Food banks, Starbucks rethink solutions to address root causes of hunger

The Arkansas Delta – which runs along the western edge of the mighty Mississippi River – is one of the poorest areas in the country. But it’s not just the statistics about the median income level or the annual food insecurity rankings that makes poverty there so discouraging, says Rhonda Sanders, Chief Executive Officer of the Arkansas Foodbank.

It’s also the younger generations who are leaving for college or for opportunities in bigger cities like Dallas, Atlanta and Little Rock. It’s the steady hammering of boarded-up windows signaling the demise of another local small business. It’s the rural hospitals that are shutting down during COVID-19, maybe never to come back.

“So what you have left is those who can’t move, who can’t go anywhere else, often the very elderly, those with disabilities that make it difficult to hold a job,” Sanders says. “So how do you stop that cycle when you have devolved to a certain point of need? That’s the struggle you have in the Delta.

“It is very, very difficult and it’s hard to watch and it’s hard to figure out what to do. At the Arkansas Foodbank, we’ve had to look at our role in the Delta very differently.”

Feeding Tampa Bay volunteer hands off to-go meals to neighbors struggling with hunger during the COVID crisis.
Feeding Tampa Bay volunteer hands off to-go meals to neighbors struggling with hunger during the COVID crisis.

Food banks across the country are facing surging need. Feeding America®, the nation’s largest domestic hunger-relief organization, based in Chicago, estimates that 54 million Americans could go hungry in 2020, including potentially 18 million children, in large part due to the economic insecurity caused by COVID-19. That’s up from an estimated 37 million in previous years.

But some food banks across the country also see COVID-19 as an opportunity, not only to figure out new ways to ramp up distribution, but to reimagine and rethink some of the fundamentals of their business: how do you actually solve hunger, once and for all?

“It’s easy to look at food banking in a supply and demand kind of way, and we’ve built a relatively efficient system to get food to people who need it,” says Jessica Jelinski, Vice President of Equitable Access at Feeding America. “But just getting food to people doesn’t address why people need the food in the first place. Food insecurity exists because there are deep systemic issues that have prevented people in this country from opportunities to succeed.”

Starbucks, which has a global social impact team focused on helping fight hunger, is committed to partnering with and working alongside hunger-relief organizations to find solutions. The company invests heavily in the Starbucks FoodShare program, which currently rescues food from more than 6,200 U.S. stores to donate to food banks across the country, and is also doubling down on investments into successful long-term strategies like mobile pantries, which help overcome transportation and access barriers by bringing food to families where they are.

This month, Starbucks is giving an additional $1 million to invest in mobile food pantry programs for 13 Feeding America member food banks across the country, including the Arkansas Foodbank, part of an ongoing three-year financial commitment to hunger-relief organizations showing impact and innovation.

“How do we get closer to the root problems that cause hunger? The solve isn’t that we just keep feeding people,” says Jane Maly, Starbucks director, Global Social Impact, who oversees the company’s work around hunger. “We’re really in it to address hunger in a much bigger way. The word I come back to is ‘disruption.’ The old way of doing things is not going to cut it anymore.”

Shifting the attention to nutrition, economic development and overcoming barriers

One of the ways food banks have shifted focus is to turn their attention to nutrition.

“Are we genuinely nourishing people or are we contributing to bigger public health issues?” asks Emily De Maria, Chief Program Officer at the Central Texas Food Bank in Austin, a Feeding America member food bank and Starbucks mobile food pantry grant recipient. “We’ve always asked people to donate healthy food, but now we’re putting a stake in the ground, reframing hunger as a health issue.”

That means establishing a formal nutrition policy and setting strict goals around collecting and distributing produce, while limiting high-sodium, high-sugar products like canned goods, soda or candy that might only exacerbate pre-existing health conditions in certain communities, like diabetes, asthma or hypertension.

It means more classes teaching people how to cook nutritiously, and programs, for example, where food pantries have been built onsite at local medical facilities and clinics, so doctors can write prescriptions for fruits and vegetables that can be filled immediately, or medically tailored food boxes can be built specifically for diabetic clients.

Mobile pantries, essentially refrigerated vehicles that deliver food directly to neighborhood distribution sites, can help. They bring fresh, refrigerated or frozen healthy items like fruits, vegetables, dairy, meats and other proteins to areas that don’t have grocery stores or food pantries. For some people in impoverished rural areas, the drive to a food pantry is more than an hour away. Even in urban areas, traditional grocery stores don’t operate in some low-income neighborhoods.

Starbucks FoodShare Program Mobile pantries

Another focus is economic development.

When Sanders, the Arkansas Foodbank CEO, thinks about the Delta and the poverty there, she imagines a place-based solution – not only healthy food and mobile food pantries, but also economic investment in the community, in the form of jobs and internships, partnerships with banks around financial literacy and advocacy of federal programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly food stamps).

“We do have a good group of organizations and nonprofits that are standing shoulder to shoulder on this, trying to improve the safety net, trying to improve the economic well-being of our communities,” says Sanders, who has spent decades advocating for healthier communities. “There’s no way we could do this ourselves.”

Food banks can play the role of convener in these kinds of communities, says Jelinski with Feeding America, which plans to pilot a similar economic development “community accelerator” program in the Delta region, home to some of the poorest counties in America. People will show up for the food, she says, and that provides a chance to address the other issues.

Food banks across the country are also trying to address other barriers using technology and creative partnerships. Some are experimenting with platforms that allow individuals to log in, select what they want and pick food up at a pre-scheduled time, in order to keep the experience private and reduce the possible shame of waiting outside in line. In Austin, the Central Texas Food Bank is partnering with a grocery chain and the local bus and transit system to directly deliver food to the area’s rapidly growing population of homebound seniors, house by house.

Disproportionate hunger in diverse communities; meeting the need in New Orleans

Troy James grew up in Sunset, Louisiana, about two hours west of New Orleans. His mom was a school principal, and before that, a special-education teacher. He remembers how she’d sometimes take a skillet to school, to cook breakfast for her students.

Troy James

"I could have never calculated the personal responsibility and humble joy I would feel in seeing the vision come to life.”

“How can you keep them focused in the classrooms, in life, when they’re just thinking about where they can get their next meal?” James asks. “I’m blessed because I haven’t missed a meal. To realize how important that is to the health of a child… the things that we take for granted.”

Food is a passion for James, which makes what’s going on in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward all the more heartbreaking for him. A Starbucks licensed store district manager in New Orleans, he’s seen the predominantly Black working-class neighborhood suffering through the COVID-19 pandemic. Many people have lost their service-industry jobs. Many families are struggling to find enough food.

A few months ago, he decided to do something about it. He pulled together the connections he had: relationships with Target, which operate licensed Starbucks stores; Liberty’s Kitchen, a nonprofit mentorship program for youth which James has been volunteering with for more than a decade; and the Starbucks Black Partner Network, which challenged itself to find solutions during the recent civil unrest. He reached out to Second Harvest Food Bank of New Orleans, another Starbucks mobile food pantry grant recipient, which he’d worked with before, and the Metropolitan Human Services District, which pledged to show up with healthcare resources.

The end result was a resource distribution event at Franklin Avenue Baptist Church on a rainy morning in late July where volunteers, including New Orleans councilwoman Cyndi Nguyen, passed out 1,600 boxes of food, each designed to feed a family of four for two weeks, 800 COVID-19 sanitizing kits and 400 back-to-school kits in a backpack. Liberty’s Kitchen bought the school supplies with a $7,500 Target community grant.

“When we arrived at 6:30 in the morning, 2 ½ hours before the start, there were cars lined up for a block,” James says. “At that point, I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that we would achieve our goal of giving away all the resources at our disposal. That was juxtaposed by the painful acknowledgement of the large number of people in need. I could have never calculated the personal responsibility and humble joy I would feel in seeing the vision come to life.”

The event was such a big success, the Starbucks Black Partner Network plans to use it as a model for similar events in Akron, Ohio, and Southern California.

Jelinski, of Feeding America, says the recent attention given to racial justice in the country has also opened up the opportunity for food banks to think about the intersection of hunger and race, and to try and understand and address the systemic issues that create more obstacles for some communities of color.

For example, hunger in the Lower Ninth Ward is affected by several factors not present in more wealthy communities. It’s a food desert, defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as a low-income area with at least 500 residents and no grocery store within one mile, which leads to poor eating options, which in turn contributes to health issues. Also, decades of redlining – government-backed policies that prevented Black people from securing home loans and financial resources – have contributed to generational instability and negative economic and community health outcomes.

The difference in median incomes between Black and white families in New Orleans is stark, as much as $40,000 according to estimates. Overall, African American households in the U.S. are more than twice as likely to face hunger as white households. 

“I’m speaking as a Black man that didn’t grow up in a community like this, but has been very much a part of it,” James says. “These communities need empathy, these people need love. If we can do those two things without casting blame or disparaging anyone, then we’ll solve these problems. We don’t know who’s going to grow up and be the next inventor, our next president, our next leader, if we give them a little hope.”

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Artist Damon Brown celebrates Black culture and community in Starbucks latest drinkware collection