Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Hunger Free Vermont

Marissa Parisi, Executive Director,
Hunger Free Vermont
Driving through the beautiful Green Mountains and agrarian landscape of Vermont, or experiencing Vermonters’ energetic insistence on good food and healthy living, you might be surprised to learn that Feeding America lists Vermont’s food insecurity rate as 13.3% overall and a whopping 20.7% for children (based on 2009 figures).

Hunger in Vermont?  Yes.

When battling hunger, there are choices to be made in how to approach the problem.  Shall we give people food directly?  Shall we help individuals to access resources so they can better feed themselves?  Or shall we mobilize our communities to pull together to ensure that we all have access to the nutritious food we need? 

We visited an organization in Vermont that focuses on the latter two approaches -- Hunger Free Vermont, headquartered in South Burlington, VT.  There we met Marissa Parisi, Executive Director.

Marissa explained that Hunger Free Vermont began 19 years ago as the Vermont Campaign to End Childhood Hunger.  It was a born out of the Vermont Food Bank when it became apparent that federal child nutrition programs were being underutilized in Vermont. 

When Marissa arrived 3 years ago, the organization was seeing a need to expand its mission, to include outreach to adults and seniors, and to update its brand.  The organization held large community meetings (using a World CafĂ© method) and other research to shape the vision of what was needed.  The new name, Hunger Free Vermont, was chosen to best reflect the expanded mission.

So what does Hunger Free Vermont do?  Here are some of the programs offered by the 16 employees of Hunger Free Vermont.

For starters, Hunger Free Vermont works hard to get as many eligible people enrolled in 3SquaresVT (Vermont’s name for SNAP, the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) as possible.  In addition to outreach to families, Hunger Free Vermont has begun a specific 3SquaresVT outreach program for seniors. 

When older people struggle to feed themselves, it not only leads to poorer health, but also to increased isolation – they’re not likely to invite someone to visit if they can’t offer a cup of coffee, they’re not likely to attend a pot-luck meal if they can’t bring something, they may give up their Meals on Wheels deliveries if they can’t offer the suggested donation, and being able to offer special foods to grandchildren or other family members can strengthen family bonds.  Nevertheless, many seniors have not taken advantage of 3SquaresVT – only about 30% of those eligible participate.  And this isn’t just Vermont, it’s nationwide.  Why?

Marissa explained that seniors often remember what the old food stamps were like, how humiliating it was to stand in line to receive them and to count them out as payment for food.  That stigma remains with them and they may not know about the easier EBT system in place today. Or, even easier, in Vermont (and only one other state, Nevada) seniors may receive their benefit as a direct cash deposit into their bank account, as opposed to a separate EBT card.  This allows them more flexibility in how they use their benefit, such as continuing their Meals on Wheels delivery.

Seniors may think that food assistance is a fixed allotment, so if they received the benefit, less would remain for children and families.  They need to know that SNAP is an entitlement program, our country’s way of sharing, ensuring that we are all able to feed ourselves.

Because seniors say they don’t want to hear about programs that benefit them from young people, Hunger Free Vermont, working with United Way, recruits volunteers over age 55 to visit senior housing and community meal sites, explain the 3SquaresVT program, and help with applications.

Erinn Simon,
Burlington Children's Space
On the other end of the age spectrum are child nutrition programs.  Hunger Free Vermont dedicates 3 staff people to helping as many schools as possible participate in the federal school lunch and breakfast programs, summer feeding programs, and Child and Adult Care Food Programs (CACFP) We were particularly interested in learning more about CACFP because we had not previously had the opportunity to visit a childcare center using this program.

Like school meals programs, CACFP is a federally-funded program, administered by states, whose goal is to enable children (and adults) to receive nutritious meals and snacks as part of the day care they receive.  It provides centers with partial reimbursement for the meals they serve, based on the income of the participants.  But CACFP is regarded by many day care centers as difficult to obtain and use due to the lengthy application and reporting process required.  Such a process may be manageable by a school district, but onerous for a small day care center.

To overcome this barrier, Hunger Free Vermont works with day care centers to find sponsors to take on the administrative burden of CACFP.  The sponsor handles the 35-page application and the tricky reporting, freeing the centers to use a simple 6-page application and to focus on the meals. 

To see how it works, we paid a visit to the lunchroom at the Burlington Children’s Space, located at the McClure Multi-Generational Center, for which the sponsoring agency that holds the umbrella CACFP contract is Child Care Resource, a local child care information and referral agency.  The meal reimbursement from CACFP makes it financially feasible for the Burlington Children’s Space to offer breakfast and lunch to their children.  And the sponsorship makes using CACFP achievable for this small center.

We spoke with Sarah Adams-Kollitz, Director, and Erinn Simon, the “Lunch Lady” at the Burlington Children's Space.  Like most women we’ve met whose job is to feed children, Erinn is cheerful, dedicated, creative, and just loves making sure that children are well-fed.  She says she tries to give each child a sense of food security.

Before there was a meal program at the Burlington Children’s Space, parents sent lunches with their children.  Sarah recalls the extra time it took to open and prepare each child’s separate food items, the uncertainty that children felt about whether the food they had would satisfy them, and the conflicted feelings of staff when they encountered a child’s lunch consisting of 2 donuts or a little can of Beefaroni. One long-time teacher said, “We didn’t want to be judgmental.  We wanted to empower families.  We tried sending home suggestions of what to pack in kids’ lunches, but some parents weren’t able to afford those items.  What they packed was what they could get at their food pantry.”

When the meal program was first introduced, some children from food insecure families might take more food than their share until they came to trust that there would always be enough food here for everyone.  Teachers report that the children are calmer, too, now that they’re not worried about food.

Lunch on the day we helped consisted of veggie burritos (soft taco, cheese, rice, mixed stir-fried broccoli, cabbage, and squash, all heated in the oven until the cheese melted, plus salsa for those who wanted it), corn, applesauce, and 1% milk.  Erinn also adjusts the food she serves to accommodate any of the kids who may have dietary restrictions.

Meals are served family style.  The children sit 4 or 5 to a table, with a teacher, and help themselves to plates or bowls of food.  It was great to see how comfortable the children were about eating together.  We heard children politely asking for the applesauce to be passed and talking about how good the food tasted.  We heard teachers informally describing the importance of eating different kinds of foods and stopping when you’re full.  All the children seemed to take some of each food item and to eat most everything on their plates.  Erinn gave a second half-burrito to anyone who requested it.

You can see more about Erinn on the Hunger Free Vermont site, where she and the Burlington Children’s Space were featured as one of Hunger Free Vermont’s “14Free” success stories.

The list of Hunger Free Vermont programs goes on:  They offer a 6-session cooking series called the Learning Kitchen, run a state-wide website called that provides information on all the food resources available to families throughout the state.  And they recently developed an on-line course called Childhood Hunger in Vermont: The Hidden Impacts on Health, Development & Wellbeing.  This accredited course gives physicians and other health professionals the tools and information they need to both identify hunger and connect patients with nutrition resources. 

Hunger Free Vermont has expanded its community organizing and advocacy work by establishing regional hunger councils in areas that need additional anti-hunger services.  Hunger Councils bring together influential leaders who are interested in eradicating hunger in their community.  Currently, there are four councils, located in different parts of the state. 

Dorigen Keeney, Program Director,
Hunger Free Vermont
We were privileged to attend a quarterly meeting of the Hunger Council of Lamoille Valley at the invitation of Dorigen Keeney, Hunger Free Vermont Program Director.  This hunger council is also supported by The Canaday Family Charitable Trust and the Green Mountain Fund.
The meeting was held in a large meeting room at the First Congregational Church in Morrisville, VT. 

The approximately 20 attendees of the meeting included school superintendents and food service directors, as well as representatives from the Vermont food bank, area agencies for seniors, and Hunger Free Vermont.  Chris Saunders, a field representative from Vermont Senator Leahy’s office, also attended.

The meeting agenda included two main items.  The first concerned summer food programs in Lamoille Valley. 
Amanda Caron, Child Nutrition Advocate from Hunger Free Vermont, described the importance of summer food programs for children.  Some children are in tears on the last day of school because they know they won’t be getting school food over the summer.  Also, summer often means difficulties with child care, so low-income children may be left at home alone, bored and isolated.  Summer becomes a time of eating unhealthy food, weight gain, and loss of math and reading skills. 

Amanda described the federal summer food programs and said that of the 37,000 children in Vermont who are enrolled in free or reduced price meals during the school year, less than 15% have access to any summer food programs, and most of those are of brief duration.

Establishing summer food programs takes creativity.  It can be difficult to find sites equipped to prepare and serve meals near places children congregate, or associated with other enrichment activities.  Transportation is a challenge when school buses aren’t running.  And filling the summer with programs, rather than just a week or two, is also more than many summer programs can manage.

Amanda then asked the group to share potential sites that could include summer food programs so that she could help them with the application process.  The council discussed ways to get other groups, such as the Rotarians, involved.  They also said that sites with kitchens could become sponsor sites to prepare summer food and deliver it to other sites.  This could actually make money for the sponsor site. 

The second item on the Hunger Council agenda was the possibility of using schools as food centers, for example locating food pantries at schools or including seniors in school meal programs.  There was an interesting comment that children during the summer and seniors often face similar issues of boredom and isolation.

The meeting adjourned right on schedule, but many people lingered to continue their discussions.

As we traveled home after our full day with Hunger Free Vermont, we talked about the progress that can be made by facilitating connections.  Connecting people to the food benefits for which they are eligible enables them to live healthier lives.  Connecting organizations to the food programs for which they are eligible enables them to provide healthy meals to hungry people.  And connecting anti-hunger leaders with each other helps us all create healthier communities.  Hunger Free Vermont overcomes any barriers it encounters -- misperceptions, lack of information, paperwork, confusing regulations, organizations working in isolation, programs not designed to meet Vermont’s needs -- and in the end finds ways to make all these connections work to end hunger in Vermont.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Food, Shelter, and More!

Nashua Soup Kitchen & Shelter, Nashua, NH
Suppose you found yourself in Nashua, NH, with nothing to eat and no place to live.  Maybe you lost your job and were evicted from your apartment with only the clothes on your back.  Maybe you were forced to seek safety from domestic violence.  Maybe you were just released from prison.  Or maybe you just don’t have the means to make ends meet.  Whatever the reason, you might find your way to the Nashua Soup Kitchen and Shelter (NSK&S).  There you would find a dedicated, energetic, and caring staff, working to “advocate, create, and operate programs and services that promote dignity and self-sufficiency for those we serve.”

Lisa Christie, Executive Director of the NSK&S
Nashua is a moderately sized northern city (population just over 86,000).  On a side street near the center of town, we found the main building of the Nashua Soup Kitchen & Shelter.  This small 3-story building once housed a barber’s college.  We rang an outside bell and climbed a steep set of stairs on the side to the second floor office of Lisa Christie, Executive Director of the NSK&S. 

The Nashua Soup Kitchen started in 1981, serving simple soups and sandwiches three days per week.  In 1989, Lisa was hired as the first executive director of the soup kitchen.  She oversaw the merging of the original Nashua Soup Kitchen with the Nashua Area Shelter (founded in 1984) after only 6 weeks on the job. 
Since then, the NSK&S has grown into a very diverse organization, advocating for low income people, and offering a full set of services and other programs.  For example, they provide:
  • Meals (breakfast 5 days/week, dinner 7 days/week)
  • Supplemental food (6 days/week)
  • Shelter (two shelters with housing for men, women and families, plus three transitional apartments and a 9-apartment affordable housing building)
  • Winter outerwear
  • Household items for those transitioning from homelessness to housing
  • Emergency financial support to help prevent homelessness
  • Backpacks for children at the beginning of the school year filled with appropriate school supplies
Lisa’s dedication and style show through in all aspects of the NSK&S.  She is a tireless advocate for low-income people on issues such as affordable housing and systemic issues that lead to hunger and homelessness.  As is true of directors of most non-profit agencies, Lisa must spend 30-40% of her time raising funds.  Combining this with her passion for running yields one of the NSK&S’s effective public events – the Annual Run for Food and Shelter.  They also host an auction in the fall, as well as numerous smaller fund raisers.
Carol Weeks, NSK&S Community
Outreach Coordinator
After learning about the NSK&S from Lisa, Carol Weeks, NSK&S community outreach coordinator, gave us a tour of their building.  The two upper floors house offices, and all available remaining space is used to store boxes of coats, a birthday shelf to supply presents to children who otherwise would not have had one, linens, small household items, and much more. 

In the basement are shelves full of the supplies waiting to be used in the kitchen or distributed to people who come to the food pantry.

The street level is where most of the action takes place.  In the rear left is the small soup kitchen with its food preparation areas, stove, refrigerators, freezers and food service line.  Also in the rear are a bathroom and an advocate’s office which also is used to distribute toiletries and diapers.  New coats are hanging on hooks on the side wall, free for those who need them, and a small library in the front offers books for anyone to take.

The small front half of this level is the dining area, where the NSK&S serves breakfast 5 days/week, and dinner 7 days/week.  The chef plans the meals and cooks, with help from an assistant and volunteers.  Occasionally, an outside group will provide both the food and the volunteers.  For dinner, families and the disabled are served between 4 PM and 5 PM, in order to create a more family-friendly atmosphere, and others are served from 5 PM to 6:30 PM.

The small dining area is licensed to serve only 47 people at a time.  When clients arrive for a meal, they form a line outside, no matter what the weather, and are admitted only as space allows them to be served.  This is undoubtedly a deterrent for some who really need the meals, both because there’s no shelter from rain, snow, or cold, but also because some people don’t want to be recognized by those driving by.  Sometimes as many as 250 dinners are served, so diners may have quite a wait.  Last year, the NSK&S served a total of 74,932 meals.

Fresh produce ready to be shared
Between breakfast and dinner, six days/week, the dining area is rearranged as a food pantry.  On Mondays, clients can receive a box of staple foods plus milk, eggs, and meat.  To receive a box, the family must call the NSK&S to reserve it.  Each client can come once/month.   The amount each household receives is determined by family size (one box size for a family of 4 or fewer, another size for 5 or more). 

Each day, the food pantry also gives away perishables (fresh fruits and vegetables, breads, sweet baked goods, and meat) gleaned from local grocery stores.   Monday, these foods are only available to those who are picking up boxes of non-perishables as well.  On Tuesdays and Thursdays, those with last names in the first half of the alphabet can come, on Wednesdays and Fridays, those with last names in the second half of the alphabet can come, and on Saturdays anyone can come.  The Tuesday we helped, fresh food was distributed to 108 clients.

The produce is especially appreciated.  Lisa said she’d received a phone call that morning from a woman who said that she’d been sober for 30 days, her appetite was returning, and she was so grateful to have fresh fruits and vegetables.

After helping distribute food, we walked to one of the two shelter houses with Anne Allgaier, one of the shelter managers.  She had come to the soup kitchen to pick up food for the shelter, including a cupcake to be a special treat for a child currently living there.

Volunteer student painters from
Nashua Community College
The shelter was a busy work site that day, since a group of volunteers from Nashua Community College were painting all the rooms as part of an alternative spring break project.  On other days, the students were scheduled to paint the soup kitchen and the second shelter.  The new paint will make this already cheerful and light-filled house especially fresh and clean.

Anne explained that when new shelter residents arrive, usually in the evening, staff members determine the services they need.  Simple food is available, as well as showers and laundry facilities.  They are assigned a bed, if one is available.  In the winter, the shelter will find places for everyone who shows up to sleep for one night, although it may be the couch or a cot in the living room.

In the morning, all the guests are expected to leave the house by 8 AM unless they have preschool children.   Some of the residents may go to work, interview for jobs, attend school, visit the Health and Human Services office to apply for benefits, or use the local public library, which is very helpful and takes a letter from the shelter as proof of residency.  They can return to the shelter in the late afternoon.  Most cook their own food at the shelter, although they can also use the soup kitchen down the street (and do so more often near the end of the month when their benefits run out).  They’re also required to pick up after themselves, do their own laundry, and share household chores. 

Anne told us that the women in the shelter do a lot to help each other out.  New residents see the longer-time residents following the rules, looking for jobs and attending school, and they feel more hopeful about their own futures.  When one person gets a job, it’s a big boost for everyone.  Also, the residents know the systems for helping low-income people better than anyone else, and can help their fellow residents figure out how to get the help they need.  Some residents have gone together to rent an apartment, others have loaned furniture they have in storage to someone who needs it.  Most residents manage to find resources so they can move to other accommodations within 3 months.

The NSK&S doesn’t try to do everything, just what is needed and that they can afford.  If there are others in the community providing a service, they refer their clients and residents to those facilities instead of duplicating them.  Other agencies help with medical problems, substance abuse treatment, domestic abuse counseling, working toward a GED, or educational assessment.

We found the NSK&S to be an outstanding, caring, well-run organization that’s doing great things for its client base.  Its major problem at this time is the crowded, difficult building that houses the administrative offices and soup kitchen.  They are working to locate a larger, better designed building in the same neighborhood that will allow them to upgrade their soup kitchen facilities to serve more people and allow the clients to wait inside the building.  They need a dedicated space for their food pantry, more storage room for their backpacks, warm coats and other programs, better facilities for the staff, and additional space for programs, meetings and other needs. 

We’re hoping that the NSK&S is successful in locating space to accommodate their expanding services, so they are able to even more effectively supply their neighbors with food and shelter and more.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Yorkville Common Pantry: Healthy Choices

While Facing Hunger in America was in New York City, we had the privilege of a short visit to the impressive, 32-year old Yorkville Common Pantry (YCP).  What makes it impressive?  Certainly not its physical space, which is a small multi-story building rented from the adjacent Episcopal Church in East Harlem.   
Despite its modest space, YCP operates the largest community pantry in the city.  In addition to a hot meals program, benefits outreach, nutrition education, and numerous other services, YCP provides groceries to over 1200 families a week.  Each family can come at most twice per month, and over 7000 different families are served in the course of a year.  The pantry operates with two full-time and one part-time paid employee, and about 26,000 volunteer hours put in by about 6000 volunteers each year. 
Daniel Reyes, Director of Programs & Operations
at the Yorkville Common Pantry, explains the
choice inventory system to Betsy
We spoke with Stephen Grimaldi, Executive Director, and Daniel Reyes, Director of Programs & Operations.  We were particularly interested in learning about YCP’s innovative on-line inventory choice system, which is quite different from choice systems we have encountered at other food pantries. 
Daniel explained that until about 7 months ago, each Yorkville Community Pantry member received a prepacked bag of groceries that volunteers had prepared based on whatever was in stock.  Bags all contained about the same items and differed mainly based on the size of the member’s family (more food for larger families). 
This traditional method of distribution was efficient for volunteers and workable in YCP’s cramped quarters.  However, new guidelines from the New York State Department of Health required pantries to implement a choice program in order to renew their state funding contracts.  YCP agreed that allowing members to choose the groceries they receive was far better, offered a more dignified way to receive food, and enabled members to receive food they actually needed and would like.  But it was not easy to see how to make a choice system work at YCP. 
Choice systems we’ve seen before use a shopping model -- a member walks through the aisles of inventory and, with the aid of a volunteer, selects the items they’d like in the quantities appropriate for their family size.  This model is not feasible at YCP because it would take far more space to create shopping aisles with shelves instead of pallet-loads of food items, far more volunteer hours to stock shelves and assist members as they shopped, much more time for each member to receive their groceries, and thus much slower through-put.  YCP was already distributing food for 4.5 hours, four days a week, and did not want to change to a system that would cause long waiting lines.
Instead, Daniel conceived the idea to put the food choices for the current week on line, to allow members to select the items that they wanted via computer, and to have the volunteers prepare custom bags for each member.  Here’s how it works:
Each week, YCP enters into the computer program the full menu of items available for its members to choose.  The items are displayed on a computer screen, arranged by food group (grains, protein, vegetables, fruits, and dairy).  Each item is shown as a picture and label in English or in both English and the member’s preferred language.  Members select how much of each item they wish to receive, and the computer tracks any quantity limits based on the member’s family size.
YCP member placing her order with the help of a volunteer
  • Members who have access to the internet can place their order online, using the ID number on their YCP member card.  When they complete their order, they’re given a specific pickup time, so there is no waiting when they come for their food. 
  • Members who do not have internet access or who do not wish to order online come to the pantry on their assigned day and sit for a few minutes with a volunteer who operates a tablet computer to enter the member’s choices.  By the time the member walks upstairs to the food distribution area, their order is ready.
We were impressed by the ease with which this system seemed to work, by the volunteers who said they found the tablet computer interface simple to use with no training, and by the generally happy faces of the members we saw receiving their food.  We saw little waiting – a few folks in line before the doors opened at 10:00, and two or three waiting for their orders.

Another laudable feature of the Yorkville Common Pantry is that they offer only highly nutritious food -- food that can be difficult to locate in this part of New York City.   

Slightly over half of the food YCP distributes is purchased, and the other half is donated.  YCP only accepts donations that meet their nutrition standards, which were adapted from state nutrition materials and are designed to help lower the incidence of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease among their members.  YCP makes sure that they offer an array of choices to satisfy cultural and personal preferences, dietary restrictions, and seasonal favorites.  But they turn away donations of sugary, salty, fatty, processed foods. 

This selectiveness puts an extra burden on those responsible for sourcing food for the pantry.  And with the downturn in the economy a few years ago, food donations to YCP dropped by about half.  To fill the void, YCP increased their fundraising, secured some stimulus funds, arranged partnerships with New York state farmers to bring in fresh fruits and vegetables, and began sourcing as much food locally as possible.  

So, if you think allowing food pantry members to choose the foods they receive requires a shopping model, think again.  And if you think pantries always offer less than the healthiest foods, think again.  Think about the Yorkville Common Pantry!
Volunteers filling orders at the Yorkville Common Pantry

Monday, March 12, 2012

No Food Left Behind

Gary Oppenheimer, Founder
How does a “don’t waste” mentality fit in with feeding hungry people?  In Gary Oppenheimer’s mind, very closely. 

We visited Gary at his home in far-northern New Jersey, where this master gardener and conservationist grows much of his own food, raises chickens for eggs, and recycles everything he can.

In 2008, Gary became concerned about the amount of produce from people’s gardens (including his own) that goes to waste when a gardener becomes overwhelmed by abundance.  Usually, this produce either rots on the plants, gets thrown into landfills, or perhaps becomes compost.  What a waste of perfectly good food!  Gary remembers seeing an article in the NY Times by Andrew Martin with a photo by Bill Marsh, highlighting that the total food wasted in this country is equivalent to 122 lbs/month for a family of four.  That’s 1 lb/person/day!

Gary conceived the idea of helping gardeners nationwide find a useful place to take excess garden produce.  In March of 2009, he registered the domain name, and then he had to figure out what to do with it! 

Gary knew that food pantries are in the business of providing food to people who need it.  The problem is connecting those with excess to those who really need good, nutritious, fresh produce.  Trying to donate his own excess produce to those who needed it had taught him, though, that it’s not so easy to find nearby food pantries to donate to.  Most don’t have websites.  Most aren’t listed in the phone book.  In his case, the closest one he could find listed on the web was 25 miles away, even though he knew there were several in his small town.  So Gary set out to create a website to connect gardeners to food pantries.  It took a couple months for him to write the text, and for two other people to develop the design and write the program.  The site was launched on May 18, 2009. 

The concept is simple:  Individual food pantries from anywhere in the US enter their contact information onto the site, and local gardeners can then go to the website to find a local food pantry that will accept their excess produce and distribute it to those in need. 

As of our interview on March 9, 2012, had 4,897 registered sites, mostly pantries (about 1/7 of the total pantries in the US).  The number of pantries registered with keeps increasing, with more added each day.  Organizations like soup kitchens and shelters are also welcome to sign up if they can use the donated food effectively, and if they give away the food or meals prepared with it for free.

Sign-up is straightforward.  Besides information on where the pantry is located and who to contact, there are fields to enter when donations can be made, and any additional information the pantry wants to enter.

For to be successful, pantries that can use fresh produce have to sign up and gardeners with excess produce have to use the website to find appropriate pantries to receive it.  Gary is working hard to promote   For example, see his TEDx talk. Organizations such as Feeding America, the White House, and the EPA are suggesting to pantries that they sign up on the website.  The USDA is helping spread the word through the Master Gardener program, as is the National Gardening Association.  The more gardeners that participate, the more food pantries will see that it’s effective to add their food pantry to the list. 

You can help, too.  Is your local pantry listed? Go to to find out!   If not, ask them to sign up.  Also, tell gardeners you know to use to find pantries that could use their extra produce.  Here’s a flier you could post in near-by garden centers.

Some people ask if their produce is good enough to give to a food pantry.  Gary’s criterion?  If you’d feed it to your family, it’s fine to give to a food pantry.

How successful has been so far?  Through surveys of food pantries registered on its site, made a very rough estimate that in 2010, about 6 million pounds of fresh produce were donated directly to food pantries. In 2011, this increased to about 21 million pounds.

It turns out that is also a resource for non-gardeners.  Gary has heard that some small corner grocery stores have used it to find a source for their ready-to-expire products, and a company that insures trucks hauling groceries has used it to dispose of the undamaged product from a truck that’s had an accident.  (Otherwise, the food from trucks in accidents would be sent to a landfill, even if undamaged.)  The company gets a tax write-off and doesn’t have to pay for the landfill costs, and the pantry gets the food.  

What’s next?  Here are a few of Gary’s ideas for expansion:
  • Create, offering songs inspired by the plight of hungry Americans.  These songs were composed and performed by local student musicians.  The songs can be purchased, and the proceeds from selling this music will help support
  • Include on the site a “produce-pedia” which will give basic, one-page descriptions of different types of produce, including any safety information (like don’t eat rhubarb leaves).  It will have different entries for products that might look similar, such as winter squash and spaghetti squash, cucumbers and zucchini, tree tomatoes (actually related to apples) and cherry tomatoes.  This way, gardeners can print out a page describing the produce they’re donating so the pantry clients know what they’re getting.
  • Start a website similar to the for gleaning organizations to connect to farmers who have product to glean. 
  • Increase the use of by enlisting other groups to get the pantries in their area signed up, and to put up fliers at garden stores and nurseries to inform gardeners.  Gary’s calling this effort “Mission Possible.” is a national campaign to get excess food to people in need, saving good food from being thrown into landfills, and increasing the healthy food options at local food pantries.

Planting Seeds of Empowerment -- New York City Coalition Against Hunger

Joel Berg, Executive Director of the
New York City Coalition Against Hunger
Facing Hunger in America had no trouble identifying the program we wanted to visit in New York. Joel Berg’s passionate and well-informed public policy book, All You Can Eat: How Hungry is America? was published in 2008, about the time we were planning our project. We immediately knew that we wanted to meet Joel and to learn about his organization, the New York City Coalition Against Hunger (NYCCAH).

We met Joel at NYCCAH's modest offices, located in Manhattan just down the street from the New York Stock Exchange.  Joel Berg has been a serious political activist since the age of 14.  He has run for public office, worked on political campaigns, and served in several high-level positions in the USDA during the Clinton Administration, including acting Director of Public Affairs and Press Secretary, Coordinator of Food Recovery and Gleaning, and Coordinator of Community Food Security.  It was at the USDA that Joel’s activism found its focus on hunger.

In 2001, Joel became the Executive Director of NYCCAH.  The mission of this non-profit organization is to assist and advocate for New York City’s non-profit food pantries and soup kitchens, and for the 1.5 million low-income residents of the City who struggle to feed themselves.  They do this through a number of important programs, including
  • Increasing access to food and benefits (e.g., helping people receive SNAP benefits or access to child nutrition programs, organizing CSAs to serve low-income folks in underserved parts of the city)
  • Helping food pantries and soup kitchens (e.g., providing additional skilled personnel by running AmeriCorps programs and a volunteer placement center)
  • Advocating for and researching anti-hunger policies (e.g., establishing Food Action Boards, in conjunction with food pantries and soup kitchens, to help increase the abilities of community members to advocate for improvements to their food security)
Joel believes that the most far-reaching of NYCCAH’s programs are those that involve advocacy, particularly organizing and equipping low income people to advocate on their own behalf.  Since he was speaking to two women, Joel explained it to us like this:
“If you were still waiting for men to give you the right to vote, forget about it, you still wouldn’t be voting.  If people didn’t demand this for themselves, it wouldn’t happen.  Yet the working assumption of the hunger movement over the last few decades has totally excluded hungry people.  I go to all these conferences where there are no current or former hungry people.  I can’t imagine going to a conference on teaching with no teachers, or a firefighting conference with no firefighters.  No political movement in history has been accomplished that way.  You’ve probably heard a zillion people say, ‘We want to put a face on hunger, if non–hungry people only knew that someone in their community was hungry and they visualized it with a face, then the problem would just go away.’  The idea that non-hungry people are just going to wake up and feel guilty and then magically the problem’s going to go away is preposterous.” 
NYCCAH works hard to help the voices of poor people be heard.  For example, New York is one of only two states in the nation that requires SNAP applicants to be finger printed in an attempt to reduce the already low rate of fraud.  Joel said,
“I can talk about finger imaging until I’m blue in the face, but when I bring someone into a meeting who’s breaking down into tears as they’re telling how humiliating it is to be treated like a criminal, it changes the conversation.”
Helping individuals be heard is one thing.  But organizing a whole community to help itself be heard is difficult, perhaps particularly so with folks who are hungry.  Why?  Joel pointed out some of the reasons:
  • Low income people tend to live in a cycle of disempowerment.  They don’t have money to give to political campaigns, they’re less likely to vote, and their elected officials are often less responsive to their needs.  This leads to a feeling that nothing they could do would matter, cynicism that is difficult to counteract.
  • The members of most successfully organized groups want to affiliate with that group – union members, people who are gay, environmentalists, etc.  But poor people don’t want to think of themselves as poor; hungry people don’t want to think of themselves as hungry.
  • Low-income people speak a variety of languages, so meetings and communications need to be in those languages.  It is even more challenging when people are not fully literate in their native language.
  • People who come to the meetings tend to be those with extra time on their hands, often those with spotty job histories or mental health issues.  Those who represent the bulk of hungry Americans – the working poor, families with children – find it difficult to make time to attend meetings.
  • It can be difficult for people to expand their perspective beyond their personal experiences with hunger and with particular agencies or services.  It takes time and education to consider other people’s experiences, to understand systemic reasons for a situation, and finally to see broader possible policy solutions.
  • It is difficult to find resources to support community advocacy work.  No government funding can be used for advocacy and many foundations won’t fund it either.
Filomena Acevedo, NYCCAH
Community Organizer
To see how NYCCAH works to help organize hungry people in spite of these difficulties, we sat in on a meeting of the East Harlem Food Action Board (FAB), which meets bi-weekly in a conference room at the Yorkville Common Pantry, New York City’s largest community food pantry. 

The meeting was facilitated by Filomena Acevedo, NYCCAH Community Organizer.  By the 11:00 start time, she had set out refreshments for the group and posted the group’s mission statement on the wall.  It read,
“We are one of 4 FABs that the NYC Coalition Against Hunger runs throughout the city, in partnership with pantries and kitchens that host these meetings, to mobilize low-income community members concerning food, hunger, and anti-poverty initiatives.” 

Lawrence Brizan and Elizabeth Washington,
East Harlem FAB Members
About 10 people attended the meeting.  Because some were fluent in Spanish only, Filomena translated everything between English and Spanish so all were included. 

Filomena began the meeting by describing that Lawrence Brizan and Elizabeth Washington were among 4 FAB members who, along with Filomena, Theresa Hassler, and Joel Berg, made up NYCCAH’s delegation to Washington, DC, February 26-28, for the National Anti-Hunger Policy Conference, Their goal was to represent other low-income people at the conference and to work to end hunger by 2015.

Elizabeth described how privileged she felt to go to Washington.  She described speaking there of her experiences as a low-income person needing to choose whether to pay rent or buy food.  She helped advocate for continuation of SNAP, WIC and other programs needed to end hunger in America.  She felt that the congressional staff people she met really seemed to listen and to want to help, but that low-income people need to keep pushing.  She said she would definitely go again and that she’d try to be an even better advocate next time.

Lawrence agreed that the conference experience was a good one, that they had been very busy with workshops and meetings, and that it was impressive to be with 700-800 people who were all speaking on the same issues and trying to prevent cuts to federal food programs. 

Other items on the FAB agenda this week were focused on team-building, education, and community organizing:
  • Discussion of what makes a community
  • Discussion of the importance of knowing and contacting your elected officials
  • Information about TEFAP (The Emergency Food Assistance Program)
  • A 14-question poverty quiz that provided a great context to discuss the state of poverty across the country, not just New York.  
  • Guidelines on how to organize and facilitate a community meeting (One attendee shared that steps like these were successfully used to organize a community to stop a jail from being built in the Bronx)
It was a lively and spirited meeting throughout, with no shortage of opinions on topics including how the pantry operates, the plight of seniors who live in poverty, and the extra difficulties of being an undocumented resident.  We were impressed by the dignity inherent in this form of community-building, where those who really know are the experts.  The meeting ended about 12:15, with lots of informal conversations among participants before they went their separate ways.

Planting the seeds of empowerment through communities such as the Food Action Boards is long and difficult, but we give NYCCAH enormous credit for undertaking this work.  As Joel wrote when he signed our copy of his book,
“Together we can end hunger in America!”