Saturday, April 28, 2012

Radically Inclusive Meals in the Tenderloin

Glide Memorial United Methodist Church
San Francisco, CA
The Tenderloin is a neighborhood in the heart of San Francisco known for its high rates of crime, drug and alcohol abuse, poverty, and homelessness.  In 2011, San Francisco counted 6,455 homeless individuals, second only to the number in Los Angeles, and many of these people are located in the Tenderloin.  Of poor residents who do have housing, single men and seniors are likely to live in single-room occupancy housing without access to food storage or cooking facilities.

Even Tenderloin residents who have cooking facilities have very limited access to healthy food:
  • The Tenderloin is a “food desert” without a good full-service grocery store. 
  • Housing costs are so high in San Francisco that those who live on limited income have great difficulty affording food. 
  • Families on food stamps (called CalFresh) have little access to reasonably priced food.  There is a federal option under which restaurants in San Francisco may accept CalFresh benefits from homeless, elderly, or disabled people, but only certain fast-food restaurants qualify. 
All these factors mean that the need for feeding programs in the Tenderloin is extremely high.
Enter GLIDE: “A radically inclusive, just and loving community mobilized to alleviate suffering and break the cycles of poverty and marginalization.”
GLIDE has a long and storied history beginning in 1929 when Lizzie Glide purchased land in the heart of what is today the Tenderloin for construction of the Glide Memorial United Methodist Church.  Construction was completed two years later.  Fast forward to 1963, when a young African-American pastor, Cecil Williams, was appointed at Glide.  He saw clearly the social and political conditions in San Francisco and began a revolutionary remake of the church in mission to residents in the neighborhood.  You can read more about Cecil Williams in his 1992 book, No Hiding Place: Empowerment and Recovery for Our Troubled Communities.     
Bruce McKinney
GLIDE Free Meals Program Manager
Today GLIDE is many things: Between 2,000 and 3,000 people participate in their vibrant Celebrations each Sunday, and through a large array of innovative and life-changing social services, GLIDE offers food, shelter, and paths to healthier living for all. 
Perhaps most relevant to “Facing Hunger in America,” GLIDE offers a Daily Free Meals Program that serves on the order of a million meals a year, over 2500 each day, including breakfast, lunch, and dinner every single day except New Year’s Day.
That’s a LOT of meals, and they're all prepared and served in the church's small kitchen and dining rooms. 
How does the program work?  To find out, we volunteered, chopping vegetables and serving lunch and dinner along with 20 or so other volunteers at each meal.  We also interviewed Bruce McKinney, Free Meals Program Manager at GLIDE.  
Bruce is a tall man with an imposing presence.  His father and grandfather were Unitarian ministers.  A chef by trade, and a bonsai aficionado by avocation, he’s been managing everything to do with the Daily Free Meals Program at GLIDE for over 4 years.  That includes planning menus, purchasing all the food, orchestrating all special events, conducting cooking classes, and overseeing the work of his staff of 17 people.
GLIDE empowers its community, and one piece of evidence is that Bruce’s staff was hired entirely from the community – people who dined at GLIDE or who worked here as volunteers or as part of a work requirement for General Assistance or court-ordered Community Service. 

Volunteers and staff preparing to serve dinner at GLIDE
What stood out to us as special about the Daily Free Meals Program?
  • Of course, the size.  GLIDE’s free meals program is likely the largest in San Francisco.  It’s quite amazing that so many can be served from such a small kitchen, in such a small dining room, and in such a short period of time.  The day we were there, we helped serve lunch to about 900 people (an especially busy meal because the entrée was a favorite, fried chicken) and dinner to about 600 people.  It was a hectic and tiring day!  Bruce told us that the total numbers of diners fluctuate based on how early it is in the month (more people at the end of the month when benefits have run out) and other factors such as what special events are going on and what neighboring programs, such as St. Anthony’s are serving for lunch that day.  GLIDE used to give out however many tickets were requested during the time the meal was open.  Now, due to fiscal constraints, they’ve had to limit the number of tickets for each meal in order to cut costs.
Chopping green peppers
  • It takes a lot of volunteers and staff to serve all those meals.  In addition to the cooks, security staff, and dishwashing staff, about 20 volunteers for each meal help prepare and serve meals, deliver trays, take tickets, hand out trays, fill water pitchers, and bus and clean tables.  In addition to individual volunteers, sometimes groups come from schools, churches, or community organizations.  Bruce said some of the favorite meals are the vegetarian meals prepared a few times a year by a group of Sikhs. 
  • The dining room, while loud and extremely busy, seems welcoming.  The main dining room seats 82 people at round tables to facilitate conversation, and a smaller dining room accommodates those who find the stairs down to the main dining room difficult to navigate.  Everyone is treated with respect.  Bruce said he likes to place “starry-eyed” new volunteers at the positions of taking tickets and handing diners their trays, because they don’t know anyone’s history and therefore greet everyone equally.  Carolyn and I were assigned those two jobs at lunch.

  • All are served, with no questions asked.  Diners are not asked to sign in.  They are not required to be sober or to participate in any other activity.  They simply come during the times that meals are served, get a ticket, and go to the dining room when it’s their turn.  If anyone becomes violent or abusive or has especially poor personal hygiene, they still receive a bagged meal to eat elsewhere.

  • The day we volunteered, diners were perhaps about 50% African-American.  Most were men who appeared to us to be between the ages of about 30 and 60.  Many appeared to have mental health or substance abuse issues.  We were not surprised that we saw no children (it’s not a particularly good environment for them), but we were surprised at the large number of seniors, particularly elderly Asian women.

  • Anyone still hungry after they’ve gone through the line once can go back in line and get another ticket.  From our observations, we’d guess that perhaps 10% came through the line more than once.

  • The food is really good.  Like all feeding programs, this one secures its ingredients from a variety of donations and purchases.  Bruce sources much of GLIDE’s ingredients from the San Francisco Food Bank, paying only a small handling fee.  Every meal includes fresh fruits and vegetables, much of which comes to GLIDE through a special “Farm to Family Program,” which enables the food bank to provide a supply of fresh in-season produce for free.  In addition, Bruce uses his expertise as a chef to make sure that the food is varied, high-quality, tasty, and nutritious – they serve whole wheat bread (soft to accommodate those with dental issues) and brown rice, and the cooks make their own vinaigrette salad dressing.
Bruce is constantly improving the Daily Free Meals Program.  He conducts an annual satisfaction survey and makes improvements based on the results.  But this compassionate man is under no illusion that free meals make life easy or solve the root causes of homelessness and poverty in the Tenderloin:
“We do shelter reservations at GLIDE, too, for city shelters.  People come and line up to try to get into a shelter.  Too many people are in that cycle of shelters and eating in the kitchens, being dependent.  We’re forcing them to be in this cycle, because there isn’t affordable housing in the city, so you’re on a cot or a bunk bed in a shelter.  You have to be out by a certain time, you need to be back by a certain time at night, and if you screw up, you’re out.  So, you come to GLIDE in the morning, and if you didn’t get a bed, then you need to do it again in the afternoon.  Then you’re worried about lunch, and then you’re worried about dinner, then getting back to the shelter.    
“Being homeless is a full-time job.  How the heck are you able to look for a job?  You’re living on a cot.  It’s really, really tough, and it only gets tougher.”

Monday, April 23, 2012

Goodwill of Southern Nevada – It’s about Jobs

 Erika Salgado, Manager of Volunteer Services (left)
Mary Chartrand, Director of Human Services (center)
Elizabeth McDaniels, Assistant Director of Career Connections (right)
Goodwill of Southern Nevada
Most of us have seen Goodwill stores near our homes, and perhaps have donated clothes and household items to them.  We realize that at least some of these goods are then sold at the stores, and that the low prices make it easier for people to buy the things they need.  We may even realize that these stores are sometimes manned by people who especially need the job.  But what good does Goodwill really do?  We visited Goodwill of Southern Nevada to find out more about their programs.  There we met with Mary Chartrand, Director of Human Services, Elizabeth McDaniels, Assistant Director of Career Connections, and Erika Salgado, Manager of Volunteer Services.  And yes, they do MUCH more than sell used clothing and household goods!

Mary told us about several programs Goodwill runs to train and support disabled workers, including special education students from local schools.  Elizabeth explained how Goodwill supplies individualized job search help (and much more) to the general public.  And Erika described the numerous ways that volunteer workers both support Goodwill’s mission and gain job skills.   We found Goodwill of Southern Nevada to be a compassionate, inventive, nimble organization providing many people with the help they need to become employed.  As Mary said, “We just want to do the best and care for the people who live in this community.” 

Goodwill of Southern Nevada
Goodwill was founded in Boston in 1902 by Rev. Edgar J. Helms, a Methodist minister who was concerned about the immigrants he saw, starving and without employment.  He collected used household goods and clothing, then hired and trained workers to fix them to resell.  The system worked, and the Goodwill philosophy of “a hand up, not a hand out” was born.  After WWII, Goodwill concentrated on disabled returning vets, training them and  placing them in jobs.  Today, Goodwill is an international organization, with 165 district organizations in the US and Canada and 14 Goodwill-affiliated organizations in other countries.  Each of the organizations is free to develop its own methods of fulfilling the goal of “helping people reach their fullest potential through the power of work.”

Goodwill of Southern Nevada was established in 1975.  In 1996, it was still a relatively small organization, with 32 team members.  Today, it has 505 team members, 8 Superstores (the 9th will open in June), and a Goodwill Select store for selling brand-name merchandise inside a local supermarket.  It also runs a huge number of programs centered around providing people with job skills, placing them in jobs, and helping them be successful in these jobs.
Why the explosive growth in Goodwill of Southern Nevada in the last 16 years?   A new CEO with a broad vision, Steve Chartrand, helped.  The fact that the population of the Las Vegas metropolitan area, the major city in southern Nevada, went from about 1 million in 1996 to almost 2 million in 2010 increased the need.  But the biggest factor increasing the need for Goodwill’s services in the last few years has been the downturn in the economy, which has hit this area especially hard.  The hospitality industry, the major employer in the area, is especially vulnerable to recession, when people are less likely to spend money on hotels, restaurants, and casinos.  Also, because the economy was booming in Las Vegas before the recession, housing  prices were inflated and speculation was rampant, making the collapse in the housing market even more pronounced here.  Nevada had the highest rate of foreclosures in the nation for 62 months.  With the recession, building in both the real estate and hospitality industries essentially stopped in Las Vegas.
All these factors mean that huge numbers of workers in the hospitality industry, real estate, and construction lost their jobs.  The unemployment rate skyrocketed, peaking at 14.0% in 2010, and has not rebounded nearly as fast as in other hard-hit states.  The unemployment rate here remains over 12%.  
Goodwill stepped in to do what it could to help unemployed people, with a well-integrated set of programs to help them update their skills in job-seeking and retention, train for new careers, and find new jobs.  What programs do they run?  Here are a few that really stood out for us.
  • Career Connections, a job placement service that provides personalized employment services to anyone in the southern Nevada area.  With two sites, they offer help to people who may never have used a computer to search for a job or applied for a job on-line.  They offer one-on-one career consultation, help with writing resumes, interview coaching, job fairs, and numerous other services to help people find jobs, all at no cost to either the job seeker or the employer.  They also follow up with job seekers to see if additional help is needed.  In 2011, they placed 1255 people in jobs, and they are on track to better that number in 2012.
  • Apolonia Diaz
    supervises Carolyn
    pricing DVDs
  • Help in finding jobs for those with disabilities.  Those with disabilities are extremely hard to place.  Goodwill is extremely skilled at assessing, training, and finding appropriate positions.  A job coach then supports each worker to help the person learn the job and keep any small problems from escalating.  In 2011, Goodwill of Southern Nevada provided community-based training to 609 people with disabilities.
  • Training workers in the Goodwill facilities.  Many people volunteer at Goodwill.  Some are individuals or corporate teams who volunteer simply to give back.  (We worked for a few hours in the processing center under the watchful eye of Apolonia Diaz pricing used DVDs, CDs, and albums for resale in the Superstores.)  But most volunteers are working to fulfill requirements for community service.  They may be required to volunteer as part of a court-mandated sentence or in order to receive SNAP benefits, utility assistance, or Catholic Charities’ senior assistance.  Volunteers are assigned to specific work hours and duties, usually in one of the Superstores or in the processing center where donations are sorted.  Their performance as a volunteer is monitored, and if they perform well, their manager will write them a positive recommendation for a job.  Often, when paid positions become available at Goodwill, they’re filled from the ranks of volunteers.  This way, their volunteer work can lead directly to a job.  Volunteers are also encouraged to use Career Connection services, and often, with this help and this positive recommendation, they are able to find a job elsewhere.  In 2011, 531 individuals donated 41,000 hours at Goodwill of Southern Nevada.
  • Youth programs.   During the summer, a program run by Nevada Partners pays youth, and places them in volunteer positions throughout the community according to their interests.  We heard that 70 youth have expressed an interest in volunteering at Goodwill this summer!  In the past, several of the youth were hired after working as a volunteer.
  • Programs to help veterans.  Las Vegas has a large population of veterans, many of whom are homeless or suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injuries.   Goodwill of Southern Nevada expects the number of disabled veterans to rise as the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down.   They ran a class especially for vets on searching for a job, with rave reviews.   Goodwill is also exploring ways to coordinate the work of all the veteran’s groups in the city in order to be more helpful to the returning veterans.
Running these programs takes money, about $22 million!  Where do they get it?  Some comes from small foundation or federal grants, such as a Workforce Investment Act grant, but the biggest sources of income are their own Goodwill businesses.  These businesses also provide jobs.
  • Goodwill stores.  Everything you buy at a Goodwill store provides money for Goodwill programs and jobs.  $.91 of every $1 goes back into the Goodwill mission.  There aren’t very many non-profits that have such a successful business line to support their mission. 
  •  This on-line auction site works very similarly to eBay.  Goodwill chooses collectibles and other valuable items that they expect will sell better on-line than in a store.  We saw a donated kayak in the distribution center, and we’re betting we’ll see it on in the near future!
  •  This internet bookstore business lists 92,000 books, and every day they’re adding more titles.  We saw the book processing and shipping department when we worked in the processing center.
Each of these businesses employs people, giving them work skills that allow them to move up in the Goodwill organization or to move to jobs outside of Goodwill. 
So, do some shopping at your local Goodwill store or online.  Everything you buy helps provide economic justice and the dignity of a job to people in need.


Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Open Table: Solving Poverty through Relationships

A youth group from Paradise Valley United Methodist Church served breakfast at a shelter for homeless people in Phoenix, AZ, one Saturday morning in 2005. A man named Ernie asked, “Would I be able to worship at your church?” A bit taken aback, the leader, Jon Katov, said yes, and picked up Ernie the next morning and brought him to church. After a few months of picking up Ernie, members of the church decided that they needed to do more to help Ernie, and formed a group of about 12 people to help him become self-sufficient. This group met weekly, helped Ernie determine what he wanted his life to look like in a year, and then helped him achieve those goals. It was a life-changing experience for everyone involved, and led Jon to create The Open Table, a movement to “lift others out of poverty and homelessness to stability and wholeness, one at a time.”  
Shawn Pearson

To understand what impact this organization has on the lives of those it serves, we visited with Shawn Pearson, former vice-president of The Open Table, and Sarah Sanders, the director for the first Open Table at Arizona State University.

But wait, what does Open Table have to do with hunger?  In our travels, we’ve heard over and over that programs like soup kitchens and food pantries are a Band-Aid for the problems of hunger in the US.  Yes, we need them, but they treat the symptom – hunger – while doing little to address the main cause of hunger, namely poverty.

We’ve also visited organizations that address larger issues facing some individuals, such as addiction (for example, Wheeler Mission Ministries and Salvation Army) and lack of useful job skills (for example, DC Central Kitchen, Red Bird Mission, and Create Common Good).  We’ve also visited advocacy and policy groups (such as New York City Coalition Against HungerHunger Free Vermont, Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon).  But how about those who really would like to escape poverty, but have so many frustrations and challenges that it’s very hard to keep going, finding the help they need, and solving their numerous interrelated problems?

Sarah Sanders
Many people in poverty lack a network of good role models to help them move from their current state to a stable, healthy life.  In many cases, there are broken family relationships, deep sorrows, and a lack of trust in others.  There may be medical problems.  There also may be a lack of skills that many of us take for granted, things like budgeting and saving.  Open Table surrounds a person who wants to step up out of poverty with a tableful of people to love them, to cheer them on, and to help them achieve their goals.

How does Open Table work? 

An organization (usually faith-based) recruits a group of about 12 people who are committed to spending one year being a friend to a person who wants to escape poverty.  These volunteers usually include people with varying backgrounds.  They are trained in how an Open Table works.

Individuals or family units are typically referred to The Open Table by churches, social workers, transitional housing organizations, or homeless shelters, but sometimes individuals apply on their own.   The application process is quite rigorous.  They are given a background check including fingerprinting, a credit check, and a computerized psychological profile done by Krist Samaritan Center, a mental health agency in Houston, TX.   Clients who are accepted, based on their readiness to get a hand up, not a handout, are then matched with an Open Table based on the needs of the person and the talents represented in the Table.

There’s an initial meeting between the client (called a brother or sister), and the director of the Table.  Usually, the brother or sister is quite excited.  Sarah related that one sister said, “This is a dream come true.  I would like so much to have a group of people helping me, I feel so alone in the world.  There’s nobody who is helping me.  It’s a little bit scary to be in relationship with all these strangers, but I’m willing to take the risk.” 

The first meeting between the whole Open Table and their brother or sister is called “breaking the bread,” and is a potluck dinner at one of the Open Table member’s home.   People around the table introduce themselves to the sister or brother by sharing their own stories, where they grew up, who they are, and why they’re volunteering to help this total stranger.  The sister or brother gets to ask questions, but doesn’t need to share anything at this meeting. 

At the second meeting, called “the story,” the brother or sister shares his or her life story.   This can be quite intimidating, in front of 10-12 almost strangers, but serves to inform Table members about the brother or sister’s history, issues, and current situation.

The third meeting (and perhaps the fourth), is a goal-setting meeting.  What would you like to accomplish in the next year?  The Table encourages the brother or sister to come up with between 50 and 100 goals, which really makes them stretch.  One sister said “I never knew I had all these ideas in me!”  It’s emotional, and can be hard for someone who’s been so beaten down to dream again.  The goals cover all aspects of their life -- educational, work, medical, legal, health, relationships, transportation, etc.  These goals are then ranked A, B, C according to their priority.  Then, the brother or sister decides what goals they should work on first, and people at the Open Table decide who (including the brother or sister) will do what during the next week to help accomplish those goals.  They may brainstorm on how to accomplish the goals, and often call on their networks to bring more resources to the Table.

At the next meetings, the Table members hold each other accountable.  How much progress have you made on your tasks?  This question applies to everyone, the brother or sister as well as the other members around the Table.

Sometimes, goals are modified or added.  For example, one sister had a goal to eat healthy food, but her teeth were in such poor shape that she couldn’t eat it.  Her Table told her she really needed to add the goal of getting dentures because that’s the only way she could eat healthy food.   In this case, the Table members arranged free dental care to help the sister reach her goal. 

What is accomplished?  Here are two examples we heard:

In one case, a sister was having trouble sleeping more than a few hours each night.  One of her goals was to figure out how to sleep better.  A couple of students on her Table researched insomnia and developed a plan for sleeping soundly through the night.  They brought this information to the Table, and each week they checked to see how her sleep was progressing.  Within about 4 weeks, she was sleeping through the night.  She said that hadn’t happened for years! 

In another case, a brother needed scholarships to continue as a student at Arizona State University, but found the application process overwhelming.  His son was also graduating from high school and needed scholarships to attend college, too.  So the 4 student members of this Table (computers in hand) met with the father and son, and worked for 5 hours helping them fill out scholarship applications.

What happens next?

The meetings continue weekly, with new goals added as previous goals are met.   As the year progresses, the Table may only meet once every 2 weeks, then monthly as the brother or sister becomes more confident.   At the end of the year, the Table reviews and celebrates the goals met, then disbands.

The dynamics of the Table change over the course of the year.  One brother, near the beginning of his Table, said, “I feel so uncomfortable that all of you want to help me.  Why would strangers want to help ME?”  But, as Sarah told us, “At some point during the year-long process, it’s no longer a group of strangers delving into your personal life and trying to help you figure out solutions, but it becomes a group of friends.   It’s people that you call because you like them, you want to be with them, you want to go out and do fun things together.  When you get together once a week, you’re delighted to see each other.  When you get to that point, things get a lot easier.  There’s trust earned.”

How would I start an Open Table in my church?

The first step would be to contact the founder and CEO of The Open Table, Jon Katov. He is working to spread the movement to more states (currently there are Open Tables in 5 states, with an expected 100 Tables in Arizona this year). Jon would help you through the process.

What’s special about the Open Table model?

Most of us have seen some of the elements of the Open Table model before, perhaps in helping a refugee resettle into the US, or in helping a troubled person in a local congregation.  However, the Open Table model puts these elements together in a well-defined program that can be followed easily and has been shown to work for most of those who take part.  In addition to people looking to move out of poverty, the Open Table model is being used successfully for those exiting prison, and it is currently being extended to apply to teens exiting the foster care system.

Everyone’s changed by the Open Table experience.  The brothers and sisters make significant healthy life changes, they come to more easily cope with what life throws at them, and they have more confidence.  But the other Table members are also profoundly changed.  They say things like, “When I look at this sister, how hard she’s working, and she’s doing it with all of her heart….  What do I have to complain about?  If I attacked my own issues with the same energy as this sister, I could make changes too.”  “I look at poverty completely differently after my experience with Open Table.”

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Mark Winne: Moving from Projects to Policy

Mark Winne
(photo by Norah Levine)
Each day before we head out to visit a new program, we pray for, among other things, guidance in “doing our part to inspire just and healthy access to food for all people.”  After visiting 42 states and about 66 different programs, it is clear that in this country we do not have a system that provides good food to us all. 
Facing Hunger in America has chronicled remarkably caring and generous charitable programs, from food banks and pantries to feeding programs and broader social service agencies.  We have seen the effectiveness of federal programs such as SNAP, WIC, and commodity distribution.  And we’ve seen the rise in farmers’ markets, organic farms, and recommendations to consume more fresh fruits and vegetables.  These all provide important nutritional benefits to those of us struggling with food insecurity.  But they have not solved the problems.  Many of us still experience deep and persistent poverty, food insecurity, and profoundly unequal access to healthy food. 
So what kinds of things can be done to create a better food system, one that offers healthy food to all?  If you’ve been reading this blog, you’ve seen some great examples of organizations that do significant work at the policy level to reform our food system and solve problems that prevent access to healthy food by large numbers of Americans.  For example:
Perhaps the person with the most experience in bringing healthy food (or he would say “extraordinary food”) to all, is Mark Winne.  Mark spent about 25 years as the executive director of Hartford Food System in Hartford, CT.  He is the author of two fabulous books about reforming our food system:
Rereading these books prior to our visit with Mark in Santa Fe, NM, his current home, this quote fromthe introduction to Closing the Food Gap jumped out at us:
“…the bridge from empathy to the political will necessary to create profound institutional change is a wobbly one.  As the food gap grows in both width and complexity, it continually calls upon us to develop a more sophisticated understanding of its nature so that we can cross more confidently from empathy to political action.”
The image of crossing a wobbly bridge from empathy to political action seems very apt.  It’s relatively easy to offer direct assistance to those in need; it is important work and provides an essential understanding of hunger and food system problems.  But we may not think we have enough experience, good examples, skills, clear vision, or political will to really tackle the systemic issues.

Mark is now the Food Policy Council Program Director for the Community Food Security Coalition, a national organization based in Portland, OR, that Mark cofounded in 1994.  We specifically wanted to learn from Mark how food policy councils work and the role they can play in creating healthier food systems.
“Food Policy Councils (FPCs) bring together stakeholders from diverse food-related sectors to examine how the food system is operating and to develop recommendations on how to improve it.” 
The website lists 104 food policy councils across the US.  It’s interesting to note the variety in these groups – Some serve an entire state, while others serve a region, county, or single city or town.  Some are grass-roots coalitions of various food-related organizations, and others were formed by and/or officially report to governmental entities.   To see if there is a food policy council serving your community, you can check out the list and clickable map.  But be advised that not all groups doing this sort of work are represented – some groups are being formed or are just not (yet) visible to the Coalition.

What do food policy councils actually do?  Mark gave us several great examples (and more are detailed in his books and on the Food Policy Council website).  Basically, they identify problems and find solutions to them by exercising whatever leverage they can find.
  • Perhaps they find a way to create new bus routes so that shoppers in underserved areas can get to a quality grocery store or farmers’ market. 
  • Perhaps they help schools and institutions purchase food from local farmers, or help small schools and small grocery stores pool their purchasing power to be able to source more fresh produce. 
  • Perhaps they find private and public grant money to try creative new solutions to bringing good food to underserved areas, such as new community gardens or a mobile grocery store or farmers’ market. 
  • Perhaps they find ways to save local farmland, better support local farmers, or organize community gardens. 
  • Perhaps they figure out ways to offer meals to children in the summer.
  • Perhaps they educate politicians, town planners, and voters to become better educated food citizens. 
What leads to a successful food policy council?  Mark said that the key is to work in a coordinated way with an eye toward balancing the system, improving things for all parties (consumers, farmers, producers, institutions, government entities, etc.) not just addressing the individual problem in isolation.  Conduct background research on the current food system in the area -- not just availability, but also health, justice, working conditions, environmental effects, sustainability, and economics for all parties.  Look at everything the town (city, county, state) does through a “food system lens.”  Talk to all the parties and look for imaginative partnerships. 

If you think food policy work might be useful in your area, we urge you to check out the gold mine of resources that other food policy councils have shared on the website, including policy and issue statements, “how to” resources, and a huge number of sample documents.
Mark likes to talk about the three “P’s” necessary to change our food system (Closing the Food Gap, page 172).  They are:
  • Projects – those activities such as food banks, feeding programs, SNAP outreach, etc. that offer direct services and narrow the gap between the rich and poor.
  • Partners – the set of players involved in the food system, those who need to work together and whose issues must be addressed as part of any system change.
  • Policy – generalizing our work in ways that benefit us all, influencing local, state, and federal government and organizations to exert appropriate leverage in reforming our food systems.
If we use all of our energy on projects, we will not improve our food system overall. 

We find the rise in the number of food policy councils to be a very positive development.  We need people experienced in project work, bringing partners together, and working on policy improvements.  As more of us cross the wobbly bridge from empathy to policy we will come closer to a just and healthy food system for all people.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Panera Cares

Carolyn enjoying a Panera salad
Do you like Panera cafés?  In our travels, we have frequently stopped at Panera and have always appreciated the great breads, wholesome and tasty menu items, and relaxed, friendly environment. 

Panera is well known for its community involvement.  Many of you who work at food pantries or soup kitchens have used or distributed Panera bread.  Panera donates all of their bread at the end of the day to charities that then offer it to the people they feed.  In 2010, Panera donated about $100 million worth of bread through their Day-End Dough-Nation program.  At their cafés, they also collect and match cash donations, which are then given to non-profit food organizations through their Community Breadbox program.

But these efforts weren’t enough for Ron Shaich, the founder of Panera and now President of the Panera Bread Foundation.  He felt that these donations, while valuable, weren’t sufficient.  Inspired by a TV segment on the SAME (So All May Eat) restaurant in Denver, he decided that opening a non-profit, pay-what-you-can, restaurant was a good way to give directly to those in need, while making use of Panera’s core competencies of serving good, nutritionally dense food in a  warm, welcoming environment, treating customers with dignity, and building relationships in communities.

Panera's Kate Antonacci
To learn more about the Panera Cares Café concept, we caught up with Kate Antonacci, Ron Shaich’s associate, at the Panera Bread Foundation offices in Needham Heights, MA.  Kate has worked closely with Ron on planning the cafés since the early concept stages.  Kate told us that it took about a year to decide on a concept, plan the details of how it would work, find a site, and then open the first café in 2010.

How does the Panera Bread Foundation decide where to place a Panera Cares café?  All cafés need to be self-supporting, so they are located in areas with an economically diverse population – both people in need and people who will support the café by paying their fair share or a bit more.  Currently there are three Panera Cares Cafés:  Clayton, MO, Dearborn, MI, and Portland, OR.  Two more are expected to be announced soon. We stopped at the Dearborn Café, arriving and observing incognito, and then visited the original Café in Clayton, where we talked with manager Brooke Porter, greeter Jan Mauzy, and shift manager Josh Hopwood.

Panera Cares, Dearborn, MI
What makes Panera Cares Cafes different?  On the surface, they look just like any other Panera café.  They have the same color scheme, the same architectural features, the same menu and friendly atmosphere, and similar signs. 

It’s not until you look more closely that you see the differences.  The name is slightly different – Panera Cares Café, or in St. Louis, St. Louis Bread Co. Cares Café.  The motto is “we feed everyone with dignity regardless of their means.”  There are large signs explaining how the café operates, but in case you don’t see them, a greeter (or “ambassador”) explains that in a Panera Cares Café you are asked to pay your fair share.  The greeters get to know those who come regularly, learn about them in a friendly way, and make it clear that this is a community caring for all its members.  Jan said, “There’s like an inner-tube of love around this place.  When you walk in the door, hopefully you feel it.”  She keeps a journal of the stories she hears, and takes photos of some of the people to add to it.  She’s worked at the Café since the second day, and wouldn’t work anywhere else.

Brooke Porter (top),
Josh Hopwood, and Jan Mauzy
This is not a free restaurant.  The menu board displays suggested donation amounts, equivalent to the prices at regular Panera Cafés.  After you order your food, a cashier tells you the total suggested donation for your meal.  They make change if asked, and you put your donation into a bin in front of the cash register.  You can also use a credit card.   Those unable to pay for their meal are generally served one food item and one drink.  There are also tables of “baked fresh yesterday” bread and pastries, donated by other nearby Panera cafés, that you can take home, as well.  There’s a suggested price per loaf, and a bin on the table for your donation.
Although the cafés are non-profit, they are self-supporting.  They were regular Panera Cafés before transitioning to Panera Cares Cafés, and the equipment was donated from the corporation to the foundation.  Nevertheless, salaries, the ingredients for the food items, rent for the space, upkeep, and other expenses must be covered by customers’ donations.

Who pays?  We were told that about 60% of customers pay the amount asked.  About 20% pay more, and about 20% pay less.  The total amount collected averages between 75% and 80% of the amount asked.  So we asked Brooke how she covers the rest of the expenses.  One way is by getting some services either free or at a reduced price.  Perhaps the window washer washes the windows for free.  Perhaps that broken air conditioner is repaired at a lower cost.  Perhaps a nursery will donate flowers and soil for the planters.  Brooke is pretty resourceful!

Who eats at the Panera Cares Café?  The customers who come to the café usually look the same as they do at any Panera Café.  It’s not obvious who is food insecure, and the staff treats everyone the same.  They said that the well-dressed man with the briefcase who put $1 into the bin may have been unemployed for 6 months, is on his way to an interview and wants to feel comfortably fed in order to perform well.  The stylish woman may be living in her car.

Some who come to the Café ask if they can do something to pay for their meal.  Panera Cares makes a point of honoring these requests, and one of the greeters arranges times for volunteers to work.  They may sweep the patio, wipe off the tables, or fill the condiment trays.  After an hour of volunteer time, they get a voucher for a free meal, and more importantly, the dignity of paying their fair share.  If they continue to volunteer, show up when they’re expected, and do a good job, Brooke will write a letter of recommendation for them.  Several have been given good recommendations, and have gotten jobs.  Others fit in so well that they’ve been hired at the restaurant.

As if feeding the community weren’t enough, Panera also runs a 10-week internship program at the Clayton, MO, Café in partnership with the Covenant House in St. Louis, a program for homeless youth.  Young people ready for a job undergo a rigorous application process including filling out an application, writing an essay on why they’d like to work at the café, interviewing.  Usually three are chosen.  They work several shifts/week at the Café, where they are trained in each work station, as well as attend classes in work requirements (showing up on time in a clean uniform, calling when there are conflicts, how to manage a bank account, and other life skills).  The Café provides them with uniforms, bus passes, and food while they’re on the job, and grades them every day on attendance, appearance, teamwork, and personal and professional attributes.   The staff is very patient with them, as they are with any new employee.  Those who have graduated from the internship have all gotten jobs at other Panera Cafés.

St. Louis Bread Co. Community Cafe
How successful are the Panera Cares Cafés?  Brooke said that the Clayton café is busier than it was before the change to a Cares Café, so there is enough income to pay the bills.  But she explained that the employees actually measure their success by their impact on the people they serve. 

Josh told us a story about a man who was coming in once or twice a week, taking large quantities of whole grain bread, sometimes all that was available.   He was also taking pastries, and wasn’t leaving much money.   But sometimes he’d bring them candy or flowers.  They were concerned that he might be taking more than his share. Then they found out that he lived in a community of Russian and Ukrainian elders, many of whom didn’t speak English and didn’t drive.  He was bringing bread to the whole community. Josh said, “It taught me a lesson that you never know what’s going on with someone.”

Brooke told us of one young man who came to the café to volunteer.  She recognized him as someone who had come in during the summer, unkempt, into drugs and alcohol, living on the streets.  Previously, he’d been living with his mom and grandmother, but both had died, and other relatives had taken everything, leaving him homeless.  He’d decided he didn’t want to spend his 26th birthday that way, and had entered a recovery program.  He was now working full time, and ready to move into an apartment of his own.  He returned to the café to volunteer, grateful and wanting to pay for all the meals he’d gotten the summer before.  Brooke said, “That’s how I measure my success.  It’s not having all the dollars in the bank at the end of the day.” 

Panera Cares Cafés won’t totally solve the issue of food insecurity, but they have shown us a way for a community to feed all its members with dignity and equality. 

Monday, April 2, 2012

Lobbying for a Strong Nutrition Safety Net

If you’ve been following our travels, you know that we have visited 41 states and over 65 anti-hunger programs so far.  One area we’ve studied is the federal nutrition safety net and the valuable role these programs play in helping struggling Americans obtain nutritious food.  Most of these programs, such as SNAP (formerly food stamps) and the distribution of surplus commodity foods, are reauthorized each 5 years as part of the Farm Bill.  The farm bill in effect today is the Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008.  The 2012 Farm Bill is currently being drafted by the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry (Senate Ag Committee).  Senator Debbie Stabenow from Michigan is the current chairwoman.

Carolyn and Betsy with Senator Stabenow, 2010
We visited Senator Stabenow back in September of 2010 near the beginning of Facing Hunger in America, and she asked us to be sure to get back to her at the end of the project.  Now we wanted to understand the changes being considered in the Farm Bill and to contribute our experiences to the process of drafting the new Farm Bill.  So we arranged a meeting in Grand Rapids, MI, with Mary Judnich, Regional Manager for Senator Stabenow.  Also, teleconferenced into the meeting from Washington, DC, was Jacqlyn Schneider, Member of the Senior Professional Staff of the Senate Ag Committee. 

To make sure we made the best use of our brief meeting, we had a list of questions we wanted to ask about how the Ag Committee operates and the state of the mark-up of the Farm Bill.  We also had prepared a talk-sheet of the points we wanted to cover, based on our Facing Hunger experiences.  We emailed this document ahead of the meeting.  Let us know if you’d like to see a full copy of what we presented, but the main points concerned SNAP, healthy eating, and government commodity foods. 
Everywhere we have been for Facing Hunger in America, people appreciate the good job that SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly food stamps) does in feeding Americans who are food insecure.  Virtually all local, regional, and national anti-hunger organizations such as the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) and Bread for the World regard SNAP as the strongest and most effective program to help feed hungry Americans. 
  • SNAP ensures that the neediest Americans can feed their families.   
  • Now that SNAP benefits are delivered through an electronic benefit card (like a debit card), the program experiences remarkably little fraud, very low administrative costs, and a high degree of dignity and anonymity for recipients.
  • Benefits are scaled by need, so when families are doing better, the amount that the government spends on SNAP correspondingly decreases.
  • SNAP provides local economic stimulus, since SNAP benefits are typically spent very quickly in local grocery stores.
  • SNAP participants are your neighbors.  According to the USDA, “In fiscal year 2010, 76 percent of all SNAP households included a child, an elderly person, or a disabled nonelderly person. These households received 84 percent of all SNAP benefits.” (page 16)  Adults who can work are required to do so (or be actively looking or training for a job); over 40% of all SNAP participants live in households that have some earnings, but these earnings are not enough to cover their expenses for food.
We have heard concerns that up to 1/3 of eligible people are not receiving the SNAP benefits to which they are entitled (and that number is far higher for seniors).  Also, we have heard that SNAP benefits run out far before the month is over. 

As wonderful as the nation’s food banks, food pantries, and soup kitchens are, they can feed only a tiny fraction of those who are food insecure in this country.  We need SNAP.
Therefore, the most important point we made in our meeting with Senator Stabenow’s aides was our strong support for maintaining and strengthening SNAP.   Our recommendations included:
  • Fully funding SNAP.  We do not support any efforts to turn SNAP into a block grant program, as that would arbitrarily cap SNAP at an amount that would not fluctuate with need.  The result would be reduced or denied benefits in times of economic hardship.
  • Continuing SNAP Outreach, particularly to seniors, so a larger percent of those eligible participate. 
  • Scaling benefits based on the regional cost of food.  Food prices vary greatly across the country.
  • Increasing benefits, so they are less likely to run out before the month is over.
Healthy Eating 
A second area we addressed was our observations that the fresh, organic, local food movement is vibrant everywhere, and people are working to overcome obesity and related health problems through healthier eating.  But low income people often feel left out of this movement due to higher costs of many healthier foods. We also have seen many people with insufficient food preparation and nutrition knowledge.  Therefore, we supported:
  • Giving a fresh fruit and vegetable bonus to SNAP recipients as a way to promote healthy purchases.  We are not in favor of limiting the use of SNAP benefits to only certain foods.  Because there are no standards for good and bad foods, such classification would be difficult.
  • Encouraging healthy food stores in food deserts.  (The above SNAP bonus could help.)
  • Expanding programs that enable farmers’ markets and CSAs to accept SNAP.
  • Supporting nutrition programs such as SNAP-Ed, especially targeting groups most in need, such as teenagers, men, African Americans, Native Americans, and people with very low food security.
  • Funding research on a universally-recognizable nutritional quality index on every food item.  Such an index could be used in SNAP bonuses, in food banks to assess quality of distributed food, and by the general public to guide purchase of healthier foods.
Commodity Foods
We have heard consistently about the importance of commodity foods (TEFAP).  Not only are they vital for school meals and the commodity distribution programs such as CSFP and FDPIR, but they account for about 30% of the food supplied by food banks. 
Food banks we visited consistently told us that they have difficulty sourcing enough food to meet the needs of their client food pantries and soup kitchens, so they distribute any food they can get.  We noticed, however, that food sourced through commodities did not always supply a well-balanced diet. 
Because the commodities program prevents food that the government purchases from going to waste, we support distributing that food to people in need.  But since commodity programs are also meant to improve the nutrition of recipients, we supported:
  • Tying the level of TEFAP commodities purchased by the USDA to a measure of need, such as unemployment rates, so that food banks are appropriately stocked.
  • Continuing FDPIR.  We found this small program to be vital for those who need it in remote places such as Indian reservations and native villages in Alaska.
  • Including fresh produce with CSFP and simplifying it to be specific to seniors only.    Today the program also covers mothers and young children, but that population is already served by the WIC Program.
  • Assisting food banks and pantries in sourcing and distributing more fresh produce and frozen meats.  Consider programs such as grants for refrigeration, or substituting cash for the purchase of produce instead of commodities.
In addition to the above areas, we also expressed our views on child nutrition and summer feeding programs (most recently reauthorized in the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010), government crop subsidies, and farmworker conditions.

What was the reception to our recommendations?  We received clear indications that many of our ideas were consistent with the direction Senator Stabenow and the Ag Committee were taking.  Others we were told “would be difficult.”  Overall, we were assured that the Senator would receive a report of our meeting and that our recommendations would be taken into consideration along with all the other input received.  We acknowledge the difficult political climate, and we hope that the compromises that may be necessary going forward will continue to protect the most vulnerable among us.  We believe that is what a caring nation owes its citizens and what all major religious traditions demand. 

We also learned that the House lags the Senate in the development of their version of the Farm Bill, and that we should be sure to communicate our ideas to the House Committee on Agriculture.  The recent passage in the House of the FY2013 Budget, which is hugely damaging to programs such as SNAP and WIC, suggests that anti-hunger programs are not likely to fare well in the House version of the Farm Bill.

What can you do?  Please let your senators and representatives know that you expect them to protect SNAP, WIC, and the other programs within the federal nutrition safety net in the upcoming Farm Bill.  The well-being of millions of American children, seniors, disabled people, and adults of limited means depends on it!