From Food Pantry to Food Co-op: Lessons Learned

BurgessM 0416CEUOne of the most common forms of charity is food for the hungry. How much of that work, though, is actually contributing to food security and long-term, sustainable progress for families? The organization I work for named Home Sweet Home Ministries (HSHM) made the decision to change the way we practice food ministry – going from a food pantry, where clients show up to receive a free hand-out, to a food co-op, where participating members work together to address their own needs.

After over two years of planning and implementation, HSHM successfully converted our pantry to a co-op about 18 months ago. We call our co-op “Bread For Life,” and through this ministry the co-op members gain access to real food and real community.

It has been a tumultuous journey from pantry to co-op, but without a doubt worth every bump and challenge along the way. I’d like to share with you one painful realization we came to and three steps that moved us forward into a new and healthier model of charity.

A Painful Realization: One of our most significant challenges was that we had to do: take a long, hard look at our preconceptions about helping people. Reading books like Toxic Charity and When Helping Hurts, and taking a couple of trips to Atlanta to meet with staff at Urban Recipe (a low income food co-op) influenced our thinking significantly. Rather than simply celebrating our outputs, like the number of pounds of food we provided or the number of households we served, we started to look at the outcomes, the difference these services/resources were - or were not - making in the lives of the people we were serving.

It was only when we stepped back from the action of running our food pantry that we could see that we were providing emergency food assistance – which should be a one-time, short-term intervention – to the same individuals and families month after month. We also became aware of the feelings of shame, embarrassment, and discomfort our pantry recipients were experiencing. Once we took the time to honestly look and listen, we heard statements like, “I can’t believe I have to come to a food pantry,” and we saw the downcast faces of the recipients. The free food we were offering often came at the cost of program recipients sacrificing personal dignity.

This was a painful realization.

So, what were we supposed to do about it? Let me share with you three things we did to move us toward more a effective model of food ministry.

First, we started to listen intently. We listened for six months before taking any action. To do this, we enlisted the help of local college students and started asking our pantry customers questions. We asked about their experience with us, about their use of other food pantries in the community, and about their thoughts on the food co-op model. An overwhelming majority of the people we spoke with expressed excitement about the prospect of contributing to their own well-being and food security and were intrigued by the co-op concept.

Next, we made some incremental changes. We then began to evaluate the feasibility of converting our pantry to a co-op. Rather than make the leap all at once, we first converted our pantry from a ‘prepackaged’ model (we packed boxes of food and gave them to people regardless of their preferences) to a ‘choice’ model (where our pantry customers could shop for the food items they liked and leave behind the items they didn’t). This involved changing the physical layout of our food storage area and adding equipment like glass-front coolers and freezers that are conducive to the shopping experience. We were blessed with the support of local businesses who provided funds to purchase a new freezer for this purpose. At the same time, we started to inform our customers about our upcoming change to becoming a low income food co-op.

Finally, we took the plunge! At last we took the plunge and changed our operations over to a food co-op.  We thought we’d see a significant drop off in households when we made the switch, but we’ve seen just the opposite! In fact, even before we opened, over 100 people submitted co-op membership applications and we now serve more households as a co-op than we ever did as a food pantry (and we have many more on a waiting list to join).

In our co-op model, rather than simply providing free access to food, we also began providing opportunities for our customers to acquire new skills and build their capacities. Each member of the co-op helps perform the essential functions of running the co-op – tasks like stocking shelves, sorting and labeling donated food, cleaning, assisting other members to shop, and even performing some administrative tasks.  Our staff, volunteers, and co-op members work alongside each other and develop meaningful relationships in the context of their work.

Now, with an active co-op membership in excess of 425 households, the message is clear to us – people want to be given the opportunity to provide for themselves & will jump at the chance to do so. We have people who joined the co-op that had been told  they have nothing worthwhile to contribute. When we tell them we need them and want them to utilize their God-given talents and abilities, they positively light up!  Our Co-op Advisory Board shares responsibility with us in charting the future direction and scope of the co-op. We take their guidance on things like membership requirements, food products to stock, classes to offer, etc.

Over the past 18 months we’ve seen the co-op members fully embrace this shared responsibility model for the provision of food assistance.  When we give tours, our co-op members chime in with enthusiastic comments about their experiences.  Our members tell their friends and family about the co-op and encourage them to join, too.  Based on these and other affirming responses from co-op members and others in our community, we believe offering food assistance through the co-op model is truly a way that helps restore dignity and a sense of capability to people while at the same time easing their struggle to feed themselves and their families.  We’ve even begun to gather data using structured surveys to measure the change in our members’ sense of hope in their lives, and anticipate that these data will support our anecdotal observations thus far.

Do you have a story to share about poverty alleviation in your community? If so, please consider joining me and other NACSW members who have launched the Poverty Alleviation member interest group. We can use your help in sharing ideas and inspiration with the rest of the NACSW membership. For additional information about the Poverty Alleviation member interest group, contact Rick Chamiec-Case. 

Matt Burgess, MA, LCPC is Chief Operating Officer of Home Sweet Home Ministries, which is based in Bloomington, Illinois.  He has been a member of NACSW since 2013. 

Editor’s note: This article was adapted from material first published on www.charitydetox.com on May 22, 2015

The Subtle Art of Integrating Faith and Practice

DrummRCEU0216During my time as a professor in a Christian social work program, it was not uncommon to hear students ask, “Where does this social work program integrate Christianity and social work or Adventism and social work?” For me, the terms are so nearly synonymous that I don’t know where one begins and the other leaves off.  The question that plagues me is not how we integrate Christianity and social work, but, “How is it possible that anyone could separate the two?

Perhaps the most important Biblical text delineating Christian social workers’ passion for our faith and profession centers in Matthew 25. This passage offers a command, a bottom line of expectation, if one is to be considered fit for Heaven:

When the Son of Man comes in His glory and all the holy angels with Him, then He will sit on the throne of His glory.  All of the nations will be gathered before Him and He will separate them one from another as the shepherd divides the sheep from the goats. And He will set the sheep on the right hand, but the goats on the left.  Then the King will say to those on His right hand, “Come you blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world:  for I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me drink; I was a stranger and you took me in; I was naked and you clothed me; I was sick and you visited me; I was in prison and you came to me… Insomuch as you have done it unto the least of these my brethren, you have done it unto me.” (Matthew 25:31-36, 40) 

Doing “unto the least” fit perfectly with the purpose of the social work. “The purpose of the social work profession is to promote human well-being by strengthening opportunities, resources, and capacities of people and to create policies and provide services to prevent and address conditions that limit human rights and the quality of life. Embracing a global perspective, the social work profession strives to eliminate poverty, discrimination, and oppression” (CSWE, 2008). Social work embodies the commission of Matthew 25 (doing unto the least of these) through organized, professional services that use social work policies, ethics, practices, and expertise to accomplish their purposes.

Authentic Christians, those following the Biblical mandate of service to a hurting world, are social workers; perhaps not professionally trained, degree bearing, licensable social workers, but they do engage in social work because they are active in serving humanity.

Christian social workers are undoubtedly the luckiest professionals alive—we are able to make a living while attending to the work of the Kingdom, making a difference in this world and preparing for the world to come.

Now that I am teaching in a social work program in another context, one that often shies away from anything explicitly Christian, I am even more convinced of the impossibility of separating Christianity and social work. I find my students crave kind words, need tangible resources, and desire agape love that I can offer. Doing unto the least of these; that is the integration of Christianity and social work.

Dr. Rene Drumm is the associate dean for the College of Health at the University of Southern Mississippi. She has served in higher education for over 20 years and has published research on small social work programs, substance abuse, social capital, sexual orientation, and domestic violence. Rene is a member of NACSW’s Board of Directors, and has been a member of NACSW since 2001. 

Sin and Social Work

I was reading a piece on Huffington Post about how men turn grumpy at 70, sort of like adolescents turn moody and recalcitrant in the first years of puberty, both for hormonal reasons.  It would have been depressing – not least for my poor wife, who lives both with a querulous septuagenarian and a truculent teen. Except, says the author, there are five stages of male grumpiness extending across the whole range of life from adolescence to dotage. That put it all in perspective, I suppose.

While on that page I noticed a link to another Huffpo article about how the Duck Dynasty matriarch, Miss Kay, had forgiven the Duck Dynasty patriarch, Phil Robertson, for the way he had treated her in the early years of their marriage nearly half a century earlier.  The story is a familiar one – at least for Christians – of sin, repentance, forgiveness, and conversion of life, and a couple sticking it out through the process and very happy they did so.

Huffpo told the story more or less straight, at least compared with other postings of the “gotcha!” kind.  But the hundreds of hateful comments that followed made up for Huffpo’s restraint.

Representative but chosen at random are these responses:

*Why is it that these Christian values fools that keep telling the rest of us that we are wrong for not believing in “their” ways & teachings time & time again always the ones caught cheating & breaking their own code?

 *So I guess this makes him a hypocrite and she is another enabler … Typical Christian behavior!

Not all comments were of this kind.  The charge of hypocrisy was common, but some pointed out that to have sinned, repented, and changed your life to conform to what you consider God’s will does not make you a hypocrite.  As one reader says:

*Just in case you don’t know: hyp·o·crite [hip-uh-krit] - 1.a person who pretends to have virtues, moral or religious beliefs, principles, etc., that he or she does not actually possess, especially a person whose actions belie stated beliefs.

 He WAS an alcoholic and he DID commit adultery. Past tense.

I am struck by the gulf of incomprehension between the Christian and much more numerous anti-Christian commentators.  The story of a sinful man repenting, being forgiven, converting his life to follow God is thousands of years old and repeated many times in Old and New Testaments, from David to Matthew, Paul and countless others. It is cause for joy in heaven.

And yet it is incomprehensible to the gotcha crowd who relentlessly judge those they accuse of judging. None of the anti-Christian commentators offers a shred of evidence to show that either Miss Kay or her husband of nearly 50 years is “a person who pretends to have virtues, moral or religious beliefs, principles, etc., that he or she does not actually possess, especially a person whose actions belie stated beliefs.”

It is said that saints – men and women of heroic virtue – are those most aware of their own sin.  Any Christian who examines his conscience knows he sins.  When asked to describe himself, Pope Francis – no drunk or adulterer – said simply, “I am a sinner.”  We all depend on God’s infinite mercy.

Of course, there are hypocrites among Christians who, like the Pharisees of old, pretend to have virtues they don’t possess.  But that is not the charge in this case.  The charge is that Phil Robertson once struggled with alcoholism and committed adultery.  For this, if you are a Christian, they imply there is no forgiveness, no repentance, no conversion of life.  And those like Miss Kay who do forgive are “enabling” behavior that no one claims has actually occurred for decades.

So how do we understand people who acknowledge neither sin nor repentance nor forgiveness?

One part of the gotcha response seems to be a hatred of those who try to live virtuously, with God’s help, and who thereby seem to be a living condemnation of the moral state of those who don’t even try.

But what does it mean not to try?  It is not that the anti-Christians recognize such a way of framing the problem. They don’t. They do not have even the sense of sin in the first place. The whole idea of living virtuously implies that one holds oneself to standards that for most of us do not come easily.  Virtuous habits are acquired through practice and lost through disuse.  We aim for virtue but often fall short of our own standards and principles.

This, the classical and Christian understanding, implies that there is a moral truth about what is good and what evil.  What repels so many anti-Christians, I think, is that they have no grounds for discriminating between good and evil except what they actually choose to do.

Better in this view to rationalize and justify what we actually choose and do than to try to aim higher and risk failing.  Even aiming for virtue seems like an intolerable judgment on those who do not.  Better to escape the charge of hypocrisy by not having beliefs and principles that one’s actions could belie.  One cannot fail to live up to standards one doesn’t have or that do not differ from whatever one does – not because one is saintly but because the standards adapt to what one’s actions.

To what extent are we infected with this relativistic, subjective way of excluding the very idea and sense of sin from our thinking about social work practice? Like a priest or pastor, we work as part of our practice with people of whose behavior we disapprove as wrong or harmful, whether illegal or not.

So here’s my question. As Christians we recognize that the sinner is at the heart of our faith.  Our sinfulness and our need for repentance, mercy, forgiveness are central and unavoidable. All of which implies that we are fallen and in need of the redemption that God offers us through his Son. But the language of secular liberalism implies that there is no sin, nothing to repent of or be forgiven for, certainly not in the spheres of life, death, marriage and sex, and to suggest otherwise is intolerant and bigoted.

In social work, we lean to the latter view in the name of being non-judgmental, not wanting to stigmatize, to engage the client where he is, and so on. That may be necessary. But then, how do we integrate our faith with our practice? How do we avoid being sucked into the assumptions of secularism, with all the temptations to call evil good and vice versa (Isaiah 5:20 – “woe to those…”)? How do we manage the tension in our work between the call to be compassionate and nonjudgmental and our mission to promote human flourishing in individuals and society (see the Code of Ethics), and so the virtues of the human person, created in the image and likeness of God?

Paul Adams is professor emeritus of social work at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, a member of NACSW for 8 years, and co-author with Michael Novak of the recently published book, Social Justice Isn’t What You Think It Is. For more on this topic, see ch. 15 of Social Justice Isn’t What You Think It Is, entitled, “Needed: A Sharper Sense of Sin.”

Live Your Dreams

DarrelL CEU 0116My heart aches for the many families who have lost children and loved ones to senseless violence perpetrated by criminals, persons with mental health issues, family members and the police. My heart and mind register concern regarding the small world view of some gun owners, lobbyists, and the NRA when they speak as if they have the right to measure the profits of their sales and coffers against the human rights and dreams of those beleaguered by their guns – as if the 2nd amendment has a stronger right than the right to live and let live.

On the recent anniversary of the celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., I was moved to think about the dreams of these victims and families of those whose lives have been taken by violence and despair. The realization that rests in my spirit is that dreams die because their life blood is spilled on far too many streets, too many floors of emergency rooms, down the drains of hopelessness and despair. As I reflect on these lost lives and those dreams that have been lost, I ask myself where the dream Dr. King spoke of has gone (www.aspenideas.org/I-Have-A-Dream). This question was called to mind by a poem authored by the renowned poet and writer, Langston Hughes, called “A Dream Deferred:”

What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun, or fester like a sore and then run? Does it stink like rotten meat? Or crust and sugar like syrupy sweet? Maybe it just sags like a heavy load or does it explode?

The response to this dire question was answered in a sermon preached on a recent Sunday morning by my pastor Bishop Walter Scott Thomas Sr. He addressed a vital question: Where are the dream nurturers? – people who push you and stand behind you to motivate, encourage and strengthen you as your pursue the vibrant dreams which have been the foundation of our society and will continue to build individual lives? If we are lured into the malaise of the current societal situation, we might think we have more dream killers than dream nurturers, more oppressors than supporters, people who measure us by how we look, where we come from, and the color of our skin. This can cause us ask ourselves: how far have we really come, and where are we heading?

These questions could seem all the more perplexing  given the political polarization we find so prevalent in our day. However, I refuse to  allow cynicism to overcome my optimism and faith – faith  which is based on just how far prayer has brought us as a people, all the while facing the challenges of multiple levels of systemic racism, classism, sexism and other isms. Prayer keeps hope alive and sustains life; prayer creates hope and helps to buoy faith.

This is not the time to give in to divisive politics and fear, or to lobbyists with deep pockets. This is the time to enter the prayer rooms of faith and lift up this country and its leaders, asking for direction and guidance such that dreams are no longer deferred, but flourish for everyone. For a simple time of refreshment, take some time to view an example of a dream realized (http://www.creationsummit.com/video/Susan-Boyle.htm), and watch the movie War Room, which demonstrates in a real way how significant and sustaining prayer is and continues to be.

Assistant Professor Linda P. Darrell, PhD has worked, guided by faith (I John 4:21),  as a licensed clinical certified social worker for over 30 years, and teaches in the School of Social Work at Morgan State University in Baltimore, MD. Linda has been a member of NACSW since 2014.

The Heart of the Matter

GowanTb 1015Each day, I have the privilege of reminding the most vulnerable New Yorkers, our friends on the streets, that they are valuable and have purpose.  So many have been dismissed; they are seen but not seen.  I have a responsibility to validate and empower, to speak life, and bring hope into seemingly hopeless situations.  How is it possible to speak life, when the dominant voices within and around tell our friends to give up and there is no way out of the mess they’ve called their lives?  The message they hear over and over again is that they don’t matter.

The battle often seems uphill, with insurmountable odds.  Yet, there is one thing that prevails…love.  Love can do what the most effective skill or tool cannot – God’s love specifically, and it cuts to the heart!  In the midst of chaos, it is love that prevails.

Love is intriguing.  Logically, it’s known that God’s love has no limits.  However, to be effective, love has to be felt, not just merely understood.  It would seem that if limitless love has made its way from mind to heart, love would flow ceaselessly.  Nonetheless, there are times our love seems to be hoarded; doled out to those deemed, “worthy”.  I am reminded of how I am free to love, recklessly, because that’s how God loves me – with ridiculous abandon!  THAT knowledge and understanding drives me to love without reservation.  More love will come, for me to give away, without reservation or fear.  That love is powerfully witnessed on the streets of New York through The Relief Bus.

I am the first and currently the only social worker on staff with The Relief BusNew York City Relief has existed for the past 26 years and currently coordinates eleven outreach efforts each week in NY & NJ.  At The Relief Bus, Outreach Leaders provide one-on-one care, friendship and referrals to people in need.  I follow‑up and provide supportive care interventions and extensive referral‑based services.  Every step of the assistance and therapeutic process is achieved by showing love.  Every barrier and stronghold is broken by boldly speaking love into the lives of our friends.

Love is not taught in school, nor is it possible to get a degree in love.  The only way that I’ve learned to share God’s love is by asking God for the heart to love as God loves.  Once given the expanded capacity to love, courageous action is required.  It requires showing bold, radical love that defies logic.  It’s how I do what I do!!

Feel free to contact me should you want to learn more or volunteer with The Relief Bus.  But be warned: serving with The Relief Bus will change your life!

Relief BusTeresa Gowan is an Urban Missionary and the Director of Resources & Follow-up Care with New York City Relief / The Relief Bus, a mobile outreach ministry to the destitute and homeless.  Teresa is a Licensed Social Worker (since 2007) and a member of NACSW (since 2013).

Sharing thoughts for Christians in Social Work