| 2014 Q2 | story by DAISY WAKEFIELD | photos by STEVEN HERTZOG |
The first and last time, Lawrence Business Magazine talked with Jeremy Farmer, Executive Director of Just Food, the fledgling director had been on the job for four months. His staff consisted of himself and a handful of volunteers. The yearly budget was a Spartan $139,000, and Just Food had just been pulled back from the brink of closure the previous year. At that time, the measurement of success revolved around numbers like tons of foods dispersed and number of people served.
A lot has changed in the last two and a half years. The nonprofit food bank now has three full-time staff, a small army of volunteers, and a $1.8 million annual budget (including in-kind services and goods). It has joined forces with the other major food banks in the area to reduce duplication of efforts. In 2012, it moved into a bigger building and received several large pieces of equipment that significantly aid in logistics. And, it has distributed more food each succeeding year, from 200,000 pounds of food in 2011 to 2 million pounds of food expected this year.
But Farmer says those things, while well and good, are no longer how he measures the success of the organization.
“In the summer of 2012, we underwent a survey and an evaluation of the organization. And we discovered that we were doing good work, but not really helping people. We were just a band-aid. We needed innovative initiatives to impact peoples’ lives. So we started changing everything.”
They started with the kinds of food they were providing. While the pantry did stock some meats and fresh produce, most of the supplies were in high carbohydrate, high sugar foods that contributed to clients’ health issues like obesity and diabetes.
They revamped their shelves and concentrated on adding low- sodium, low sugar, high nutrient items. They started asking for specific food donations, like peanut butter or vegetables. And they adopted a choice-based system called “Choose My Plate,” which allows clients to choose a certain number of grains, vegetables, and other goods based on their family size.
“We are caring a lot more about health,” says Farmer. “That’s something that our clients needed us to care about. Our clients were both malnourished and obese. We were solving people’s hunger issues, but not addressing the need for nutrient dense foods, foods that kids especially need to grow and develop.”
To that end, Just Food has built a sizeable garden at their site. With donated supplies and seeds from Earl May Nursery, the garden produced 2 tons of food last year. The garden is another tool for empowerment and education, as clients learn how to produce their own nutritious food. With the produce from their garden, as well as donations from local farmers and people with backyard abundance, Just Food distributed 20 tons of fresh produce last year and is expecting to do twice that this year. Another major part of Just Food’s mission to empower clients is the Just Cook Adult Cooking classes. In 2012, they partnered with Ricky Martin, former executive chef of Free State Brewery, to develop a curriculum and teach their first cooking class. The feedback was very enthusiastic, and in January 2014, they started regular weekly class sessions.
Each Tuesday and Thursday, between fifteen and twenty people gather and make a recipe together under the guidance of a volunteer chef, whom Martin trains. The volunteers are local chefs or veteran cooks. The students, who range in age from elementary age kids to mature adults, learn basic cooking skills over five weeks’ time. They learn that cooking is an attainable skill, and that making healthy, nourishing recipes can be done for under $2 a serving.
Leah Charles, AmeriCorps volunteer at Just Food, says, “Learning a few skills translates into so many different recipes. The class gives people the confidence that they can create meals at home and shows them that cooking can be fun. It’s a joy that is accessible to them regardless of their situation.”
Even more compelling is the fact that out of the 150 graduates of the cooking class, 93% have indicated that taking the class has made them more self-sufficient. Also, 28% of the classes have said that they are relying on Just Food and other food pantries less.
And that is how Farmer would like to measure success: by measuring how many people they can help to achieve self- sufficiency.
“That’s a game changer. If we can save 20% of a person’s income by teaching them how to cook at home and how to grow their own food, then we’re not just putting a band-aid on their problems or throwing food at them. We’re getting to the point where we measure success by how many people don’t need us anymore. We want to extend a ladder to help people get out of poverty, rather than just being a safety net to fall into.