By: Brian Geraty, Executive Director, Vineyard Community Services & Jeff Mortensen, Chief Operating Officer, 360 Communities

Earlier this year, the Brookings Institute released data showing that between 2000 and 2011, the ranks of the poor in the Twin Cities suburbs grew by more than 115,000 — a 128% increase in that time. This report highlights the hard reality food shelves are facing: an escalated need for healthy food and financial assistance that is overwhelming the community safety-net.

Food banks have responded by budgeting to dispense more food and dollars, while funders influence this system by promoting increased food distribution with easier access. Hunger could theoretically be eliminated by distributing more and more food, but only temporarily. Unless there is a paradigm shift in how food banks and funders approach food insecurity and food injustice, we will be hard-pressed to reverse the trend of families relying on food shelves as part of their family’s financial budget.

The opportunity exists to work together differently, leveraging the expansive set of local access points and community competencies to promote long-term self-sufficiency. This includes access to a greater volume of nutritionally rich food products and targeted services among many community partners. We believe authentic collaborative efforts between resource providers, including the recipients of food, will correct the cycle that is creating food shelf dependency. We must continue to meet the immediate need for food AND move people toward longer-term self-sufficiency to reverse the current trend.

With that in mind, 360 Communities and Vineyard Community Services have signed a memorandum of collaboration that seeks to change the way we address hunger and access to healthy food in the South Metro by leveraging each organization’s core competencies and relationships with families. This collaboration will focus on making healthy foods more accessible to the food insecure, while effectively providing pathways that build stability and promoting self-sufficiency.

Food inequality remains a daunting factor costing government, healthcare and individuals billions of dollars each year as well as lives. According to the Center for American Progress, hunger costs the United States at least $167.5 billion every year in healthcare, government, education and more.

While the context of and circumstances surrounding food injustice and insecurity vary, a common denominator exists: inadequate access to sufficient quantities of healthy food. In addition to addressing under-nutrition, we seek to bridge the gap between food security and health sustainability.

In 2012, 360 Communities served more than 14,000 individuals with its network of five food shelves, two resource centers, two domestic violence shelters and three school success programs. With nine programs in 40 locations acting as access points for families in need, 360 Communities provides resources and referrals that stabilize families. Staff work directly in homes and schools addressing a whole host of needs to build parenting skills and develop learning plans for students. Domestic violence advocates work from shelters and throughout Dakota County to provide counseling and life skills coaching that help women and children start new lives. Staff leverage community funding and locations where families are naturally congregating to stabilize housing and address other financial concerns. A critical underpinning of all of this work is access to healthy food. When that basic need is met, a family can concentrate on increasing stability and working on the skills it takes to reach self-sufficiency.

Vineyard Community Services served 23,000 individuals with healthy food during that same period. The organization utilizes technological and process efficiencies to make nutritious food available to more people. We believe that by working together our two organizations can deliver greater resources to the community that are more accessible to meet immediate needs, build stability and promote longer-term self-sufficiency. And just as importantly, we believe these synergies can be achieved in a way that is more cost effective longer-term through collaboration.

We plan on doing the following:

  • Distribute healthy, nutritious food more efficiently. Integrate Vineyard Community Services’ food shelf operations to provide greater access to emergency hunger relief services for the Dakota County food insecure population.
  • Build stability and promote self-sufficiency more effectively.
  • Integrate and stream-line 360 Communities intake/assessment operations to provide greater access to self-sufficiency services for families seeking assistance.

Dakota County Director of Community Services Kelly Harder is encouraged by organizations that look beyond competition and work together to achieve common goals. “There’s more than enough work for all of us and there’s never going to be enough resources to resolve some of these issues,” says Harder, “So I really commend the partnership that is currently going on between 360 Communities and Vineyard Community Services…If we just provide food and don’t work for greater self-sufficiency then we just perpetuated the cycle of in the door out the door.”

With this collaboration, we seek to change the dialogue and action surrounding the issues of poverty, hunger and nutrition. We believe there are other organizations with core strengths and expertise we do not possess that would enhance our ability to reach and empower more people. We invite others to join us. If we work together in a new way, we can change lives in Minnesota, break the cycle of poverty and reach more people with healthy food.