Smart Investment: Addressing Food Related Hardship

Sometimes the most basic necessities, such as food, can easily be taken for granted. For most, the question as it relates to food is, "What time should I eat?" For others, the question can be as dire as, "How am I going to find my next meal?" Are there people in the Valley who have to face food hardship and go hungry? Yes. Is anything being done about it? The answer is a resounding yes.

There are three contributing factors to food hardship: availability (having sufficient quantities of appropriate food available), access (having adequate income or other resources to access food), and utilization (having adequate dietary intake and the ability to absorb and use nutrients in the body). Grow Your Own, Valley United Way's Neighborhood Garden Program, builds fruit and vegetable gardens in highneed neighborhoods so residents can simply walk to pick fresh produce.

Last year, 2,700 pounds of produce was harvested and there are three new sites in 2019, for a total of 13 locations in the Valley.
Harvest House is another example of the Valley's initiatives addressing food hardship. Started in 2005, and driven by Valley United Way's Corporate Volunteer Council, a temporary 400 square-foot house is constructed of walls made of shelves. The shelves are then stocked with more than 100,000 donated nonperishable food items and distributed to food banks in the Valley. This year, Harvest House will be accepting nonperishable food donations on Thursday, September 26, 2019 at Shelton's Rotary Pavilion on Canal St. in Shelton.

David Morgan, President and CEO of TEAM, Inc., said, "Despite efforts like these, we were finding shelves empty at the five Valley food pantries. Valley food banks were in obvious need of help." Morgan, along with Patricia Tarasovic, Vice President of Community Engagement at Valley United Way, serve as the co-chairs of the Valley's Food Security Task Force (FSTF).

There was a clear need in the Valley to create a systems-level change to address the complex issue of food hardship. As such, the FSTF took action to better understand and address local needs and opportunities associated with food hardship. Many factors made it difficult to articulate the pressing challenges to both legislators and potential donors. Even something as basic as tracking the amount of food needed was hampered by inconsistent methods for how it was tallied.

"It was difficult to quantify how much food went out the pantries' doors at first because there was no common metric," Morgan added. "Some pantries measured meals, others weighed pounds, and still others counted boxes, bags, or containers." Collaboration among food pantries led to a standard metric. "We now know that our pantries are distributing 65,000 pounds of food every month to almost 2,000 individuals. With that data, we can inform donors, educate decision makers, and clearly show the need." The data also indicates that 30% of food pantry users are children age 0 - 15 and 15% are seniors over age 60.

Tarasovic said, "A multi-year grant from VCF has meant access to a consultant that we could only dream of without their support. We're now seeing both the literal and metaphorical fruits of our labor as we follow through on the data. With this help, we have a resource guide, standardized data reporting, and a way to inform the community." The guide features the most up-todate information about food resources available in the five Valley towns and gives community members an easy way to find resources such as food pantries, farmers' markets, and community gardens.

Tarasovic noted, "Food hardship is the tip of the iceberg and a gateway to educate and inform the community about needs beyond immediate nourishment." Understanding those needs and knowing what action can be taken leads to programs such as the Valley Initiative to Advance Health & Learning in Schools at Griffin Hospital, which promotes a healthy lifestyle to Valley students and combats childhood obesity with nutritional information and physical activities. The garden program coordinates cooking demos and nutritional education programs to show residents how flavorful and healthy vegetables can be.

In addition, the Valley United Way has been a vital supporter of area food banks. Tarasovic said, "We hear their needs loud and clear. When volunteers step up, we can do more - like adding another afternoon or whole day to the food pantry schedule, which provides more access to much needed items. Even an hour of help makes a difference and we see phenomenal people demonstrate a passion for this effort." She also sees that more than just food is shared.

"The pantry is a point of entry and people can connect with other services. Through the FSTF, we've learned that the original mission to feed hungry people in the Valley is now much larger and more powerful. One food pantry with an excess will contact another to share it with before it expires. That might sound like a minor detail but it's really critical in preventing spoilage and shows what people can do when they care about one another."

"It's important to note that the need for nutritious food is year-round," Morgan added. "The public schools provide a significant service every day with lunches and snacks but we recognize there is a nine-week period over summer break when children go without. The task force has responded by creating a subcommittee to create summer meal sites to address that gap." Healthy food options are in high demand. Morgan remembers the situation prior to a collaborative effort. "I visited a pantry that had three refrigerators. Inside were sheet cakes and pastries and only one small basket of produce."

"The increased access to healthy options not only changes our approaches within the pantries but how we inform our donors," Morgan said. "We're grateful for boxes of pasta but we're also advocating for donations of fresh fruits and vegetables as well." Given the perishable nature of nutritious foods, innovative solutions are examined, such as relationships with food distributors to stretch monetary donations. Unhealthy food choices are often quick and cheap but lack beneficial nutritional value.

"This isn't about filling a belly but making things better overall. The bigger picture includes interrelated issues around basic needs and socioeconomic wellbeing, as well as health and wellness," Tarasovic said. Effective food pantries can be a vital tool in overcoming the challenge.

Valley nonprofit leaders continue to demonstrate an ability to address food hardship yet volunteers and donors are key to sustaining outcomes. Anyone interested in making sure that the Valley's residents can find the food they need to thrive is invited to sponsor a garden site, support a local food hardship program, make an inkind gift, or donate nutritional food.