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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bike Blenders: The Perfect Vehicle for Food Bank Outreach

It’s not refrigerated, it can’t carry ten pallets of food. In fact, it won’t even get you anywhere. No matter how hard you peddle. It is the ‘Fender Blender’, a blender that mounts on the back of an ordinary bicycle, which sits on a simple stand and powers a blender on the back.

We use it at a range of public events promoting our Foodbank, such as today’s Earth Day Celebration in Santa Barbara, as well as at some of our children’s programs, such as Picnic in the Park or Healthy School Pantry.

Used to make healthy smoothies, the bike blender is the perfect demonstration of our message of good food plus exercise equals health.

You could pick up and throw away a flyer about our hunger into health message, or you could experience it, and the bike blender is the perfect way. We use frozen fruit and juice to make a healthier smoothie, and just like with our other programs, kids love to consume what they have been responsible for making.

Too often, a food bank’s display at a public event featured a food drive barrel and someone with a clip board, collecting volunteer sign ups. The bike blender acts as a huge draw at a wide range of events. We offer people the option of making a donation for their smoothie, but we don’t force them.

Climb on board!

Healthy School Pantry creates a Community of Winners

Here is it, a hunk of glass, that says the Foodbank of Santa Barbara County’s Healthy School Pantry program is the best Children’s nutrition program in the nation.

The award was presented at the 2012 Hunger’s Hope Awards at the Feeding America Unity 2012 summit. This is the second year in a row that our Food Bank has been acknowledged for being a network leader in programing. Last year we won for our Kid’s Farmers Market program, which is already being replicated at other food banks. This is a tribute to the hard work of all the Foodbank staff to make this program work.

But I wanted to talk about the winners. The real winners.

These are the communities that build up around the healthy school pantry.

Communities not linked by the embarrassment or awkwardness that can come with accepting emergency food, but a community of families coming together in a fun and empowering way to receive some food, learn how to use it and to support each other in living healthy lives with the small amounts of money they sometimes have available for nutrition.

This is how it works:

We identify schools in low-income areas with high levels of free and reduced lunch/breakfast. We also look for schools where there is energy and openness in the administration of the school. We explain the concept, that we as a food bank have had it with old style distributions, like the one in the picture below:

Do emergency food providers give food to those who don’t need it? Would you stand in a line like this unless you were desperate to put food on the table?

It is our belief that standing in the hot sun/freezing rain (choose your geographical location) to get some food that will fill your belly for a short while, but leave your life unchanged is not an effective way for us to operate.

What has really changed since the great depression (except now people don’t dress as snappily as they used to).

A school site is a place with an existing set of relationships, and is therefore a place where we can build on those relationships to effect a more lasting change in people’s lives. Our approach is set up what is in effect a health fair, which is open to everyone at the school. This takes place at the end of after-school activities, so that we get the parents and kids together at a rare time when they are together.

The difference between our ‘health fair’ and the typical school health fair is that people actually attend our one. That is because we have food available. Food has always been the draw, but unless you are leveraging the food by providing empowerment and education, then you are not getting the best return on the investment of this scarce resource.

The other major change is that rather than just give them the food that we at the food bank want to get off our shelves, we provide the food that clients need to make a specific meal. Have a look at the traffic flow chart below (If you click on it, you will get it big on a separate page. Don’t ask me how…):

The HSP banishes the single line and replaces it with a vibrant movement between different stations of interest

As people enter our pantry site (which can be inside or out) they immediately get to taste the recipe of the day. If they like it (and they usually do, because it is delicious and culturally appropriate) then there is a Foodbank Cooking Corps volunteer cook there to demonstrate how it is made – and how easy and quick it really is.

People then pick up a ‘Passport to Good Nutrition’, which if they get a number of stamps at education and activity stalls around the Healthy School Pantry, enables them to take home the exact food they need to cook the recipe they have just learned how to make, as well as a bi-lingual recipe card. We also provide them with some additional healthy food from the food bank.

It tastes good, I can learn how to cook it, and I can get the actual food I need to make it at home?? How revolutionary is that.
Other activities include SNAP outreach, our Grow Your Own Way  program staffed by volunteer gardeners giving the materials and knowledge for people to grow some of their own food. There are also traditional health screenings (we had 150 dental screenings for kids at a recent single HSP site) and physical activities and games and the Mighty Zumba, not to mention our famous bike blenders which allow kids to pedal healthy smoothies into existence.
The HSP program has already served more than 1,000 new Santa Barbara County families countywide.  The HSP sites currently operate at 7 sites countywide, serving families from 10 underserved schools.We are also facilitating Nutrition Advocacy Committeescomprised of the parents attending the pantries, so they can critique the program, bring forward ideas and questions and hopefully forge an ongoing partnership with their Foodbank to achieve a common goal: a healthy, empowered community.
Food can be health, energy and power, and that power can help people begin to move forward in all aspects of their lives.That’s the real victory.

Welcome

Here I am, the self-styled “King O’ The Yams.’ Standing on the prow of the Titanic, Leo was “King of the World.” Well I’m sitting on a pile of boxes of yams in a drafty warehouse, and so I’m ‘King O’ The Yams.’ Hopefully I can keep my head above the ice water at least…

“From Hunger to Health” is the blog of Erik Talkin, CEO of the Foodbank of Santa Barbara County. We distributed over 11 million lbs of food last year (of which half was fresh produce) to Santa Barbara County through our own programs and through our network of 290 member agencies and programs. We are proud members of Feeding America, the nationwide network of food banks.

Our Foodbank is one of 202 food banks around the country who are members of Feeding America

This blog serves  both as a call to action and a clearing house of information, but most of all it is the story of how one organization on the inside of the ‘hunger business’ is trying to redefine what a food bank can achieve in transforming the health of our communities through good nutrition. At the top of the page are drag down menus providing access to a number of pages of content on key topics of interest.

For too long, food banks have been looked at as a band aid on a problem that will never go away, or worse, as organizations that unwittingly serve to disempower those individuals that they seek to help.

Maybe it’s time we got out of the hunger business and into the health business. Hopefully this blog will help others to navigate a similar journey. It’s fun, it’s exciting – and just ask my friend below – we can’t be stopped!