I kind of saved the best for near the last. I remember a conversation I had, with what seems like many moons ago with Chef Rick Martin. Rick is the former Executive Chef of Free State Brewery. Chances are, if you enjoy their food, you've eaten one of Rick's delectable dishes. He's the current culinary arts director at Eudora High School. What he's done with that program is second to none. They recently won an award that will bring some great recognition to what Rick has done there.
There are a few people you meet in your life where you have kindred goals, and like-mindedness. Rick and I hit it off immediately. The things that have happened at Just Food for the last few years have been because the right people have shown up at the right time. And Rick was right on time.
Rick has a passion to teach people how to cook - to understand that vegetables, fruits and other foods that may have perceptions about being too expensive and bad to taste, are actually cheaper and taste better than many other things that we put into our bodies.
Rick began to talk about what a class could look like, and I was enamored. With his passion, how forward thinking he was, and what a difference I knew these classes were going to make.
We began to sign students up for these classes after a three week pilot program last summer. To qualify, students had to be clients of Just Food and have a desire to learn how to cook. We bought portable cooking stations, with pots and pans, some utensils and bowls and a butane burner. We have 4 stations.
Through these classes, students have learned:
-Basic Kitchen Skills -Healthy Ethnic Foods -Recipe Makeover -Vegetables
Students have cooked delectable dishes such as red beans and rice with homemade pico de gallo, homemade chicken noodle soup from scratch, mac and cheese au gratin, spaghetti carbonara with pork ragout and cilantro salad and coconut curry chicken with white jasmine rice.
My favorite comment from one of the students in the class was when they said, "I feel like I'm eating rich people food." The categories that begin to define our society around something as simple and necessary as food are incredible...all because of many times unreal perceptions that govern our thought processes.
Here are some staggering numbers:
At the beginning of these classes, 75% of students indicated they ate fast food or processed food at least 4 times per week. By the end of the class, only 25% of students indicated they were eating fast food or processed food at least 4 times per week.
At the beginning of the class, 90% of students indicated they would rather eat out of a box than make a homemade meal. At the end of the class, 90% of students indicated they would rather make a meal from scratch than eat out of a box.
After the classes were over, 98% of students indicated they would be making healthier choices at the grocery store from now on.
And my personal favorite.
After the classes, 25% of our students said that, with the money they learned how to save by eating in instead of eating out, they would no longer need to get food from Just Food on a regular basis anymore. When Chef is teaching you how to make a meal for $1.50 a serving, and you can feed your family of three for $5 and eat leftovers for two days, rather than going and spending $15 on fast food for one meal...that money starts to add up. And fast.
These classes have empowered people. They have encouraged people. And they've had intangible benefits. During the first pilot class, we had a lady break down crying in our lobby. I asked her what was wrong and she said, as we were eating the food she'd just made, that it had been a long time since someone had told her that she had done anything right.
Stop and thinking about that a moment. And then a story that I heard just yesterday that blew me away.
One of the students in the class said that this had taught her that food is something that brings people together around a table. I heard her say that this reinvigorated her sense of being at the table and inviting others there as well.
It isn't JUST FOOD...
It's pretty incredible if you think about it. More is coming with these classes, and we're going to continue to build and build them until we can get as many students as they want to be involved with these. They are vitally important and making a HUGE difference.
Rick Martin is a hero. To me, and to so many, for what he has taught folks that have revolutionized their eating habits, their families lifestyles, and he has not only helped people understand the way to a better life, but for some, broken the curse that has cycled for generations and generations. Rick, from the bottom of my heart and for all those you've helped and will help. Thank you.
We have talked recently about how our current banking model makes it easier for people to receive processed food that is the cheapest and easiest for us to purchase. Most every food pantry in the country has the same kinds of food:
Green Beans Corn Macaroni and Cheese Canned Fruit (the highest sugar concentration possible...because it's the cheapest) Hamburger Helper Canned pasta Canned stews
All of those (with the exception of the fruit) are loaded with sodium. So, as someone eats, they grow more hungry. They're stuffed and starved, the quintessential definition of what we've been discussing.
Here's what we're doing to combat it.
We no longer spend money on purchasing canned pasta, stews, hamburger helper or macaroni and cheese. We want to make sure people have the basics: fruit, vegetables, grains, dairies and protein. If someone wants to spend their money on those items we're not stocking, they're more than welcome to do that. But the issue becomes more prevalent in the example that we're setting of what's the most important. We want to give our clients options with the tools they need to use properly what we're giving them.
We're excited about growing season. We will have more fresh produce to have available for our clients. The Douglas County Master Gardeners do a wonderful job of making sure that anything that is gleaned from the Farmer's Market (last year, 14 tons) gets into our coolers and then distributed to folks in the community who need food. Incredible.
We're partnering with the KSU Research and Extension Office, and they'll be coming and providing samples of what pasta with tomato sauce could taste like, and how much better it is for families than a can of spaghetti o's. Then, we'll be giving people recipes to go home and try.
We are putting low sodium vegetables, and low sugar fruits. Why does this matter? One of our clients recently put on our facebook page: "I really like the revamped system. It's made it easier for my family to get what they need. At one point we had so much peanut butter and canned corn that we started giving it back before we left so we would have to cart it home. We could have opened our own store and sold it all if we were so inclined. This new system helps us make better choices in food, especially with diabetics in the household. And I love the fact you have more food that does not have High Fructose Corn Syrup, or corn syrup in general. That's not good for those with corn allergies. Keep up the good work."
With our previous system, I don't want to say that we didn't care about those who had special dietary restrictions...but we didn't care about those with special dietary restrictions. We were concerned with getting the most food out to the most people. The health of our clients took a backseat to everything else.
This matters because an enormous amount of money is spent on healthcare in our community. For many folks, especially children, the issue is not that they're sick, it's that they're malnourished. Your body lets you know when it's not getting what it needs, especially during your most physically and psychologically formational years.
Several national studies have been done and estimated that it costs communities between $10-20,000 to take care of someone who is in need: food, shelter, health care, clothes, education, transportation, etc. There are about 26,000 people in poverty in Douglas County. Estimating on the conservative side ($10k each), those 26,000 people cost Lawrence $260 million dollars each year. $260 MILLION. Let that sink in a minute.
The sheer economic benefits of us caring about this issue, working together to be solvent, are HUGE in and of themselves. For many folks, their intention isn't to be a drain on the system. They don't want to be where they are. Don't think for one minute that if they had an opportunity for a redo, they'd take it in a heartbeat.
I haven't done the research, but I would guess Douglas County spends way less than $260 million on taking care of its own people. From a policy perspective, this is why it is so important to have adequate resources to address the issue, rather than just putting a bandaid on it. I can't speak for other community partners that fight the good fight everyday...but I can say for us, if we want to be solvent, it will take significantly more commitment to help us to get that done.
The good news is, we're headed in the right direction with the right vision and the right priorities! More tomorrow on one of our programs that has made profound impacts on our clients. The cooking classes, taught by Chef Rick Martin (one of my heroes.)
I remember sitting in a United Way meeting last year. The United Way has worked hard to earn its nickname, the "community kitchen table." This meeting was no exception.
We had $300,000 in requests, and way less than that which could be allocated. We went through and methodically declared agencies "safe" from cuts. At the table:
Just Food, Ballard Community Services (including Penn House), Salvation Army, Willow Domestic Violence Center, Lawrence Community Shelter, Catholic Charities, and Douglas County Red Cross.
We knew that we weren't going to get up at 3 in the morning to be with a victim of domestic violence. Not an unduplicated service.
We knew that we weren't going to operate as a shelter for folks without housing. Not an unduplicated service.
We knew that we weren't going to do intensive case management in the way Catholic Charities does. Not an unduplicated service.
We knew that we weren't going to get up in the middle of the night to assist with families in the event of a fire, or be the go-to-point in case of a diaster. Not an unduplicated service.
So, Salvation Army, Ballard Community Services, and Just Food sat around a table to somehow get $205,000 that between the three of us we were requesting, down to $89,500. We had to cut a significant amount of money. I have to give props to Kyle Roggenkamp from Ballard and Matt McCluer from Salvation Army. We understand we had a job to do, and we knew that collaboration was more important than competition.
Oftentimes, with non-profits, an established brand means a lot. Or, because we've "always done it this way before" automatically means that we "must always do it this way in the future." We entered those conversations selflessly, and began to talk about what we could do to compliment each others work. A few things became clear:
Ballard and Penn House were passionate about strengths based case management. They were passionate about having conversations with clients to bring them to a point where they are more self sufficient. And they're good at it.
Just Food is passionate about food distribution. And they're good at it.
Salvation Army is the one-stop-shop for people who have needs. It's just where people go when they need help. They had an opportunity to be a huge resource-bank of information, in addition to offering case management, and spiritual help and advice. And they're good at it.
The task was clear: each of us were going to take a cut. And we did. The process was as difficult as anything that happens in Washington DC or Topeka. A 43% cut. And we had to give it to each other.
It could have went down a lot differently. But it was smooth. It didn't mean that we had to like getting things cut, but we had to. That's the money we had available. Due to some great collaboration, it happened.
Now, Just Food stocks the food pantries at Ballard, Penn House and Salvation Army. Ballard has a strengths team they've deployed at these locations. Salvation Army has case managers they've deployed, and they're working on some other innovative initiatives to get people to self-sufficiency.
What do we have to show for it? A shared database, used at all four sites.
We have an idea of how often people go where. This isn't to restrict when people can get food. But it's to provide accountability to the system that we have in place. It's to determine the NEED. Lots of statistics are thrown out there...but the true test of what is and isn't fact, is how many people are utilizing the resources that are there.
It's exciting. At these four locations, we aren't defining success by mass pounds to mass quantities of people. We are measuring it by those we help to become more self-sufficient.
This is a game changer. We're not in it alone. We're going to have some great data. We're going to provide people with the right kind of help. We're going to move the needle on the things that have been out of control for so long.
If we serve more, it doesn't mean that we've failed. It just means we need to be all the more diligent and work all the more harder to help people get the help they need.
So far in the first quarter of 2013, we have served less people cumulatively than we did in the last quarter of 2012. This means that we're serving people BETTER and more effectively.
Tomorrow, we will talk about areas in our community that don't have a food pantry within a mile of them, and what we want to do to combat it. Wednesday, we will talk about our push for increasing access to HEALTHY food. Thursday, we will talk about our cooking classes that have completely revolutionized people's eating habits, and then Friday we will bring it home. Lots of changes. But they're all for the good...and all to create stories like we shared last week.
More to come. Stay tuned!
Many agencies came to a United Way meeting at some point last year, not knowing what to expect. We were told that things were changing, and that community impact in the "self sufficiency" goal was going to be the way forward.
TIMEOUT. I know from many people that I've talked to that the United Way (both nationally & locally), Erika Dvorske & their board has caught a bad rap for these changes. Regardless of how you feel about United Way, please hear me out for a moment, because I used to be extremely skeptical of United Way's in general. One of the first things I did when I moved to Lawrence was sit down with Erika and have quite a long conversation with her (it was more than 90 minutes, if I recall). I did all the research I could about the efficiency of our United Way, before I committed our organization to be a community partner of theirs. I was then, and still am now, impressed by their initiative and desire to see systematic changes in how services are delivered. Throwing money at problems do not make them go away. I know some of our locally favorite charities are getting funded differently, but let me assure you, everyone is being more efficient with the dollars that are being donated. This process, as I understand it (community impact), wasn't to inhibit an agency's ability to serve clients, but to empower them to do more, together. And to actually help make a difference long term, instead of sitting around and blaming the government, or the economy. At some point, we have to stop blaming everyone else and start taking some responsibility for what's happening in our world. Erika, her staff & her board have done an incredible job through a difficult transition...but I can promise you this. In five years when things are better and our economy is worse...the same folks that are speaking ill of these changes will be the same ones singing their praises.
GAME ON. Fast forward to early last fall. The entire self-sufficiency goal had a meeting and we were told that we needed to bring what we needed and were requesting from United Way to the next meeting. Self-Sufficiency is broken down into three different things: gainful employment, emergency services & affordable housing. We broke out into those subgroups at the next meeting, and I listened as myself, Kyle Roggenkamp from Ballard Center, and Lieutenant Matthew McCluer from the Salvation Army all asked for money to feed people in our community. It was a significant amount of money. To feed the same people.
TIMEOUT. In years past, if we would have been funded for those amounts, we would be using community dollars to do the same thing. Not a jab on any agency, or United Way for how things used to be, but it's not efficient. And it's not sustainable. The need is increasing. Resources are decreasing. The same story would be prevalent every year. Help us do more with less. No one ever bothered to wonder if there was a better way. We were just simply doing things the same way we always did and would always wonder why things didn't get better.
GAME ON. Kyle, Matt and I had this awkward moment, as we were around the table with several other folks from our community, who weren't requesting money for duplicative work, that we just knew that no matter how great we thought our programs were, we had a few choices: work together or selfishly go for the most money at whatever cost. Thankfully, these guys are wonderful. The clients they serve are more important than protecting "the way things have always been" at their organizations. They came to the table willing to talk, work together, and what has come out of those conversations has been something that, in my opinion, is unprecedented collaboration with community partners working together to have an indelible impact on the lives of clients. In conversations since then, we have worked through details, and taken an enormous amount of time and care to make sure that when our clients come in and want a better life, our silo doesn't just hand them a box of food and send them on their merry way.
I'll talk about more tomorrow the great things that are happening that you've hopefully heard about. You'll also hopefully hear their perspectives too, because I've invited them to write on the Just Food blog what this collective impact will have for all of our clients, and what it has meant to them personally.
My apologies for the long break in writing! With Christmas, and the New Year, and all of the exciting changes happening, this has unfortunately taken a back seat.
I remember one of my first meetings where I was sitting in a room with many agencies in Douglas County. I had been back in Lawrence for just a few months. And someone made a comment that I wholeheartedly disagreed with. They said,
"Why, every agency in Lawrence works well together, and there's no competition at all."
I bit my tongue so hard it almost bled. Those that know me know that I don't bite my tongue often, but I gave it a shot to see perhaps if there was something I was missing.
By nature, every agency has to be selfish. Our livelihoods are at stake, right? If we don't protect what we have and guard our mission closely, then maybe one day we will be deemed irrelevant and have to close.
If you didn't catch it, the statement I just made is HEAVILY toxic. And one that I wholeheartedly don't believe in. Why? Because this isn't about protecting an agency. No matter how much good an agency does, if there's someone else that is doing it better, and more cost-effectively, then by all means all power should be put behind that agency to focus on that.
Agencies in Lawrence have had to become all things to all people. There wasn't much here 20 years ago. So, agencies whose primary mission wasn't food, had to give food out, because no one else was doing it.
So, we have a ton of agencies in Lawrence doing a ton of good work, and much of it is not happening symbiotically. And the only reason it's not happening symbiotically is because people haven't sat down at the same table, willing to lose everything for the good of those that are investing, and those that they are serving.
I realize what I just wrote could be hard for many to digest. It's hard for me to digest. But, are we focusing on those that we serve and making things better for them? Or simply sustaining our organizations because they've always existed?
Three agencies came to the table willing to lose it all, to gain better service to clients, and selflessly made decisions that will forever alter the way that food distribution is done in Douglas County. We pickup there tomorrow.