Solidarity, Not Charity: An Approach to Dealing with Food Insecurity
9/20/18 / Molly Hagan
In our work, we often encounter non-profits and other human services organizations that are utilizing creative and innovative solutions to problems that affect the community. As noted in previous blogs, human services needs are often interconnected and as such, organizations are increasingly having to expand their scope of work to better serve their communities. A quick review of the Colorado Department of Human Services’ webpage highlights how opioid treatment, SNAP enrollment, childhood wellness, and homelessness weave together to create the complex social challenges of our modern era. Rarely does an individual experience a singular human services need. One organization, Metro Caring, has fearlessly approached the issue of food insecurity in the Denver area, while also activating their community to address other needs of their participants.
We’ve all heard the tropes and clichés about “American” food portions. In 2018, we are eating more and more, yet as much as 40% of food produced goes to waste. Compared to dinner plates in 1960, today’s dinner plates have increased 36%. Given these known facts, why are more and more people struggling with hunger? In Colorado alone, 1 in 10 Coloradans struggle with hunger–meaning they do not always have enough money to buy food. A local Denver non-profit, Metro Caring, has vowed to help local residents tackle the issue of food insecurity.
Unlike many food service programs, Metro Caring focuses on providing its participants with healthy, nutritious, and fresh food and produce. Historically, emergency food programs have distributed non-perishable food items and participants have not had much, or any, choice in what food they receive. This exacerbates the food waste problem and does not enable people living with food insecurity to have access to healthy food. According to Sisi Dong Brinn, Chief Impact Officer at Metro Caring, access to healthy food options is a human right.
Participants schedule an appointment time at Metro Caring and are able to shop the shelves and refrigerators, selecting their own food items with dignity. The non-profit has also successfully partnered with local grocery stores like Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods to ensure all participants who walk through the doors of Metro Caring can feed themselves and their families with nutritious items.
Metro Caring serves a diverse audience, including immigrants and refugees from as far away as China or the Middle East. As their participant base diversifies, the organization has instituted several programs to ensure the cultural diversity of our Denver community is embraced and shared. Above the grocery market, Metro Caring has a fully operational kitchen. On different days and times, the kitchen is utilized for cooking classes, with participants and volunteers leading cooking classes that highlight different cultural foods. The non-profit has also been able to form partnerships with corporations and local restaurants to create community gardens that supply Metro Caring with specialized produce items such as bok choy, eggplant, and chilis. Highlighting cultural differences in a positive way builds empathy and encourages community-driven connections.
Sisi Dong Brinn used the phrase “solidarity, not charity” to describe the work done at Metro Caring. Many people do not understand that empowering people to exert their own agency over food production and consumption has a more lasting impact than simply providing food. In line with the solidarity, not charity sentiment, Metro Caring offers a plethora of other human services to participants. In addition to the food services, the non-profit offers courses on financial literacy, citizenship test resources, a diabetes self-management program, and document services such as identification cards and birth certificates. Metro Caring frequently reaches out to its participants to evaluate and conduct research on which services and programs they would like to see added, augmented, or removed. Through focus groups, formal evaluation, and participant conversations, Metro Caring is consistently looking for ways to better their current and future participants. At times, Metro Caring has taken on an advocacy role. After RTD closed a nearby bus stop, Metro Caring and its participants worked together to petition for the stop to be reopened, ensuring Metro Caring participants have easy access to the organization and public transportation.
One organization cannot solve all the problems facing the Denver metro area. However, the scope of the programs and services offered at Metro Caring highlights how hunger and food insecurity are often interconnected with other systemic issues like affordable housing, employment, poverty, and mental health and well-being. Providing human services through the lens of “solidarity, not charity” ensures greater impact and enables participants to realize their own agency.