Waking the Sleeping Dragon: A pathway for food banks to create an equitable food system – A Dialogue with Jan Poppendieck

Jan Poppendieck’s book on the emergency food provision system, entitled ‘Sweet Charity?: Emergency Food and the End of Entitlement’ was released in 1998. It is a book I only came across a year or so ago, and  for me it was like discovering some secret artifact that confirmed all the things I had come to believe after six years of running a soup kitchen for the homeless and four years running a food bank.

I now ask new leadership team members in our organization to read the book as background to why ‘charity’ alone cannot solve the nutrition issues we are facing. Jan has been active both as an academic and also serving on the board of Why Hunger? in NYC, amongst others. She has most recently written “Free for All: Fixing School Food in America,” . I spoke to Jan last week.

Jan Poppendieck

How have things changed since you wrote Sweet Charity?

Not enough. Nevertheless, foodbankers are escaping from the emergency mentality. They have been in this business so long now that they know that the short term emergency is not the whole story. The implication is that if we are not feeding people for only the short term, then we have to pay much closer attention to the nutritional impact of our actions. This means there has been much more awareness of the need for fresh produce within the network.

Sue Sigler, the ED of the California Association of Food Banks recently told me that she thought ‘Sweet Charity’ was almost single-handedly responsible for bringing food banks into the public policy realm, which was an area considered best avoided prior to 1999.

That’s flattering. I hope I helped move the discussion along. Certainly, the food bank network is more visible and active in public policy advocacy now, especially in the fight to protect TEFAP and SNAP. There is lots of room for more engagement too. I imagine the foodbanking network as a sleeping dragon that if it could mobilize all of the soup kitchen and pantry staff and clients and volunteers and supporters and board members, we would have a very loud voice in public policy. It is a huge challenge of course, but even mobilizing some of them could be very effective.

Do you think this group should be mobilized around what to enshrine or include in a specific piece of legislation like the Farm Bill, or do you think it has to be a wider, less specific mobilization around a cause.

That’s an interesting question. Like most others in the policy world I live from crisis to crisis or opportunity to opportunity. Fighting cutbacks on SNAP while the economy is suffering like it is now is something that has to be done, but it tends to draw all of our energy and attention. It is harder to move from responding to an immediate threat to a more visionary approach to public policy, where we are looking downstream at what kind of country we want to live in, and what kind of people do we want to be. Emergency food provision can be a tough place to start this discussion from.

That’s exactly why some are trying to find a new and powerful place – the public health arena – from where food banks and their network of 64,000 member agencies can have a fresh kind of leverage and  credibility to operate from, one that is underpinned by a long-term preventative health approach. I believe this path can be less divisive within our political landscape where ‘division’ seems to be the current approach to problem solving. If we look back at the fight against tobacco, it was not couched in terms of ‘haves’ giving charity to help ameliorate the conditions of the ‘have-nots’, but in terms of what was smart for the future health of the country. We need to take that same approach with nutrition.

One of the great things about the history of public health is that it has always stressed interventions that would target hazards or sources of ill health in the population and in the environment, as well as changes in individual behavior. On your From Hunger to Health site, where you run through the ‘Lovely Leptin’ and the ‘Ghastly Ghrelin’ – that is the clearest presentation I have seen about why distributing highly processed foods leads to hunger and obesity. The education with food approach that you are taking is right, because if it leads to us to being able to draw in the grass roots – the little church food pantry in the low-income neighborhood – it could produce a massive movement for change that would lead to a demand for healthier food, and public policies which would promote the production of healthier food.

The public health community often has a top-down approach. They indicate that they’ve done the research and know what is bad for us and are busy getting the word out through all sorts of messaging. But somehow they don’t encourage a process whereby people are able to discover this out for themselves and deduce what kind of changes are needed, for instance in what is available in their local store at a fair price. If food banking could become the pathway by which food insecure Americans began to assert their power towards a healthier food supply, it would be fantastic.

That is what an increasing number of food banks are beginning to promote. Outreach in the past often meant drawing people into our programs, then it became more focused on promoting SNAP. If you look at what  Santa Cruz are trying to do with their Ambassadors Program or we are trying to do with our Nutritional Advisory Committees, it is moving things to the next step of empowerment.

Certainly there is more specific interest from Feeding America out of their new strategic plan, in what is possible by ‘mobilizing the public.’ Though I believe there is still a little too much emphasis on that mobilization being focused on people ‘telling their stories’ to the end of helping us highlight the continuing seriousness of food insecurity, rather than taking the next step and empowering them to move beyond their stories and become more involved in creating a local food system that truly looks after their health. It’s hard work, but it’s the kind of ground-up work that leads to true transformation.

I think that this is how things need to happen. We can’t end hunger with more and more food. Mounting inequality means that our public policy is typically made by those who can afford private schools and boutique medical care and gated communities. They are the ones making decisions about how much to invest in the public solutions that are there for the rest of us. They need to hear the voices of those who they are there to serve, or we need to replace them with people who share our interests and problems.

Free for All: Fixing School Food in America, University of California Press, 2011

Your most recent book “Free For All” looks at another puzzle palace of American nutrition, the school food system and the need for it to be reformed. Is there a link between the subject matter of these two books?

Both books are all about how average families get by. School food is so important, because the more human needs we can have met through normalized situations like the provision of a healthy school lunch, then the less people have to become marginalized and forced into seeking emergency solutions.

Also, school cafeterias used to be instructional and have an educational function – to teach kids how to eat well. I would say this is something we need more than ever, to compensate for the distortions in diet that are a consequence of the fortunes spent in selling non-nutritious food-like products to kids.

Thanks Jan, for your work and your vision.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.