If the disaster in this bogus TV report (that we created for a tabletop training exercise) actually happened, would you have the resources and expertise to tackle it?
How can we obtain those resources for our organizations and at the same time have them do the double duty of serving to build the totality of our organization during all the times when our main focus is on another disaster, the daily disaster of hunger.
Wait! This is the Hunger into Health blog. Education and empowerment. The blog that never met a vegetable it didn’t like. What have I got to contribute in the specialized disaster world of tough looking men and women supping coffee and barking into sat phones as they tap on crush-proof laptops?
Especially since my main experience of natural disaster as a resident of Santa Barbara prior to 2017 was this:
June Gloom. A time of year when the sunny every day climate goes away for a little while and everyone goes into a major depression.
But then in Dec 2017 that all changed. Hell came to Paradise – the Thomas Fire.
We’d had a few large-ish fires before, but nothing like this.
Went on for a month and burned 440 sq miles.
Largest CA wildfire in history at the time.
2 dead and over 2.2 billion in damages.
Destroyed 1,063 structures
104, 607 residents forced to evacuate in SB and Ventura Counties.
And one of evacuating families was mine. Here’s my daughter Mia ready to face the dangerous air quality.
We figured the major inconvenience of evacuation was going to be the end of it. But then, fate, like Steve Jobs, threw ‘one more thing’…
Torrential rain met burned soil loosened from the fire and swept down the hillsides of Montecito.
• 23 dead
129 destroyed and 307 damaged residences
Main 101 freeway closed for 12 days, requiring 260 mile detour to get to SB from Los Angeles.
Sister food bank, Foodshare in Ventura resupplied our Carpinteria program.
Even Oprah was affected. But rest assured that Ellen’s Llama’s were evacuated.
That’s what we faced. My mantra in this post is that disaster brings great opportunity. We live in a world that is not big on preparation, but if something bad happens then large pots of money can potentially be coming your way and you need strategies to maximize this and make the best use of it.
We had a big windfall in 2008 with the crash, and we used the money to propel ourselves to the next level as an organization, and the same is true of the Thomas disaster.
Disasters, like everything else have their seasons and cycles that we have to be able to understand to benefit from and to avoid doing the wrong thing at the wrong time, which could alienate supporters at a time when they may be extra sensitive.
Here is the standard cycle of preparation.
Of course human nature and the human experience do not fit into this. So maybe we better consider this continuum as well…
You need to understand the deep emotions that are raised by disaster. If you hit the right notes at the right time, you are golden. Hit the wrong one and ouch.
The other thing to say is that there are two distinct arenas of disaster fundraising. The response phase and the preparation phase.
Readiness is a lot more interesting to people when there is a disaster fresh in their minds. There is an 18 to 24 month window to capitalize on it before memory submerges.
When there is no recent disaster in memory, you have to pitch it as building community resiliency and seeking funding from those foundations and others who prioritize this.
Let me explain how we raised funds in the aftermath of the disaster and how we built that into an ongoing platform for support.
The first thing we did was try to promote our existing disaster plan. We simplified it into an aspirational document – that therefore needed funding, because there were things on it which we hadn’t done yet.
We also produced TV ads that reminded people about our disaster credentials.
During the disaster, we discovered that our relationships with government and key emergency players were not sufficient to enable us to do our job. We needed to build these relationships and also make a statement of our leadership potential within the disaster environment.
And so when you want to make friends, you have a party.
We held a major conference bringing together the broad spectrum of disaster professionals and NGOs.
It also included a sophisticated table-top training exercise organized by a disaster professional out of MIT. This helped us set out our stall as movers and shakers in this area.
Successful nonprofits and their Executives interact with the community as subject matter experts. Consequently, we spun a white paper with learnings out of the conference and so gave us an additional opportunity to put ourselves forward as conveners and leaders.
Nine months on from that conference, we are keeping the momentum going by launching into developing a disaster feeding plan for our service area.
In your own relationship with other disaster professionals in your area, you have an ace in the hole which will get you a seat at any of the tables you are being denied access to – a network of member agencies – who have real, daily relationships with you, not dusty old MOUs. You have boots on the ground all across the area. Add to this your network of sister food banks, as well as national support, and it puts you in a formidable position.
Your programs, your network and your community network are the perfect point for disaster preparedness training, like here with an emergency preparedness fair that we are involved in. Resiliency is a key message for us and that is something that binds food insecurity and disaster preparedness together as one message. It also plays well with community foundations and strategic-thinking donors.
Of course it is tough to be selling intangibles all the time, so it pays to have a physical product to make your point. Our disaster food box has the value proposition of ‘ buy one and low income family gets another one free.’
Again, this builds the resilency theme and interconnects it with a charitable activity – I can help others while helping my family. We don’t make a dime on these boxes, but the value in terms of seeking sponsorship and grants is far in excess of anything we could get in selling them. They also have a shelf life of 25 years. Who of us can say that?
I talked about disaster working double duty to strengthen our ongoing operations. One area that is key for us is that of Food Literacy.
Here we aligned it to community resiliency and seek disaster funding to do what we would want to do anyway.
The same approach underscores our desire to build a specialized cadre of disaster volunteers to help with new distributions (like when agencies can’t operate during a disaster).
The idea is that this will help us build up our existing volunteer structure with new training and new resources – and again, all in the name of disaster resiliency. Our first stage will be to use existing CERT trained volunteers.
Following on from this is a specific volunteer area that we needed to address, based on our Thomas Disaster experience – the lack of sufficient PIOs.
These days we seem to be living in an all-disaster all of the time type of world, so you can use these principles to deal with other community challenges that come up. Like the Federal Government workers furlough.
These short-term challenges allow you to keep building your message of the food bank feeding EVERYONE in time of disaster.
In summary, here is the secret formula that will lead you to increased support in the disaster sphere.
May all your disasters be small and have large silver linings.
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.
In the first of an occasional look at how issues of poverty affect our ability to move people from hunger into health, I consider the Bridges Out of Poverty model in an interview with Debora McDermed who teaches and facilitates the ‘Bridges’ work being done through the Northern Nevada Food Bank in Reno. What use is Bridges to us? How does it work? Does it function best as a simple set of language tools or as a community-wide effort? Does this bridge lead us somewhere or is it really just a culturally insensitive set of labels which only helps further stigmatize people? Read on and find out…
First, apologies for the hiatus. This blog took a break for the last couple of months of 2013, partially because it is the crazy season for food banks. The other reason is that this isn’t a blog that features my knee-jerk reactions to the burning issues of the day like gun control (for that go here), but rather a blog with an educational focus on meaty subjects of current concern in the ‘Health into Hunger’ sphere.
In our world we love the ‘F’ word (food); there are even fans of calling people the ‘N’ word (needy) – but whatever you do, don’t mention the ‘P’ word (poverty).
I have been in rooms with dedicated, caring management teams from food banks, where mentioning fighting poverty is like waving a silver cross in front of a vampire. The fear level about this issue is huge: ‘that’s not our concern…it’s mission drift…our donors would hate it…let’s just stick to being the good guys saving the day with the big trucks of food.’
This trepidation extends beyond the food bank world. You can see it in the messaging of an organization like ‘Share Our Strength’ that is focusing on child hunger, with the mantra that ‘we may not be able to tackle poverty, but we can at least make sure that no kid goes hungry.’
My own viewpoint is that food banks cannot escape facing up to wider issues of poverty and how they impact our work. Unless we’re in this just to have long-term job security and to look good at Christmas, then we have to say we have had enough of the current status quo – a national state of rampant malnutrition which continues to weaken the health of our communities. That means we are going to have to deal with poverty to some degree or other.
Most service providers would acknowledge that they have to not only ‘feed the line’ but to do something to ‘shorten the line,’ yet addressing poverty rarely figures in these plans. You would think that poverty is the most tangible thing in the world – you can see it and smell it and touch it – yet when we want to do something about it then it becomes some nebulous mist that seems to slip away from the grasp.
There seems little shared agreement about either its causes and its cures. Consequently it joins the increasing number of subjects – such as immigration and gun control that become too uncomfortable to talk about – and therefore must be placed in some ‘no go zone’ of polite national discourse.
How does Bridges Out of Poverty enter into this discussion? It is a series of training modules designed for individuals in poverty (the ‘Getting Ahead’ course) and for communities or organizations (Bridges Strategy and Applying Concepts courses) that seek to create a framework of common understanding about why people get trapped in poverty and which offers some ways in which both individuals and their communities can move out of poverty.
Now, of course, when you have such a wide-reaching set of social concepts arising from a single person (and one presenting very modest research or epidemiological evidence, and whose trainings are sold through copyrighted trainings and books) two things are going to happen:
1. The academic community will go ape shit in their desire to expose and condemn this heretic who has dared skip the years of longitudinal studies and research to say a lot of things which in the end are only backed up by their belief in their own experience and intuition, rather than in a long history of published research. And there are certainly Bridges opponents out there. Here’s a good broadside. Bridges would argue that a lot of these critiques typically focus only on the framework and not how the framework is actually used and adapted within communities.
2. He/She who is condemned for their theories will also collect adherents– people looking for simple solutions to complex problems. These supporters will say that you need to charge ahead with what your gut tells you and not wait for some kind of historical validation, especially with such a pressing concern as poverty.
So, where does that leave the rest of us? We are not academic snobs but we also want to be sure that a new approach follows the doctor’s oath of ‘Primum no nocere’ or ‘First, do no harm’ and ensure that this will not make the situation worse.
I did some research into the Bridges work and met with Food Bank of Northern Nevada CEO, Cherie Jamason (who has spearheaded the uptake of Bridges in Reno) and Debora McDermed of The Vertical Dimension Consulting who runs the programs. Subsequently I invited Debora to present a workshop on Bridges at our annual Agency Leaders Summit.
Her presentation was a huge hit and seemed to touch a nerve with a lot of people from agencies who felt that this work was communicating something that they had believed at some level but never been able to put into words about the challenges they faced with their clients and that it offered some interesting tools for them to try on.
There’s a two-hour presentation, which is an overview. That’s ideal for CEO’s or business people who just want to get the gist. They don’t necessarily want to come to the training. Then, there is a two-day training. The first day considers what is Bridges and what does it mean and why would you be interested in it? How could you immediately put it to use? Day two looks at the tools and the techniques. The two-day version is designed primarily for service providers who want to interact with the client differently or they want to try some new program designs. This training can also be done from an institutional or community point of view. We have run courses for the healthcare, educational and judicial communities. How can these ideas help you be more effective with the client group you are working with. (Here is the flyer from a recent Bridges training conducted by Santa Cruz Food Bank) Bridges Out of Poverty 2012 Flyer
‘Getting Ahead’ is an intense program for participants who want to transition out of poverty. They meet for about two hours a week or somewhere between 10 and 16 weeks depending on the group. They learn the same thing that Bridges trainers learned in the two-day course, except they’re investigating it much more thoroughly. They look at how does poverty occur for them and their family. What are the societal influences in poverty? What are their personal individual influences? It’s really very rigorous.
As to community, once a number of trainings have taken place with different groups, often someone will say: “We need this in a big way for what we’re trying to do.” And so then the program can have a wider community focus. That’s what happened in Reno.
I think Bridges is a long-term vision but it has some short-term gratification. BridgesModel_HardDifferentiators You’re not going to end the poverty in five years. But there is something you can do immediately which I think gives people on the ground tools and techniques and ideas to implement. The training answers a lot of questions that people have never been able to find answers to around why it is so hard to help people make behavior change. I think people are invigorated by that. Poverty is defined by a lack of resources, and the USA is a country that is has severe income disparity as defined by the GINI index. Countries with this great disparity have real problems with upward mobility, hence the need for approaches like Bridges.
You mentioned about changing people’s behavior. How much of this change has to be down to the individual, and how much does the community or society have to change? Where is the line?
These are hard questions.
Sorry. This is such a thorny area, there aren’t many easy questions.
Individual change begins to happen because the program that we facilitate for people who want to transition out of poverty gives them a voice. It’s not a program that’s designed for them. It’s a program that they designed to build their own resources. That creates more ownership, more autonomy, more buy-in. Systemic change is obviously harder. It looks at the way we organize bureaucratic and administrative things to see if it actually enhances people’s ability to take responsibility or if we’re actually putting processes in place that continue to keep them stuck. The community pieces of our program identifies what the barriers are in each community – and they’re going to be different. Some communities have great public transportation. Some have none.
What barriers do we as a community need to tackle that would prevent people moving to sustainability over a period of 18 to 24 months. Can they get a job? Can they get transportation? Can they get childcare? Can they get on their feet in that period of time? Or is the community set up such that it will take much longer than this. This process shows what the individual needs to change and what the community needs to change to be able to facilitate this.
What about the blame game? Some want to heap all the blame on the individual and some want to heap it all on society. Can Bridges help with this?
I think so, because this training goes down well with those on both the political right and the left. The right likes it because it makes people accountable. The left likes it because it says it’s not all their fault and we need to make changes to bring mobility back to the United States so that people can move from their economic strata like they once could. It’s a very current, hot conversation when I’m talking to those people because I can talk about rebuilding the middle class. But I should stress that Bridges is not about making people ‘middle class,’ it is about people being able to create stability and build resources. And Bridges isn’t a program brought in from the outside, but a set of ideas. This is why Bridges and Getting Ahead are being used in Australia, Canada, Slovakia, Czech Republic etc and Detroit, Pensacola, Menominee Nation, Appalachia, etc.
Let’s talk in more detail about how the ‘Getting Ahead’ program works.
The first thing participants do is they draw a mental model of what their life looks like right now. (We have them draw because we don’t want to inhibit anyone who doesn’t read or write well.) Then, they identify those factors in their life that are affecting them dramatically. If they’re a single parent; if they are recovering or not yet recovering from substance abuse; are they dealing with the judicial system? These mental models help them build rapport with the facilitator. We call the person who teaches the course the ‘co-investigator.’ It’s not a hierarchical model.
We sit at the table with them and say we’re going to investigate the situation, your life and the situation in the community and see what is possible. They start with their own life. The theory of change that Bridges uses says that when you are in poverty, you are in the concrete virtually all the time. We call that the ‘tyranny of the moment.’ Therefore, this makes it much harder to do the abstract thinking which is where all of your planning, and many of your good decisions come from. This might include thinking such as If I spend this money on a plasma TV, I can’t go to the dentist. People in poverty, particularly generational poverty may have never learned how to do abstract thinking. We teach them how you can live in the concrete and think in the abstract. This helps them begin to step back and look at their life and analyze what’s going on and what to do about it. That’s very powerful for people. It’s also very painful. I had one person say, after they looked at their mental model, they said, “Wow, poverty really sucks.” But they were so busy just trying to eat, have shelter, some kind of job that they didn’t really have time to step back and look at it and go, “What new possibilities could I generate?”
Then, they have a lot of environmental influences like family members and neighbors who are all in the same boat who might live in ‘invisible communities,’ so they don’t know any people who could provide a different kind of help and assistance. Over a series of time, they also investigate societal change and influences. What are the societal influences that have kept people in poverty? What are the hidden rules of class? What does the middle class know that I don’t know? If I knew that, would I behave differently?
We do a lot of work in language skills, because they might habitually speak in what is called ‘casual register’ which is all about relationships and survival. It doesn’t work very well for job interviews or with a judge, or your kid’s teacher, where ‘formal register’ will be more effective. People can get marginalized because they might seem to speak disrespectfully or inappropriately. They start to learn about all the things they need to do to be able to cross this bridge. The course we run is not the end. When they graduate from it, they’ve developed a list of resources both personal and community that can help them move forward. They can’t magically change everything at once so they might decide to work on finance or emotional health.
Then, we encourage a community structure that is there to assist you when you have finished the ‘Getting Ahead’ program. Graduates are invited to meet monthly with allies, people that are wanting to understand how to make this a better community for all. We don’t call them mentors. We don’t call them coaches. We call them allies. This meeting is monthly and it is a partly social, partly educational gathering. Graduates can stay in it for 18 to 24 months past the course. They start to lead those sessions over time. They start to talk about their experiences and share with other people that are trying to transition. So, we build a network for them which can take them to the next level. They don’t have to join if they don’t want to. It’s available to them. So far, we haven’t had anybody not want to do it.
Poverty can be a lifelong challenge. For instance, one of the people who came up to me after your agency workshop who has a job and is living in a $2100 a month condo – which I guess is not hard to do in Santa Barbara. He came from poverty, raised in poverty, and even though he is now out of poverty, he said to me, “I’m haunted everyday of my life that I’m going to end up back there.” What comes out of the wider community support is that people start to get to know each other. They start to understand that people in poverty are just like them. Then, they began to form alliances, when people know somebody who has a job going, and they now have someone to call. That’s social capital. We do it all the time. People in poverty don’t have that. The only kind of capital they have is bonding capital with people who are typically in the same situation as they are, perhaps not making healthy choices or good decisions.
Sometimes they’ve had to separate from some of their family members as part of the process because their family may not be supportive of them in moving ahead, getting out of poverty. There are some emotional challenges that happen along the way, and that’s why we do the emotional resiliency piece within the training. When you start to change, not everybody around you likes it. This doesn’t stop people getting hopeful and positive. They know what they can do. They understand how to build and where to start. They understand how hard it’s going to be, and that we are in tough economic times but they have a place to start.
Why do you think that food banks are well-positioned to get involved in something like Bridges?
Food banks serve so many different agencies and clients in communities that they can act as ‘honest brokers’ in the communities. It is also an effective way for them to work to ‘shorten the line’ of clients. It’s also fun to work with people in a resource-based way versus a need-based way. I think we’re excited that we’re helping people build resources for sustainability. We’re not just giving them something to get through the week with.
What about the food banks that are getting very concerned about drifting from their mission or getting into an area where some of their donors or their board are going to freak out at them by being involved in issues of poverty.
A process of education is often required for the food bank board. In Reno, we happen to have a board chair who is a businessman. He doesn’t want to keep raising money to feed the same people every year. He wants to find a way to help people move out of the need for our services. The logic of it then, from a bottom line point of view can be very appealing. It also involves being a leader in the community in a new way.
It is also be a way of making a difference in a measurable way quite quickly. We can count the number of people we’re educating. We can count the number of people graduating our ‘Getting Ahead’ program. We can count what happens to our graduates as they begin to move on. it’s a win-win. You can lower your food procurement dollars, and you can increase sustainability in the community.
I will tell you on that the fundraising side, the funders for our Bridges work are not people that were funding the food bank before. We’re finding a lot of new funders who are interested in capacity building. They were not interested in needs-based money. There’s been no adulteration of the food bank dollars. In some cases, the same people who donate to the food bank now also give to Bridges. Like Wells Fargo Bank and Charles Schwab. They say, “Yes, we’ll still continue to give for a food distribution program, but we’re also really interested in what happens to these people in the community as they began to grow.”
I believe in a previous conversation you talked about the ‘hidden rules’ about food distribution. Would you to clarify what you mean about that?
With people in poverty, their view of food is all about scarcity and ‘having enough’. People will hoard food. They will take more than they need. This is because of scarcity being the primary focus. It doesn’t have to be good food or be cooked well. It doesn’t have to be nourishing or healthy. But there has to be enough of it. In middle class norms, people may care more about how things taste and look. With food distribution programs, those running them often care most about fairness. So you can see how these two things are going to rub up against each other, because both groups are not necessarily able to compensate for the other’s perspective.
If we have a situation where someone takes more than their allocation, then there is a breakdown in the relationship. There is agitation from the volunteer around fairness and agitation from the client around scarcity. I did a volunteers training at the Reno Food Bank. They were having these type of problems and the volunteers were pretty cranky! After they had the training, they tried some new things that they came up with on their own. There was a much better result meaning people didn’t hoard.
Give me an example of some of the things that they changed.
They changed the order in which they gave out food. People would always get there early, and they would be the same people every week. If you came later and were at the back of the line, sometimes you didn’t get anything. Now sometimes they start at the back of the line or in the middle. The second thing we did was ask the clients how they could improve the situation. The Bridges construct says that you give people in poverty a chance to be a problem-solver. You don’t solve the problem for them. The clients developed a way of trading food at the site. Somebody didn’t want bread. Somebody else wanted two cans of tuna fish, whatever. They figured it out themselves. They were happy with the result. The food bank distribution people were shocked. That’s what happened. There was a little lessening of control, but it worked to everyone’s benefit.
Deb, thanks for sharing some of your work.
To move forward the Bridges work, Santa Barbara County Foodbank will be holding a two-day training with member agencies in the first half of this year. We will also look at pairing it with a cultural awareness training component. The Bridges concept of living in the ‘tyranny of the moment’ is fascinating (because we’ve all at least vacationed there…) and so are some of the observations about poverty class vs. middle class thinking in certain areas.
There are so many great things about Bridges. But what of the current challenges I see with Bridges? I would put them in two areas. The first is the ‘class’ labeling that is used extensively, with the intention of moving people from one class outlook to another. I could see that it might be hard to avoid people feeling inferior. There are the potential dangers of what is called ‘classism’, which is prejudice or discrimination based on social class.
I was brought up in England which had its own obsession with class, which was very clear and on the surface. People opened their mouths and you knew what the deal was. In America, it is more subtle. Money can reveal, but money can also obscure.
I do find the Bridges focus on making everyone middle class a little challenging sometimes as if the middle class has all the answers. I mean if the middle class is so smart why does it seem to be steadily being annihilated through financial genocide…just a thought, folks!
I think Bridges advocates might respond that it is more a process of getting people to look at how the world is working now, to look under the hood at the engine and get a new understanding that will benefit them as they make changes that they feel the need to.
The other challenge is culture. Currently, from the small amount I have seen, the program is not very well culturally attenuated. So, within the Latino community for instance, there are many very powerful tools and relationships that help people get by in life through mutual and extended family and community support. A lot of ‘middle class white’ families might give up some of their advantages for grandma living next door to watch the kids. (I know I would!)
There is also more solidity around community development and small scale inter-community investment, both with cash and sweat equity. I have no doubt that as the Bridges program develops further within Latino communities that it will be adapted to better suit a different cultural reality, and that some elements can be accepted and others rejected.
In an upcoming post, we will look at non-profit community development and empowerment programs that use different models – such as the Just Communities program here in Santa Barbara County.
This is an exciting field, because we are getting away from a fixation on scarcity which seems to breed more scarcity, and we are empowering people to generate more. I know I sound like some kind of infomercial dude telling you to ‘generate abundance.’ Or maybe I am. Give me a better tan and a toupee and I would be glad to shill for ‘generating sufficiency’ and ‘generating sustainability.’
I encourage you to investigate the Bridges approach. It is an imperfect tool, but one that is being developed and improved in communities across the country. There is no ‘silver bullet’ (just like with gun control, as Joe Biden said – he does know how to say just the wrong thing at the wrong time, doesn’t he!) At the very least Bridges is an interesting filter for individuals,organizations and agencies to look at the world through and ask: “Does this do anything to help me see more clearly? Or “Can I combine this with some other initiative to provide a culturally and community appropriate set of tools and pathways out of poverty and into a healthy, sustainable community?”
If you were an old timer like me who came of age in the 80’s, but were painfully hip then, you will remember how the musical group ‘Gang of Four’ put it.
Dr. Hilary Seligman, MD, MAS, is an Assistant Professor of Medicine within UC San Francisco’s Center For Vulnerable Populations and a general internist at San Francisco General Hospital. She is also affiliated with the UCSF Center for Obesity Assessment, Study and Treatment. Dr. Seligman’s work focuses on food security and its effect on the development and management of chronic diseases such as obesity, hypertension, diabetes and heart failure.
There is a reasonable amount of awareness about the health burden that food insecurity places on early childhood development, but not so much with adults, and I find that a really interesting element of your research.
We have largely ignored the long-term health implications of food insecurity among adults. And so what I’ve tried to do is firstly figure out if there are health implications for adults, and – yes – there do seem to be important health implications. They’re a little harder to talk about because it’s a little more complicated than just saying iron deficiency anemia, but I think the message needs to get out there that food insecurity has nutritional implications that are important, not only for children, but for adults too.
We all get so amped up trying to save the next generation that we forget the current one – and that would be you and me, folks!
A key element, which I think has wider relevance as we help our clients with their nutrition, concerns the cycles of food adequacy and inadequacy. We might expect a compensatory strategy of skipping meals, (leading to hypoglycemia) during times of food shortage, but you demonstrated that even when these people had enough food, it led to systematic overconsumption – people wanting to feast now that it was not a time of famine – which had similarly negative effects on the control of their diabetes, leading to hyperglycemia.
Yes, and food insecure adults required about five more physician encounters per year than those that are food secure.
In so far as the Food Bank Network touches an extraordinary number of people, and particularly people who are very high risk for the varied diseases that food insecurity predisposes people to, namely obesity, diabetes, and other diet-related diseases, food banks really present an unbelievable opportunity to be part of the solution to the nutritional inadequacy and the typical food-insecure adult diet.
So what do you think food banks should be doing to help address this situation?
Food banks often reach a person at least once a month, in a context that allows them to talk about diet and provide nutritious food. People are much more willing to talk about their diet when they go into an environment in anticipation of leaving with food. And then it’s the challenge of what kind of food does the food bank provide, and how much of that food will provide a high nutrient value.
As distributors of food, we can potentially get stuck in a place of having to provide clients with donated food which may provide them with an overgenerous supply of calories but that doesn’t do much to build their nutritional health. The other tough place is unsustainable spending healthier food, which even with the buying power of a food bank can be hugely expensive.
Totally. There are huge distribution and logistics challenges. I think what we have to do is take the first step which is to look at it and acknowledge that obesity and diabetes are a huge problem in the clients that are served by food banks and that food banks have the potential to greatly assist with that management.
We are now in a new situation where the ‘emergency food’ situation is becoming the new norm for a large number of our clients. Do you think that requires a greater degree of responsibility for what kind of food we are distributing?
It does. Food banks are being asked to feed people year after year after year because SNAP is underfunded. And that’s where we get the problem. It is the chronicity of use I think that makes essential an increased nutritional value in the food bank offerings. The other thing that’s changed is that an individual calorie has become so cheap that it’s really easy to get too many of them. You can get a lot of calories from poor food and feel full, but you won’t get any nutritional value from it. This is especially true of the food insecure clientele accessing services from a food bank or member agency.
I’ve heard the argument that non-nutritional calories (Twinkies and chips and pretzels) are so cheap that anybody can afford those in the United States, and the food bank should only be there to provide fruits and vegetables and other very healthy food items. That is a more extreme view, right? That’s not necessarily my absolute view, but there is a certain value in considering whether clients can afford more expensive calories, and therefore considering what type of food that food banks should be providing in the future.
Particularly as access to these cheaper calories become more difficult for food banks, as corporations continue to become more efficient with their inventory. If the food in a food bank resembles the proportions of the contents of the USDA’s My Plate, that would be an ideal situation: half fruits and vegetables, a quarter whole grains and a quarter protein – lean meats and protein substitutes.
Our food bank is pursuing a steady transition to a specifically preventative healthcare agenda. Our goal is to leverage short-term relief of hunger and food insecurity into longer-term shifts of client behaviors around food leading to better health. This means an integrated series of programs starting with expectant mothers and following children through right up to the high school level. This means outcome-based evaluation, which is very challenging, yet we feel it is essential to gain the credibility to exist in this new and potentially very powerful space. However, we’re nothing if not a joyful ‘Heinz 57 Varieties’ of a network. Do you think that there is a lot that any food bank can do to move forward a healthy food agenda without having the particular focus that we have.
Yes, I think every food bank can make big strides, whatever their resources or approach. The link between dietary intake and obesity and diabetes is clear enough that just documenting an increased intake or increased access to fruits and vegetables is enough to create an important public health message to the client group.
By the same token, you don’t necessarily have to show that BMI goes down or that diabetes is better controlled, because that link is well established enough. Just showing that fruits and vegetables are desired, they’re taken, and they’re eaten at home rather than ‘they spoiled and I threw them away,’ that’s enough.
Surely education – in what we like to term food literacy – plays a key role here?
Yes, the evidence in the academic literature suggests that protein is the most significant problem, because clients are reluctant to shift to non-meat proteins. Particularly in low-income communities, it’s not considered a meal unless you have meat, and that’s not the most nutritious message. Other protein sources like beans and lentils and tofu are cheaper than meat and offer great nutritional value, but that’s an education message that we need to be communicating as well, and it’s often a hard sell.
What doesn’t seem to be as much of an educational issue is fruits and vegetables. People like access to fruits and vegetables and will take them it when they are available, and when they take it, they eat it. So the bigger educational barrier to me seems to be in the protein choices. In terms of fruits and vegetables, the big place where education needs to be done, I think, is with produce that people aren’t so familiar with, whether for cultural or other reasons. Particularly because these less familiar fruits and vegetables often end up at food banks.
Tell me about it! Every day for us is ‘Three Hundred Things to do with a Persimmon.’ Martha Stewart has nothing on us!
So, I would like to ask you what is your definition of optimal food security? How can we define it in an individual seeking our services and how can we measure our interaction with that person to know whether they are able to attain it?
That’s a great question. You know, this is, again, my personal opinion. People will disagree with me. But I think that the way you know someone’s food secure is they’re not coming back to the food bank. Even if you report on a food security survey that you’re not worried about running out of food because of money, 99% of people who answer that they’re food secure on a survey administered by a food bank are doing so because they have come to rely on that food bank as a chronic source of their food intake. And so they don’t need those additional food resources because they have the food bank.
So where would you like to see the Food Bank Network in 5 years, as relates to this area?
I would love there to be some relatively straight forward way that food banks can record their product as high nutrient value versus standard nutrient value, so that there is a simple way to track improvement.
Feeding America is looking for other markers of success that are more nutritionally than poundage focused, and of course different food banks are already using systems such as CHOP (Choose Healthy Options Program) to rank their food.
Yes, though I think oftentimes they’re difficult to operationalize. So I would love to see that food banks can set individual quality goals around improved nutrition. Many food banks already have the skills around refrigeration and quick distribution, so it is more about developing the infrastructure for all food banks so they can respond if say a farm were to call up and say I have 100 pallets of broccoli, will you take it? Many food banks would say, no, we can’t take that much because we can’t refrigerate it or distribute it quickly enough. This is a hurdle that deserves to remain a major focus.
Hilary, thanks for your significant research in this area and for your support of and belief in the work of food banks.
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.
Why am I suggesting we make a drama out of a crisis? Pray, indulge me for a moment. First, let me suggest that there are a myriad reasons that cause people’s relationship with food to go out of balance:
• feelings of low self-esteem by not being able to currently provide for the complete nutritional needs of a family,
• body and health image issues as a result of family and societal pressures,
• lack of other ways to deal with stress and emotional issues,
• lack of empowerment around nutrition and health.
All of this stuff is both complicated and layered deep within us. Clearly, receiving a expensive color leaflet on healthy eating or receiving generalized nutrition education at too early a stage is not going to do much to counter any of these deep-seated issues. It will not change people’s behaviors around health and food.
Our approach at the Foodbank in Santa Barbara County has been to focus on the practical and interactive. Kids won’t eat vegetables. Absolutely. Kids will eat vegetables that they have had a hand in figuring out a recipe for, or cooking, or having had a hand in growing. Equally absolute.
Nevertheless, given the deep seated issues and the power of family and societal pressures (like the $12 billion McDonalds spent on advertising last year) make it clear that wholesale transformation requires a number of education/empowerment approaches that appeal to and engage people in different ways.
That is why live drama is such an appropriate approach to deal with this area. Since the time campfire storytelling gradually became replaced by dramatized depictions of the messy complexity of life, drama has been a powerful tool to bring about self-awareness and stir action.
Food insecurity can be fought when people feel empowered around food, to look after themselves and their families and begin to demand that their communities are organized in a way that makes sure everyone has enough to eat. Food literacy can be attained when people are able to see and begin to break down the ‘programming’ around food that they and others around them have allowed to grow up since they were still in their mother’s womb.
For the sake of full disclosure, I should reveal that my early writing background in England was as a dramatist. When I was still at college, I actually got all of my friends to join the Drama Society so that they could vote for the Society to perform my play as their next production. While this egotistical attempt to warp current reality to fit my own view of it might later prove an important life-skill, at this early stage it blew up in my face, when the Drama Society met again in secret to pass a new rule that new members couldn’t vote for 90 days. (And I’ve kept away from politics ever since…)
Nevertheless I carried on and wrote a number of plays and had some moderate success with some productions on the London ‘fringe’ (or ‘Off-off-Broadway as it might be termed in the U.S.) As a young man, powerful theater productions certainly changed the way I thought about a lot of things in life, and experiencing them in a small theater (preferably in the round) where the actors are practically spitting on you, helps you internalize things in a way that staring at a screen never can.
Fascinating as Erik’s trips down memory lane are, how can this really help shape young people’s attitudes to food and health? Well, my experience and those of others suggests a number of avenues.
Let me start with the more widescreen approach. Last night I attended the opening night of ‘Café Vida’, the new production by LA’s respected Cornerstone Theater Company. It is part of ‘The Hunger Cycle’, nine world premiere plays about hunger, justice and food equity issues.’
Agreed, that makes it sound worthy but dull, something aimed at the intelligentsia rather than those who might more urgently be touched by these issues. Cornerstone’s approach is to work with the community and have a playwright draw together strands and stories that come from extensive research and workshops with people. The play was written by Lisa Loomer and directed by MICHAEL JOHN GARCÉS
This approach was certainly effective with ‘Café Vida’ which looked at Chabela, a woman recently released from prison who is fighting to get her daughter back from foster care and who lands a job at the titular café which is run by Homegirl Catering, the offshoot of Homeboy Industries, the work-generating nonprofit for ex-gang members started by Father Greg Boyle in LA.
The play opened with a welcome recognition of the wider issue of hunger that was the intellectual starting point for this blog.(“I’m hungry for success, “I’m hungry for a father, but I’ll take any man that puts up with me” etc) and with Chabela struggling with her body image.
Through the course of the play, food becomes not the weight dragging her down, but the chance for empowerment that she has been casting around for. She has to learn about food and cooking, and even risks cooking Kale for her abusive husband. (Needless to say she’s brave.) There are funny and honest scenes about the homeboys and girl’s scorn for composting or growing food (you can imagine the hoe/ho’ jokes…) or the humiliation of having to be a waiter and trying to keep a happy face no matter how rude the customer.
Chabela is play by Lynette Alfaro, who was herself in very similar situations (jail, struggling to reclaim daughter etc). The point of this approach to drama is the transformative effect of the people who involved in the production as much as the family, friends and others in the audience.
I went to see the play, because I have been in discussion with Cornerstone for a number of months about using their approach with local writers and performers in Santa Barbara to look at the issues of food literacy and insecurity that we are engaging with.
Productions like this can serve as a powerful advocacy tool for those involved in the provision of food or emergency services. It stops the discussion getting stopped with some people on the level of ‘charity for the needy,’ or ‘encouraging people to be lazy and not work to provide for themselves’ and that’s even before we get into the subject of food stamps…
However, I believe there is a vital next step for the use of drama in this area. That is within the actual programs that serve people, utilizing scenes and songs devised by young people themselves.
We have to rewind a few years again to the late 90’s. Coming to Santa Barbara from England (I didn’t realize you made your millions and then moved to Santa Barbara, but that’s another story) I hooked up with an organization called City@Peace, which uses drama and the arts to teach conflict resolution and mediation skills to teens. They work a mixture of ‘at-risk’ kids, those sent to a Court High School, those directed to the program by juvenile Courts and a sprinkling of theater nerds, and each year they work to put on an original production at a local theater with scenes and sometimes songs written and acted by kids.
I received an Artist in Residence Award from the (now defunct) California Arts Council to teach scriptwriting and film making at the program. The program can have a powerful affect on the kids who become involved, keeping them out of trouble and helping them look at their lives in a different way. (In fact one of the kids from that program that I taught, James, now lives around the corner from me – happy, hard working and well-adjusted, when that seemed an impossible dream just a few short years ago. The program is still going strong now with an upcoming production ‘Echoes’ this month.
I will be speaking to City@Peace in the next few weeks to explore the possibilities of a co-production with them as well that might focus on these areas.
One byproduct of these would be short pieces, using drama, comedy and music to explore some the issues around food in the family, in the school and in their lives. We would hope to put together a small troupe who might want to perform at some of our after-school programs like Healthy School Pantry. This would draw more people to the program, and deepen the messages coming out of the existing approach to empowering people around food and providing the food and skills to do. These skits could also be videoed and used in PSAs and in other forums.
Those who attended the Feeding America National Summit in Detroit last month witnessed a performance by the city’s Mosaic Youth Theater. Mosaic included a couple of raps/performance pieces on nutrition and eating habits. While this was on a fairly surface level of ‘kids saying what adults want them to say’, there was nevertheless some powerful stuff that would truly resonate with an audience of teenagers as much as an audience of well-oiled food bankers.
I would encourage organizations around the country to consider the possibilities of partnerships with local theater and educational companies in these areas. In a development sense, these activities can help you tap into foundations and donors with more interest in arts/education than with human services, so there may be funding available that is not going to dilute your current funding. For those in the programmatic area, building entertainment and involvement into your programs is clearly the way to go forward.
Today our focus is the covert connection between Elvis Presley, the Indianapolis 500 race, a deadly substance known as Fool’s Gold, Miss Teen California and an alien mothership. For the good of humanity, and at risk of a mysterious death at the hand of unknown assassins, this strange tale must be told…
It began this very morning. A grey and unremarkable morning, except it wasn’t. Today was the Foodbank of Santa Barbara County’s 30th birthday, and here is the cake to prove it!
Back in 1982, I was a callow long-raincoated student at University College London, listening to Joy Division, working on my greasy fringe and trying to impress girls with my knowledge of obscure foreign films. But in 1982, here in Santa Barbara County, they had their act together a little more than I did, and they were responding to the urgent need to source and store food for use by our county’s nonprofit organizations.
All this year, we’ve been honoring this mission and acknowledging the achievements that saw a transition from 82,000lbs distributed in our first year to over 11,000,000 pounds last year, of which half was fresh produce. At the same time, we have been turning our gaze to what needs to be achieved in the next 30 years. We will see a very different Foodbank by then (and I suspect far before then) which is much of the focus of this blog, but I would like to consider something else that will be apparent 30 years from now, the legacy of the food environment that our children are facing today.
Thousands of children in our service area are facing malnutrition that is hidden behind brightly colored packaging and the hard sell of 360 degree advertising. The outrageous nature of fast food has reached giddy new heights with news of the Crown Crust Cheeseburger Pizza, which Pizza Hut is currently unleashing in the Middle East. (Obviously when smart bombs fail, it is time for the junk bomb).
As you can see from the comparative photos above, this is the mothership of fast food with mini cheeseburgers embedded jewel-like into the crust of the pizza. Maybe you should even savor the commercial, though there are probably a few excess calories involved in even doing that…
Now back to this morning and the cake. Behind that man who could afford to lose a few pounds (me), there is another man sitting on a motorized wheelchair (Andy Granatelli) who could certainly stand to lose a few more pounds. Andy is a local SB legend and Indianapolis 500 race car driver, who for many years was the face behind STP commercials.
Andy attended our event to show his appreciation for our mission (“They feed hungry kids,” he shouted to attendees whenever he got the chance.) During his remarks he referred back to his childhood in the Great Depression (Maybe what we have now is the ‘not so great’ depression) and how his family were always hungry and struggling to find food. This had become more than just a bad childhood memory to put behind him, but had actually shaped his health significantly in the intervening years. He is obese and diabetic and sees a clear correlation between this and his childhood.
This got me thinking of Elvis Presley, another person whose future health was shaped by an early experience of hunger. Squirrel and other roadkill were certainly not unknown on the menu of the young Elvis. The gospel elements of his vocal style can be traced to the fact that as a young boy he was brought to many churches in the South because of the fried chicken dinner offered to congregants after the service. Food became somewhat of an obsession with Elvis, and as he became more popular and money was not the issue, the need to binge eat (a habit of the food insecure who have no surety that there will be another meal anytime soon) became more and more pronounced.
One example is the Fool’s Gold Sandwich, weighing in at 6000 calories. This is an infernal combination of a pound of bacon, a jar each of peanut butter and grape jelly and a whole loaf of bread – though by the look of the photograph, there could be some kind of road kill in there. Elvis would have six of them made at the restaurant i n Denver that specialized in them and then fly in by private jet with his entourage and consume them in the airport hangar washed down with Champagne.There is actually a great book looking at Elvis’ life through the lens of food, called ‘The Life and Cuisine of Elvis Presley.’
Both Elvis and Andy found it impossible to escape from that formative relationship with food. Many of us have emotional triggers that cause us to eat mindlessly and to excess – imagine how they are multiplied if your body and psyche have real experience of doing without food.
There is a link for me to another person keen to be in the spotlight of media attention. A couple of years ago I met Miss Teen California (such is the glamorous life that I live) Dedria Brunett (yet a blonde). Dedria had gone through the foster care system and was an adopted child who survived her early years by finding food in trash cans. When we met, she talked candidly about capturing bugs to eat and the binging and purging that was the legacy that still remained from those days.
What we can’t get away from is the list of diseases growing inside people as a result of what they’re eating. If the Foodbank is going to step up and admit some culpability (don’t sue us) for provision of less than healthy food in the past, then it is about time that manufacturers of these tasty chemical treats started having to pay for some of the real world health consequences of their business activities. The ‘fast food settlement’ anyone?
Old and young are facing the after-effects of a childhood of food insecurity. Thirty years from now the children facing this now will be facing a new reality of diabetes, heart problems, danger of strokes and diet related cancer. Our new Elvis Presleys are storing up a lot of trouble and it’s our job to intercede before it’s too late.
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.
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.