The Healthy Food Community of Practice launched in March 2020, just as COVID-19 forced closures across the country that led to dramatic increases in the number of people experiencing hunger and disruptions in delivery models for food distribution and nutrition education. Community Wealth Partners asked five members of the community to share how their organizations pivoted to serve their communities amid the pandemic and what they see as critical needs in the months ahead.
Shana Alford is vice president of research and evaluation at Common Threads, which encourages healthy eating habits that contribute to wellness by providing nutrition education and cooking skills programs to children and their families and advocating for local and national policies that support food security.
Randy Feliciano is senior program manager at National Council on Aging, which works to improve the lives of older adults, especially those who are struggling.
Sue Kater is a consultant to League for Innovation in the Community College, which works to cultivate innovation in the community college environment. One of the League’s current projects is helping to identify the role of ecosystems in establishing practices and policies to sustain the availability of healthy food choices for community college students.
Stacey McDaniel is anti-hunger initiatives specialist and national spokesperson at YMCA of the USA. The mission of the YMCA is to put Christian principles into practice through programs that build healthy spirit, mind, and body for all. The YMCA builds strong kids, strong families, and strong communities.
Abby Reich is senior coordinator, cross-sector strategies, at Alliance for a Healthier Generation. The Alliance works nationally to empower kids to develop lifelong, healthy habits by ensuring the environments that surround them support their physical, social, and emotional health.
Q: How has the pandemic affected the communities you serve and your work?
Sue Kater, League for Innovation in the Community College: The pandemic has made marginalized students' issues even more challenging. Often school was the place where they were able to obtain healthy food, but when colleges closed during the height of the pandemic, many students lost not only food, but shelter. A recent study by the HOPE Center for College, Community, and Justice reported that in April and May of this year, 44 percent of students at community colleges had experienced food insecurity, and 11 percent were experiencing homelessness due to the pandemic. In rural communities the numbers may be higher.
Shana Alford, Common Threads: Prior to the pandemic, our nutrition education programs were integrated into school curriculum and facilitated in a classroom or afterschool setting. As schools shifted to virtual instruction, it became obvious that we needed to do the same, and quickly. However, the teachers in the schools we partnered with shared that they were facing a lot of uncertainty about technology platforms, lesson plans for students, schedules, etc. This uncertainty initially made it difficult for us to determine if and how we could integrate our nutrition education lessons into a new digital education system. Also, a new consideration for the organization was food distribution. How could we make sure that students and families had the ingredients they needed to practice snack-making and meal prep during our lessons, knowing that more families were facing food insecurity? We heard from some families that grocery shopping had been a family activity, which ended for them. We heard that needing to make more meals at home for children was a strain on resources and time, and parents wanted children to eat healthy.
Q: How has your organization adapted to respond to the challenges caused by COVID?
Stacey McDaniel, YMCA: When Ys had to close their doors, many of them laid off up to 95 percent of their staff. It was clear that we weren’t going to survive this as a “gym and swim,” and that we’d have to adapt how we serve our community. Many Ys across the country shifted their model to emergency childcare and rapidly scaled up their hunger relief efforts. During the pandemic shutdown, 1,300 Ys offered some form of hunger relief. In a recent survey, Ys reported that from March through August, YMCAs served over 37 million meals to children, families, and seniors, a huge increase from the 27 million meals YMCA’s typically serve in a full year. In addition to meals, Ys distributed more than 10 million pounds of groceries to their communities during the last 6 months. This shift created huge infrastructure challenges—Ys didn’t have storage or trucks for the amount of food they were distributing, and they had to train people to take on new roles. For example, now the executive director and Zumba instructor are helping with food prep and distribution. We also had to engage more volunteers.
Sue Kater: We have adapted our processes to accelerate innovation, given the increased needs of rural college students and their communities. The COVID crisis pivoted our planning processes to focus on students’ immediate needs while evaluating on-versus-off campus accessing of food pantry program support. This was done at the expense of more focused community engagement, which is imperative, but has now moved to part of longer-term planning as community support agencies in rural communities have been overextended in meeting local needs in the crisis. Leveraging college and community stakeholders is challenging when everyone is in crisis trying to meet escalating needs, but we honor this as an opportunity to find access points for short- and long-term change. The pandemic has given focus to our desire and need to be innovative, removing what Doug Hall, our partner at Eureka! Ranch calls the "friction points" so we can support access to healthy eating for college students.
Shana Alford: We shifted to virtual programming and partnered to distribute recipes and information with meal boxes that schools were providing to families. For the first time, we were directly responsive and involved with local food access issues. We raised funds to partner with local chefs in five cities which included meals for children of essential workers (Miami), food boxes to newly released COVID hospital patients (NYC), and custom recipes for discounted meal boxes for families on the Southside of Chicago, including SNAP households.
Q: Looking back at the work you’ve done since March, what are you most proud of?
Abby Reich, Alliance for a Healthier Generation: We are proud of our ability to quickly adapt and pivot when responding to the needs of our audiences (i.e. educators, families, community organizations, and industry partners). For example, during COVID-19, we have been able to develop new tools and resources that support people's social and emotional health and learning.
Randy Feliciano, National Council on Aging: In response to COVID, I was invited to speak on a panel of national experts for the social security administration, and I was able to give recommendations to the commissioner of SSA about how they can better access older adults who are underserved.
Q: Looking ahead to the next six months, what do see as the greatest need for the populations you serve?
Abby Reich: We expect to see a need for evidence-based resources concerning health and COVID-19 response. As we continue to operate in socially distanced ways, people will be looking for best practices for nutrition and physical education and continued support for social emotional health of educators, families, and employees. Additionally, we will need to unify to build an equitable food system from the community to national levels.
Randy Feliciano: We’re living in a state of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Starting at the bottom of that pyramid—COVID brought heightened awareness that people need food and shelter first because they’re losing jobs, being displaced, and don’t have access to food. As we’re meeting people where they are, we’re finding that we have to go back to the basics. People are worried about things like, Is there going to be food on the table tonight? Can I get my medicine? Even though we fund other things, the greatest need right now is bringing access to nutrition and good food during and post-COVID.
Q: What opportunities do you see for the Healthy Food community of practice?
Stacey McDaniel: I think this community can unite more organizations to connect the dots to ensure greater nutrition access across the country.
Abby Reich: I see potential for this community to help us continue to shift away from siloed workstreams to deeper collaboration.
Shana Alford: This community can help each of us expand how we think about nutrition education and whom we serve.