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

Making a drama out of Food Literacy education

Hamlet: “Alas Poor Cauliflower, I knew him. A fellow of infinite recipe possibilities and cancer-busting properties.”

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:

scarcity at a young age,

• 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.

Gregor Samsa awoke one morning to discover that he had been transformed into a Happy Meal.

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.

Preparing incredibly-edible Beet Pancakes at one of our ‘Pink and Dude’ Chef Programs for Middle School kids.

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.

Lynette Alfaro

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.

More news from SB on this front as it develops.

Bike Blenders: The Perfect Vehicle for Food Bank Outreach

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

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

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

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

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

Climb on board!

Healthy School Pantry creates a Community of Winners

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

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

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

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

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

This is how it works:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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