Feeding the Hungry, Sustainably — A Promising Framework
“We need food, fresh food,” explained an official of an Oakland public school, one of the many I reached out to at the start of the pandemic. As the conversations unfolded, I was blown away by the position of public schools as a critical hub not just for education, but in serving the growing, desperate need for food for local families. At the same time, representatives from California farm associations were telling me how the disruption to the foodservice industry was exacerbating food waste and farm losses.
This moment jump-started my education and revelation into the broken (and brittle) food supply chain in the United States, one that I have been working in earnest to help fix since the pandemic began.
Based on the success of our efforts in Oakland, this article provides what I believe is a promising framework to feed hungry families across the country, both as a reaction to the pandemic-induced urgency and as a sustainable approach for the future of food access.
As 2020 piled one crisis on top of another, the prevalence of chronic hunger became acutely worse. U.S. Vice President-elect Kamala Harris mentioned, “across America, 1 in 6 adults with children say their families are hungry”. It is estimated that over 50 million Americans are now food insecure — meaning not having enough food to feed oneself or one’s family. Like many of the inequities brought on by the pandemic, hunger disproportionately impacts families of color, with twice as many Black (27%) and LatinX (23%) families reporting food insecurity as compared to White (12%) families. With unemployment once again on the rise and a pandemic that will still take months or years to sequester, the numbers are bound to get worse.
After hundreds of hours exploring and executing the appropriate operational model and local partnerships, I am very proud of the program we started — what I’ve loosely called the “Food Justice Project” — which is now underway to help relieve hunger for thousands of food-insecure families.
As highlighted in the San Francisco Chronicle over the summer, the project has an incredible alliance with corporate and non-profit organizations, including Salesforce, Eat.Learn.Play, and Oakland Unified School District. Together, the team has already served almost a million pounds of fresh produce to over 50,000 Oakland families, with intentional sourcing from and distribution to underserved farms and families.
With the next phase of distribution now underway (currently serving 5,000 families per week), our learnings are ripe for extraction and replication to help more cities address their food-insecure communities.
A Framework for Farm-to-School (F2S) Distribution
In what I call the “farm-to-school gap”, there is a disconnect between the growing volume of food-insecure families with school-aged children who need fresh food, and the widespread farm closures or waste due to COVID-induced stagnation in the foodservice industry. Many remedies involve large sums of funding to food banks, entities that are doing incredible work to feed billions of Americans; or on the supply side, requiring costly alterations in the food packaging and supply chain process, which are nearly impossible for small farms to undertake.
In our model, the regional public school acts as an anchor in creating a hub-and-spoke network between farms and families in need.
Why Schools? Not only are schools ubiquitous, but schools are also viewed as a trusted advisor to many families in the community. As schools have fostered critical resources and education to the local community for years even before the crisis, school administrators know which children and families are at greater risk. Public schools, in particular, serve as partners to low-income communities where many people, largely people of color, live in “food deserts” (i.e. areas that have limited access to affordable and nutritious food). Since the pandemic, data shows that millions of children affected by school closures no longer have access to federally subsidized school lunches, breakfasts, or after-school snacks, noting that these “lost meals are particularly troubling for the 11 million children that lived in food-insecure households“.
While public schools in places like Los Angeles or Oakland have now served millions of meals to both students and adults, we are observing more families struggling to make it out of the house to pick up meals or access fresh produce.
In partnership with Oakland public schools, we were able to take a “consumer first” mentality to truly understand and iterate on what families needed. It was clear that families and schools needed access to fresh, culturally-relevant food, and a home delivery model to make it easy for families to sign up. Similarly, as farms were and are still facing a rollercoaster of industry closures, many were itching for a new customer.
In the Food Justice Project, two critical values have governed our approach and execution: empowerment and equality. By partnering with local, community-oriented organizations, we effectively empowered stakeholders with a self-sustaining footprint. With equality at the forefront, any program that seeks to sustain itself should consider how to uplevel the underserved, minority stakeholder across the supply chain (e.g. 85% of families we served were Black or LatinX).
At its peak, the project helped source and move more than 100,000 pounds of fresh produce every week. Once sourced from regional farms, we leveraged freight partnerships to deliver full pallet truckloads to an Oakland warehouse, where a team of 20–25 people would retrieve, de-bulk, and reassemble the produce into individual, family-sized boxes. Then, through partnerships and a pool of drivers, we delivered boxes to school sites and homes.
Rather than subjecting farms to large supplier contracts, our model proves that farms can enter into a more direct relationship with consumers through a school distribution network and existing community partnerships.
F2S Framework - Essential Components:
- Intentional focus on local, BIPOC and regenerative farms: Small farms are struggling, and partnerships with local, minority-owned growers benefit a community that is often untapped by major supplier networks. At the same time, I recommend prioritizing farms that have practices like regenerative agriculture to help mitigate climate change. Leveraging agriculture associations in your region or state is a fantastic way to ensure relevance and integrity in your farm partnerships.
- Bulk produce (freight) transportation: Leverage existing freight and farm transportation partnerships to move produce in bulk. This maintains the lowest friction for the farms and allows for easier accounting and pricing integrity (e.g. freight partnership).
- Storage (Kitchen): If produce is sourced in bulk, it must arrive at a warehouse or kitchen to accommodate the volume and space required to offload, unpack and repack the bulk food (and with COVID-safe practices!). Either in partnership with the local school kitchen, or others like food banks, the storage facility should ideally remain as close to the distribution areas as possible.
- Unpacking and boxing: Labor is required to assemble family produce boxes. I am so proud of the fact that our local partners found a model to hire many parents of school children (many who were unemployed), and trained them on how to unpack bulk produce, repack CSA-like boxes, and make 50+ home deliveries every day. Best of all, the project workers are earning $800+ per week through this incredible effort, while helping their own community. Other options include partnering directly with the farms to sort and assemble the boxes.
- School-centered family network: Partnership and stakeholder buy-in with public schools is essential. They are the center of trust for the community and the hub that houses the data on those families most at risk.
- Last-mile distribution: Due to lack of affordable transportation, and the fact that many families now have children learning from home with little ability to leave the house, we tested direct home deliveries. The uptake has been amazing (5,000 Oakland families per week and counting). By either hiring and training a pool of drivers as a way to improve local employment, or by partnering with existing last-mile delivery or local transportation organizations, home delivery is a viable option to remain relevant both during and potentially “after” the pandemic.
Underlying the success of these programs is a governance model, whereby all key stakeholders along the supply chain collaborate in weekly coordination meetings. In order to scale a sustainable solution, this framework depends on a business model and underlying technology platform (or set of applications) to help track, facilitate and engage the stakeholders involved in the end-to-end distribution.
The following considerations will help scale this framework:
- Localize operations: The first step requires investment in local partnerships and community expertise, including with the farms, logistics, non-profit, and school partners. Again, empowering the community drives sustainability. To execute, a phase-based deployment model helps unblock the kinks that will remain unique to every region. Start with a pilot that sources a smaller volume for a subset of families (we ran a 6-week pilot). This allows efficient testing before the growth, or expansion phase, where eventually the training wheels come off and the program can enter a mature, self-sustaining stage. Be sure to develop key performance indicators that are measured along the way (e.g. # of families served, volume of produce, % BIPOC served, etc.).
- Self-sustaining business model: A great way to invest in a new region is through philanthropic and public (city, state, or federal) funding, as these are important seed capital tied to community impact. However, the long-term funding vehicle requires a self-sustaining business model that empowers the consumer (families) to purchase and have a choice in their nutritional needs. As the percentage of funding coming from donation or public capital decreases, we must diversify revenue options. This could include out-of-pocket payments for families on a sliding scale based on affordability, SNAP or EBT approved payments, or, a matching “buy one give one” program with individuals or employers. We are currently exploring all options.
- Optimized, easy-to-use technology: As a technologist, I know that technology is only as good as the people who use it. Tech that meets the users where they are is much more effective. In the case of food distribution, the reality is that many of the 54 million food-insecure Americans who live in “food deserts” are not being offered an easy-to-use, multilingual tool to access and order fresh food from their phones. Similarly, there are dozens of startups and enterprises engaging with farms to help them with sourcing, inventory management, and procurement. These fragmented applications and data require a unified platform. In order to streamline processes, we need more investment in a regional or standardized platform to optimize the ordering, distribution, and sourcing of fresh food for underserved communities (hint: we’re working on it!).
A Call to (Public+Private) Action
Now that we’ve delivered tremendous impact in Oakland, the question I’ve received from many others is how can we replicate this program in our city, with our public schools and local farms?
This F2S framework is a good start but not one size fits all. Start with understanding the existing organizations and operations underway in a given area before adding or editing the model. From there, we need to engage the public school administrations that are willing to innovate and sponsor the effort for their local families.
As Vice President-elect Harris emphasized that “we are looking at a hunger crisis in America right now”, the administration will need intimate collaboration to conquer food-insecurity. I hope our continuing efforts in Oakland serve as a successful case study, because as co-Chair of the Food Justice Project, I can emphatically say while we started this program to help local families, the incredible impact we’ve made suggests this framework has promise in scaling relief for food-insecurity across the country. Given the right public and private collaboration, we could even start to mend the long-standing fissures in the food sourcing and distribution system.
Hence, this framework is a call to action, asking Federal, State, City, and Corporate officials to help disrupt and innovate our approach to tackle hunger. With a small amount of seed capital for every new region and continuous improvement to the model, I hope this framework inspires others to take action and join us. I’ve seen what is possible when we empower communities and bring people together to lend their skills for the greater good, and perhaps together, we can solve world hunger in our lifetimes.
(p.s. want to help? :) send a note: firstname.lastname@example.org)