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Connecticut Foodshare Institute for Hunger Research & Solutions Executive Director Katie Martin spoke with MetroHarford Alliance Content Manager Nan Price about the organization’s efforts to address food insecurity in our region.

NAN PRICE: Give us a little context about Connecticut Foodshare and the Institute for Hunger Research and Solutions.

KATIE MARTIN: Connecticut Foodshare is our statewide food bank. The Institute for Hunger Research is a department of the food bank.

For almost 40 years, Connecticut had two food banks, Foodshare and Connecticut Food Bank. In 2021, they merged into one statewide food bank. The impact that the merger can have is a more coordinated response to hunger and food insecurity. It enables these two organizations to speak with one voice and leverage a lot of resources to benefit agencies and serve communities throughout the state.

Connecticut Foodshare is one of about 200 food banks around the country that are part of the Feeding America network, which is the country’s largest anti-hunger organization. As a food bank, Connecticut Foodshare serves as a large warehouse where we collect millions of pounds of food, primarily from the food industry. Retail and manufacturers donate a lot of food to us, which we then distribute through our mobile program, meal programs, and smaller community organizations, predominantly food pantries.

Connecticut Foodshare also raises awareness about food insecurity in the state, we help individuals enroll in the SNAP program, and we help provide resources to partner programs.

Two and a half years ago, we created the Institute for Hunger Research and Solutions, which is unique within the charitable food system. The Institute serves as a resource for local food pantries, food banks, and other community partners. Our emphasis is on creating longer-term solutions to the problem of hunger and food insecurity.

NAN: Tell us about those solutions.

KATIE: Through the Institute, we promote a paradigm shift in how we think about and tackle the problem of hunger. We have two signature programs. One is called SWAP (Supporting Wellness At Pantries). It’s a stoplight nutrition ranking system through which we can rank food green, yellow, and red based on saturated fat, sodium, and added sugars. We partner with food pantries locally, including Hands On Hartford, and around the country to provide trainings on how to rank food with our SWAP system.

Our other signature program is called More Than Food. It’s based on our core belief that it takes more than food to end hunger. Even though food banks and food pantries around the country like Connecticut Foodshare have been collecting and distributing millions of pounds of food to hundreds of thousands of people for decades, we haven’t solved the problem.

At the core of More Than Food is connections to other existing community partners and community programs. That can include helping to refer a food pantry guest to enroll in the SNAP o WIC program or connecting someone to a coach who can work individually with someone to determine their goals and aspirations and help them to achieve them.

Also, with More Than Food, we promote more person-centered strategies to increase “client choice” where food pantry guests can choose their food. Designing a food pantry to feel more like a grocery store provides a more dignified experience for those who need food to get it. Also, it creates a welcoming and empowering culture, so it reduces the stigma of asking for help when you need help.

We work with a several local pantries to increase client choice, including the Joan C. Dauber Food Pantry at Saint Francis Hospital and the Cathedral of St. Joseph Food Pantry off of Asylum Avenue. We also work with other food pantries to help them learn “better practices.” We’re meeting them where they are and providing inspiration to try some new approaches—we provide practical resources, trainings, technical assistance, and sometimes small grant funding to help them implement these better practices.

We do a lot of train the trainer work and peer-to-peer learning. Often, people who run a food pantry have been doing this for years. They typically have a strong group of volunteers who help run their food pantry but they may have never seen another food pantry in action. We encourage them to visit a food pantry that’s doing similar work and talk with another food pantry that’s also making changes so they can share ideas. For example, when we introduce the concept of client choice, sometimes they’ve never thought about that approach before.

NAN: Tell us a little about your experience leading through the pandemic. Any major lessons learned?

KATIE: Many of our partner programs are run by volunteers. Early in the pandemic, a lot of those volunteers, who are often senior citizens or elderly, were unable to volunteer, so some of those agencies had to temporarily close.

To address that issue, Foodshare created a drive-through distribution in East Hartford at Rentschler Field. That’s one of the benefits of having the logistics as a food bank to be able to move and distribute big pallets of food. We recruited a lot of volunteers, including the MHA, which volunteered in October 2020. We provided that distribution for months—and it was critical. It helped us learn how to be resilient and adapt.

What we’re trying to do though now is to reintroduce the issue of client choice. We initially converted to a drive-through distribution because we needed to due to the pandemic. And many of our food pantries have converted to drive-through distributions, which are convenient and efficient.

How can we learn from that? How do we maintain that kind of convenience for the guest, but also incorporate more choice? We’ve been encouraging people to do some online or over the phone ordering systems so they can make some selections for client choice.

The other things we’ve learned from the pandemic is, in the city of Hartford, even before the pandemic, there were high rates of food insecurity, and there are a lot of food pantries and meal programs.

On the surface, it looks like there are resources to respond to that need. When the pandemic hit, we realized there were more people who were food insecure and wondered where they were going to go. Many programs are only open once a month or one day a week. And, if you’re in need of food, they’re not necessarily responding to that need.

We’ve started working with food pantries to identify their hours of operation and figure out how they can be better organized. Some are independent 501(c)(3)s that started up because volunteers or church members decided they wanted to do something for their community, but the efforts often aren’t coordinated. So, that’s some of the hard work that we’re doing—and good, important work, specifically in Hartford.

NAN: You also wrote a book during the pandemic.

KATIE: Yes! Based on my experience from many years working with food pantries and with Connecticut Foodshare in Hartford, in March 2021, my book called Reinventing Food Banks and Pantries: New Tools to End Hunger was published. The goal is to change the way we think about and address the problem of food insecurity. The book includes a lot of inspiration and there are action steps people can take today in their communities. It’s a great, easy read.

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Anthem Foundation provided funding to the Institute for Hunger Research & Solutions to help support their work with the SWAP stoplight system in pantries throughout Connecticut. Left to right: Connecticut Foodshare Institute for Hunger Research & Solutions Executive Director Katie Martin, Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield President Lou Gianquinto, Hands On Hartford Executive Director Barbara Shaw, and Connecticut Foodshare President & CEO Jason Jakubowski.