank can be an excellent organization to build that trust, so that people’s only point of contact is not the (usually) monolithic structure of the local department of social security. We are also there at our own Mobile Farmers Markets and Mobile Food Pantries that bring food out to rural and poorly served area. But this is a very traditional level of contact. It is not desperately empowering, though the help can be beneficial with a combination of short-term (food) and longer-term (food stamps) help.
If that level allows us to earn the right to a relationship of trust with people, then involvement in one of our programs like Healthy School Pantry, Kid’s Farmers Market, Grow Your Own Way, Food Literacy In Preschool (FLIP) or Brown Bag is really the next stage.
We don’t want people to be just recipients of services, we want them to be actively involved in helping to shape those services, so we have something called Foodbank Nutrition Advisory Committees, which meet a short while before the beginning of any one of the programs discussed. It can be a pot luck sometimes and is an opportunity for people to get together with one of our outreach staff and provide advice, maybe offer some volunteer support in the actual program, but also to feel comfortable providing critiques of what is working and what is not. Another important side to being on one of these committees is to be able to advocate for help that is needed and to also be able to include those in the neighborhood that might not be able to attend due to disability or looking after kids. As these sessions progress, people feel more comfortable bringing up nutrition issues and concerns and building their understanding and ownership of what is a shared program.
Some people at that point might be interested in getting involved with the local Promotores program and to train as health outreach workers for a number of organizations in the local community. Or they might want to progress on to being Community Nutrition Leaders. These are people who have a closer tie to the Foodbank. They are not just connected to one geographical site, but might be interested in getting involved with nutrition education and CalFresh outreach across a wider area. Stipends can be made available to those who show commitment, along with other acknowledgements, letters of reference for jobs etc.
I think we would be failing the community if we left things at that stage. We as an organization might have had a lot of our volunteer and outreach needs met, but we wouldn’t be doing much to promote systemic change. So the next step is to work with local groups in providing community organization training, so that people feel comfortable moving beyond issues of their own nutritional health and start to ask questions and seek solutions to other issues in the community. These might be nutrition related (like better food in local schools) or they might be related to other local issues. The main thing is providing people with the training and empowerment to decide what is important themselves. Until people own it and generate the power themselves, then it is never going to be sustainable.
As well as advocating over a particular issue, people can also get involved in community development (such as using the Assed Based Community Development model, which will be touched on in a future post). This may seem a long way from a food bank providing some groceries to people who need help. But if the goal is to solve some of problems that lead to hunger, then maybe it isn’t so far fetched.
The Mighty Casserole speaks.
Maybe a simple potluck can be the beginning of an amazing transformation for a community.