Now I find myself four months away from having served nine years in the CEO position and I guess I’m in danger of becoming part of the woodwork myself. Consequently, I thought it would be a good time to consider what strategies the leader of any nonprofit organization can utilize to avoid becoming stale.
The challenge that we may face is that our organization might be humming along perfectly well. We might be steadily increasing service by whatever measure we use and so why would we mess with something if it isn’t broke?
Yet, leaders are like sharks. They stop moving and they can’t breathe and begin to suffocate. Leadership has to constantly evolve or else in a world that never stops changing it can do nothing else but start to stagnate. That is bad for the organization and bad for you as a person.
So, what are the strategies you can employ?
1. First you need to conduct a simple audit of where you are as a leader.
Do my staff feel challenged and stimulated by my leadership?
Do I have a cozy ‘identity’ in the community which has not changed significantly in years?
Am I enlarging the world that my organization is operating in?
Are we perceived as a forward looking organization prepared for the challenges of the next decade?
What are the real areas of challenge remaining for my organization?
What is the tangible legacy I want to leave behind me?
Hopefully thinking seriously about these questions will reveal an area for you to either concentrate or taken a new interest in.
2. Do the Opposite of what you are currently doing.
In my own situation, my focus as a leader has always been on the strategic and programmatic side of what a food bank can achieve in terms of shortening the line. I wanted to turn hunger into health. I’ve never been a trucks and facilities kind of guy.
What better way of forcing me out of my comfort zone than to move the organization into a capital campaign for a new facility? Sure I will already leave a legacy of a major pivot in the function and community perception of the organization – but the next CEO could screw that up in a year! A new facility will last. (Earthquakes, mudslides and forest fires permitting).
So, maybe this is a time for you to explore what is the yin to the yang of your current focus. If you are more interested in the mechanics of how the machine runs, then how can you unleash energy in the organization to enable that machine to take those you serve in a new direction.
3. Consider a new approach to your leadership
Yes there are plenty of seminars and conferences and billable by the hour consultants waiting to suggest to you the latest approach to leadership. It’s great to be open to this, it is also worth considering a more significant revamp of your leadership.
A few years back I took a year-long set of retreats called Courage to Lead, Run by Leading From Within and developed by Parker J. Palmer, Ph.D. and the Center for Courage & Renewal, the Courage to Lead retreat series model focuses neither on technique, nor on society’s needs, but on renewing the inner lives of leaders.It also helps provide you with a peer group of other nonprofit leaders. I found the series so rewarding that I invited all of our leadership team to attend, and they have been able to utilize the benefits.
This is just one example. You could find something else that would give you a new framework to operate within.
3. Take a Helicopter Perspective of the Issue your organization is engaged in.
We get so caught up in the day to day of our ‘mission’ and how to fund it that we often miss the bigger picture. Are we being truly effective? Are we caught up in competing with those who have similar missions? Are we doing what we are good at doing rather than what needs to be done? Presumably if you have been running your organization a while then maybe you can afford no to be so insecure about branching out and trying to convene discussions on a higher level where the day to day needs of your own organization become secondary. This will enable you to build new partnerships within the community and beyond, which will enable your organization to grow in the years to come. We did this with our leadership of the SB County Food Action Plan.
4. Take a Micro Perspective of the Issue you are Working On
Change the world by changing your understanding of it, and do this by connecting with those who you serve in a more intimate manner. Get to know the true situation of clients or those affected by your issue. Understand their needs, not your perception of them. I tried this in a small way with my yearly Food Security Challenge, when I live on food stamps for a month and meet clients and promote their situation. You could find some other way of getting into the same weeds you’ve been carefully avoiding these past few years. We all forget why we’re doing what we’re doing, and we need to be reminded.
5. Make a list of things that don’t work and systematically fix them
Every organization has programs or initiatives that seem to function despite themselves. They grind along and kind of get the job done, but you have the feeling that they could be done better with better results. One of our challenge areas has always been our Brown Bag senior nutrition program, providing groceries and produce to seniors in need. There are conflicting needs: for efficiency and standardization from operations, the need for long-term volunteers to do things their own way, the need for the USDA to ask for overbearing reporting! We actually brought in a knowledge philanthropist a few years back, a skilled project manager, who analyzed the problem and we implemented the recommendations. And yet the world refuses to stay fixed for long and here we are again. What are the thorny areas in your organization that you could take an interest in?
These are just some of the approaches you could take to reinvigorate your leadership and cast it in a new light. I will just say that all of this is secondary to the primary business of identifying and growing new leadership within the organization to replace yourself.
Be kind to yourself. Your energy and focus will ebb and flow. Sometimes we are giving 120% t the organization, and at other times it might be a less than dynamic 72%. As long as you think these are balancing out on a monthly basis, then you are probably in good shape.
Leadership is tiring in a way that people who do not have such a great responsibility do not always understand. You are just the person sitting behind the desk who other people have to be vaguely nice to and who smiles badly when a giant (sized) yet modest (monetary value) check is presented to the organization.
Good luck with whatever new changes to your leadership the new year brings.
Of course you can just let things go on and on as they are as regards your leadership, but remember how that turned out for Ned Stark!
Hunger is always perceived as a hyper-local issue. Smaller scale cash donors within a city or town in your service area are often very concerned that their dollars are spent for food within that community. They don’t want it to go to those folks fifty miles away who might as well be in a whole other universe. We might consider this as a parochial attitude and believe that these people don’t see the bigger picture like we do.
But, what if they’re right?
What if we’re so obsessed with total impact / poundage / meal gaps and systemic change that we can’t focus on the type of grass roots neighborhood level work which can be truly successful and sustainable?
That’s someone else’s job, right? A partner agency who can get into the weeds while we keep that big food machine humming. But we used to say that about a lot of things, like SNAP outreach or nutrition education. I’ve also always been concerned that we’re accidentally creating a ‘new norm’ of food security in that people will get increasingly used to saying: “Yes, of course I’m food secure, because I can go to this pantry on this day and then that pantry on the other day.”
In Santa Barbara, we are ready to pilot ‘Healthy Neighborhood’ programs designed to be sustainable local solutions to food security and food literacy at the micro level. They represent the next step in the (occasionally painful) realization that we can’t make or keep a community food secure by only working with those who most need our services.
Ouch, what did I just say?
Do you think we have resources to just spray around? Unlike you, we’re not in ritzy Santa Barbara with sun and sand and aging movie stars. We live in the real world and we have to concentrate resources on those most in need.
Yes, I get that perception, but we are a medium-sized food bank with a modest $4 million cash budget where cash is always tight. It would be easy for us to walk away from such an approach, but we can’t. Let me make clear that our food resources unquestionably go only to those who really need them. But educational and community building resources are going to have to be offered wider than that. Those that can pay will pay or subsidize others. While this creates short-term financial pain, it will also broaden and deepen the donor base and introduce new perceptions of the organization as a good for everyone in the community, not just those ‘disadvantaged others.’ (aka ‘the needy,’)
Consequently, Foodbank of Santa Barbara County’s Healthy Neighborhoods Initiative marks a major pivot in approach, transitioning our work in neighborhoods of high poverty and food insecurity from a client-based to a family-based model. This initiative is designed to bring together a whole neighborhood of families in the effort to build a resilient and nutritionally healthy community, where food and health become the focus for community engagement, education and economic development.
Each pilot will be based around key physical locations, operating as Community Food Access Centers, which are place-based, food-centric neighborhood revitalization efforts, uniting multiple educational, nutrition and community development functions. These centers will have a family-based focus. You may be familiar with The Stop in Toronto Canada. At this stage of the initiative’s evolution we don’t have the luxury of building one of these or utilizing a facility just for this purpose, so we have to make use of existing places with their own range of activities – community centers, schools etc.
Initially, the center will only operate one day a week, but it will be intensive. Food and age-appropriate education will be provided for the whole family to attend at a time convenient to them. Childcare and basic food literacy training will be provided for young children; culinary skills will be provided for teens. Education will be culturally as well as age appropriate.
Though there is one day per week where education and services are focused, other satellite activities will happen at other times. There will be regular communication across a number of media and communication platforms to keep the neighborhood informed and involved in the effort. Centers in targeted neighborhoods will provide low-income families with a specific place to go, where people that you know and trust will be teaching and learning with you. The idea is to break the cycle of poverty and food insecurity by including all generations; they will also work to channel partner services in a more culturally-appropriate and culturally-tailored manner, in an environment in which families and neighborhoods feel comfortable coming together and learning with each other.
Providing the life-blood of the Community Food Access Centers and supporting community involvement are neighborhood networks of volunteers – Nutrition Advocates – that provide bi-lingual peer-to-peer education, empowering community members to improve their health. Food-related programs offer the “idea bridge” for others to provide skills and knowledge training.
Other elements of this strategy are:
Small Food Business Incubator – Encouraging entry into local food economy by providing business, food safety and marketing training to Nutrition Advocates and food entrepreneurs, and the opportunity to develop small businesses.
Food as MedicinePrograms – Diabetes Education/ nutrition education/diabetes specific food support programs.
This approach builds on existing geographically local impact groups that we have been working on for the last couple of years and the relationships that have come out of them.
Collective impact projects come and go. Funding comes and goes. The idea here is to find a low-risk approach, because it involves empowering the community to help itself. Networks and relationships will grow, increasing community cohesiveness and requiring less outside stimulus.
Ultimately, a neighborhood approach does not rely on the desire to help ‘others’ but on the practical need to help ‘each other,’ by living in a neighborhood where mutual support to obtain and keep good health reframes how people engage with each other. This is incredibly challenging to our ‘big’ way of operating, but it is also exciting, representing the opportunity for a much more inclusive and empowering approach to our work, and the opportunities for new approaches to how we fund that work.
I’ll let you know how we get on.
In the meantime, why don’t you consider taking a walk and building food security street by street.
People are doing new things in the food banking world. In our search to ‘shorten the line,’ we are getting involved in areas that we had not been involved with in the past – educational programs, anti-poverty or pro-community development work – not to mention all manner of strange new alliances and partnerships.
We are discovering that our existing organizational structures are not necessarily the most efficient vehicles for getting us where we want to go. ‘Feed The Line’ and ‘Shorten The Line’ can be like two sticky gears in a truck and if you are constantly crunching between them, your engine (read staff) can become overstressed and your gearbox (read budget) may get worn out with all the upshifting and downshifting.
A standard food bank operation can feel like like tank, rumbling along, and when the situation calls for us to get all nimble and ‘ninja,’ we can find it hard to change direction. We’re brute force powerful, but maybe not so suited for the asymmetrical challenges of tackling poverty or helping clients build social capital. How can we build the nimbleness of being able to deal with both micro and macro interventions within our humble and creaky org chart?
We all hate org charts because they have this way of deadening a living, breathing thing (If you have any doubt, check out the chart of the educational establishment below):
Then of course there is the org chart according to the Executive Director’s view of the world, which is much like Steve Jobs’ view:
For us to figure out what is the best structure for our organization, we need to start by being clear where we stand in relation to the community around us. [Here you can download a good SSIR article on the ‘Networked nonprofit‘]
When I am explaining to Foodbank supporters about the evolution of our mission, I talk about how we can no longer avoid looking ‘upstream’ of where we are, to try and understand and deal with what is driving so many people to our doors – typically situational or generational poverty.
I then tell them we need to consider what is ‘downstream’ of where we are operating – this means what are the true outcomes of our interaction with clients? It may be that their long-term health has not been affected as beneficially as we hoped. These ideas are summarized in the graphics I developed below:
So, how can we restructure to meet this enlarged understanding of how we are affected by, and in turn affect the world around us?
Let’s look at some ways in which food banks are organized around these elements of the mission.
THE CLASSIC FOOD BANK
The first model is the ‘Classic’ food bank. Unreconstructed, proudly focused on the core mission and seeing no need to evolve further. Not only is it structurally unsuited for any expanded mission, it doesn’t even want to consider the possibility of one.
Typically this food bank will be in a high need / low resource area, where the only mindset accepted is ‘running faster and faster to keep in the same place.’ (Yes, I know my food bank is in hoity-toity Santa Barbara, but we serve the whole County, and of the 58 California counties, only 14 have more food insecurity than ours, so I should be at least be allowed an opinion…end of self-justifying whine!)
Another factor is that whatever food bank we are in operates the way it does for a million historical and community reasons – many of which may be hidden under the surface. ‘We’ve always done it this way’ can be a common refrain. These food banks will probably carry on much as they are, shrinking a little in size as ‘recession sympathy’ dries up further. The lack of desire to face shifting realities may be failure of leadership at the board or ED level or it could be just a lack of strongly voiced desire for anything more from the community.
Lets look at two other structural models that are currently out there in food bank land.
The Remodel is basically taking the old structure and trying to add on a few additions. It might be teaching some nutrition education classes or having some involvement in SNAP outreach.
There are many food banks are in this grouping. Whatever gets added might be as a result of ED interest, community stimulus or Feeding America encouragement. The problem here is that because the organization was not structured for this additional mission, then the new initiatives can be like vestigial limbs hanging off the org chart or they shoved in some department that feels like its original remit has become distorted.
This can lead to new initiatives being left to die by staff who feel they are already overworked, or that the program will be starved of resources once it has been there a while and is more noticeable for the problems it is causing the organization as opposed to the ‘new program paint smell’ that was so useful for fundraising in the early stages.
THE SHINING CITY ON THE HILL
Of course the polar opposite of the ‘classic’ approach to food banking is what we might call the ‘We do it all’ or even the ‘Shining City on the Hill’ food bank. They stand out from all around them. They can be like a giant snowball rolling through town, picking up all manner of diverse activities: community gardens, job training, process kitchen etc etc. These activities are typically run by food bank staff. As someone remarked at the recent Feeding America ED forum, you’ve heard of ADD, this is called EDD.
This mode of operation tends to develop in places where the food bank is very much the ‘only game in town’ in terms of dwarfing other nonprofits, or having a large geographical area and considerable financial resources relative to the local nonprofit eco-system.
The general challenge with this approach is that it is expensive, difficult to sustain and challenging to coordinate. Also if you’re throwing a ton of programmatic outreach at the wall hoping some of it sticks, how do you know what element is really moving the needle, and what is well meaning but ultimately ineffectual?
CATALYST FOR CHANGE MODEL
I would like to suggest one additional approach –one that I believe our food bank is evolving into, which is more of a bottom-up ‘redesign’ and which could be called the ‘catalyst for change’ model.
The ‘Catalyst’ model means we create an uber goal – in our case ‘ending hunger in our service area AND transforming the health of the community through good nutrition.’ This goal allows us to partner with a full range of local health and service organizations and hunger relief becomes part of a positive goal that can be measured using public health indicators.
In reality, we still have our fingers in a bunch of pies, but the difference from the ‘we do it all model’ – and this is crucial – is that the food bank needs to remain value neutral over whether things are done either by them, by their existing agencies or whether achieving something requires new forms of partnership.
The overriding thing is that your organization commits to making sure that it happens one way or another, will evaluate the results and keep the process moving forward.
We expand what may already have been a long-term role as the encouragers of an ecosystem of community partners working to improve health and food security. The difference is that this time we want results and we want to be able to measure them. It could also mean that everyone’s programs might not be adjudged as wonderful as everyone else’s.
FB’s are perfectly positioned to be the catalysts to make sure that the things that are going to help solve food security and promote health are being done in coherent and interconnected fashion.
• We’re not going anywhere soon, so we have stability.
• We have respect to broker partnerships and coalitions.
• We also have detailed knowledge of the range of programs in our service area and through our existing agency reporting we have some crude idea of the outputs of service.
• More than anything, we have the food. That has always been our ace card, but we’ve never really played it as hard as we could. We really need to leverage every pound of food we distribute to effect lasting change.
This is all based around evolving the role of food within the organization. It is still central (relax…), but now it is not the end in itself. We are not only the food sourcers, storers and distributors – we are the food investors. We are going to leverage every nutritionally dense pound of food to bring significant long-term impact to the good health of our service area.
The price of doing business in the leverage is to provide good service to those who will always need food assistance as a result of challenges of age or faculty – yet even these folks can benefit from involvement in holistic service. Nevertheless, I am putting them lovingly to one side and saying that we will always find a way to source the food needed for these folks.
That leaves people whose lives we can impact significantly – children, families, those with chronic health conditions, those who question their limited voice or power in the community, those who want to share the skills required for good nutritional health with others in their neighborhood.
Being a catalyst sounds easier than doing everything yourself, but really it is just a different kind of difficult.
The below graphic shows the resources that we are providing in our area to stimulate effective nonprofit agency responses to local nutritional health issues:
If we have a traditional org structure then provision of the above services is going to look like the many-headed hydra. It also means that it is only a matter of time before one head or other gets lopped off, because it is not sustainable.
Let’s look at an alternate structure. Enter, if you will, through the doors of perception…
The doorway is a good metaphor, because people, food and resources can pass through it in both directions. So imagine your Foodbank in the center of the community (because it’s hard to escape from our self-obsessions) and further imagine four doors around you that lead in from and out to that wider community.
I am suggesting that this kind of restructure requires you to shift how you do business to facilitate the most efficient methods of stimulating two-way traffic through these doors. It means you have to inspire and join with and prod and poke your partners in the community (starting / but not ending with your member agencies) into embracing impact and sustainability and rigorous evaluation of their activities. And if you the food bank are going to initiate something new, you need to find a way to make it sustainable long term which means planning from the start of the process how the community will have assumed ownership of the project by the time it reaches maturity.
The four doors are:
1. Partner Organizations
2. Food Bank Programs
4. Community Leadership/Volunteers
Let’s look individually at each of these ‘portals’ for food, energy, time and collective will:
Partner Organization Doorway
This is always going to be the biggest door. If we’re going to maximize our impact we need vibrant relationships with other nonprofit organizations. Yet we need to shake things up a lot in terms of how our current partnerships work.
We are already monitoring member agencies, but because our focus has been about ‘maxing’ poundage, we have not pushed/encouraged agencies to embrace a ‘shorten the line’ agenda. Agency segmentation has been helpful for us in seeing who can be the best partners for ‘shorten the line’ services, but at some point, tough decisions need to be made about what relationships need to be prioritized for the good of the community.
We are in a time when traditional donated food supplies are tight and we are all working hard to find the next ‘wave’ of available product. Consequently this is the perfect time to make every pound count and leverage existing relationships by expecting more of our partners that turning our inventory for us.
If the relationship with community partners is to become more about impact and not just poundage, then you might find yourself with a different set of partners. Some of our most successful new partnerships are not based around agencies distributing food for us. We are working with American Heart Association, who are providing some educational components to our existing educational structure with our Kid’s Farmers Market Program.
We also are working with a local ‘cradle to career’ school initiative called Thrive, where our educational programs are helping them meet funding-mandated nutrition education requirements. We are in discussion with other potential partners around working together in community building and in food systems reform.
Our educational programs typically include a distribution element, yet in at least half of them, this is really a micro distribution compared to the ‘here’s 20lbs of broccoli, good luck with your life’ approach of the past. You might feel that this is mission drift, but I know that each one of these partnerships will have more long-term impact on increasing food security then setting up another mobile pantry.
Your existing agency relations structure may not be able to work with this expanded set of partners. For us there is already a challenge in how to work with two different types of partner within our existing agency structure. We need to do more to reconcile these types of partnership, so that the ‘non-food distributing’ partner does not become the poor relation (or vice versa). Close links between agency/partner relations and the work of the development and program departments now becomes crucial. The old siloed approach to information of the past can be disastrous in this kind of relationship.
FOODBANK PROGRAM DOORWAY
We are increasingly looking at pushing out our award-winning ‘Feed the Future’ children’s programs through our member agencies as a way of bringing them to scale and thereby meet our vision objectives. The programs are run by ‘super-volunteers’ and therefore are sustainable. Tapping into other agency’s ‘super-volunteers’ will enable this sustainable scale to increase. This represents another big element of the catalyst relationship – we can develop and evaluate programs and then our agencies and partners become the natural conduit for scaling these programs.
We need to make these programs (which all include both ‘feed the line’ and ‘shorten the line’ elements) so attractive in terms of curriculum, training and food availability and so effective that agencies will want to run the programs. Do agencies pay a license fee? Do we give them away? Do we ask them to provide some shared maintenance for the food element? For us, these issues are still to be decided.
We’re not big brother, but if they want to run a different program that is fine, as long as the evaluation and data connected to their program are broadly comparable so we know they are getting the impact.
A food bank running programs and fundraising to deliver them is not really sustainable in the long-term. Yes, you can always find a donor to pay for one nutrition ed program or another, but unless you have found a way to let the community take ownership of the program long-term, it will eventually languish. Which leads us to who should be running the programs.
COMMUNITY LEADERSHIP / VOLUNTEER DOORWAY
I believe the closeness of the relationship of volunteers to non-profit organizations is cyclical. At one end of the cycle, the focus is on an all-paid workforce with an overlay of marginalized volunteers to manual tasks or food sorting or packing. This can lead to disconnection from a large part community – especially professional people who have a lot of other skills to offer. One way of telling whether your use of volunteers is truly able to help you build impact is to imagine if all your volunteers fell away – could you continue fairly easily with your mission? If so then volunteers are really window-dressing for you.
At the other end of the continuum is more of a volunteer-driven organization. Aiming to become this is a major element of the ‘catalyst’ approach for us. We have a special category of volunteer, called a ‘community leader’ who is a super-volunteer that is treated pretty much as a paid employee would be. They are typically there to focus on a particular project, but others may have long-term loyalty to a specific program.
These community leaders are paid – just not with money. This ‘payment’ might be with the provision of written references, or with respect, or with being given leadership responsibilities. These Community Leaders are held to account for what they have committed to do and reassigned or fired if they do not produce. This has helped us scale our programs significantly.
I can’t pretend this has not lead to cultural strains within the organization, which naturally wants to shift back to just having paid staff. Employees find it easier to lead people who are getting paid to listen to them, rather than having to go to the effort of inspiring volunteers will listen if we communicate effectively the power of our mission and the direct impact that volunteer can have on moving it forward.
We are making significant progress, though. I think there is something empowering for our employees in letting them know that they are all expected to be leaders of multiple volunteers, no matter what their job function is. It is all about multiplying their ability to achieve impact. Yes, we all know it feels so much easier to do something yourself rather than explain to someone else, but that is not sustainable.
The changes that this means to a traditional food bank structure is that you need a lot more ‘relationship manager’ type staff – they might be handling relationships with community leaders, short-term knowledge philanthropists that are working on a specific project, or outside organizations that we are partnering with. These are all people who need more attention / coaching/ focus than just the usual volunteer management skills. You are managing outside talent and it takes tact, organization and a clear understanding of the shared goals. We don’t really have the experience or skills in this area (besides in the fundraising arena) so it is learning a new skill and introducing a new culture, but the expectation is that staff will be managing an increasing number of community resources and so multiplying their impact as an employee.
As regards impact on the warehouse staff, if you have a rash of small scale educational programs that might require small poundage of high-quality produce or purchased items that are needed to demo a curriculum-specified recipe, these can be extremely difficult for current warehouse structures to deal with. Online ordering by programs staff becomes vital. Skills at staging and coordinating multiple micro distributions have to be developed. Drivers are overwhelmed by the number and complexity of deliveries and pick ups of programmatic materials from sites. In this situation it becomes increasingly important for volunteer drivers with loyalty to specific programs or sites to become involved.
The other side of the community leadership equation for us is the way we can erase the dividing line between ‘benefactors and beneficiaries.’ Our Nutrition Advocates come out of our programs and are encouraged to work more closely with both the Foodbank and become self-supporting groups. They are trained in food literacy, can be SNAP advocates and we also provide community organizing facilitation to help organize around any local health and community issues.
Community Leaders and Nutrition Advocates represent two powerful and brand new volunteer forces that are having a major impact in how our organization develops.
THE DEVELOPMENT DOOR
These other doorways suddenly open up a lot of other opportunities for the development department. We have community leaders teaching in programs and having direct access to working with clients so we are building the kind of long-term support from motivated professional people that no number of trips to the warehouse can generate.
The mantra in food banking has always been ‘once they go to the warehouse, they get it.’ This is true in terms of comprehending the size of our operations and the fact that we are not a glorified food pantry. However, if you really want to build long-term loyalty, you need to not show them the ‘tool,’ but involve them in what the tool has built. That means involvement in direct service with clients. The old hunger dynamic made this an awkward situation for all concerned. Now that our focus is about health, this is a way that benefactor and beneficiary can communicate as equals – we all care about being healthy, we all have ideas about how good nutrition can help with this. Teaching once a month in one of our programs is a golden way of building a whole new levels of ‘getting it.’
I used to get jealous about ‘Habitat for Humanity’ and their ability to involve supporters directly in their efforts by helping build a house and leaving them with the tangible results of what they have wrought. Community involvement with our programs now brings us ever closer to this model.
The desire to take more leadership in the health arena with local partners is also creating brand new funding opportunities with foundations, businesses and individual major givers who are looking for long term social solutions not short term charitable fixes.
One size does not fit all, and I am not suggesting that your organization should focus on the catalyst approach, like we are. Nevertheless, I would challenge you to look at your mission and how it has changed and then start asking the tough questions around organizational structure, so that you can be ready to meet the challenges of the next twenty years as we work to achieve the long-term health and food security of our communities.
NOTE TO ‘FROM HUNGER TO HEALTH’ READERS:
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At last, a Foodbank CEO shuts up long enough to actually sling some groceries!
Talking about SNAP to many of our traditional supporters can be like talking to our teenage kids about sex. We know we really should do it and it will be good for them, but we’d rather put it off, because the conversation is probably going to go south. We’ve all stuck our fingers on the mousetrap many times and watched it SNAP on our sensitive little digits.
Who can really turn their back on heavy involvement with SNAP outreach these days? People need food help, and it doesn’t matter whether the food passes through our warehouses first or not. As traditional sources of donated food have shrunk, making sure that people are taking full use of federal benefits has become more important than ever.
You can only get so far with promoting SNAP before someone on your board or a donor is going to get outraged about your food bank spending scarce resources promoting a federal benefit.
You cannot say the words ‘food stamps’ to someone without eliciting a visceral response. Sometimes it unlocks fears of ‘there but for one paycheck go I’ or other reactions that run the gamut from outrage about fraud to outrage about disempowering people by paying them to be ‘losers in a winner/loser society.’ Emotions run high, and so does lack of knowledge about what food stamps actually are and do.
How can you begin to get this knowledge over and get people to step out of the trenches of their assumptions and take a different view of the world for a while? I’m discovering that a ‘Food Security Challenge’ is a great way of doing it.
You may have read the recent press coverage of Newark Mayor Cory Booker’s ‘food stamp challenge.’ He committed to living on food stamps for a full week and regaled us with up close and personal accounts about burning his yams and becoming grumpy without his coffee. After getting through the week, he announced to the press that he was going to run for Governor.
As CEO of the Foodbank of Santa Barbara County, my job is to find those yams and get them out to the Corys of this world. Surely a single week of little money for food wasn’t too much to handle. How about a month? If I could live on food stamps for a month, it would give me more of the true flavor (or lack thereof) of the challenges that our clients face every day.
Could a picky eater like me with my rice vinegar and my jasmine tea make it through on $6 a day? (this is the rate in Santa Barbara County, based on higher cost of living). What kind of help from the Foodbank and our member agency programs could I get to supplement the SNAP? Cory ran for Governor after a week, maybe after a month I could run for Secretary-General of the UN…
I started my Food Security Challenge thirteen days ago, so I’m nearly half way there.
The idea is that throughout each of the four weeks, I explore a different aspect of living on food stamps, from signing up for CalFresh (California’s name for the food stamp program) to finding out what nonprofit services are available to me as a resident on Santa Barbara’s Eastside; from learning how I can grow some of my own food, to seeking resources to help eat healthy with limited funds. During week three, the Challenge encompasses a national perspective, with a visit to food distribution centers in Chicago and a meeting with Feeding America about the national food stamp situation. I will spend part of the final week of the Challenge living in my car, turning to the services in the community that people and families who have recently become homeless might experience.
So, some readers are laughing by this point and wondering whwther there are actually any hungry people in Santa Barbara. Truth is, there are only 11 more counties in all 58 California counties which are more food insecure than Santa Barbara. So maybe there is trouble in paradise.
So here is my advice about running your own challenge.
ELEMENTS OF THE CHALLENGE:
NAME IS KEY: FOOD SECURITY CHALLENGE
Not food stamp challenge, because the message we are trying to get over is that food stamps alone are not enough to provide food security. It also sets up a wider focus that will allow you to promote the totality of your agency’s and partner’s activities.
PLAN AN EVOLVING SCHEDULE OF ACTIVITIES AND EVENTS
To keep the message alive for a week, for a month, requires an evolving story with fresh twists and angles. The more this can be planned in advance the partners. Look at what programs are happening and how can they build in? Who would you like to interview or involve and use the challenge as the basis to do this.
GET A VARIETY OF PEOPLE ON THE CHALLENGE
Our version of the challenge is just me as the Foodbank CEO being involved. (My family declined to participate – because daddy/hubby can take his publicity stunt and shove it). This singular participation is fine locally, because I operate in a relatively small media market, and we work with a local PR company, so it is possible to get a lot of media exposure. But in a larger media market you would want to get as many different groups as possible taking part: board members, young people, foundation staff, media people. More people means a multiplier factor in terms of types of stories. Part of the fun of our local challenge was that I encouraged people to phone the Foodbank if they saw me cheating.
FIND THE RIGHT MEDIA PARTNERS
We made an agreement with a widely-read local free weekly magazine, the Santa Barbara Independent to be the main media partner. I produce an article once a week for each of the weeks which is featured in their online addition, with more detailed coverage in the print edition at the beginning and end of the challenge. We found that a lot of other news outlets were also interested in running stories too.
LOCAL IS BETTER
Booker was looking for national press (which given his next step was hardly surprising). I think our food security challenge has been such a success because our focus has been local. No one on the other side of the country gives a darn about some whiny food bank CEO in supposedly frou frou Santa Barbara is bringing his work home with him for a month. But locally this was challenge has ignited a lot of interest. The media want to deal with ‘the plight of the needy’ and they have their go-to stories in Christmas, but what about in the early time of the year, when no one gives two hoots about your regional food bank?
If you personally are taking the challenge it is great to take advantage of what services would actually have available to you. Unless you live in a gated community miles from nowhere, you will have some kind of distribution nearby. If you are in some suburban neighborhood, well that just highlights the ‘new’ face of SNAP participation.
I have been visiting all the local distributions I would be able to access. I don’t actually take the food, but note what I would have received and then go buy it somewhere else. (The same is true with the SNAP money. I operate with $200 to represent the total amount of money I would have received for a month of SNAP)
BLOG AS THE FOCUS FOR BUILDING COMMUNITY
I created a separate blog to post regular updates on my exploits. Traffic is pushed toward the blog from other sources, from our own website and from my limited tweeting ability. One of the coolest added benefits of the blog is that it has created a forum for individual families to their share stories in the comments section. Responses to blog posts are a great way for people to go public about an issue they would be very reluctant to weigh in on in any less discreet type of media. I have been responding personally to the comments, which builds up trust and will perhaps encourage people to allow us to be more specific in using their stories in wider media.
SNAP DISCUSSION IS THE BEACH HEAD FOR A MORE DETAILED UNDERSTANDING OF THE WIDER RANGE OF YOUR PROGRAMMATIC AND ADVOCACY ACTIVITIES
Once you get blog readership, then you can begin to feature programs as I did by inviting a local supervisor to attend one of our Healthy School Pantries, which contains a Calfresh/SNAP outreach component.
INVOLVE THOSE ADMINISTRATING SNAP
As well as highlighting your own outreach efforts, Involve local DSS or whoever is the administrative body for SNAP in your region – I went to interview three staff members at different levels about their challenges, myths, how they deal with public perceptions and of course the challenge of politicians doing demonstrations outside their front door because they want to cut down on ‘rampant SNAP fraud’ because they can’t actually think of anything constructive to do, so this will be a nice easy piece of red meat to throw to the crowd. This helps strengthen future relations as well.
KEEP A STRONG FOOD FOCUS
I have featured recipes, detailed lists of what food I got from distributions or purchased with my SNAP money. I also let people in on my bargain hunting and comparison shopping. People are very interested in this kind of micro level food stuff. I am also keeping a food log of my meals which our dietician will be looking at. These activities also give the opportunity to bring in local chefs to help you make the most of what you have, and this provides another good media angle.
FEATURE A WIDER GEOGRAPHICAL PERSPECTIVE AT SOME POINT
It will be easy enough for you to find a state, National dimension and Feeding America – You know how it is, people are always interested in how things are so much worse/diiferent somewhere else. I will be interviewing Brady Koch the SNAP outreach czar at FA and attending a SNAP outreach and distribution sponsored by Greater Chicago Food Depository, which will take place on the South Side of Chicago.
CONSIDER A PUBLIC FORUM
This is a great way to wind up the challenge. Local political representatives can be invited. After the media interest, you should be able to get a larger attendance than normal for this type of event.
KEEP HAMMERING HOME THE MAJOR EDUCATIONAL POINTS
For us, the main goal is to get over the idea that SNAP plus local services equals an effective safety net. Lessen that equation in any way and the whole thing doesn’t work.
Food Literacy and empowerment is not ‘nice’ it is essential. The type of practical nutrition and cooking training we do is vital for those who are facing a potentially bland diet with little funds to put toward good food. This is about skills that people can utilize your food effectively with, rather than pat recipes. These skills are especially important to be able to make good use of fresh produce.
The Food Security Challenge is not a gimmick; yes it’s proving great to promote the Foodbank’s work in this little understood area, but it’s also chance for me personally to keep in direct touch with how the Foodbank is trying to move people from hunger to health.
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.
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.
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, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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!)
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.
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.
BackPack provides emergency supplemental food assistance to children to ease hunger over the weekend. The backpacks (in reality plastic bags after the issue of single backpack at the beginning of the year) are full of single serve food items, typically containing protein items like tuna or peanut butter as well as snack bars, small cans of chili or franks and beans etc.
As food banks have grown over the last decade, so has the volume of food passing through them and the funds they receive. This has resulted in many of them initiating major expansions of their backpack programs – our own organization included. The money for this is so easy to raise in the local community, because it presents such a readily understandable and direct solution to the issue of hunger for kids. (Try getting a buck for SNAP outreach, people). Packing the backpacks is also a great volunteer activity, giving corporate volunteers something to do beside freeze their ass off mindlessly sorting carrots in the warehouse. This is direct and visceral. I just filled a bag with food that will soon go directly to a kid.
This expansion of backpack has been heavily supported by Feeding America, both with a formalization of what contents are required to have a backpack program meet their guidelines and also with pass-through funding. This commitment continues with the recent study into backpack nutrition.
So why is the Foodbank of Santa Barbara County making very significant cuts in the numbers of backpacks provided for in our newly accepted 2013 budget?
Is it because the CEO is some descendent of the Child Catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, determined to bring misery to the children of the land? Always a possibility.
Nevertheless, our reasoning is that backpack, despite its virtues does nothing to assist the people it serves in getting out of the situation they are in, so for us, that rung warning bells and meant the program had to come under considerable scrutiny.
Our mantra is that everything we do needs to achieve three things:
1. provide short-term hunger relief and nutritional benefit,
3. we have to find a way to make the initiative community driven (and therefore sustainable).
So, backpack probably logs a modest though unspectacular score for criteria 1. It logs a zero for criteria number two (I have seen the occasional glossy nutrition education pamphlet included in a backpack, doubtless paid for as one of the educational elements of a grant from a large corporation. Our work with this populace suggests that these sort of expensive and uninvolving attempts at education are quickly discarded.) And then for criteria three, it would probably get the healthiest score of all. There are plenty of people in the community who wouldn’t want the program to die and would provide cash and volunteer support.
With our goal to end hunger, rather than just ameliorate it at some supposedly acceptable level, this lack of effectiveness for criteria number 2 is a really serious issue. Hence our cuts to backpack in our overall program mix for children.
We believe these cuts will not affect those who need the program most, and will allow us to divert the funds (and more) to a major expansion of our award winning (have I mentioned this in the last five minutes) Healthy School Pantry Program which we believe represents a far more impactful and long lasting nutritional intervention for our families.
Our research showed that many of the backpacks were just being provided for kids in after school programs that happened to be run in schools with a significant number of free and reduced meal students.
The situation was highlighted for me, when my own stepson Max came back from his YMCA after-school program carrying a plastic bag of food from our Food Bank. Obviously if you work in the food banking world, you are not taking home the mega bucks. Yet hopefully a backpack should be going to a family in greater need than that of the CEO of the Food Bank where the backpack originated from.
Many backpack programs go out through after school programs, but some also enter directly into the school environment. This originally came out of the hope that teachers would identify kids in need who would be the ones who would receive food. However the reality has been for many food banks, that teachers are often too busy to follow through with the admin side of having to do this, and it is logistically easier for the food bank to send a larger quantity of backpacks. We have also seen cases where larger and larger amounts of backpacks have been requested for wider distribution in lower-income schools to avoid stigmatization of those who most need help. This is an worthy consideration, but it also waters down the true intent of the program.
We did a survey of our backpack program, so that we could make sure we were basing our decisions on the real world situation rather than what we thought it might be. This survey showed that backpacks are very often shared with the children’s families, especially in a situation where a number of children in a family might be receiving a backpack. So whatever the more targeted approach that the backpack was designed for – specifically those in transitional living or homeless situations – it was increasingly being used as a simple supplement to the family diet. Plenty of those diets could benefit from supplementing, so there might be nothing wrong with this – if it weren’t for the issues of cost and nutritional value of the average backpack contents.
In Santa Barbara, our backpacks have always included fresh fruit (apples, oranges, stone fruit) or vegetables, yet we were still sometimes getting complaints from from visitors and volunteers about the quality of some of the food that went out in the backpacks.
Obviously different volunteers have different perceptions of what constitutes suitable food for a child to eat. Some believe we should provide comfort to those in a tough situation by offering comfort food, whatever the ugly nutritional truth behind the bright shiny boxes. Others have a level of health zealotry such that anything we could provide would never be good enough. However I know (from my photographic proof above) that in the past, we have had poor quality food go out in backpacks. Food that I would not give my own children to eat (which surely has to be the criteria for what we provide to other children). I have also seen backpacks serve as dumping grounds for inappropriate amounts of produce that we wanted to get out. The provision of fresh produce in backpacks is still provided in a minority of food banks nationally, and through my own visits to other food banks around the country, I have seen all manner of borderline crap going out that may make the child’s nutritional situation worse.
Packaging is another major issue. Feeding America requires backpacks in their programs to contain food items that should be able to be opened by a child without access to a can opener. (Does that mean we are building a generation that can’t even work a can opener?) As a result of this single ‘e-z open’ requirement, this program plays to the worst packaging excesses of the American food industry. Tiny amounts of food is entombed in containers that cost vastly more than the food they are there to protect. I should say, though, that when the zombie apocalypse comes, I’ll shotgun my way over to the backpack storage section of the food bank, because that stuff will still be in exactly the same state as the day it was incarcarated.
We know that there is no individual child-owned solution to the nutrition challenges that kids face. Backpacks can’t solve childhood hunger. The only solution is a family solution (supported by an adequate Federal safety net, of course). Backpack is a short-term fix with no way to help the family provide better, more consistent food.
There is no doubt that there are many children who are in truly dire circumstances. They are caught in a family situation of serious deprivation, maybe as a result of parental addiction, mental issues or simply having the misfortune to be born to truly awful parents. These kids need all kinds of help and there is clearly a need for backpack in a situation where the child may have to source and prepare their own food on a regular basis. Everyone involved with emergency food has their own stories related to this kind of client need. People can sometimes better understand this type of situation when I refer to something in the wider culture. The bestselling memoir, ‘The Glass Castle’ by Jeanette Walls (soon to be made into a movie, starring Jennifer Lawrence) is an example that I sometimes use. Jeanette Wall states plainly in the book that her earliest memory was ‘of being on fire’, and we’re not talking literally. As a borderline starving three-year old left to her own devices by ‘different’ parents, she was boiling up her own hot dogs, standing on a chair in front of the stove and her dress caught on fire. (On her return from hospital, when she went right back to doing the same thing again, her mother congratulated her for being brave and ‘jumping right back in the saddle.’)
So clearly, some kids can use every backpack they can get their hands on to ward off starvation. The problem I am trying to highlight is that we have a whole program structured to deal with this kind of situation, whereas the vast majority of backpacks are going to kids who are not in such a dire emergency, and so the backpacks act as a nutritional supplement for the family. This is a clear distortion and if that is the case, the contents of the backpacks, with their small amount of food, don’t really provide a lot of nutritional benefit.
We are not the lone heretics in taking a long, hard look at backpack. In fact, an organization as close as our own PDO (Partner Distribution Organization – Definition: Food Bank that cannot qualify for membership of Feeding America, except by being partnered with a larger member organization. Note to Feeding America – Could we stop this second class citizen thing?) Our PDO, San Luis Obispo County’s Food Bank Coalition, under the leadership of Carl Hansen, no longer provides any backpacks, because they do not feel it is a cost-effective way to make a significant dent in food insecurity, preferring to focus on larger distributions to families.
So enough with the whining, Erik. What are you, with your blah-blah-blah award winning program, and your nice Santa Barbara weather, actually doing to solve the problems you have identified?
Our short-term solution is to redouble our efforts to more effectively target backpack by focusing on maintaining supply to agencies and shelters dealing with homeless families and those who need the largest short-term interventions. Within the school setting, we are looking to shift our contact point to the counselors. They are typically seeing kids who are acting out or struggling, possibly as a result of nutritional issues. Rather than just dump a pile of food on them, we want to get close to these people, provide training and to building up a real relationship to the food bank. (Having a program for the whole school which brings big benefits, like Healthy School Pantry is a great place to build such a relationship from). We can then rely on the counselors to be more effectively as a conduit for teachers to keep a wider look out for kids in need. This creates a whole host of distribution problems – remember, food banks are great at macro, not so hot at micro. So it may be individual school volunteers picking up small quantities of backpacks from a locally sited distribution center. Maybe backpacks get dropped off along with the standard other food items by an agency that is near to the school.). Will this more time consuming approach work better than the previous scattershot approach? We will have to see, but with less food around how can expect to keep to the strategy of throwing a lot of food at the community, confident that some will stick to those who need it most. We are hopeful that the school counselors, who are already advocates for children, will view backpack as one more tool in their toolbox to be used appropriately with the right kids, and that other families might be referred on to more appropriate Foodbank programs like Kid’s Farmers Market, Pink and Dude Chefs Middle School cooking program or the Grow Your Own Way program to help people grow more of their own food.
Up until now, I would suggest that within the food bank network, the backpack program has been both a sacred cow and a cash cow. Both of those elements, combined with the challenges of shifting food and education resources to other less ‘quick fix’ channels means that the backpack program as a mass feeding effort, as opposed to a highly targeted program will remain with many food banks for the foreseeable future.
So, am I talking out of my pop-top can? Please join the discussion and leave a comment.