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Going Far Together: Lessons From Convening the New York City Food Assistance Collaborative

April 04, 2018

Food insecurity_nycEach year, nearly 1.4 million New Yorkers rely on emergency food assistance. The delivery of that assistance requires a complex network of food suppliers who distribute food to a thousand neighborhood pantries and soup kitchens.

Until recently, however, there was little coordination between those suppliers. Indeed, no one really knew what food was going where, much less whether it was reaching neighborhoods where it was needed. Even had suppliers wanted to, coordination would have been nearly impossible: each supplier tracked food in different ways, and some pantries had only pen and paper sign-in sheets to record how many people they were serving.

Over the years, the key players involved in emergency food assistance in New York would gather to discuss potential projects and information they wished they could share more easily. Good intentions notwithstanding, they simply did not have the resources or incentive to follow through on this work.

In short, it was clear to all that for collaboration to happen, strategic investment was needed.

When trying to solve a complex issue, it can be tempting to identify and tackle one part of the problem — funding a simple increase in emergency food supplies, for example – without getting to the root of the problem. That's something my colleagues and I at the Helmsley Charitable Trust wanted to avoid. So in January 2015, working with the New York City Mayor's Office of Food Policy, we convened the key players in emergency food assistance in the city and invited them to create a unified strategic plan that didn't just fund their work but also aligned everyone's incentives to change and improve the system. In the years since, the New York City Food Assistance Collaborative has made a number of investments to build the capacity needed to distribute millions of pounds of food to neighborhoods where it is needed most.

None of this could have been accomplished without the eager participation of all those involved: City Harvest, United Way of New York CityNew York City Human Resources Administration, and the New York State Department of Health-Hunger Prevention and Nutrition Assistance Program (HPNAP).

Of course, success wasn't guaranteed, and we learned some valuable lessons along the way. It wasn't enough to simply gather everyone in the same room and offer to provide the funds needed to get the process started. Instead, the following elements were critical:

1. Conditional payments. Helmsley had to establish the framework for success. We offered the funds to get the process started — and the promise of subsequent funding was conditioned on achieving future goals and milestones agreed on at the outset by members of the group.

2. An honest broker at the head of the table. In this case, the honest broker was Mayor Bill de Blasio's director of food policy, Barbara Turk. Turk had no loyalties other than to the people of New York City, and she was perfectly positioned to facilitate the group's efforts and keep the work focused on helping New Yorkers in need.

3. Consensus on a set of measurable goals. Initially, the group talked about the results of their work in terms of meals, dollars, nutritional and meal factors, and so on. Eventually, it agreed on a single shared metric that translated well across all suppliers — pounds of food. And it similarly coalesced around a shared goal — making sure that food-insecure New Yorkers have equitable access to emergency food no matter where they live. Every time the group meets, it receives reports that break down the deliveries over the past month in terms of this metric — and on the progress made toward the shared goal.

4. Resources to carry out plans. Helmsley realized significant resources were needed and provided $15 million in grants over four years in support of pantry expansions, staff salaries, and costs associated with a dedicated support team. This substantial outlay drove the necessary commitment from participating organizations' staff to engage in the difficult work of collaborative decision-making.

5. Reliable structure to support implementation decisions. The collaborative set up working groups on different topics staffed with relevant experts from each organization and assembled CEO-level representatives and private funders to oversee the work. Working groups meet every six weeks and are provided with opportunities to review data, make decisions, and get out into the field to visit neighborhoods and local pantries. In addition, the group developed standard decision-making processes around its core operations, including goal setting, data sharing, and grantmaking.

By setting the stage for stakeholders to come together and decide collectively on actions to be taken, and by providing conditional capital and critical support every step of the way, Helmsley made it possible for the major charitable food players in the city to change their emergency food delivery system. Working together, these stakeholders have:

  • built a revamped central database, FeedNYC.org, that has complete data on all the food moving through the system, as well as the capacity of the agencies responsible for distributing it;
  • used new data to identify eighteen severely underserved neighborhoods where hyper-targeted investments could make the biggest difference;
  • added the capacity to distribute fifteen million additional pounds of food annually to these underserved neighborhoods by expanding existing pantries or starting new ones where none existed; and
  • developed Plentiful, the first-ever OpenTable-style app for pantry clients, enabling users to schedule appointments so as to avoid having to wait in line. Best of all, the app is available in nine languages.

The collaborative's biggest success, however, may be the fact that collaborative members have taken on new challenges beyond the scope of the original action plan and have chosen to keep working together, extending their efforts to build pantry capacity to an additional set of underserved neighborhoods, pioneering new models for large-scale just-in-time delivery, working with a set of strategically important providers on how to survive as independent nonprofits, and looking at opportunities to scale the Plentiful app to other cities.

Ultimately, Helmsley's greatest contribution was to forge a process that helped strengthen ties and relationships among all stakeholders. Whether elbow-to-elbow around conference tables or piling into vans for pantry site visits, these relationships have inspired an ongoing exchange of ideas and mutual goals that are paving a path to future collaboration — collaboration that will continue long after we have expended our last grant dollar in support of these efforts.


(Photo credit: John Moore/Getty)

Tracy Perrizo is program officer for the Helmsley Charitable Trust's New York City program.

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