Improving the Food Safety Net System
It’s 9:00am on a Thursday, and about 15 individuals are gathered in the basement of Emmanuel Evangelical Church in Hatfield, sipping coffee and sharing bagels and fruit. Some are staff, others are volunteers, but all represent one of nearly a dozen food pantries in the North Penn area. They are part of the Nutrition Coalition and meet monthly to educate themselves regarding best practices in managing food pantries, redeploy resources to where they are most needed, and work collectively to increase the amount of fresh and nutritionally rich foods available to those in need.
The Nutrition Coalition was launched in 2006 to reduce hunger and improve food security in the North Penn area by strengthening the emergency and supplemental food safety net system. The foundation awarded a grant to The Food Trust to assist the local pantries in forming the Coalition, and Food Trust staff continues to provide technical support as needed. Headquartered locally and recognized nationally, The Food Trust works to improve the health of children and adults, promote good nutrition, increase access to nutritious foods and advocate for better public policy. Project manager Gabriella Mora, or “Gabi” as she is known by Coalition members, facilitates Coalition meetings and brings a wealth of knowledge on impending policy changes that may affect pantry operations or how their clients access services or other safety net programs.
Other organizations that work within the emergency food system, including Philabundance and the Health Promotion Council, frequently attend meetings to provide additional expertise. Through the Nutrition Coalition, collaboration is fostered among the pantries and these related organizations and connections to additional resources, including food donations, are made and sustained.
By leveraging their collective talents and expertise, Coalition members are building a more cohesive and responsive emergency food system in the North Penn and surrounding areas.
Coalition pantries vary in size, capacity and range of clients served. Many are run by faith communities, such as the pantry at Emmanuel, and are often staffed solely by volunteers.
Other pantries are programs within social service agencies: based in Souderton, Keystone Opportunity Center operates a food pantry with both paid staff and volunteers, in addition to housing, case management and educational services.
Such diversity brings learning opportunities for members. Some pantries serve a predominately senior population while others have more families with young children coming through their doors. Emmanuel currently has an influx of Egyptian immigrants seeking assistance. Members educate each other about the specific needs of their client populations, such as dietary requirements or food items preferred by certain cultures. Pantry staff must stay abreast of the community’s shifting demographics to best serve their clients.
Pantries can leverage their collective strength when they work in collaboration. For Gabi, “The Nutrition Coalition is a wonderful example of the strengths that can be gained when small organizations unite. The successes realized by the collaboration between Coalition pantries, Philabundance and The Food Trust is all testament to that. “
IMPROVING THE SYSTEM
The Coalition is strengthening the food safety net system in the North Penn and surrounding areas. By participating in the Coalition, members are breaking down silos, accessing additional sources for food, leveraging local resources, sharing and redeploying surpluses, improving operations and offering more and a greater variety of fresh food to clients.
BREAKING DOWN SILOS – Prior to the creation of the Nutrition Coalition, food pantries often operated with little knowledge of each other. Pantries with geographically specific eligibility criteria previously may have turned away clients who resided outside their service area. Now, those individuals and families can be referred to another pantry closer to home that will be able to provide them with food and supplies.
ACCESSING ADDITIONAL FOOD SOURCES – Pantries receive food from federal and state programs and private donations, both large and small. Pantries can also purchase food. By joining the Nutrition Coalition, local pantries agree to become members of Philabundance, the region’s largest food bank. Membership in Philabundance allows pantries to maintain a wide selection for clients by purchasing food and supplies at very low rates. The Coalition helps pantries understand these various programs and maximize their participation to meet the needs of their clients.
LEVERAGING LOCAL RESOURCES – The Coalition has been able to establish and leverage various partnerships, including one between Philabundance, CFC Logistics and Hatfield Quality Meats. CFC donates space in a nearby refrigerated warehouse to store donations of meat and protein-rich products from Hatfield. The Coalition takes advantage of economies of scale by having Philabundance’s truck retrieve and deliver these donations to pantries along with their orders from the food bank.
SHARING AND REDEPLOYING SUPRLUSES – Pantries that find they have an overabundance of a certain food item or other supplies such as diapers that do not match with the needs of their client population, will offer the surplus to other Coalition members. These resources are diverted to where the need exists and the donors do not have to worry about what they contribute or to whom.
IMPROVING OPERATIONS – A number of Coalition members have been moving to a choice model. Considered a best practice in food pantry management, choice models provide a more dignified experience for the client. Rather than just receiving prepackaged bags, choice pantries offer clients the ability to select food items they know how to prepare and are consistent with their dietary needs. This is especially important for clients with medical conditions that restrict certain foods.
DELIVERING MORE FRESH FOOD – Throughout the summer and fall, the Vegetable Basket Program encourages backyard gardeners to donate extra produce to area pantries and senior centers. The Food Trust has also brokered relationships with area supermarkets to hold food drives that benefit all Coalition members. Many pantries receive produce from the Cultivating Communities Campaign, another foundation-supported initiative designed to increase access to fresh produce by developing and expanding 24 community gardens in the Ambler, North Penn and Indian Valley communities.
Access to nutritious food is vital to achieving and maintaining good health. The Nutrition Coalition is helping a number of area food pantries address hunger and food security by providing more nutritionally rich food to those most in need. Through its strategic investments in the Coalition and other nutrition-related initiatives, the foundation is working to improve the health and well-being of residents in the North Penn and surrounding communities.