Above: 29th Class Emerson National Hunger Fellow Jazmyne Brooks (right)
As a Bill Emerson National Hunger Fellow, during my field placement I worked alongside Second Harvest Food Bank of North Central Ohio (SHFBNCO) staff to create a community engagement plan and conduct background research to identify best practices as they engage in their process of developing a community hub.
SHFBNCO is a regional nonprofit committed to fighting hunger. For forty years it has connected Northeast Ohio community members to fresh, nutritious food through its work with local farmers and retailers, mobile pantries, and a network of over 100 partner charities and 150 programs. Each year SHFBNCO helps feed tens of thousands of people throughout Crawford, Erie, Huron, and Lorain counties. While food assistance is at the core of SHFBNCO’s mission, the organization also commits to addressing the root causes of hunger.
My project focused on the city of Sandusky, located within Erie County. Of the four-county region SHFBNCO serves, Sandusky is the city with the third-highest poverty rate at 21.3%. About 12% of Erie County residents and 18% of children live in food-insecure households, meaning they do not have access to sufficient quality, affordable, nutritious foods. The opportunity for a hub was born from community efforts to address the Kreimes Cardinal grocery store closure in December 2017, creating an even larger void for downtown Sandusky residents to access fresh, healthy foods. Recognizing the loss of the grocery store and its direct impact on food security in the region, conversations began taking place about placing a grocery store in this area but shifted to developing a community hub as an opportunity to help families achieve long-term stability. SHFBNCO has embarked on a process to determine how best to bring a community hub to the region.
Imagine if there was one central location you could go to access support, and you didn’t have to re-explain your circumstance at every turn. What if partner organizations had an integrated referral system that made it possible to connect guests with all of the services they need? What if there was a safe, welcoming, and trauma-informed space for you to receive help? A community hub, by its simplest definition, is a welcoming and inclusive place for people to find connections, pursue common interests, and access support when needed. The Sandusky Hub will be a social service-oriented hub designed to streamline service delivery to community members. The vision is that participating organizations will contribute to systems-wide and collective outcomes by working in strategic partnerships to achieve greater impact.
During my research I spoke to several hub models, but I highlighted three in my Hunger Free Community Report, “Cultivating Synergies for Systems Change: Examining Hub Models as a Pathway to Building Resilient Communities,” that emphasize collaborative community efforts. Too often community voices are included as an afterthought, and even then they are usually limited to a participatory or feedback role with no real decision-making power. Some of the most successful hubs from my research were those that integrated community voices with lived experience from the very beginning of their program or process.
One of my biggest takeaways from this experience was the importance of authentic community engagement and centering racial equity in program planning. The process you utilize is just as important as the product and will either undermine or advance equity.
While only halfway through the Emerson fellowship, I have gained a wealth of knowledge from this experience. Emerson program staff have provided so many professional development and experiential learning opportunities to complement our time in our placements. One of the elements that I appreciate is the myriad of spaces for self-reflection. It’s imperative to process these experiences, grow from them, and recognize our growth. The racial equity training has also been among the most impactful spaces during my time as a fellow. It has challenged and provided me with tangible tools to implement those learnings into my project and personal life.
The time I have spent within my placements has exposed me to the myriad of approaches within the anti-hunger, anti-poverty space, allowed me to work directly with the community, and provided me with opportunities to build and expand upon my skillsets. These experiences have helped me determine my talents, passions, and skills and develop a clear vision of how I want to continue contributing to the anti-hunger movement beyond the fellowship.
The unique challenges presented by the Emerson Program taught me that I am tenacious and resilient. It is challenging to move to two different states and adjust to two different workplaces within a year. That being said, I would not have been able to be successful in this process without the amazing support of the Emerson Program staff and my cohort. The cohort model is one of the strongest assets of this program. It offers a built-in support system of like-minded individuals who are learning and growing with you through this exciting process. I am so grateful for this opportunity and feel inspired and equipped to step into the next part of my journey.