Coming Together to Feed the Hungry in Orange County

by Brenda Camp, Community Outreach, Weaver Street Market

SVProduceThe Bridge is a new blog with a mission “to showcase cooperative activities that build healthy & sustainable local communities; and to educate & inform the public about these efforts in an effort to raise the visibility & impact of North Carolina & South Carolina cooperatives.”

The following appeared on The Bridge: “Connecting Cooperatives in the Carolinas,” on July 1, 2016.

Shoppers entering a Weaver Street Market (WSM) store are immediately greeted by bins mounded high with colorful, vibrant fruits and vegetables. Our natural, organic, and local produce is a big draw for our shoppers—15% of our sales come from produce. For us that’s an important measure of success. Connecting our owners and shoppers with food that is healthy, tasty, and fun is one of our 2020 Goals. Two years ago, a community volunteer, Mary Carey, came to us with a very different vision of success. She and leaders from four local hunger-relief organizations reminded us that there are many, many in our community who do not have enough food for their families.

A number of reasons for the shortage were identified, all related to insufficient resources, both money and time. Debbie Horwitz from PORCH explained that the families her organization serves are working families, but most have little money for food toward the end of the month after covering basic living expenses and depleting their SNAP dollars, which do not adequately cover the cost of food, especially healthy food choices. Kay Stegner from Orange Congregation in Missions (OCIM) noted that many clients come to the food banks when they have emergency needs, such as a loss of income or sudden medical bills. Kristin Lavergne from Interfaith Council added that even an unplanned expense, like replacing a tire, can drain away funds needed for food. Ashton Tippins observed that the food in weekend backpacks that children receive from TABLE needs to be easy to prepare because the parents often work multiple jobs and the children fix the food themselves or with the help of an older sibling.

A modest request leads to a vision of ending hunger
The leaders from the hunger-relief organizations asked if we’d allow them to collect food in our stores for the kids and families served by their programs. It was a simple, modest request. They each had a list of non-perishable foods that the families needed each month, and they hoped we’d sell them at discounted prices for our shoppers to purchase and donate. For us, it struck a chord far deeper. It reminded us that we’re a co-op—community owned, community supported—but that only part of our community had access to the healthy food we sell every day.


PORCH_carrotDisplay_smallIn January 2015, WSM formed the Community Food Partnerships through which we partner with the four hunger-relief organizations—PORCH, TABLE, IFC, and OCIM—to support their efforts to provide healthy food for those in need in our communities, particularly children, low-income families, and families in crisis. Inspired, we immediately ordered big drums to hold the packaged products we were sure our shoppers would donate. Then we remembered what our shoppers and owners buy, why they come to our markets—to buy fresh produce, dairy, eggs, and meat raised by farmers who meet our standards. We returned to our new food partners with an expanded vision—we would ask our shoppers and owners to donate the healthy foods that they were buying for their own families—fruits, vegetables, local eggs, our fresh breads, and packaged foods that were natural or organic.

The drums never made it to our stores. Instead we hosted a “Bags of Produce” campaign for PORCH’s families, a “Fill Me Up Backpacks” campaign for TABLE’s kids, and a “Bags of Apples” campaign for the families served by IFC’s and OCIM’s food pantries. A significant piece of each campaign was educating our shoppers about the issue of food insecurity in our community. Volunteers from the organizations and our front-end staff talked to shoppers about the critical need for healthy food for these families.

CFP_2016_results_infographicWe had no idea how responsive our shoppers would be to our call for donations. Our shoppers donated $84,000 in three 2-week campaigns in 2015. Many told us that it’s easy to forget about those in need and that they appreciated having a way to donate fresh foods. We repeated the PORCH and TABLE campaigns this spring with some doubt that we’d meet our goal of raising 20% more. Our doubts were unfounded—our shoppers donated almost 40% more with each campaign, making our total donations surpass $172,000. One hundred percent of the funds are used to purchase more food, so far more than 166,000 pounds of fresh healthy food.

Collaborating within different contexts
As our relationships with our community food partners grow, so does our understanding of the challenges they face—the most critical is having a sustainable, predictable flow of food for the families and kids in need. Ironically, when the organizations are able to increase the flow of food coming in, they lack adequate warehouse space for storing and sorting the non-perishable products, and they lack the refrigeration needed for storing the fresh foods and the refrigerated trucks needed for delivering them.

Food4PORCHsortingCollageWe’re discovering new ways to collaborate and draw upon our resources and experience as a food retailer with three stores and a warehouse. We have the sales volume to source the same high-quality food we sell at considerably lower cost than the organizations can, and we have a more efficient infrastructure for storing the food at optimal temperatures.

Soon after our first campaign, we discovered that PORCH sorted the produce for its deliveries in a garage. Despite some initial trepidation, they agreed to let us try hosting a produce sort at our Food House, where we could have the produce delivered directly from our vendors. We organized WSM volunteers to sort and pack the produce, which we then kept in a cooler until we delivered the boxes on pallets directly to their pickup site the next day. The process was so efficient that PORCH asked us to continue the produce sorts at our Food House.

When it comes to filling backpacks with healthy food, TABLE faces considerable restraints. The items must be kid-friendly and non-perishable, and weigh in aggregate less than 7.5 pounds. We’ve had hits and misses as we’ve helped TABLE add more healthy foods to the kids’ weekend backpack meals. The kids gave a thumbs-up to the containers of local blueberries and loaves of fresh-baked oat bread that we included in the backpacks last summer. But a couple of the items—the sunflower seed butter and bags of bulk granola—were a bit too “weird” for the kids.

Growing the impact of the partnership
After the first round of campaigns, we met again with the four organizations and asked about the impact of the campaigns and what the impact would be if we could do a little more each year, perhaps as much as 20%. For TABLE, it would mean adding 50 kids to its backpack meals. We knew the need was far greater—adding 50 kids each year would take decades to reach all 6,000 kids needing weekend meals. We also asked the groups to take a step back and tell us what they would really like to achieve in five years. It’s no coincidence that we heard the same response four times. Each organization is at or quickly approaching a ceiling on what it can do. To reach their five-year goals requires significant additional resources:

•    They all need walk-in refrigerators. The healthy foods they want to provide their clients—produce, eggs, dairy, meat—all require refrigeration, and often, immediate refrigeration is required for donated produce that is on the edge of its usefulness.
•    They need delivery vehicles—PORCH for a few days once a month, TABLE for picking up food and delivering backpacks multiple days every week.
•    The groups need warehouse space for storing non-perishables, more workspace for sorting and bagging, and office space where they can do administrative work.
•    All four are either looking for a new facility or (with PORCH) a first facility.

A pivotal point occurred late last year, when we learned that IFC faced a significant zoning hurdle in moving its community kitchen to a building it owned and intended to renovate. We asked IFC’s new executive director, Michael Reinke, what he thought could be achieved if we brought all the organizations, the community, and their resources together. He told us exactly what we had come to believe: “We could end hunger in Orange County.” It turns out that many in our community share the vision and the commitment to end hunger in Orange County.  We’ll have a blog post later this summer about a coalition that has formed to achieve this community goal.