Nourishing Strong Communities: Thoughts on Food Policy from Karen Karp

Monday, May 3, 2010

On April 20th, Philanthropy New York held a members briefing—sponsored by the Jessie Smith Noyes Foundation, the Laurie M. Tisch Illumination Fund, and The Elmezzi Fund—which focused on FoodWorks New York and other ways that the public, private, and government sectors are working together to create innovative solutions to improve the food system. This program was the second in a series of Philanthropy New York briefings focusing on food policies and practices in New York City and the role nonprofits and funders can play in improving and supporting them. We are pleased to have one of the presenters, Karen Karp, President of Karp Resources, share her thoughts with Smart Assets.

As a non-funder, I was honored to attend the first two Philanthropy New YorkNourishing Strong Communities briefings. For those of us who have spent our entire working lives in the food sector, there has never been a more exciting time than right now. We are at a point in our cultural, social, and political history where every sector—business, government, and nonprofit—is forced to take a hard and urgent look at the policies, business practices, and social services that have caused us to be fed unsustainably, unhealthfully, and unjustly for nearly a century.

Of course, food is not a new funding track. Our contemporary food problem began as a hunger problem and all manner of emergency food programs have been funded for years, with a common goal of ending hunger. As we heard on April 20th, there were 36 soup kitchens and food pantries in New York City in the 1970s. This number soared to over 1,700 by the early 1990s and is now at about 1,300. This reduction since the 1990s reflects some consolidation and budget crises, but is not related to current need. 1.5 million New Yorkers currently live in poverty. 350,000 children and 150,000 seniors will access emergency food this year.

Somewhere along the line it became clear that food issues were not enough, because food per se is not the problem. About 25 years ago innovative organizations began looking at the “root causes” of hunger and found that there might be less hunger—less need for emergency food—if there was more affordable housing and/or there were good jobs. Good thinking.

Nonprofits rallied and expanded into job training and procurement of affordable housing. Along with realizing important goals along those lines, some modern approaches to emergency food were also devised, ranging from “client choice” pantries to “nonprofit restaurants” where food stamps were accepted.

But these innovations were not enough to stave off constant upticks in demand and need. The food problem, rather than abating from continuous and well-meaning investment, has in fact become much, much worse. We’ve become less food secure and significantly less healthy, and we’re finally asking questions about the whole system.

We want to know why it’s difficult—if not impossible—to buy local food when it’s in season; why we have additives and unhealthy fats and sugars in manufactured food; how it came to be that the quality of meals in places which are supposed to nurture and heal, such as schools and hospitals, are having the exact opposite effect; and why there are fewer and fewer outlets for purchasing healthy, fresh foods in the poorest neighborhoods of New York City, which, not coincidentally, are the same neighborhoods with the highest rates of diet-related disease and “hunger.”

These questions address issues that are the result of the myriad of food policy and food production practices over the last century, the same century that made the U.S. the most productive and profitable food economy in the world. It’s a bitter irony that the problems of poverty are also the problems of excess. But it is this same irony that has opened the way to ask new questions and to think differently about food. We now want to understand, really understand, how food is grown, processed, packed, shipped, merchandised, and prepared, and we want to have more of a say in making it better.

To create sustaining change in food we must look for innovation at the places of interconnection between the sectors that influence, monitor, and support our food supply. True food entrepreneurship in the 21st century will involve knowing how to engage business, activate government, and maximize the increasing professionalism of the nonprofit sector to change food for good.

For some, the toughest pill to swallow is the notion of engaging business. After all, it’s business that gave us trans fat and high fructose corn syrup, right? Partially right. The full answer lies in a combination of factors that includes agriculture policy, investment strategy, and “modern thinking” (a.k.a. our food culture) that is now incompatible with a healthy future (and a healthy economy).

In our office we have a wide range of clients from each of the sectors mentioned here, and we work on projects that touch each link in the food chain. We have a saying that helps us manage the complexities of each project and client: “Meet them where they are.”

No leader I’ve ever met, in any type of organization, has started his or her day with the goal of making things worse. Leaders want to improve, and often the goal or paradigm has been set before they spent their first day on the job. Leadership is about innovation, but often leaders need help—to see things in new ways, learn how to think differently, to take risks. Just like we all do.

The Nourishing Strong Communities briefings offer funders the opportunity to build alliances and seed collaborative innovation among all links in the chain, and between sectors—to meet the problem and the system where they are—to tackle the 21st century food challenge that is before us.

Karen Karp is the President of Karp Resources, a New York-based food and agriculture consulting company. Established in 1990, Karp Resources grows food businesses and healthy organizations through multi-sector strategies, programs, and business activities. Karp Resources is the technical support provider for the NYC Green Cart Initiative, funded by the Laurie M. Tisch Illumination Fund. NYC Green Carts is an example of how business, government, and nonprofits can come together to create sustaining value through good food.

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