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.
We have asked a lot of our clients recently. We have asked them to give us something that they have plenty of, and that is free to give: an opinion. We've invited them to be blatantly honest with them about their struggles, needs, challenges & opportunities as they relate to food insecurity.
Shockingly (hopefully you can sense my sarcasm here), we have found that 100% of our clients didn't imagine themselves in the position that they're in. While everyone was dreaming of being a firefighter, astronaut, cop, physicist, lawyer or doctor, no one was dreaming of being poor. But somewhere between our pre-K years and the time we are legally recognized as an adult, many factors come into play that often relegate us to the same path that many before us are on: poverty. Poverty is generational. It's hard to break. Sure, sometimes it's because people made bad choices. But mainly it's because people don't know how to get out.
Food insecurity is a symptom of a greater issue. Giving out food won't fix it. More pounds distributed this year won't help it. We have to begin to attack the cause of these issues, and not just the symptoms.
So, we have clients coming to us who almost unanimously say, "I want to do better." Shame on us if all we do is put a box of food in their hand when the last thing they want is a box of food. They want a better life.
Our first focal point starts on: the need.
We started talking about what would help our folks have a better life. Wouldn't you know it - most of the time when we started asking that question, no one that was around was anyone who could have answered the question. We started asking our clients. We were shocked and amazed at the results.
So, we're starting over. We're demolishing what was and, from the very ground up, beginning again. Maybe it will work. Maybe it won't. But at least we won't have sat back another year and been averse to change, while the problem has gotten progressively worse. Just Food will look different from an operations perspective. But I can tell you this: we will be more solvent than we have ever been before. Why? Because we're no longer focused on a symptom.
There are so many numbers about how large the need is in our community, but we really don't know how large the need is. I am not into wasting resources or the investments of people's hard earned money to meet a need that we know exists, but we're not sure to what extent. We want to answer questions that people are asking, and not spend time providing solutions to things that people have already solved. This is where our quest for change began, and where we will pick up with tomorrow.
One of our volunteers remarked Monday morning during our drive through mobile food pantry Thanksgiving distribution that she was blown away by the number of clients who she registered that were organ donors. Why? Many because they have nothing else to give, and if they can give their lives, that's enough.
I can't tell you the stories that keep us going during this week. I clear my calendar and I'm in the thick of it with our volunteers and staff, and we're cheering each other on. We're tired. Running on fumes. And it's stuff likes this that makes it worth it.
One of our senior volunteers was in Walmart with his wife last night, and was wearing his Just Food t-shirt. I will say this is one of our gruffest volunteers. He has a heart of gold, but I've never seen the dude cry. Last night, in Walmart, someone came up to him and said without him, they wouldn't have a Thanksgiving meal this week. He broke down. He broke down this morning telling the story. He said, "no matter how tired I get, I will never forget that moment."
Other times, when it seems like we're super busy, the right person will come along.
Like the lady who said that she got up this morning because she knew she was coming to see her "family" at Just Food, and that she was going to have food to eat. She said we were the reason to get up this morning. That was an incredible moment.
Someone else brought their box back in today because someone within our social media network had invited them for dinner. They said, "I can give back because someone gave back to me." Profound words.
I can't say how many people have thanked us. How many kids have had tears in their eyes. How many single parents have said that without this, they'd be looking at an empty table on Thanksgiving.
When you can have that sort of impact on families to the point...wow. Just wow.
By the time it's all said and done, we will have distributed food to approximately 900 families for Thanksgiving, another 300 families who have come in for our food pantry program, 200 families coming for commodities, and another 800 families have come in for bread and produce this week. Two thousand two hundred families. In three days.
I don't know if you've ever seen the intake and outake of food, but it doesn't last incredibly long. We knew that we were going to be rushed with people, and so we ordered more food. Our warehouse was full near the end of last week. And it's nearly empty tonight. I can't count the number of times I heard people remark, "I thought the food would last longer than this."
The shelf life on food here at Just Food is less than 4 business hours. That is, everything that is on the shelf will disappear within a 4 hour timespan. Stop and think about that for a moment. We don't order the volume that a local grocery store does, but we will get in 30-40 cases in per week of the staples. That's around 800 cans of something that in a week is gone.
Bread and produce don't stick around here very long. We have fresh bread and produce that comes in daily from local grocery stores, and from local farmers. If I could put a gps tracker on this food, people would be blown away how fast it leaves our shelves. We had 1,000 pounds of turnips brought in Tuesday night at 6:30 p.m. They were gone by 9:00 a.m. Wednesday morning. 1,000 pounds of turnips. It's mind boggling.
As much as we tell these stories, sometimes you just have to see with your own two eyes. It truly is amazing.
Happy Wednesday afternoon to you. We have survived the rush, and lucidity is slowly returning. The home stretch is on the horizon. I liken this moment to the hours leading up to the sunrise. You know it's going to be absolutely beautiful, but it's not quite up yet!
Most people don't know that Just Food has two full time staff. Two. That's it. We rely heavily on the generosity of volunteers in order to do what we do. It's pretty remarkable if you think about it. This week, we've had a multitude of people come in and give time: KU College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, ProtectionOne (here last week), our board members, our regular volunteers, and various people across the community that have made it possible for us to do what we do. They're working just as hard as the paid staff is, and not getting paid at all.
I have seen our team step up and become more familial than it ever has before. We have jelled another level this Thanksgiving season. We're stronger than we were just a few days ago...because people know how important they are to our success. And they know that without them, we can't be successful. To the volunteers who have given so selflessly, thank you. To quote a famous songwriter and the profound, life-changing lyric...our life would suck without you.
Part of our mission statement is to be an INNOVATIVE leader in fighting hunger in our community. Innovative means to show new methods or ideas. Last year, we heard from many clients that they didn't have the resources (stove, proper utensils, etc.) to cook their own Thanksgiving meal, or they didn't know how to. So, we had a conversation with Jeff Frye from Mister Bacon BBQ and he stepped up to the plate.
Jeff's food is incredible. Some of the best BBQ I've ever had, and I consider myself to be a BBQ snob. That's saying something.
Jeff approached me a few months ago, and told me that his business wanted to donate all of the tips they were given at their pop up BBQ's to Just Food. It's very backwards for a business to approach you first, and I admire people that are innovative in their own rights to be able to help out whenever they're needed.
Not only did Jeff offer to smoke turkeys and chickens, but while he was smoking those turkeys and chickens, he's going to have some triple chocolate bacon brownies and have folks come, smell the food that's cooking and donate some tips to Just Food. This is going down TODAY at his shop at 9th and Illinois. So, if you're do nothing else, you need to go tell some heroes thank you for being just that.
WARNING: If I were smart, I'd have started these dear diary letters before Wednesday morning. If there are typos, if things don't make sense, I sincerely apologize! I'm hopped up on Amoxicilin and NyQuil (I always get sick this time of the year), and we're all running on just a few hours sleep.
I'd be lying if I didn't say that I have a love/hate relationship with this week. I love the rush, adrenaline, and the sheer madness that is Thanksgiving week. I love seeing people mobilize and work their tails off to feed thousands of people. But it's long hours. Extremely long hours. By the time 8pm on Wednesday rolls around, it will be like zombies walking around our facility. Three days. More than 40 hours put in by a ton of volunteers and team.
But this is a way to share some of the things that are happening with you that have kept us sane. To say this somewhat resembles the funny farm is the understatement of the century. I try to make it a point to know people. I have mistaken clients for volunteers, volunteers for clients, and even a construction worker behind our building...I told him to come load a box onto a truck.
We signed up more than 900 families for Thanksgiving. Nine hundred families to distribute in a three day span on top of a very busy food pantry, this time of the year. We signed up 150 more families than last year. That in and of itself is not entirely surprising. And 150 more Thanksgiving boxes doesn't seem like that much...but we changed EVERYTHING from last year.
I'm not quite sure when our current standard operating procedures began for Thanksgiving, but we assumed people wanted some kind of meat, a few vegetables and some sort of grain. But we never bothered to ask clients what they wanted. This year, that changed. We asked clients what they wanted. We gave everyone a choice on their meat, vegetable, grain, and even dessert. While we haven't been able to accomodate everyone, it's definitely a step in the right direction. We also partnered with the Ballard Center to bring this choice option to their clients as well. It's pretty unprecedented. And very awesome.
So, amidst turkeys, chickens and hams flying in (and out), there have been several stories that we just couldn't not share. Those stories, we will share between now and Thanksgiving in Just Food's 24 hours of Thanksgiving.
Thanksgiving isn't the only time that families in our community need help to get nutritious meals. At Just Food, food through our food pantry and partner agencies is provided all year to those that need it. At Thanksgiving, we want to give opportunities for families to enjoy a meal and have some sense of normalcy, despite a life of in which the other months out of the year is often empty and frustrating.
We currently have 900 families who have a need to receive a Thanksgiving meal. We have empowered our clients this year to make choices in what they want for their meal. For each client who receives food from us for Thanksgiving, they will be more likely to get a job, be motivated to contribute to their community and do better in school. There are intangible impacts that we cannot afford to miss out on making in each family’s life.
All donations we receive during the month of November will go towards our Thanksgiving boxes. We want to be able to provide a meal for each family that has indicated that they have a need. Your help is absolutely essential!
We recently had a young mother come in who is working three jobs just to provide for her children, ages 9, 5 and 1. Her jobs allow her to put a roof over her children’s heads and barely pay the bills. She doesn’t have enough money for a Thanksgiving meal. Because of your generosity, she’ll be able to make a meal for her family.
Please consider making your tax-deductible donation to Just Food today. You may donate:
1: Online at www.justfoodfund.org, or
2: Text justfood to 80888 to make a $10 donation, or
3: Mail in your donation to Just Food, 1000 E. 11th Street, Lawrence, KS 66046.
We couldn’t do what we do without you, and we can’t wait to share the stories of those that are helped because of your gift.
Just Food, the food bank in Douglas County is on a mission to more than triple their distribution of food during Thanksgiving from 2010. Increasing from just a week ago, Just Food is set to distribute more than 515 boxes of food for Thanksgiving through their food pantry.
The CCO and Daily Bread groups from the University of Kansas helped organize volunteers to come and package boxes this past Saturday.
"It was like an army being mobilized," Jeremy Farmer, Just Food Executive Director said. "They started showing up at 8:30 a.m. and many stayed past 1:00 p.m."
Farmer said that that Just Food warehouse volunteers were relieved to see that the 515 boxes were already made and appreciated the hard work of the KU student volunteers.
"This is a time in the year where we lean hard on our regular warehouse volunteers. It was so nice to be able to give them that break, albeit a small one."
Farmer went on to recap what has taken place so far this week.
"Monday, we opened up at 1:00 p.m. We had cars lined up down Haskell and up 11th Street. We had to completely scrap our plans and change to accommodate the growing number of people getting in line. When the dust settled on Monday, we had distributed food to 315 families through our Thanksgiving basket program and our food pantry. It was exhausting, inspiring and exhilarating all at the same time."
Just Food will distribute $18,000 worth of food the week of Thanksgiving to more than 1,500 people. If you would like to donate by purchasing a box for a family for $25 for Thanksgiving, you may contribute at www.justfoodfund.org.
If you have questions for Just Food, please call 785.856.7030 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org.