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

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

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

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

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

 
Katie Martin

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

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

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

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

The bit the Hartford Tourist Board want you to see.

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

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

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

How do you measure these areas?

We have been looking at three main outcomes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I then spoke with Gloria McAdam, CEO of Foodshare.

Gloria J. McAdam

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

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

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

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

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

The Backpack Program: Sacred Cow or Fatted Calf?

Everybody loves backpack.

It is one of the maxims of food banking.

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.

Contents of one Food Bank’s Backpack

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?

Mr. Todd had a very creative idea for a food-related earned income strategy…

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.

Foodbank of Santa Barbara County Program Engine

Our mantra is that everything we do needs to achieve three things:

1. provide short-term hunger relief and nutritional benefit,

2. also provide long-term empowerment and education to help provide a pathway out of food insecurity and boost food literacy and

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.

Master Maxwell Jorgensen. Butter would not melt…

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.

True Confessions: These actually went out on one of our backpacks, may God have mercy on our eternal souls…

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.

Another (nameless) food bank’s  backpack. Pop tarts, chocolate milk, ritz crackers, popcorn and mac and cheese.  Not much here to grow a healthy child.

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.

Remember your sensitivity training people: When someone walks into a food bank, you should never prejudge them as being either client or donor based on what they look like. However if they are shuffling with flesh hanging off and reaching for your throat, you really should consider making an exception…

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.

 

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

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

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

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

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

How would you typify the split?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What other challenges are there?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CSI: Junkfood – All new Next Season.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks Michelle for all your great work.

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BRISTOL MYERS-SQUIBB/FEEDING AMERICA DIABETES PROJECT

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

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

Foodbanks participating include:

Food Bank of Corpus Christi www.foodbankcc.com

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

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