In 2018, something truly significant happened in the City of Amesbury. A nonprofit called Our Neighbors’ Table declared that the city had achieved food security. This was no small announcement. It meant that every Amesbury resident could access the food they needed on any given day. By way of comparison, just three years prior, 1,200 Amesbury residents were food insecure.
Not only is no one in Amesbury going hungry today. No one has to worry about how they will find their next meal.
Making Amesbury food secure was an ambitious, years-long project. Our Neighbors’ Table deployed a bold and innovative approach that aligned the efforts of all the city’s community groups to meet the one big goal of food security. Now, fueled by United Way of Massachusetts Bay’s first-ever Venture Fund competition, held in collaboration with Aetna, they have the influx of cash needed to bring their idea to life in other cities. They are taking their solution to the communities of Newburyport, Salisbury, and Merrimac, using the same winning approach to transform the culture, and eliminate food scarcity, within their footprint.
Food security: social innovation needed
As Executive Director Lyndsey Haight explains, one thing is clear when addressing food insecurity: for many communities, traditional models– community meals, food pantries– don’t work.
“Before [we began our programming], we convened the four meal-based programs in the Newburyport area. We looked at their utilization data and discovered that only 30-40 percent of residents who could use the services were accessing them. The remaining were not getting the help they needed.”
To address this problem of access, Our Neighbors’ Table has allowed their model to evolve from providing a pantry, to something more akin to a grocery store, or what Haight describes as “a genuine shopping experience,” where people get food with no charge. They pair that with creative programs like home delivery and school-based farmers’ markets to meet the unique needs of the community.
The efforts have proved effective. Since introducing the farmers’ market and grocery store to the Newburyport area, Our Neighbors’ Table has documented a 70 percent increase in people accessing food.
Changing the way people get connected with food resources is a critical first step to removing the physical barriers people face to putting food on the table. Getting to the designation of “food secure” also requires transforming community culture. People must feel safe and welcome getting the help they need. The agency addresses stigma, and works to build awareness of the prevalence of food insecurity to help the entire community better understand both the problem and its solutions. According to Haight, the agency is “really driven by the guests’ experience. We’re committed to providing the most dignified experience possible. We respond to the needs of people seeking help. We’re really looking to meet people where they are, and eliminating the barriers between people and food.”
Haight acknowledges a common experience: “Every time I tell an audience how many people are food insecure, there are gasps. Some people wonder if I’m being truthful.”
Increasing awareness and reducing stigma requires an all-hands-on-deck approach. Haight describes a community engagement plan that includes the schools, the city, healthcare providers, youth services, and faith and civics-based groups. Haight explains: “We have four school districts. Mayors, managers, superintendents, law enforcement, hospitals, other social service agencies. The Greater Boston Food Bank. All of them come together on a regular basis to review the system and evaluate our progress.”
Bringing all of these groups together further helps to remove stigma. Haight recognizes the biggest hurdle is creating trust. It takes, she says, a lot of conversation and acknowledgement of community members’ blind spots, insecurities, and tendencies to stereotype.
“We’re all raised to do the right thing… to be honest, not to cheat, to be trustworthy. But for some reason, we’re also taught that other people are not going to do the right thing. Our biggest challenge is to break through that distrust. Well-intentioned people can still not trust someone who comes and asks for help.”
Moments where distrust arises are used by Our Neighbors’ Table as teaching moments, as the agency continues to work with a community.
Food security, scaled
“We’ve taken the 26 years of experience from Amesbury to replicate it in our other communities, in a much more expedited way,” Haight says. How expedited? Haight believes by 2029, all 12 communities, or the entire region Our Neighbors’ Table serves, can be declared food secure. The fuel provided by United Way’s Venture Fund, Haight says, has made a big difference.
“Being declared a finalist has focused the attention of United Way’s audience and validated our approach to fueling collaboration toward a common goal. United Way has tremendous amount of credibility based on its due diligence. Not only does it raise our confidence internally, it raises the confidence of our partners.”
Haight hopes the venture funding will be a trampoline that her agency can use to launch the next ten years. “Getting the funding was a pivotal moment for food security in our region.”