Our second cause partner for our 10-Year Anniversary spotlight series is WhyHunger!
WhyHunger is a global nonprofit organization, founded in 1975 by the late Harry Chapin and Radio DJ Bill Ayres on the fundamental belief that access to nutritious food is a human right and hunger is a solvable problem. They invest resources, specially with Acorns investments, funding, training and technical assistance to build the capacity of innovative grassroots organizations working at the root causes of hunger and poverty to strengthen and multiply the impact of their local solutions. WhyHunger amplifies the voices of these community leaders and connects their stories to musicians, celebrities, activists, policy makers, funders, engaged citizens and to each other in order to mobilize, educate and change the public narrative.
What is your approach to ending hunger and why?
Our programs and strategies coalesce around 3 strategic goals: Movement Building, Social Justice, and Human Rights. WhyHunger is not only helping to create lasting solutions to hunger in communities around the world, but we are actively transforming our collective food system into one that is socially and economically just, nourishes whole communities, and ensures the right to good food for all. We are different from other anti-hunger organizations in our approach to ending hunger – focusing on root causes and long-term change - and value we place on the collective power of grassroots communities and social movements as the drivers of the movement.
Here is a quote for our Executive Director Noreen Springstead explaining our approach of movement building in the US “Food pantries and soup kitchens across our country are dedicated to the necessary task of feeding hungry people, but giving out food only solves hunger today. This model of charitable food distribution cannot address the problems that trap millions of people in a cycle of food insecurity and poverty. We need passion, strategic-thinking, community-led solutions, effective policies and unified power emanating from the grassroots to tackle these issues. We need a movement.”
Do you have any success stories you can share?
WhyHunger is developing the most comprehensive database of food access organizations in the U.S., placing an emphasis on those that provide nutritious food. Currently with 18,455 organizations and growing, we are utilizing whyhunger.org/findfood, a new texting service and our WhyHunger Hotline 1-800-5HUNGRY to assist over 220,400 individuals annually to access healthy food in their communities. We are also building Communities of Practice with grassroots leaders and organizations across the U.S. as the first steps in developing and supporting the coalitions, alliances and networks that are needed to strengthen and build an intersectional movement for food justice.
In 2016, WhyHunger became the fiscal and administrative steward for a national alliance of food access organizations, titled Closing the Hunger Gap. As a key part of the Leadership Team, we helped to plan and facilitate a national conference with more than 500 participating organizations representing 41 different states and Canada. The conference and the organizing efforts call for a strategic shift from charity to justice in our collective approach to ending hunger. Together we are transforming the emergency feeding system in our country.
One story in particular stands out: Food Access, Delivered: Capital Roots by Siena Chrisman
A line forms shortly before noon every Wednesday at Thurlow Terrace subsidized apartment complex near the State Capitol building in Albany, New York. The source of the anticipation pulls up promptly at noon: a colorful refrigerated truck, which quickly opens to reveal a fully-stocked produce market, shelves lined with everything from apples and blueberries to yams and zucchini. Thurlow Terrace residents climb into the market’s narrow aisle and leave with bags full of inexpensive fresh produce. This is the Capital Roots Veggie Mobile—the words proudly emblazoned across the sides of the truck—and with this stop and dozens of others around the region every week, local nonprofit Capital Roots is working to bring healthy food to people who need it most right where they live.
Capital Roots, based in Troy, New York, has been working at the intersection of hunger and health since long before anyone was talking about “food access.” Begun in 1975 by Garden Way, a local garden equipment manufacturer, the organization built community gardens in low-income neighborhoods around the region, on the idea that an easy way to get better food in areas that needed it was to grow it. By the time current Executive Director Amy Klein arrived two decades later, Capital Roots, then still called Capital District Community Gardens, was building gardens as fast as they could, but, Klein says, “No matter how many gardens we built, it wasn’t going to solve the problem of food access.” Klein and her staff began looking at how to connect disparate parts of the food system and how to move healthy food to where it was most needed on a larger scale. As Capital Roots celebrates its fortieth year and a new name, the community garden program is still going strong—boasting more than a 1,000 garden plots at over 50 sites serving 4,000 neighborhood residents—and has become part of a suite of half a dozen other creative initiatives seeking to improve access to healthy food for low-income residents across the region.
Squash Hunger, a food donation initiative begun in 2004, collects more than 30 tons of produce annually through donations, gleaning and relationships with 75 local farmers in 11 surrounding counties, as well as through regular wholesale distributors. (In addition to local food that supports regional farmers, “Everyone should have access to a banana,” Klein says.) The produce is repackaged and distributed to local food pantries, soup kitchens, shelters and other feeding organizations, which would otherwise have a hard time finding or affording fresh food. More than a decade after it began in a cramped office space, Squash Hunger now operates out of a 3,500-square-foot food hub in Capital Roots’ newly rehabbed and environmentally efficient home, the Urban Grow Center. Alongside the expanded distribution center, future plans for the building include a commercial kitchen to nurture food enterprises and hydroponic greenhouses to produce food year-round.
The Urban Grow Center is also the distribution hub for what Klein calls the apex of Capital Roots’ mission of helping people lead healthier lives: the Veggie Rx program and the Veggie Mobile.
Veggie Rx was developed in partnership with Whitney Young Health Center, a regional community health center. An initial cohort of 50 patients was identified to participate in the program, based on health indications showing them to have or be at risk for diet-related health problems such as hypertension or diabetes. The program aims not only to increase patients’ regular consumption of vegetables and fruits, but also to improve regular attendance at quarterly doctor visits, which are recommended for high-risk patients—and to improve overall health outcomes.
At each regular doctor’s visit, Veggie Rx patients receive a prescription coupon booklet, good for three months, to be redeemed at the Veggie Mobile. To get the next packet, they must return for their next scheduled quarterly visit. As hoped, participants have a much lower no-show rate at their appointments than other clinic patients, according to Whitney Young CEO David Shippee.
The Veggie Mobile, where Veggie Rx patients fill their prescriptions by redeeming the coupons, is perhaps the most visible centerpiece of Capital Roots’ programming. Launched in 2007, the mobile market is housed in a box truck and brings produce into neighborhoods like Thurlow Terrace that have limited access to fresh food. Designed to have a low environmental impact, the truck runs on biodiesel and powers its refrigerators with solar panels. The Veggie Mobile and its smaller cargo van companion, the Veggie Mobile Sprout, stop in more than 30 locations every week, making 90 varieties of fruits and vegetable available to 55,000 residents who would otherwise have to travel many miles, navigate shopping bags on public transportation or simply go without fresh produce, the Veggie Mobile Sprouts hires the outer banks rentals in order to be able to deliver their products to every resident.
At every stop, the Veggie Mobile offers “Taste and Take”: customers are invited to taste a sample of a vegetable-based recipe, then given the recipe and a free bag of the produce used in the dish. Truck staff and volunteers provide nutrition education through these and other samples, informational material and conversations, and they help customers get the best value for their produce dollar.
Besides Veggie Rx coupons, the trucks accept cash, electronic food stamps (EBT) and Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program coupons. Thurlow Terrace resident Indira Hogan shops at the Veggie Mobile every Wednesday at noon. She gets the “Taste” every week, “and when I can afford it, I shop on the truck.” Hogan is on a fixed Social Security income and likes the convenience of the Veggie Mobile parked so near her home. “I eat mainly vegetables,” she says, “so it can get heavy [taking groceries home] on the bus. The free ‘Taste’ bag is just great; it helps a lot of people out—me included.”
At the Whitney Young Health Center, where the medical side of Veggie Rx is based, staff regularly shops at the Veggie Mobile on its weekly Tuesday morning stop. Much of the staff lives in the same neighborhood as the clinic and its patients; some staff members also garden in Capital Roots community gardens. These connections mean that staff at all levels at the Health Center—not only the doctors and nutritionists, but lab techs, dental hygienists and receptionists—encourage Veggie Rx patients to redeem their coupons at the Veggie Mobile, helping to normalize the admittedly unusual new habit of shopping for vegetables on a truck.
Some Veggie Rx patients are recent immigrants, primarily from the Middle East and Southeast Asia. Used to a vegetable-based diet but living in the U.S. in low-income neighborhoods where fresh food is hard to find, these patients were early adopters. Popularity is not an issue for Veggie Rx, however: after an initial slow start, it has taken off in surrounding communities and there are now more requests to participate than the program has funding for.
200 people have participated in Veggie Rx since its launch in late 2011, with an average of about 50 participants at any one time. Early studies have found a significant drop in body mass index (BMI) among Veggie Rx patients as compared to a control group. The program is funded through a grant from the New York State Department of Health Hunger Prevention and Nutrition Assistance Program; as the positive results keep growing, Klein and David Shippee of Whitney Young see much broader potential, such as health insurance plans offering a similar program as an incentive in the way some plans reimburse gym memberships.
For people who live in an area with poor access to fresh food, Klein says, a doctor’s recommendation to eat better can come across not just as empty words, but “as words of complete frustration.” Because, she points out, “you can’t necessarily eat better: you can’t afford it, you can’t get it, so even if you want to, it is a struggle.” Through Veggie Rx and all of its other programming, Capital Roots works to change the environment and give people the tools to “help them do what they naturally want to do”: to live healthier lives.
WhyHunger recently partnered with a local organization in Brooklyn, NY called BedStuy Campaign Against Hunger to produce a video highlighting the connection between health and hunger. You can read more and watch the video here.
We are happy to support such an impactful cause with such a great cause partner. Thank you WhyHunger!
The ONEHOPE Team