Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Nurturing Laramie’s Local Food System

Firehole Canyon, WY
Wyoming is our least populous state.  As we tented at Firehole Canyon and crossed southern Wyoming on Interstate 80, we saw vast views of sparsely-populated, high, wind-swept, dry country. 

How do things grow here?

Imagine our delight when we arrived in Laramie to find the LaBonte Community Garden, the most beautiful and lush community garden we’ve yet encountered. Wandering on the freshly wood-chip covered paths through the garden, as many Laramie residents do each day, we saw about 16 neat plots of various sizes. There were even 2 crescent-shaped plots arranged outside a beautiful mature tree. A large L-shaped portion housed the Children’s Garden, complete with butterfly garden and small greenhouse.
LaBonte Community Garden, Laramie, WY

The garden was proud with a huge variety of produce from asparagus to zucchini, and just about everything in between. We saw beans, beets, broccoli, and Brussels sprouts; cabbage, carrots, chard, corn, and cucumbers; kale, lettuce, mustard greens, onions, peas, potatoes, tomatoes, squash, strawberries, sunflowers, and a few things we couldn’t identify precisely, although it was very clear that they weren’t weeds. Oh, and there were plenty of flowers, too.

Gayle Woodsum soon arrived to tell us the story of this garden.  Gayle is a community organizer who heads a project called Feeding Laramie Valley.  This project is a loose coalition of groups involved in the lively sustainable foods movement in Laramie and the surrounding Albany County.  Laramie Local Foods hosts an interesting set of workshops and resources for people interested in eating local, growing their own food, and creating a sustainable local food system, and Laramie Mainstreet hosts the Laramie Farmers Market. 
Gayle Woodsum

But starting the LaBonte Outdoor Learning Center and Community Garden last summer required a large effort from many sources.  Laramie Rivers Conservation District education coordinator Trish Penny, who runs outdoor learning classes for children at the park in the summer, wanted a full-fledged teaching garden.  Trish worked with the Laramie Parks and Recreation Department and the Laramie City Council to obtain permission to locate the garden in this city park and to work out all the details of garden size and layout, plot steward agreements, and legal releases.   

Once the garden was approved, funding from the city, local businesses, and grants enabled fencing, a shed, and a small greenhouse to be constructed.  The Laramie Garden Club provided top soil, and the University of Wyoming’s Student Farm ACRES provided compost.  Dozens of volunteers came together to rip sod and lay the new soil.  The Wyoming State Forestry Department provided apple, plum and cherry trees.  The Laramie Beautification Committee provided an ADA accessible pathway through the garden. 

Gardening in Laramie is challenging.  The growing season is very short (only 51 days), the rainfall is scarce, and the temperature shifts are extreme due to high altitude (7200 feet).  We were told that experienced gardeners here say, “Every year gardening in Laramie is an experiment.”   At the LaBonte Garden, mentors help newer gardeners plant and tend their plots successfully.

Feeding Laramie Valley coordinates many other projects in addition to the LaBonte Community Garden.  Gayle told us about helping to establish several other gardens, including a “production garden” and a community garden at the First United Methodist Church.  Feeding Laramie Valley also makes sure that excess produce from these gardens and the Farmers’ Market is distributed to food pantries, shelters, and the senior center.  Gayle’s role is to loosely coordinate all of these projects, to advocate for sustainable local food wherever she can, and to gather stories about what works and doesn’t work so well in building a strong community food system.

Will this energetic local food movement be enough to make significant improvements in the quality of food in Laramie, to ensure the ability of the community to feed itself, and to provide access to food for all, regardless of their economic situation?  How can we all learn from their successes and challenges in order to better support this move toward healthy food for all? 

Interestingly, there’s a research project sponsored by the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture asking just such questions.  Dr. Christine M. Porter, Assistant Professor of Public Health at the University of Wyoming, is principal investigator on a 5-year, $5M grant entitled, “Food Dignity: Action Research on Engaging Food Insecure Communities and Universities In Building Sustainable Community Food Systems.” 

Dr. Porter and her research associates are partnering with 5 very different communities, each of which will be a case study in efforts to improve their community food systems.  Feeding Laramie Valley is one.  The others are
  • The Whole Community Project of Cornell Cooperative Extension, Tompkins County NY.  This project focuses on providing healthy food and active play for children.
  • East New York Farms! of United Community Centers in Brooklyn, NY.  This project is based on an urban farm that is promoting local food justice and economic development.
  • Blue Mountain Associates, Inc. of Wind River Reservation, WY.  This organization provides health and human services to the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho living there.
  • Dig Deep Farms & Produce of Alameda County, CA.  This farm is a project of the Deputy Sheriffs’ Activities League, meant to provide fresh affordable produce and also to foster a healthier community with more paid employment and less violence.
Dr. Christine Porter
Each site will receive a small amount of money ($30,000 over 3 years) to pass along to the community in the form of mini-grants to support new gardens or other initiatives important to growing their sustainable food system.  Some of the funding will also pay for a half-time community organizer who will document the case studies by interviewing and conducting focus groups to gather the stories about successes and challenges.   Representatives from all the sites, as well as the partnering universities and other organizations will meet at least once a year to share their experiences and learn from each other.

Dr. Porter describes her approach as “community-based participatory action research.”  At the same time as this grant is supporting each of the partner communities to build healthy, local sustainable food systems, the Food Dignity team is documenting the progress.  The results will help inform these and other community food system efforts and demonstrate how dovernment and academic institutions can best support communities in this work.

We think Dr. Porter's approach will go a long way toward inspiring just and healthy access to food for all.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Create Common Good

Last week in Oregon we learned about the importance of ending hunger before it begins, through increased job opportunities and training. This week, we visited Create Common Good in Boise, Idaho, which is doing just that for a particularly vulnerable population – refugees.

Show, don't tell
According to the UN definition, you are a refugee if you are unable to return to your country because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.  Only about 1% of those in refugee camps are resettled into a host country, and then typically only after many, many years.  If selected for resettlement to the US, you are assigned to one of 10 voluntary refugee resettlement agencies, each of which places refugees close to one or more of about 40 cities across the country.  That agency is responsible for finding you a place to live, finding a health care provider for you, and arranging for other support services such as English classes and training classes.  The US government provides financial support to states for this process.  However, within 8 months, you are expected to be self-sufficient!  That’s a tall order, and many refugees need additional help. 

Tara Russell, CEO (Chief Experience Officer) and founder of Create Common Good, explained that refugees come to the US with a huge range of backgrounds.  Some were professionals in their home countries, have resources and connections in this country, and know English.  These refugees usually adapt quickly, and have a support network to help in times of trouble.   But on the other end of the curve are those who have few skills that translate easily to this culture.  They may not know any English.  They may not know how to read or write (in any language) or use numbers, and may have a second-grade education or less.  They may not know how to interact with others in employment situations.  And they may have been severely traumatized by their past life experiences.  These are the refugees that Create Common Good targets with their programs.

Create Common Good’s programs are divided into four areas:

This is the heart of the program.  Their job skill and language training courses work on job-specific simulations in which the instructors show how to do the actual tasks that would be expected in specific jobs, along with site visits to employer partners in the area to try them out.  Tara said, “We believe in show, don’t tell, which has been shown to be the most effective way for our clients to learn.”   Therefore, all classes teach by showing and working alongside the instructor, teaching the English words appropriate to the job as they go along, and then reinforcing the skills and language as the clients practice.  For example, if a group were working on janitorial skills, the instructor would show the participants how they’d be expected to mop a room, but would also teach them the words “mop,” “pail,” “detergent.”  The clients would mop the room and practice “this is my mop, this is my pail” with the teachers as they worked.  They might then go to a worksite to try out their new skills.  Also included are social and job skills, such as showing up on time every day, suitably dressed, making eye contact, and interacting appropriately in the workplace.  As clients learn, their confidence and resilience build, which helps in other areas of their lives.

Create Common Good’s teaching approach is very systematic, so they can track what each client has learned.  Classes have a maximum of 12 students and 2-4 instructors, and were developed in-house to fit their clients’ needs.  As clients progress, the instructors determine where they excel and what jobs would best fit them.  They take students to interviews, and are able to say things like “In 8 weeks, she’s gone from being able to do only this, to now being able to do these new things.  Just think what she’ll know after a few weeks of working here!” 

Everyone in the organization rejoices each time another client gets a job.

Devi Kharel, Head Farmer
Washing fava beans we'd just harvested
Create Common Good operates a beautiful organic farm on 5 acres of land donated by Eastwind Community Church. This provides another venue to help refugees with training and paid work opportunities.

We spent a morning at the farm, where Devi Kharel, Head Farmer, an agricultural expert and refugee from Bhutan, put us to work harvesting cilantro and parsley, and helping others harvest fava beans and mustard greens. Trainees were harvesting tomatoes, red, white and purple potatoes, basil, and other fresh produce. All produce was washed and prepared for delivery. Today, some went to CSA members (people who’ve bought shares of each week’s fresh produce from the farm) and some was sold at a stand at Dunia Marketplace.

All sales and deliveries are handled by Tyler Smith, Director of Farm Sales, Food Culture and Outreach, with the assistance of one of the trainees working on the farm. Other produce from the farm is sold to a wholesale partner and local restaurants, used in Stir and Create programs (see below), given to those in need including the refugees in the programs, and donated to the Idaho Food Bank and other partner agencies. 

Tyler Smith, Director of Farm Sales, and assistant
deliver baby bok choy to a customer
Create is the newest of Create Common Good’s programs.  Its goal is to create products to sell, providing training and job opportunities for refugees.  The current focus is on what Create Common Good has at hand, which is food.   Last fall, they made a variety of products such as pickled beets, hash brown potatoes, pureed pumpkin, and vinaigrettes made with herbs from the farm.  Now they’re refining their offerings to be more culturally-infused, including artisan foods such as kasundi and mustard-green pesto.

Create Common Good is hoping to expand to broader local and regional markets in order to provide additional employment opportunities.  To reach a large enough size to make these efforts viable, they would like to expand to a commercial kitchen.  

The fourth area of Create Common Good’s training programs is culinary training. Tara took us to The Cathedral of the Rockies First United Methodist Church , where we entered the large kitchen that they’ve made available for Create Common Good to use full time at no charge. There we met Create Common Good’s Executive Chef, Brent Southcombe, and Apprentice Chef, Awot Haile, a refugee from Eritrea. What a great pair these two make! Brent is an award-winning chef from Australia who heard about Create Common Good at a church meeting just when he was feeling called to reach out and train immigrants in culinary skills. He was able, through the efforts of Create Common Good and volunteer legal help, to move to Boise in short order this past spring. He’s running the culinary program to train refugees. They’ve had 3 classes so far, and have a 75% placement rate for their graduates.

Brent Southcombe, Executive Chef (left)
Awot Haile, Apprentice Chef
Tara Russell, Chief Experience Officer
To help raise funds, they cater special events.  And on most Wednesdays they put on an international dinner inspired by the food cultures of the refugees in the training programs.  They use food from the Create Common Good farm as often as possible.

What difference does Create Common Good make?  In the words of Tara, “We believe that economics is often the first domino that leads to holistic transformation in the other areas – more kids in school, domestic violence decreasing, and emotional and mental health improving.  Employment brings dignity, security, peace of mind, and safety to the family, so we see a lot of other great things happening, once there is a stable job that is building a runway to self-sufficiency."

Create Common Good is definitely helping refugees make this transition!

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Improving Local Food Systems -- Mosier, OR, Farmers' Market

From Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon, we heard about a great example of an organization that is cultivating a strong regional food system.  The Gorge Grown Food Network states on their website “We envision a healthy, self-sufficient Columbia River Gorge where our food is produced with integrity and is valued, abundant, and accessible to all.”

How do you go about promoting both the supply side and the consumer side of local eating?  One way is to promote local farmers’ markets.   But small communities can struggle to attract a critical mass of vendors that will bring enough customers to support the market.  So the Food Network bought a truck, outfitted it with a refrigerator, tables, and other equipment, and created George, the Mobile Farmers’ Market!  Each week, the driver buys produce and other products from local farmers and producers at a discounted rate to fill the truck.  She then takes George to 4 different small market sites over the weekend to augment the offerings by local vendors and add enough variety of produce to attract the local residents.  Once a farmers’ market is self-sustaining with its own local farmers, the goal is for the mobile truck to move on to other towns that need its support.

One of the mobile market sites is in the small town of Mosier (population 460).  We visited to see how their market is promoting community and healthy, local eating.

The Mosier Farmers’ Market is held on Sunday afternoon, from 4 to 7 PM.   We arrived early to help set up in the parking lot of the 10 Speed East Coffee Shop and the adjacent vacant gas station lot, where the market is held.  The merchants started arriving and setting up their displays and canopies about 3 PM.  Then the local fire truck arrived to block off the street between the two parking lots and filled a small pool with water for kids to cool off in.  

We met Suzi Conklin who explained that this is the first year they’ve had a farmer’s market.  She and some friends had taken a study course from the Northwest Earth Institute called “Menu for the Future” and decided that Mosier needed a farmers’ market.  They investigated the neighboring Hood River Farmers’ market, talked with the managers there, learned about the Gorge Grown Food Network and the mobile farmers’ market, and started planning.  Thus, the Mosier Farmers’ Market came about.  The first market day was July 3, 2011.

When the market was all set up, it was a bustling and busy sight: 
There were about 10 fruit and vegetable vendors.  The most common vegetables were tomatoes, green peppers and summer squash, but we also saw eggplant, hot peppers, cucumbers, potatoes (red, yellow, blue).  Fruits for sale included blueberries, strawberries, peaches, and melons. Theo, the son of one of the vendors was selling “natural bird feeders” (sunflower heads).

There were other food items, too.  Various vendors offered honey, jams, preserves, pickled beets, baked goods, eggs, pork and beef.  One of the vegetable vendors was making vegetable juice smoothies.
The mobile farmers’ market truck and its stand offered some items others didn’t have, such as sweet corn, cherries, bread, kale and shallots, as well as many of the vegetables that the other vendors had.  The driver appeared to know all the other farmers and was quick to refer customers to them.

Additional booths included the Seniors of Mosier Valley, who were selling lawn ornaments, weather vanes and raffle tickets for a quilt to help purchase a new refrigerator.  The local volunteer fire department was selling t-shirts and sweatshirts and recruiting for additional volunteer fire fighters.  The mayor had a table to sell her hand-made jewelry.  Another woman was selling candles, plants, cutting boards, and glass ornaments.  One young girl, with her mother’s help, had a few games for the kids and was also selling water and muffins to raise funds to go on the 6th-grade school class trip to England.
The information booth, manned by one of the organizers, gave out information about the market, sold some posters and some consignment items such as granola and small numbers of red, yellow and purple cherry tomatoes.  They gave away house plants in exchange for donations for the school garden.
As you’d expect, there was much buying and selling going on.  But there was other commerce, cooperation, and community-building happening, as well.   A local grocer arranged to pick up a flat of tomatoes from one of the vendors the next day to sell in his store.  Vendors informed their customers of other farmers’ markets and stands where their produce was available.  Vendors also referred customers to other vendors if they didn’t have what the customer wanted, and one vendor told us that she didn’t bring certain items to this market in order to give others a chance to sell theirs.   Customers chatted and caught up on the news with each other.  There was live music provided by a guitar and drummer combo.   A local circus performer entertained the crowd by magically handling balls.  This inspired a young boy to run home and return to perform with hula hoops.  Other kids played in the water and danced to the music.  There was even an “Ask Your Farmer” session based on the Dating Game.  
We were told that five years ago, only 1% of the produce consumed by people in the Columbia River Gorge was produced locally.  This vibrant new Mosier Farmers’ Market is already improving its local community food system and helping reach the goal set by the Gorge Grown Food Network of 20% local produce by the year 2020. 

The Power of a Plan – Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon

Picture a hot, sunny Saturday in August.  Picture festive canopies and tables set up in a large corner of a Fred Meyer store parking lot in East Portland, OR.  This is Portland Monthly magazine’s “Beer ‘n’ Burgers” fund-raiser, where generous patrons pay $20 to sample and vote on hamburgers and beer from local vendors.  And picture us helping by augmenting the beer and burgers with water, soda, and cookies, and by encouraging people to vote before they exit. 

Why are we doing this when we’re supposed to be studying hunger in America?  Well, we’re working alongside the staff of the organization that we had visited the day before and who will receive the funds raised today -- Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon. 

Patti Whitney-Wise, Executive Director (right)
and Jessica Chanay, Deputy Director
We’d heard that Oregon has a particularly forward-thinking, state-wide approach to ending hunger.  The Oregon Hunger Task Force was formed by the Oregon state legislature to advise on issues related to hunger and to advocate on behalf of Oregonians at risk of hunger.  Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon is their non-profit support organization, dedicated to ending hunger in Oregon. 

To learn more about Oregon’s approach, we met with Patti Whitney-Wise, Executive Director of Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon, Jessica Chanay, Deputy Director, and Nancy Weed, SNAP Outreach Coordinator.

Patti and Jessica explained some of the history.  In 1986, Hands Across America, a publicity and fund-raising event meant to highlight the problems of hunger and homelessness in America, shocked Oregonians when they learned that their state had high rates of hunger.  In response, the state legislature created the Oregon Hunger Task Force in 1989, the first body of its kind in the nation.  Members included a broad coalition of lawmakers, state agencies, and non-profit organizations. 

The initial work of the task force fostered many successes, such as highlighting the problem of hunger in the state and improving the emergency food system.  However, in 2000, Oregon was ranked as the state with the highest percentage of its citizens experiencing hunger, according to a new measuring tool that measured food insecurity and hunger in all states.  Clearly something more was needed.

As the Task Force worked to expand Food Stamps and summer food for children, they created an initial 5-year strategic plan, Act to End Hunger.  As of 2009, progress had been achieved on 30 of its 40 specific recommendations, and the percent of hungry Oregonians had declined relative to other states.   According to USDA statistics, in 2003-2005, Oregon had greatly decreased the number of its residents experiencing very low food security, now ranking 22nd.

Then the latest recession hit, and Oregon was more strongly affected than other states.  The rates of very low food security for the years 2006-2008 once again placed Oregon as the second worst overall.  Pained but undaunted, Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon, with the assistance of a grant from Northwest Health Foundation, built on the earlier plan, incorporated large amounts of new input from people across the state, and created Ending Hunger before it Begins – Oregon’s Call to Action 2010 - 2015

Patti said, “Make a plan and it will happen.”  She firmly believes that having a well-founded plan is a powerful tool to guide action and make positive change.  We are very impressed by the clear focus on root causes of hunger and the specific recommendations and highlighted strategies included in the plan.  Here are the three top-level goals.

Goal 1:  Increase economic stability for people, communities, and the state.

This first goal most clearly addresses the root causes of hunger.   As Patti says, “Hunger is an income issue.”  When people have sufficient income, they can feed their families and also accrue savings to help them weather tough times.  The same is true at the state and federal levels.

The plan includes specific strategies such as expanding the earned income tax credit so that Oregonians making less than the federal poverty level would have more income to feed their families, expanding affordable healthcare and childcare, and preserving TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families). 

In addition, to make the state more fiscally resilient, the plan calls for actions such as repeal of the Oregon kicker law, and allowing the state an adequate rainy day fund so that important services can be preserved during difficult times.

Goal 2:  Cultivate a strong regional food system in Oregon.

It’s ironic that a hungry state with a large agricultural component keeps little of that food for itself.  Farmers often struggle economically and many areas lack access to healthy, affordable food.  People with limited means are often forced to choose foods based on cost rather than nutritional value.  So this second goal includes recommendations to better balance the food system and make healthy, locally grown produce more available to everyone, including those who are food insecure. 

Examples of strategies to improve the regional food system include improving the viability of small grocery stores in underserved urban and rural areas, expanding community and school gardens, and increasing funds for voucher programs that allow WIC participants and seniors to obtain affordable produce at farm stands and farmers’ markets.  (See the next posting in this blog for another example.)

Goal 3:  Improve the food assistance safety net.

In the short term, people who are hungry need to obtain food.  For some, this is a temporary circumstance until they can get back on their feet again.  For others, such as seniors living on a low fixed income, it is a persistent need.  The strategies under this goal offer ways to ensure that everyone has access to the services they need.
Nancy Weed,
SNAP Outreach Coordinator

Nancy Weed told us about a great example in this category.  In 2000, only about 56% of Oregonians who were eligible for SNAP (food stamps) actually received that benefit.  The Oregon Food Bank and Oregon Hunger Task Force, in focus groups with clients and through visits to local food stamp offices, found that there were many barriers to participation.  Sometimes applicants had to wait up to 3 hours or arrive at 7:00 AM.  Some applicants had misinformation about their eligibility, considered the benefit “welfare,” or were daunted by the 32-page application packet.

Through a partnership with the Department of Human Services, systematic improvements have been put in place (e.g., scheduled appointments, same-day service, 2-page application, targeted information for seniors) so that today the participation in SNAP is above 80% of those eligible, according to the USDA.  This means not only that more people were able to purchase the food they needed, but also that Oregon now receives an increase of over $1B per year in federal funds, a significant stimulus to the local economy.

We came away from our visit with Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon feeling hopeful that meaningful change will actually occur.  Why the optimism?

Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon and the Oregon Hunger Task Force are collaborative, dedicated, and deeply experienced in sorting through what works and what doesn’t work.  They keep going regardless of setbacks, adjusting the plan and approach to be more and more effective, more and more focused on root causes.

Their approach brings partnership among ALL stakeholders, from those who are hungry themselves to politicians, service agencies, ecumenical groups, social scientists, healthcare insurers, foundations – anyone and everyone who can help leverage positive change.

Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon uses its own staff of 10 to work in areas where the need and the potential impact are high, but areas that other organizations are not covering.  Currently, that means that Patti and Jessica do a lot of lobbying and coalition-building at the state level based on the goals and recommendations in Ending Hunger Before it Begins, and others work on specific strategies such as bringing better nutrition services to children and seniors.

Finally, the website is a rich source of thoughtful, practical, and clearly-presented information, freely available to anyone who’d like to help eliminate hunger in their community.

Thank you, Oregon, for showing the way!

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

SeaShare -- Leveraging the Generosity of the Seafood Industry

In our visits to food banks and food pantries, we’ve noticed that the supply of food available for distribution to hungry Americans is often not what you’d call a balanced diet.  There is typically enough shelf-stable, processed food such as cereal and pasta, canned fruits and vegetables, and dried beans.  But often sorely lacking are fresh produce and high-quality, nutritious meat and fish.  These foods are difficult for the supplementary food system to provide because they tend to be expensive, to require special storage and timely distribution, and to be available only in seasonal cycles. 

We’ve reported earlier on numerous efforts to bring more fresh produce into the emergency food supply, but what about fish?
Jim Harmon and Mary Harmon

To find out, we traveled to Seattle, WA, the major commercial processing location for salmon, pollock, and halibut caught in the seas off the coast of Alaska.  From Seattle, we boarded a ferry for the short ride to Bainbridge Island and climbed the hill to the small offices of SeaShare, where we had a lively conversation with Jim Harmon, Executive Director, and Mary Harmon, Business Manager.
SeaShare is the only non-profit organization dedicated to getting seafood into the emergency food network.  It began in 1993 with a successful effort to amend the fishing rules so that fish inadvertently caught along with the target species could be distributed through hunger-relief agencies rather than being tossed back into the ocean.  [This Federal Register page includes details of the Prohibited Species Donation Program.]

SeaShare has grown far beyond salvaging inadvertently caught fish. Today they facilitate large donations of seafood from commercial fisheries and arrange for appropriate processing, packaging, shipping, storage, and distribution to food banks through the Feeding America network.

Here’s one example, quoted from their website:
“… in our canned salmon program, SeaShare received donations of salmon from several salmon fishermen and seafood processors. These processors donated the salmon processing and canning at a reduced rate to SeaShare, the cans were supplied by a can company, freight companies shipped the canned salmon to the lower 48, label suppliers provided special SeaShare labels, labeling and inspection companies checked the cans and labeled them, and local warehouses stored them until they could be distributed. Our financial support helped to pay for those services that we could not obtain for free, which were donated at a substantially discounted rate.”

Other donations may require a different set of steps.  For example, manufacturing fish patties from blocks of pollock requires breading and frozen distribution.

What makes SeaShare’s approach so impressive to us is the coalitions they put together to leverage the generosity of over 130 companies in the seafood industry.   SeaShare captures the donation as close to the fish nets as possible, stringing together donations and reduced costs at every step of the processing necessary to provide Feeding America with appropriately packaged, healthy seafood.  This approach means that SeaShare can produce a final donation that no single company could do on its own – high-quality seafood for an average of just 30 cents a pound.  They’re on target to supply 1.5 million pounds of seafood this year alone.

But it's not easy.  Jim and Mary described some of the challenges SeaShare faces: 
  • Many people are not used to eating fish.  They may eat canned tuna, but they are less familiar with salmon and other types of highly nutritious U.S. seafood.  It’s very difficult to change people’s eating habits.  To help, SeaShare prints recipes on their cans of salmon, distributes a fabulous salmon cookbook, and conducts fish preparation seminars and demos with celebrity chefs. 
  • Funding is an on-going concern.  We find it amazing that just 2 people (one of whom, Mary, works half-time) and an energetic board of directors can engage the seafood industry to make such generous donations each year.  But that still means they have to raise the 30 cents a pound to cover their costs.  While most non-profits receive much of their funding from individuals and foundations, SeaShare has limited public face and has typically relied mostly on monetary donations from within the same seafood companies that support them with donations of fish and processing.  Broadening their financial base is an upcoming priority for SeaShare.
  • Finally, SeaShare finds that donations of seafood may not be appropriately valued by food banks.  We agree.  Food banks typically measure their success in pounds of food distributed per person in poverty.  Their inventory tracking systems are not yet sophisticated enough to measure nutritional adequacy of the food they distribute.   That means that at some level, a pound of salmon and a pound of potatoes have equal value.   And it also means that supplemental food providers may not be doing as much as they could to help improve the health and nutrition status of hungry Americans. 
As Jim says, “There are lots of societal problems that you can’t solve until people have the right food to think clearly, to work well, and to make better choices.” 

We think SeaShare is a great example of a small organization leveraging a whole industry to improve the nutrition of hungry Americans.