Expanding Access to Healthy Food: A Changemaker+Funder Partnership to Shift a System
by Miriam Owsley, Strategic Communications Manager
At the base of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is the category of Physiological Needs: the most basic needs that include food, water, warmth, and rest. Food insecurity, the lack of access to sufficient nutritious food to meet that most basic need, is a complex problem affected by a range of influences: market forces, distribution logistics, geography, accessibility, and consumer knowledge.
A group of Northern Michigan nonprofit organizations and a coalition of food pantries are working collaboratively to tackle food insecurity by going upstream to address its root causes. Through their work and with support from Rotary Charities staff, Food Rescue and the Northwest Food Coalition have strengthened their partnership, increased their ability to be adaptive and respond to a crisis, ultimately increasing the amount of fresh, nutritious food available to those who need it most in Northern Michigan.
Mapping the System to Identify Opportunities for Impact
In 2017, with the help of a Rotary Charities guide and a free Systems Practice Course through +Acumen & The Omidyar Group, a team explored the factors within the region’s food system that influence food-insecure people’s ability to meet their nutritional needs. This collaborative work resulted in a systems map that identified key leverage points that may have the greatest impact on decreasing food insecurity. Inspired by the outcomes of the systems mapping work, Food Rescue, the Northwest Food Coalition, and The Teaching Kitchen applied for and were awarded a $100,000 Assets for Thriving Communities grant in 2018.
The three goals of the Healthy Food Access Hub grant reflected those leverage points and aimed to:
Improve and increase the distribution, storage, and repacking of fresh and frozen donated fruits and vegetables.
Expand the Northwest Food Coalition’s capacity to collectively purchase fresh produce and healthy foods from local farms.
Improve the culinary, nutritional, and food safety knowledge of food insecure individuals and pantry workers.
Deeper Partnerships Provide a Place to Meet Challenges Nimbly, with Trust and Accountability
The mission and services provided by the NFC and Food Rescue positioned the organizations as ideal partners, two pieces of a complex puzzle that work together to address food insecurity and emergency food assistance in Northwest Michigan. Though they’d had an established relationship, Food Rescue and the member organizations of the NFC had been addressing food insecurity independently and had not yet engaged in the kind of deep collaborative effort proposed in the grant application. With other organizations involved, including the Groundwork Center and the individual member organizations of the NFC, it became apparent that a Partnership Agreement would be necessary to define the partnership and determine roles and responsibilities. “The process of spelling out an objective — how to get there, what tools to use, and how you’re going to communicate — may seem tedious and like something that would just evolve naturally, but it doesn’t,” said Mary Clulo, Director of Treasury and Tax at Munson Healthcare and Chairperson of the Northwest Food Coalition Operating Committee.
The partners brought this challenge to Rotary Charities. We were able to offer additional support to engage a consultant who would help facilitate the creation of a Memorandum of Understanding that outlined the partners’ shared commitment, individual and collective roles, and decision-making processes. Megan Motil of Parallel Solutions gave them the tools to address issues as they arose and hold each other accountable.
An open and trusting relationship between funders and grant recipients is not guaranteed. That trust is built over time and earned through the supportive role that Rotary Charities plays in grantmaking. Because the grant partners trusted that they would not risk funding by being honest with Rotary Charities staff about the issues the partnership was facing, we were able to provide them with additional resources and support. Dan Buron, CEO of Goodwill Northern Michigan, echoed that sentiment, “It’s easy to collaborate. It’s not so easy to co-create. Rotary Charities gave us the resources to help facilitate the partnership agreement. The process of getting there helped us build the muscle of how to work together, co-create, and make decisions.”
“The Northwest Food Coalition, Food Rescue, and Groundwork have been becoming more engaged, and the more we can strengthen our partnerships and increase our capacity and infrastructure, the better we will be able to meet the needs of the community.” Taylor Moore, Food Rescue Manager
Stronger Partnerships Led to Greater Inclusivity, Adaptability, and Impact
“The majority of this grant was focused on building up Food Rescue’s infrastructure so we could increase the amount of fresh, healthy food we distribute,” said Taylor Moore, Manager of Food Rescue. In addition to equipment for moving and stacking pallets of food and bag sealers for repackaging food into smaller portions, resources were also allocated to providing space for the NFC in Food Rescue’s walk-in coolers, freezers, and dry storage, as well as space and time in the kitchen, and assistance with the repacking of produce. This increased capacity to store and repackage fresh and frozen food meant that the Northwest Food Coalition could scale up the amount of fresh food on pantry shelves by purchasing produce directly from local farms, which led to the creation of the Food Purchasing Committee. “We knew that we needed to include the many stakeholders that we serve,” said Moore of the committee’s representative model, which included “entities that serve children, small pantries, large pantries, meal sites, representation from the Grand Traverse Band of Odawa and Chippewa Indians, community mental health sites, baby pantries. There are a lot of different constituents, and we needed to include them. We needed to act on behalf of the entire group.”
When the COVID-19 pandemic reached Michigan, nearly everything about the emergency food assistance system suddenly changed. Many pantries, who rely on older volunteers for their operations, had to prioritize their safety from the dangers of the coronavirus. Nationally, pantries shifted from the self-shop models that gave clients dignity and the power of personal choice to drive-through models with pre-packed bags of food. In an effort to flatten the curve and stop the spread of the virus, food was being quarantined, packages were wiped down with sanitizer, and some pantries stopped accepting food donations altogether. Throughout the crisis, the member organizations of the NFC have come together monthly to problem solve, share resources, and report back to the group what they were learning. “The way this group has adapted was a result of a strong peer learning group. Can you imagine if each of those pantries was doing it all in isolation without a group of 60 peers they could talk to?” said Meghan McDermott, Director of Programs at the Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities.
“This grant has provided real clarity on the power of the Coalition to bring people together to achieve at a higher level by leveraging resources and assets.” Mary Clulo, Chairperson of the Northwest Food Coalition Operating Committee
With grocery store shelves bare and produce sections wiped out, the pandemic raised the issue of food insecurity to the level of a national conversation. The economic shutdown caused massive job loss and increased demand at pantries, just as panic buying resulted in a supply shortage for Food Rescue. Local farms took a significant hit when restaurants were forced to close their doors and farmers’ markets were canceled. Seeing the need for support, the Groundwork Center launched the Local Food Relief Fund (LFRF) with the initial fundraising goal of $30,000. Thanks to tremendous community support, the LFRF raised over $180,000 in just over one week, with 100% of those funds passed on to the Manna Food Project and Northwest Food Coalition. The Partnership Agreement that had been created months earlier facilitated NFC’s ability to receive donations, and this infusion of cash allowed the Food Purchasing Committee to make large purchases of produce from local farmers, repack it, and distribute it to area food pantries. “When the pandemic hit, we had the infrastructure in place to bring in more volunteers and handle the logistics of distributing that food. That’s not a fluke,” said Moore of the Coalition's capacity to adapt to the quickly changing circumstances.
“We were well-positioned to be able to pivot in a way that would not have been possible had we not gone through that learning and growth process. We had to adjust and grow, but we had already created a foundation of trust, of how we work together and solve problems.” Dan Buron, CEO Goodwill Northern Michigan
COVID continued to push the partners to make adaptations to their original plans, and two objectives of the grant went virtual. The concept of a Teaching Kitchen at the Long Lake Culinary Campus had been cooked up by NFC partners including Munson Medical Center, Groundwork Center, Great Lake Culinary Institute, and Tamarack Holdings as a space dedicated to furthering the understanding of diet as an integral part of a healthy lifestyle and to the maintenance of one’s overall health. By establishing a physical facility and an education program, the Teaching Kitchen sought to reduce barriers for people from all walks of life to buy, prepare, and eat local, wholesome food daily. The facility ultimately did not come to fruition, and the NFC partnered with Michigan State University Extension to create a series of healthy food recipe videos available on the Coalition’s website and Youtube to satisfy the educational component of the grant objectives. “Our relationship with MSU-E has blossomed through this work,” said Clulo.
With the partners all facing immense COVID-related pressure, a public-facing event felt like a big lift. However, with the help of Megan Motil to facilitate discussion and decision making, the group was able to plan and execute the Food Security Summit, a six-part virtual series that would create space for people to learn about the needs and resources available, as well as explore a shared understanding and a shared vision to address regional food insecurity and hunger in the greater Grand Traverse region. Because the Summit sessions were offered virtually, they saw increased engagement, with 80-100 attendees at each session, which are also available to watch on the Northwest Food Coalition’s website. Sessions covered topics ranging from “Who in our Community is Facing Food Insecurity?”, “How Do We Make Decisions to Address Community and Individual Needs?” and “What Values Drive Our Solutions?”, ultimately looking towards the future with “What’s Next? Chartering a Path Forward for Food Security for Our Community”. After gaining insight into the issues of food insecurity and hunger, participants were empowered with the knowledge, connections, and proposed solutions for addressing the issue in their communities. “There are several tremendous successes on this grant, but the Food Security Summit exceeded all expectations,” said Clulo, highlighting feedback from an attendee who admitted they might experience withdrawals from the Summit.
Funder + Grantee + Systemic Guiding Principles = Impact
The modifications made by the partners to fulfill the deliverables in their grant exemplify Rotary Charities’ guiding principles of “Collaborative,” “Reflective”, and “Adaptive”. “If everything were as it was written three years ago, we wouldn’t be doing this right. We’d be working in a vacuum and not realizing the needs of the community we’re serving,” said McDermott, “This could not have happened at a better time, with Rotary Charities rethinking their role as a funder.”
Systems change work is often messy and requires taking risks to remove barriers, embrace a collaborative network-building approach, and break down the walls in the traditional grantee/funder relationship. That our grantees are comfortable approaching Charities staff to have honest conversations about the challenges they face in their initiatives without risking future funding is a testament to our intention to be a true partner and effect lasting change in our community.
Originally published in May 2021 Evaluation Report titled “From Charity to Changemaker: Learning from the First Years 2018-2020”
Republished in October 2021 Annual Report
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