By Arianne Corbett, RD and Laura Hatch 2017-08-09 05:10:09
Yes, it does take a village to support all our children. One Vermont county shows the way. “Many hands make light work” or so the saying goes. We’ve all heard this old adage before. While sharing the load makes sense, in theory, coordinating those many hands often can seem like more effort than the results are worth. Can school districts and community groups do much more than simply co-exist? Can they collaborate and co-own a project intended to meet a collective goal? Meet the Windham County Hunger Council of Vermont, which is harnessing the wisdom and collective power of fellow community organizations to expand access to child nutrition programs all throughout their region. It all started with a hurricane. A COMMUNITY MODEL COMES TOGETHER In 2010, the leaders of Hunger Free Vermont, an organization working to end hunger throughout the state, had a vision to coordinate efforts with others to build strong nutrition safety nets at the community level. Their belief was grounded in local solutions that would amplify their work at the state level. The Windham County Hunger Council was one of 10 councils formed as part of this state-wide initiative. Picture a diverse group of players—community organizations, food producers, schools, town governments, local legislators and childcare providers—all gathered to ensure individual residents have access to nutritious food. In late August 2011, nearly a year after the coalition was formed, Hurricane Irene barreled up the East Coast, catching much of New England off guard. Vermont, an unlikely target of a tropical system, with no ocean coast line, experienced significant infrastructure damage. Although Hurricane Irene was only a Category One storm when making landfall, it dumped more than 11 inches of rain over parts of the state, causing more than $733 million in damage due to historic flooding. Dealing with the damage meant numerous trials in several communities, but it also presented a specific challenge to the work of the Windham County Hunger Council and its support for local summer meals programs—a full year later. BORN OUT OF CRISIS Brattleboro is the largest municipality in Windham County. Before the storm, the county’s Housing Authority had served as the lead sponsor of the Brattleboro summer meals program. After Irene, the Housing Authority’s attention and resources were directed toward rectifying the homes and buildings in the area, and it was unable to continue its summer meals sponsorship. A new summer meals subcommittee, headed by the Hunger Council, was “born a little out of a crisis,” remembers Sue Graff, director of community investments at the United Way of Windham County and chair of that summer subcommittee. “We had to make sure kids got fed!” she recalls. The team focused on the immediate need in Brattleboro and leveraged existing relationships built between the Brattleboro Town School District and the Windham County Hunger Council. This district is part of the Windham Southeast Supervisory Union (WSESU), a cooperative of several districts in southeast Vermont. The Hunger Council appealed to WSESU’s superintendent, stressing the importance of the program. “This was the beginning of a realization that feeding children and [administration of] the Summer Meals Program, in particular, is not the job of one organization. It’s really the job of our community,” Graff explains. The superintendent went on to become a bona fide champion for summer meals, agreeing to sponsor the program that very summer. Buy-in throughout the district grew. The following year, WSESU established a dedicated position, to be filled by a seasonal staff member, to oversee the summer meals program. This provided additional capacity—and efficiency—to the effort, along with an expansion of the number of serving sites. Kira Sawyer-Hartigan is nutrition programs and wellness consultant for WSESU. She recalls how the school community stepped up to meet the challenge. “Our school district sees the summer program as an investment in our children. In the long run, kids are able to reach their full potential because they have access to healthy food.” A SPIRIT OF UNDERSTANDING “Appreciating that we are all on the same team is really important,” Graff remarks. “We all want kids to be fed well and to enjoy their food.” By setting a common agenda and promoting a shared understanding of the problem, her cooperative team has employed a joint approach to solving it. As a starting point, the Hunger Council relied on existing partnerships between various community groups and schools, building upon established trust and understanding. For example, community groups that worked to increase school access to local foods helped build the bridge between other Council members and the school nutrition staff. Graff is a firm believer in meeting school districts where they are, recognizing their current contributions while working to make summer meals an integrated part of their existing operations. “It is important to approach schools in a way that signals we already appreciate that they are doing so much great work, and we want to enhance their efforts rather than make radical changes,” Graff explains. She also appreciates the competing priorities, restrictions and regulations that can handcuff districts in running their meal operations. Part of her work includes helping other community members understand this complexity. Graff seeks to work within the Hunger Council to make the sponsorship of the summer meal program as seamless and manageable as possible, so that this program is an extension of what schools are already doing, rather than something completely different. Members of the Council’s summer meals subcommittee focus on gathering hard data and real-world experience to gain buy-in from various stakeholder groups. Community partners use that information to speak to school decision-makers armed with applicable facts and figures designed to remove questions or skepticism about the financial viability of starting or expanding a summer meal program. From a school district perspective, Sawyer-Hartigan affirms that there is definitely a time and a place to bring in community partners, and among these is when there is a common cause to rally around, such as the summer meals crisis after Hurricane Irene. Sawyer-Hartigan also sees the value of bringing different voices to the table to help advocate for common issues. Sometimes school districts tend to look at such issues with a purely local lens, so state-wide partners can bring a broader perspective, including successful models. “It’s great to have someone in your area advocating for an issue, and even better when it can become an issue supported by state-level organizations that share best practices and ideas on how it has worked in other places,” Sawyer-Hartigan notes. THE MANY ROLES OF THE NUTRITION HUB The Windham County Hunger Council strives to provide schools with needed support so they can run additional meal programs that offer children that valuable hunger safety net. “They are already doing so much,” acknowledges Graff. “They are in a very unique position to be the hub of all kinds of resources, information and access to services. Food is a huge piece of that and the glue that holds it all together.” Schools in communities all across the nation can reach out to—or be open to overtures from--various community partners. It starts with the self-recognition, so to speak, that they are in a unique and enviable position to offer such programs—but without getting overwhelmed and trying to go it alone. Graff is encouraging: “If a school is ready to take an expanded role [in offering meal programs] outside the school day, there are many community organizations waiting in line to help them do that!” Sawyer-Hartigan agrees that community partners are valuable aides in her work. They can play a wide range of roles; simply providing boots on the ground to distribute information or hang flyers to promote a summer or supper program can be incredibly helpful. In Brattleboro, the Windham County Hunger Council takes on the responsibility to aggregate and distribute information about all food assistance available to area families. Taking the lead on something as simple as hosting regular community information or partnership meetings can make a tremendous difference in generating the participation the programs need to run efficiently. In Windham County, this group meets and plans for summer meals all year round. The collaboration by the summer meals subcommittee members allows the different partners to contribute in ways that best suit their organizational strengths, while leveraging trusted agents in the community to increase awareness and drive participation. » As a United Way staff member, Graff organizes, convenes and looks ahead to the next steps to ensure all moving parts are on track. » The United Way also helps with graphic design and community outreach tasks. » The WSESU acts as the lead sponsor, providing nutritious meals and communicating to parents through automated telephone messages and newsletter articles. » The Windham Child Care Association arms their 50 child care center members with information on summer meals sites. » Local food pantries provide information about summer meals to clients. » The Brattleboro Boys and Girls Club serves as a summer meals site and notifies parents about other summer meals options in the community. » The subcommittee even engaged a local media partner to produce and distribute public service announcements (PSAs) about the program. “We understand that there is a dollars-and-cents business model to this program,” notes Graff. “The best way we can support the school district is by getting as many children as possible to these sites through awareness and promotion.” The outreach is a particularly key element. “You can have all the pieces, but if someone doesn’t trust the program or have enough information to access it, there is still a stigma around free food,” Graff asserts. By reaching community members through different trusted organizations, they are further overcoming common summer meals barriers with each year of operation. STRENGTHENING RESOLVE Yes, it’s a well-organized community coalition working collaboratively to support one goal. Still, there have been summer meal lessons learned in Windham County these past five years. For example, the use of a high school career center, partnering with its students in meal preparation, seemed like a great opportunity to engage local youth. But the logistics were more complicated than expected. In addition, summer sites initally underperformed, despite careful planning and enthusiastic support. Energy even waned around a kick-off event planned strategically around one of the town’s largest gatherings: Brattleboro’s famous parade of cows down Main Street (the “Strolling of the Heifers”). Sawyer-Hartigan also recalls a mobile meals pilot that generated a lot of excitement among community partners but was not the right fit for actually increasing meal delivery to children in need. “Sometimes our hearts are in the right place, but it isn’t the right fit for the community,” she notes. Nonetheless, every failure makes the coalition stronger, because each time a strategy misses the mark, it strengthens the resolve of the coalition members to work harder, communicate better and not let the community down. WHAT’S NEXT? Despite the occasionally painful lessons, the WSESU school district is reflecting on tremendous accomplishments since making the staffing commitment to provide capacity to the Summer Meals Program. In 2016, the district served almost 2,000 more meals than it did the previous summer, even though the national trend is an overall decrease in meals served. The district also stands behind its efforts to improve the quality of summer meals each year. In fact, WSESU adopted enhanced nutrition standards that are applied across all school nutrition programs, including summer meals. At press time, now in her fifth summer, Sawyer-Hartigan proudly reflects that the Summer Meals Program feels firmly rooted in her community. “Families rely on established summer meal sites, and each year we hope that the stigma around free meals is reduced. We want families to feel like these summer meal sites are part of the community, rather than something to be ashamed of,” she asserts. Looking to engage with partners in your community? Graff recommends availing yourself of all the free webinars, best practice compilations and any other tools you can get your hands on. There are plenty of resources available to educate prospective partners and community stakeholders about how summer meals have succeeded—and the barriers that need to be addressed. “Certainly, use the No Kid Hungry Center for Best Practices, plus information through USDA and other best practice models,” advises Graff. “I would encourage others to read up and see what seems to work in cities around the country that are most like their own.” The Windham County Hunger Council is now thinking beyond summer meals. “We are expanding our role to be a connecting point for families for year-round access to food programs,” says Graff. With four week-long school breaks throughout the school year, at-risk families face up to a full month without access to school-based food resources for their children. The Council is answering the call by connecting the dots so that these families are aware of resources offered by rotary clubs, backpack programs and food pantries. “Our school district values being a year-round source of food,” says Sawyer-Hartigan. “We recognize that we live in an area that has quite a bit of poverty. Plus, the more kids that eat with us, the more federal dollars that come into our community. This supports farmers and local food producers, and school nutrition staff now have year-round jobs. It keeps our neighbors employed.” But it’s only through true collaboration that schools can rise up to serve as nutrition hubs for their communities. Vermont’s Windham County region is evidence that where there is a will, there is a way. TIPS FOR BUILDING A SUCCESSFUL SCHOOL-COMMUNITY PARTNERSHIP • Join or form a local coalition working to address hunger. • Invite community members to school wellness committee meetings or host a community roundtable to showcase healthy school meals. • When developing a coalition, ground the partnership in a shared understanding of the problem (getting food to hungry children) and a shared agenda for solving it. • Appreciate that coalition members bring different perspectives, strengths and challenges to the group. Leverage the strengths, and learn from perspectives and challenges. Don’t be afraid to tap into the different relationships among coalition members. Warm hand-offs of selected tasks are much more effective than cold calls. • Don’t try to radically change what is already happening in the community. Build from existing relationships and programs. • Look to best practice resources for ideas. For starters, check out the No Kid Hungry Summer Collaborative Planning Toolkit, accessible at http://tinyurl.com/NKHSummerToolkit-SNmag. • Make partnership activities as accessible and seamless as possible. • Use a pilot program to build relationships and try out a collaborative model. It can be an opportunity to test some creativity before fully investing financial and human resources. • Don’t fear failure—it can generate some of the best ideas! Arianne Corbett is a freelance writer based in Tampa, Fla., and a consultant working with Share Our Strength’s No Kid Hungry initiative. Laura Hatch is director, national partnerships for Share Our Strength.
Published by School Nutrition Association. View All Articles.
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