Forget the ‘F’ word or the ‘N’ word, what really scares us service providers is the ‘P’ word: Poverty

In the first of an occasional look at how issues of poverty affect our ability to move people from hunger into health, I consider the Bridges Out of Poverty model in an interview with Debora McDermed who teaches and facilitates the ‘Bridges’ work being done through the Northern Nevada Food Bank in Reno. What use is Bridges to us? How does it work? Does it function best as a simple set of language tools or as a community-wide effort? Does this bridge lead us somewhere or is it really just a culturally insensitive set of labels which only helps further stigmatize people? Read on and find out…

First, apologies for the hiatus. This blog took a break for the last couple of months of 2013, partially because it is the crazy season for food banks. The other reason is that this isn’t a blog that features my knee-jerk reactions to the burning issues of the day like gun control (for that go here), but rather a blog with an educational focus on meaty subjects of current concern in the ‘Health into Hunger’ sphere.

Like Poverty.

In our world we love the ‘F’ word (food); there are even fans of calling people the ‘N’ word (needy) – but whatever you do, don’t mention the ‘P’ word (poverty).

I have been in rooms with dedicated, caring management teams from food banks, where mentioning fighting poverty is like waving a silver cross in front of a vampire. The fear level about this issue is huge: ‘that’s not our concern…it’s mission drift…our donors would hate it…let’s just stick to being the good guys saving the day with the big trucks of food.’

This trepidation extends beyond the food bank world. You can see it in the messaging of an organization like ‘Share Our Strength’ that is focusing on child hunger, with the mantra that ‘we may not be able to tackle poverty, but we can at least make sure that no kid goes hungry.’

My own viewpoint is that food banks cannot escape facing up to wider issues of poverty and how they impact our work. Unless we’re in this just to have long-term job security and to look good at Christmas, then we have to say we have had enough of the current status quo – a national state of rampant malnutrition which continues to weaken the health of our communities. That means we are going to have to deal with poverty to some degree or other.

Most service providers would acknowledge that they have to not only ‘feed the line’ but to do something to ‘shorten the line,’ yet addressing poverty rarely figures in these plans. You would think that poverty is the most tangible thing in the world – you can see it and smell it and touch it – yet when we want to do something about it then it becomes some nebulous mist that seems to slip away from the grasp.

There seems little shared agreement about either its causes and its cures. Consequently it joins the increasing number of subjects – such as immigration and gun control that become too uncomfortable to talk about – and therefore must be placed in some ‘no go zone’ of polite national discourse.

How does Bridges Out of Poverty enter into this discussion? It is a series of training modules designed for individuals in poverty (the ‘Getting Ahead’ course) and for communities or organizations (Bridges Strategy and Applying Concepts courses) that seek to create a framework of common understanding about why people get trapped in poverty and which offers some ways in which both individuals and their communities can move out of poverty.

The work springs from the writings and involvement of one individual, Ruby Payne, originally from her book ‘A Framework for Understanding Poverty.’  This has now been largely superseded by the Bridges out of Poverty book as the definitive text.

bridges book

Now, of course, when you have such a wide-reaching set of social concepts arising from a single person (and one presenting very modest research or epidemiological evidence, and whose trainings are sold through copyrighted trainings and books) two things are going to happen:

The Academic Community Responds.
The Academic Community Responds.

1. The academic community will go ape shit in their desire to expose and condemn this heretic who has dared skip the years of longitudinal studies and research to say a lot of things which in the end are only backed up by their belief in their own experience and intuition, rather than in a long history of published research. And there are certainly Bridges opponents out there. Here’s a good broadside.  Bridges would argue that a lot of these critiques typically focus only on the framework and not how the framework is actually used and adapted within communities.

2. He/She who is condemned for their theories will also collect adherents– people looking for simple solutions to complex problems. These supporters will say that you need to charge ahead with what your gut tells you and not wait for some kind of historical validation, especially with such a pressing concern as poverty.

So, where does that leave the rest of us? We are not academic snobs but we also want to be sure that a new approach follows the doctor’s oath of ‘Primum no nocere’ or ‘First, do no harm’ and ensure that this will not make the situation worse.

Debora McDermod
Debora McDermod

I did some research into the Bridges work and met with Food Bank of Northern Nevada CEO, Cherie Jamason (who has spearheaded the uptake of Bridges in Reno) and Debora McDermed of The Vertical Dimension Consulting who runs the programs. Subsequently I invited Debora to present a workshop on Bridges at our annual Agency Leaders Summit.

2012 Agency Conference
2012 Agency Conference

Her presentation was a huge hit and seemed to touch a nerve with a lot of people from agencies who felt that this work was communicating something that they had believed at some level but never been able to put into words about the challenges they faced with their clients and that it offered some interesting tools for them to try on.

Deb, tell me about the different elements of the Bridges training.

There’s a two-hour presentation, which is an overview. That’s ideal for CEO’s or business people who just want to get the gist. They don’t necessarily want to come to the training. Then, there is a two-day training. The first day considers what is Bridges and what does it mean and why would you be interested in it? How could you immediately put it to use? Day two looks at the tools and the techniques. The two-day version is designed primarily for service providers who want to interact with the client differently or they want to try some new program designs. This training can also be done from an institutional or community point of view. We have run courses for the healthcare, educational and judicial communities. How can these ideas help you be more effective with the client group you are working with. (Here is the flyer from a recent Bridges training conducted by Santa Cruz Food Bank) Bridges Out of Poverty 2012 Flyer

‘Getting Ahead’ is an intense program for participants who want to transition out of poverty. They meet for about two hours a week or somewhere between 10 and 16 weeks depending on the group. They learn the same thing that Bridges trainers learned in the two-day course, except they’re investigating it much more thoroughly. They look at how does poverty occur for them and their family. What are the societal influences in poverty? What are their personal individual influences? It’s really very rigorous.

As to community, once a number of trainings have taken place with different groups, often someone will say: “We need this in a big way for what we’re trying to do.” And so then the program can have a wider community focus. That’s what happened in Reno.

bridge comm

I think Bridges is a long-term vision but it has some short-term gratification. BridgesModel_HardDifferentiators You’re not going to end the poverty in five years. But there is something you can do immediately which I think gives people on the ground tools and techniques and ideas to implement. The training answers a lot of questions that people have never been able to find answers to around why it is so hard to help people make behavior change. I think people are invigorated by that. Poverty is defined by a lack of resources, and the USA is a country that is has severe income disparity as defined by the GINI index. Countries with this great disparity have real problems with upward mobility, hence the need for approaches like Bridges.

You mentioned about changing people’s behavior. How much of this change has to be down to the individual, and how much does the community or society have to change? Where is the line?

These are hard questions.

Sorry. This is such a thorny area, there aren’t many easy questions.

Individual change begins to happen because the program that we facilitate for people who want to transition out of poverty gives them a voice. It’s not a program that’s designed for them. It’s a program that they designed to build their own resources. That creates more ownership, more autonomy, more buy-in. Systemic change is obviously harder. It looks at the way we organize bureaucratic and administrative things to see if it actually enhances people’s ability to take responsibility or if we’re actually putting processes in place that continue to keep them stuck. The community pieces of our program identifies what the barriers are in each community – and they’re going to be different. Some communities have great public transportation. Some have none.

I checked my watch. The bus is due in 8 months.
I checked my watch. The bus is due in like 8 months.

What barriers do we as a community need to tackle that would prevent people moving to sustainability over a period of 18 to 24 months. Can they get a job? Can they get transportation? Can they get childcare? Can they get on their feet in that period of time? Or is the community set up such that it will take much longer than this.  This process shows what the individual needs to change and what the community needs to change to be able to facilitate this.

What about the blame game? Some want to heap all the blame on the individual and some want to heap it all on society. Can Bridges help with this?

I think so, because this training goes down well with those on both the political right and the left. The right likes it because it makes people accountable. The left likes it because it says it’s not all their fault and we need to make changes to bring mobility back to the United States so that people can move from their economic strata like they once could. It’s a very current, hot conversation when I’m talking to those people because I can talk about rebuilding the middle class. But I should stress that Bridges is not about making people ‘middle class,’ it is about people being able to create stability and build resources. And Bridges isn’t a program brought in from the outside, but a set of ideas.  This is why Bridges and Getting Ahead are being used in Australia, Canada, Slovakia, Czech Republic etc and Detroit, Pensacola, Menominee Nation, Appalachia, etc.

Let’s talk in more detail about how the ‘Getting Ahead’ program works.

The first thing participants do is they draw a mental model of what their life looks like right now. (We have them draw because we don’t want to inhibit anyone who doesn’t read or write well.) Then, they identify those factors in their life that are affecting them dramatically. If they’re a single parent; if they are recovering or not yet recovering from substance abuse; are they dealing with the judicial system? These mental models help them build rapport with the facilitator. We call the person who teaches the course the ‘co-investigator.’ It’s not a hierarchical model.

Jose's mind map sent him straight to the head of the class
Jose’s mental model sent him straight to the head of the class

We sit at the table with them and say we’re going to investigate the situation, your life and the situation in the community and see what is possible. They start with their own life. The theory of change that Bridges uses says that when you are in poverty, you are in the concrete virtually all the time. We call that the ‘tyranny of the moment.’ Therefore, this makes it much harder to do the abstract thinking which is where all of your planning, and many of your good decisions come from.  This might include thinking such as If I spend this money on a plasma TV, I can’t go to the dentist. People in poverty, particularly generational poverty may have never learned how to do abstract thinking. We teach them how you can live in the concrete and think in the abstract. This helps them begin to step back and look at their life and analyze what’s going on and what to do about it. That’s very powerful for people. It’s also very painful. I had one person say, after they looked at their mental model, they said, “Wow, poverty really sucks.” But they were so busy just trying to eat, have shelter, some kind of job that they didn’t really have time to step back and look at it and go, “What new possibilities could I generate?”

Well, we found that one, anyway...
Well, we found that one, anyway…

Then, they have a lot of environmental influences like family members and neighbors who are all in the same boat who might live in ‘invisible communities,’ so they don’t know any people who could provide a different kind of help and assistance. Over a series of time, they also investigate societal change and influences. What are the societal influences that have kept people in poverty? What are the hidden rules of class? What does the middle class know that I don’t know? If I knew that, would I behave differently?

formal-informal

We do a lot of work in language skills, because they might habitually speak in what is called ‘casual register’ which is all about relationships and survival. It doesn’t work very well for job interviews or with a judge, or your kid’s teacher, where ‘formal register’ will be more effective. People can get marginalized because they might seem to speak disrespectfully or inappropriately. They start to learn about all the things they need to do to be able to cross this bridge. The course we run is not the end. When they graduate from it, they’ve developed a list of resources both personal and community that can help them move forward. They can’t magically change everything at once so they might decide to work on finance or emotional health.

Then, we encourage  a community structure that is there to assist you when you have finished the ‘Getting Ahead’ program. Graduates are invited to meet monthly with allies, people that are wanting to understand how to make this a better community for all. We don’t call them mentors. We don’t call them coaches. We call them allies. This meeting is monthly and it is a partly social, partly educational gathering. Graduates can stay in it for 18 to 24 months past the course. They start to lead those sessions over time. They start to talk about their experiences and share with other people that are trying to transition. So, we build a network for them which can take them to the next level. They don’t have to join if they don’t want to. It’s available to them. So far, we haven’t had anybody not want to do it.

Poverty can be a lifelong challenge. For instance, one of the people who came up to me after your agency workshop who has a job and is living in a $2100 a month condo – which I guess is not hard to do in Santa Barbara. He came from poverty, raised in poverty, and even though he is now out of poverty, he said to me, “I’m haunted everyday of my life that I’m going to end up back there.” What comes out of the wider community support is that people start to get to know each other. They start to understand that people in poverty are just like them. Then, they began to form alliances, when people know somebody who has a job going, and they now have someone to call. That’s social capital. We do it all the time. People in poverty don’t have that. The only kind of capital they have is bonding capital with people who are typically in the same situation as they are, perhaps not making healthy choices or good decisions.

Sometimes they’ve had to separate from some of their family members as part of the process because their family may not be supportive of them in moving ahead, getting out of poverty. There are some emotional challenges that happen along the way, and that’s why we do the emotional resiliency piece within the training. When you start to change, not everybody around you likes it. This doesn’t stop people getting hopeful and positive. They know what they can do. They understand how to build and where to start. They understand how hard it’s going to be, and that we are in tough economic times but they have a place to start.

Why do you think that food banks are well-positioned to get involved in something like Bridges?

Food banks serve so many different agencies and clients in communities that they can act as ‘honest brokers’ in the communities. It is also an effective way for them to work to ‘shorten the line’ of clients. It’s also fun to work with people in a resource-based way versus a need-based way. I think we’re excited that we’re helping people build resources for sustainability. We’re not just giving them something to get through the week with.

What about the food banks that are getting very concerned about drifting from their mission or getting into an area where some of their donors or their board are going to freak out at them by being involved in issues of poverty.

A process of education is often required for the food bank board. In Reno, we happen to have a board chair who is a businessman. He doesn’t want to keep raising money to feed the same people every year. He wants to find a way to help people move out of the need for our services. The logic of it then, from a bottom line point of view can be very appealing. It also involves being a leader in the community in a new way.

It is also be a way of making a difference in a measurable way quite quickly. We can count the number of people we’re educating. We can count the number of people graduating our ‘Getting Ahead’ program. We can count what happens to our graduates as they begin to move on. it’s a win-win. You can lower your food procurement dollars, and you can increase sustainability in the community.

I will tell you on that the fundraising side, the funders for our Bridges work are not people that were funding the food bank before. We’re finding a lot of new funders who are interested in capacity building. They were not interested in needs-based money. There’s been no adulteration of the food bank dollars. In some cases, the same people who donate to the food bank now also give to Bridges. Like Wells Fargo Bank and Charles Schwab. They say, “Yes, we’ll still continue to give for a food distribution program, but we’re also really interested in what happens to these people in the community as they began to grow.”

I believe in a previous conversation you talked about the ‘hidden rules’ about food distribution. Would you to clarify what you mean about that?

With people in poverty,  their view of food is all about scarcity and ‘having enough’. People will hoard food. They will take more than they need. This is because of scarcity being the primary focus. It doesn’t have to be good food or be cooked well. It doesn’t have to be nourishing or healthy. But there has to be enough of it. In middle class norms, people may care more about how things taste and look. With food distribution programs, those running them often care most about fairness. So you can see how these two things are going to rub up against each other, because both groups are not necessarily able to compensate for the other’s perspective.

If we have a situation where someone takes more than their allocation, then there is a breakdown in the relationship. There is agitation from the volunteer around fairness and agitation from the client around scarcity. I did a volunteers training at the Reno Food Bank. They were having these type of problems and the volunteers were pretty cranky! After they had the training, they tried some new things that they came up with on their own. There was a much better result meaning people didn’t hoard.

Give me an example of some of the things that they changed.

They changed the order in which they gave out food. People would always get there early, and they would be the same people every week. If you came later and were at the back of the line, sometimes you didn’t get anything. Now sometimes they start at the back of the line or in the middle. The second thing we did was ask the clients how they could improve the situation. The Bridges construct says that you give people in poverty a chance to be a problem-solver. You don’t solve the problem for them. The clients developed a way of trading food at the site. Somebody didn’t want bread. Somebody else wanted two cans of tuna fish, whatever. They figured it out themselves. They were happy with the result. The food bank distribution people were shocked. That’s what happened. There was a little lessening of control, but it worked to everyone’s benefit.

Deb, thanks for sharing some of your work.

THE EPILOGUE…

To move forward the Bridges work, Santa Barbara County Foodbank will be holding a two-day training with member agencies in the first half of this year. We will also look at pairing it with a cultural awareness training component. The Bridges concept of living in the ‘tyranny of the moment’ is fascinating (because we’ve all at least vacationed there…) and so are some of the observations about poverty class vs. middle class thinking in certain areas.

There are so many great things about Bridges. But what of the current challenges I see with Bridges? I would put them in two areas. The first is the ‘class’ labeling that is used extensively, with the intention of moving people from one class outlook to another. I could see that it might be hard to avoid people feeling inferior. There are the potential dangers of what is called ‘classism’, which is prejudice or discrimination based on social class.

Why were people giving him so much trouble about the new Food Bank org chart???
Why were people giving him so much trouble about the new Food Bank org chart???

I was brought up in England which had its own obsession with class, which was very clear and on the surface. People opened their mouths and you knew what the deal was. In America, it is more subtle. Money can reveal, but money can also obscure.

I do find the Bridges focus on making everyone middle class a little challenging sometimes as if the middle class has all the answers. I mean if the middle class is so smart why does it seem to be steadily being annihilated through financial genocide…just a thought, folks!

I think Bridges advocates might respond that it is more a process of getting people to look at how the world is working now, to look under the hood at the engine and get a new understanding that will benefit them as they make changes that they feel the need to.

There are some lousy murals of Cesar Chavez, but this is the worst!
There are some lousy murals of Cesar Chavez, but this is the worst!

The other challenge is culture. Currently, from the small amount I have seen, the program is not very well culturally attenuated. So, within the Latino community for instance, there are many very powerful tools and relationships that help people get by in life through mutual and extended family and community support. A lot of ‘middle class white’ families might give up some of their advantages for grandma living next door to watch the kids. (I know I would!)

There is also more solidity around community development and small scale inter-community investment, both with cash and sweat equity. I have no doubt that as the Bridges program develops further within Latino communities that it will be adapted to better suit a different cultural reality, and that some elements can be accepted and others rejected.

In an upcoming post, we will look at non-profit community development and empowerment programs that use different models – such as the Just Communities program here in Santa Barbara County.

01-19-12-Just-Communities-e1326987095799

This is an exciting field, because we are getting away from a fixation on scarcity which seems to breed more scarcity, and we are empowering people to generate more. I know I sound like some kind of infomercial dude telling you to ‘generate abundance.’ Or maybe I am. Give me a better tan and a toupee and I would be glad to shill for ‘generating sufficiency’ and ‘generating sustainability.’

I encourage you to investigate the Bridges approach. It is an imperfect tool, but one that is being developed and improved in communities across the country. There is no ‘silver bullet’ (just like with gun control, as Joe Biden said – he does know how to say just the wrong thing at the wrong time, doesn’t he!) At the very least Bridges is an interesting filter for individuals,organizations and agencies to look at the world through and ask: “Does this do anything to help me see more clearly? Or “Can I combine this with some other initiative to provide a culturally and community appropriate set of tools and pathways out of poverty and into a healthy, sustainable community?”

If you were an old timer like me who came of age in the 80’s, but were painfully hip then, you will remember how the musical group ‘Gang of Four’ put it.

"Gang of Four: To Hell With Poverty." 1981
“Gang of Four: To Hell With Poverty.” 1981

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.

A Dialogue with Feeding America Director of Nutrition, Michelle Berger Marshall

Michelle Berger Marshall, MS, RD, LDN has the challenge and opportunity of helping both the national office and the network of 202 member food banks move forward to embrace a healthier food agenda. She has been with the organization in a variety of roles for three years. Prior to that she had broad experience with organizations like WIC and as a nutritional instructor at Kendall College, Chicago. I spoke to Michelle last week.

This blog encourages food banks to evolve towards a preventative healthcare approach with the idea that they will be able to find a new position of strength from which to leverage food and education to bring lasting changes in community health. How does this sit with what you are doing?

I’m a dietician and my husband is a physician, so we often have discussions about this area. If I succeed at my job as a dietician, I would hope to make his job far less difficult. Most of the people he is seeing in public health clinics have conditions which at the very least are exacerbated by diet. Prevention is the only way we can get back on track with the health of this country, and food banks have a relatively untapped power to address some of these complex issues in a simple way.

On your ‘From Hunger to Health’ website, you have laid out a framework of change that is incredibly powerful. As we ourselves have tried to engage with ‘public health’ organizations, it has been interesting to see what a disconnect there is between those who consider themselves anti-hunger advocates and those who have more of a community health or healthcare focus. We have a lot of work to do to bridge these conversations.

How would you typify the split?

One issue is that the public health sector traditionally doesn’t know or talk about food insecurity. At the same time I don’t think that anti-hunger groups have considered they are promoting or providing health. We find it easy to talk about negative aspects, like children not being able to concentrate in school without proper nutrition, but we haven’t been able to holistically tell the story about how all elements of the health argument connect together. However, we have made strides in making sure that we are now at the table with public health. At the local level, more food banks are joining obesity coalitions and such, and we are doing the same at the national level.

My belief is that for these partnerships to work, both sides have to bring something the other group wants to the table so that it becomes more than another well-meaning but ineffective conversation around nutrition. Food banks have an incredibly valuable asset – their clientele. We also have the food that can draw people to programs and screenings. If our local public health department are running a diabetes screening, that is not going to provoke a stampede to attend. But food is always a draw. Our Healthy School Pantry program is getting huge interest from our public health, because we bring back the same population each month. That is the kind of data they want, and the kind they can share with us to help us with our evaluations – that is what they bring to the table.

Absolutely, and the Bristol Myers Squibb Diabetes Project has been the perfect tool for us to begin to build closer links. We’re 9 months into 3 years of the pilot. Over the next year we will get some great data which can inform future projects. It has sparked a lot of interest. (An explanation of this Project is contained at the bottom of this post) I agree with your analysis on these blog pages that foundations are driving a lot of the new emphasis about impact, and in many ways we haven’t been able to provide that kind of demonstration of ‘here is the intervention and here is the impact.’ We as a network have a ways to go, but we’re getting there. We’re trying to bring in public health nutritionists and get them engaged in our projects to help us evaluate them. We recently undertook a nutritional analysis of the Backpack Program, with the University of Minnesota School of Public Health. ( Abstract or Final Report) Feeding America’s 2014 Hunger study will also include a series of health related questions for the first time.

The latest in cause-marketing technology – the begging bowl??

We always wrestle with language in this field. ‘Hunger’ is easily understood and can raise certain kinds of dollars, but is not always as accurate as ‘food insecurity’ which as an emotive rallying cry hasn’t exactly taken America by storm. Nevertheless, food security and nutritional health are so closely tied together that we are stuck with it for the foreseeable future. What is your definition of optimal food security?

We use the USDA definition (access by all people at all times to enough nutritious food for an active, healthy life). But I try to remind people that the key element of that is ‘active and healthy’ and I think that when we bring ourselves back to our core mission and to Vicki Escarra’s (Feeding America CEO) remarks at the recent Summit in Detroit, one part of our mission is moving food, but the other is addressing long-term food insecurity, and this makes us all think differently, not only about the types of food we are providing, but our engagement and the range of our activities in making sure that people can afford and access and consume the food that we know (and they know) is health promoting.

You have been heavily involved with the Nutrition Task Force, which produced a draft report that was discussed at Regional Feeding America meetings last year, and then I have not heard a lot more since about it being integral to their upcoming new strategic plan.

No, that’s not the case. The discovery and research phases are now over, and we are at the point where we are deciding what things we want to do, from policy down to technology and food sourcing strategies, and with incentivizing certain sorts of foods. The structure and foundation is there. These issues were brought up in strategic planning sessions, especially in the ‘Evolution of the Network’, and the recommendations coming out of our group are piloting strategies to help the network move in this direction.

Let’s talk a little bit about the challenges of rolling out the task force recommendations and the nutrition agenda in general across a diverse network. It feels like there is a lot more direct pressure from the Feeding America National Office on an area like food safety, whereas it can feel like nutrition is still a ‘would be nice, but we’re not going to push it too hard’ type thing.

As to the network, the overall interest has gone way past those you might predict would be interested.

What, us hippy Californians? You can say it Michelle.

No, you said it, Erik. We find many food banks across the country, large and small who want to take a more holistic approach. In the 18 months we have worked on this, the conversations we have had with the network have really evolved due to increased public awareness countrywide. People know about the diet-related disease crisis, and things like HBO’s Weight of the Nation will only increase awareness.

From the National Office perspective we want to make sure that nutrition is not a stand alone initiative and that we have a cross-functional charge – with our food sourcing team, our policy team, our philanthropy team, communications and research all acting in concert. That way it becomes less likely to drop off the agenda. We also have strong leadership support, which is vital for success.

What other challenges are there?

Lack of information about the food in our system. We all face descriptions of foods that can vary wildly, dependent on how the information is entered by someone receiving in the warehouse. It is often inconsistent, and more detailed information will need to be an key evolution. The same is true with the way that we measure nutritious pounds. We are looking at ways to do this, within our existing system constraints (31 categories) and trying to limit these to be more consistent with the ‘My Plate’ system, so we can use this as a platform. Down the line we want to look at long-term solutions to incentivize the sourcing and distribution of foods that are more in line with the dietary guidelines.

Will this be based on CHOP? (The Choose Healthy Options Program – a system first developed by Pittsburgh, which we use our own version of, which ranks the food in our warehouse as red (for low nutritional value) through amber and green (high nutritional value). It helps encourage us to tracking our abilities to source more nutritious food and also helps provide a guide to our 290 member agencies and programs about selecting the best items for their clients. Lots of green and maybe one red item).

No, CHOP is more of a nutrient analysis approach, which makes sense if you are looking at similar types of the same food, but the advisory team wanted us to move in a direction that was aligning more with the external environment. We want to promote foods that are in line with the dietary guidelines, so whole grains, fruits and vegetables, lean proteins and low-fat dairy. We also want to think about the negative nutrients that we want to limit – sodium, sugar, saturated fats. So the difference with CHOP is that we want to focus on food groups first.

What other perceptions in the network challenge the adoption of a nutrition-based approach?

One concern is that if we focus too much on nutrition and nutritious food, we simply won’t be able to meet the need (i.e. quantity vs. quality). This mentality is deeply tied to how we currently measure our success – in pounds. At the same time, what’s exciting is that as many members move in the direction of moving more produce and supporting efforts to not just move food but provide education, benefit assistance and community food security efforts, we start to see a significant shift in how we all think about our collective impact and our definition of success. At this year’s network summit, “measuring something in addition to pounds” came up countless times—now it’s time for all of us to determine what those other measures can and should be.

And then of course there is the argument that we are just emergency food providers, which has been debunked by Feeding America’s own recent report. We are providing a significant contribution to clients diets, so our previous role as Calorie Banks could actually have been making clients less healthy and more hungry.

One of my colleagues challenged that ‘we’re only an emergency response’ theory by turning it around—perhaps because we have limited resources and very few chances to have an impact on our clients health and well-being, that this in fact justifies why maximizing those opportunities is so critical. In that sense the question becomes not ‘why us?’, but ‘who else but us?’

CSI: Junkfood – All new Next Season.

What about the issue of choice? When I first put forward some of my ideas when Santa Barbara was holding the Western Region Conference back in 2010, some ordinarily pussy cat food bankers became rabid dogs when they discovered that in Santa Barbara ditch the candy and soda that comes to us rather than distribute it. My argument was that this choice already exists. It is very easy to get candy, but much harder to get nutrient dense food.

The ‘food police’ argument, yes. Within our network we talk about choices a lot, choice pantries, client choice, the choice system etc. I always find quite perplexing that when we bring up nutrition the opponents of this shift immediately use “client choice” as a reason not to focus on healthy food. I just have never understood this. Given the data and research surrounding food deserts, food access and the inequities that exist in so many communities (many of which are served by our network) it seems to me that by focusing and securing more healthy foods within our network, we are in actuality increasing the choices available for our clients, not decreasing them.

To me, the highlight of the work of the Nutrition Task Force has been the focus on ‘foods to encourage.’ Taking a positive approach is a wonderful way to nullify the ‘food police’ and other areas of concern.

I’m glad you think that. The framework of “Foods to Encourage” outlines the food groups promoted in the 2010 Dietary Guidelines and serves as a general philosophy to help guide everything from food sourcing to communication and education. Furthermore and most importantly it allows us to continue to talk about food as food, while still allowing for food banks to adopt more detailed nutrient based evaluation systems to make decisions within food categories should they so choose.

Food is a powerful modifier in our life, it can bring us down a pathway to good health or one that leads to poor health.

Exactly. Every person on the planet has a relationship and personal experience with, (and subsequently an opinion about) food, it’s a struggle to have an objective dialogue about the issues. In some ways that is what makes these issues so challenging to tackle. Food has power, is often emotionally charged, deeply rooted in one’s culture and community, and provides much more than just energy and nutrients. When we attempt to make black and white decisions, it doesn’t take long before we realize when it comes to food and nutrition there will always be a lot of gray.

Foods with all the colors in the rainbow…and some that aren’t.
Forget about the food, they have way better hats.

Perhaps key to all of this is unlocking the power of the communities themselves, to fight for an environment that allows all people to make the choices that allow them to nourish their families and live healthy, productive lives. As the food bank network we need to see our work as part of the solution today and in the long-term, our core work of hunger-relief does not need to be mutually exclusive of health promotion or vice versa. Everyone brings something to the table and I tend to believe food banks know food better than any other group.

Where would you like Feeding America and the Network to be in 5 years from now?

I would like to see nutrition fully integrated into how we see ourselves as an organization. Currently, you might go to our website and we talk about food security and hunger and then you have to go to different page to find out about nutrition. The earlier disconnect that I talked about with public health is also there to some extent within our own organizations. To truly bring together the goals of better nutrition and building food secure communities requires full integration. It needs to become engrained in how we do business, talk about ourselves and envision our future.

Thanks Michelle for all your great work.

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BRISTOL MYERS-SQUIBB/FEEDING AMERICA DIABETES PROJECT

The Need: Individuals who have immediate food needs may be at risk for nutrition-related problems such as type 2 diabetes. For all diabetics, diet is a critical part of managing their disease type. For diabetics who are also facing food insecurity, maintaining a healthy diet can be nearly impossible, however. A research study conducted by the University of California at San Francisco found that adults living with the most severe levels of food insecurity had more than twice the risk of diabetes than adults who have ready access to healthy foods. By providing nutrient-dense food and nutrition and disease education, food banks can help their own clients with type 2 diabetes and those referred by health centers adhere to the diet and lifestyle changes that are prescribed, but are impractical due to lack of access and affordability.

The Project: Feeding America and 3 member food banks in Texas, Ohio and California will collaborate with health care providers to improve the health outcomes of individuals who are food insecure or at risk for food insecurity and also affected by type 2 diabetes. They will create and pilot bi-directional food bank-health center partnerships that will provide diabetes screening, care coordination, nutrition and disease education, and healthy foods. Feeding America will evaluate how well the project improves diagnosis of diabetes, adherence to diabetes treatment, increases self-care skills, maintains or increases mental wellness, lowers risk or presence of depressive symptoms, and improves specific physical outcomes related to type 2 diabetes such as Ha1c.

Foodbanks participating include:

Food Bank of Corpus Christi www.foodbankcc.com

Food Bank of Redwood Empire www.refb.org/html/innovative_programs.html

Mid Ohio Food Bank www.midohiofoodbank.org/pdfs/EHhd/BMS-MOF-Release-Together-on-Diabetes.pdf

Waking the Sleeping Dragon: A pathway for food banks to create an equitable food system – A Dialogue with Jan Poppendieck

Jan Poppendieck’s book on the emergency food provision system, entitled ‘Sweet Charity?: Emergency Food and the End of Entitlement’ was released in 1998. It is a book I only came across a year or so ago, and  for me it was like discovering some secret artifact that confirmed all the things I had come to believe after six years of running a soup kitchen for the homeless and four years running a food bank.

I now ask new leadership team members in our organization to read the book as background to why ‘charity’ alone cannot solve the nutrition issues we are facing. Jan has been active both as an academic and also serving on the board of Why Hunger? in NYC, amongst others. She has most recently written “Free for All: Fixing School Food in America,” . I spoke to Jan last week.

Jan Poppendieck

How have things changed since you wrote Sweet Charity?

Not enough. Nevertheless, foodbankers are escaping from the emergency mentality. They have been in this business so long now that they know that the short term emergency is not the whole story. The implication is that if we are not feeding people for only the short term, then we have to pay much closer attention to the nutritional impact of our actions. This means there has been much more awareness of the need for fresh produce within the network.

Sue Sigler, the ED of the California Association of Food Banks recently told me that she thought ‘Sweet Charity’ was almost single-handedly responsible for bringing food banks into the public policy realm, which was an area considered best avoided prior to 1999.

That’s flattering. I hope I helped move the discussion along. Certainly, the food bank network is more visible and active in public policy advocacy now, especially in the fight to protect TEFAP and SNAP. There is lots of room for more engagement too. I imagine the foodbanking network as a sleeping dragon that if it could mobilize all of the soup kitchen and pantry staff and clients and volunteers and supporters and board members, we would have a very loud voice in public policy. It is a huge challenge of course, but even mobilizing some of them could be very effective.

Do you think this group should be mobilized around what to enshrine or include in a specific piece of legislation like the Farm Bill, or do you think it has to be a wider, less specific mobilization around a cause.

That’s an interesting question. Like most others in the policy world I live from crisis to crisis or opportunity to opportunity. Fighting cutbacks on SNAP while the economy is suffering like it is now is something that has to be done, but it tends to draw all of our energy and attention. It is harder to move from responding to an immediate threat to a more visionary approach to public policy, where we are looking downstream at what kind of country we want to live in, and what kind of people do we want to be. Emergency food provision can be a tough place to start this discussion from.

That’s exactly why some are trying to find a new and powerful place – the public health arena – from where food banks and their network of 64,000 member agencies can have a fresh kind of leverage and  credibility to operate from, one that is underpinned by a long-term preventative health approach. I believe this path can be less divisive within our political landscape where ‘division’ seems to be the current approach to problem solving. If we look back at the fight against tobacco, it was not couched in terms of ‘haves’ giving charity to help ameliorate the conditions of the ‘have-nots’, but in terms of what was smart for the future health of the country. We need to take that same approach with nutrition.

One of the great things about the history of public health is that it has always stressed interventions that would target hazards or sources of ill health in the population and in the environment, as well as changes in individual behavior. On your From Hunger to Health site, where you run through the ‘Lovely Leptin’ and the ‘Ghastly Ghrelin’ – that is the clearest presentation I have seen about why distributing highly processed foods leads to hunger and obesity. The education with food approach that you are taking is right, because if it leads to us to being able to draw in the grass roots – the little church food pantry in the low-income neighborhood – it could produce a massive movement for change that would lead to a demand for healthier food, and public policies which would promote the production of healthier food.

The public health community often has a top-down approach. They indicate that they’ve done the research and know what is bad for us and are busy getting the word out through all sorts of messaging. But somehow they don’t encourage a process whereby people are able to discover this out for themselves and deduce what kind of changes are needed, for instance in what is available in their local store at a fair price. If food banking could become the pathway by which food insecure Americans began to assert their power towards a healthier food supply, it would be fantastic.

That is what an increasing number of food banks are beginning to promote. Outreach in the past often meant drawing people into our programs, then it became more focused on promoting SNAP. If you look at what  Santa Cruz are trying to do with their Ambassadors Program or we are trying to do with our Nutritional Advisory Committees, it is moving things to the next step of empowerment.

Certainly there is more specific interest from Feeding America out of their new strategic plan, in what is possible by ‘mobilizing the public.’ Though I believe there is still a little too much emphasis on that mobilization being focused on people ‘telling their stories’ to the end of helping us highlight the continuing seriousness of food insecurity, rather than taking the next step and empowering them to move beyond their stories and become more involved in creating a local food system that truly looks after their health. It’s hard work, but it’s the kind of ground-up work that leads to true transformation.

I think that this is how things need to happen. We can’t end hunger with more and more food. Mounting inequality means that our public policy is typically made by those who can afford private schools and boutique medical care and gated communities. They are the ones making decisions about how much to invest in the public solutions that are there for the rest of us. They need to hear the voices of those who they are there to serve, or we need to replace them with people who share our interests and problems.

Free for All: Fixing School Food in America, University of California Press, 2011

Your most recent book “Free For All” looks at another puzzle palace of American nutrition, the school food system and the need for it to be reformed. Is there a link between the subject matter of these two books?

Both books are all about how average families get by. School food is so important, because the more human needs we can have met through normalized situations like the provision of a healthy school lunch, then the less people have to become marginalized and forced into seeking emergency solutions.

Also, school cafeterias used to be instructional and have an educational function – to teach kids how to eat well. I would say this is something we need more than ever, to compensate for the distortions in diet that are a consequence of the fortunes spent in selling non-nutritious food-like products to kids.

Thanks Jan, for your work and your vision.