Pressing Toward Collaboration

By Kelsey Scherer

A couple months ago, I was driving through Austin on the way to a conference for work. I glanced at an overpass to see these words scrawled across the concrete wall:

“Collaboration is currency”

The phrase stunned me with its elegant simplicity.

Encouraging community collaboration, dialogue, and connection is a huge part of what I do as a Child Hunger Outreach Specialist at Texas Hunger Initiative’s Waco office. Still, I regularly struggle to clearly outline the role and value of collaboration in the work I do. I came into this position with well-intentioned ideas about the importance of collaboration, and yet have struggled to pursue earnest, engaged collaboration as much as I had hoped.

As I strain toward being a part of the renewal of this beautiful city with all of its untapped potential, perhaps it’s easier to begin with an honest reminder of what is not currency.

My privilege is not currency. My whiteness is not currency. My femininity is not currency. These are things which I admit, however uncomfortably, that I have used to my advantage for social or professional gain at various points in my journey. But collaboration – collaboration is a different story, and an entirely different currency, because it doesn’t belong to me. I can’t own it, steal it, or borrow it. Collaboration is currency which may be freely used, exchanged, and debated by all – which the reduced and exclusive currencies of culturally normative gender, race, wealth, or health status cannot. Regardless of my background and experience, genuine collaboration insists that my voice is not the one that matters, and that collectively we can achieve, learn, grow, and heal more together than we can apart.

While collaboration may seem like a sexy term – and we may be tempted to extol its virtues and slip it into conversation to further our agendas – collaboration lived out is anything but sexy. It’s messy, confusing, and hard to define. As soon as we find ourselves patting each other on the back for “collaboration well done,” we find another voice that has been excluded, another empty chair that should have been filled and pulled up to the table. Collaboration forces me to come to terms with what I lack. It reminds me that I do not know my neighbor, and if I don’t know my neighbor, I cannot possibly love my neighbor well.

grand canyonUsing collaboration as currency starts to chip away at the uneven playing field to which we arrive each day – a field which benefits me unfairly, to the detriment of others. Collaboration, however amorphous and hard to define, holds great promise for restoring dignity and humanity to people whose unique voices have been silenced for too long. Collaboration rightly understood is the only way out of the predicament in which we find ourselves. Trapped by isms, by poverty, by hunger, by finger-pointing and poor-blaming, collaboration is like a first awe-inspiring glance into the Grand Canyon. We may be impressed by its beauty and potential, but none of us are so foolish as to think it can be conquered or wrested away for our own purposes.

kelseyKelsey Scherer joins the Act Locally Waco team to blog about Food Security and related issues. She is a Child Hunger Outreach Specialist at Texas Hunger Initiative’s Waco Regional Office. Kelsey is also a team member for the CHAMPS grant.  The CHAMPS project aims to equip city leaders, anti-hunger groups, and the broader community to more effectively combat child hunger with the help of summer and afterschool meal programs.



What is hunger? How do we understand it?

By Kelsey Scherer

Hunger feels like a strange topic this time of year, doesn’t it? At a time of year when for many of us food is available in abundant – if not excessive – quantities, we can easily lose sight of the fact that this is not the case for all families in our community. Let’s take a moment to remember that today.

What do we even mean when we use the word “hunger?” Bread for the World, a leading international anti-hunger organization, astutely defines it this way: “hunger is a physical manifestation of poverty.” They are not talking about the occasional stomach grumble or the physiological symptom of skipping lunch because we’re too busy. They are talking about the kind of hunger that is the result of on-going need. For this kind of hunger, I prefer the more descriptive term “food insecurity.” Chronic food insecurity – which is defined as uncertain or unstable access to enough healthy food for three meals per day, seven days per week – is a nuanced and complicated issue, and it affects 14.5% of American households. That’s nearly 49 million Americans.

But what does food insecurity look like? How can we identify the people who are experiencing it? Food insecurity takes many forms, and affects different individuals and families in different and far-reaching ways. A participant in a recent focus group at Caritas, a food pantry providing critical assistance to Waco-area families, explained, “Hunger doesn’t really have a face. You can’t tell if someone is hungry by just looking at them.”

I6- Caritas pic couldn’t agree more. There is not a sound or appropriate way to physically assess whether a child or adult is experiencing food insecurity, and there is danger in thinking we can make an assessment of such a complicated issue with one sweeping glance. If we assume that hunger is only experienced by the homeless man we sometimes see downtown, we will fail to understand that it can also impact the single parent in the suburbs who struggles to pay her mortgage and to put a healthy dinner on the table every night, or the two parents who work a combined four jobs but just can’t make ends meet. Even within the small city of Waco, hunger can look different from block to block. To more fully understand how food insecurity is impacting our neighbors we must move beyond assumptions and stereotypes.

We don’t necessarily know who is hungry, why they are facing food insecurity, or even the best ways to help. With that in mind, it is critically important that we approach our neighbors with a posture of humility and grace when we seek to problem-solve. When poverty-fighters approach people facing food insecurity as teachers from whom we have much to learn and who are experts on their own problems – rather than as students who need teaching or reprimanding –  we make progress. In so doing, we significantly increase the chances of ending poverty in life-giving, dignifying, collaborative, effective ways.

What so many of us who do community work (myself included) often miss as we seek to attack the complex problems associated with poverty are the real perspectives, dreams, and goals of the real people who experience poverty. Even with the best intentions, if our solutions to poverty aren’t informed, driven, led, and evaluated by the people experiencing it, those “solutions” are doomed to fail. The same is true of programs designed to end hunger and to empower families to have secure access to healthy food.

So, as each of us enjoy this holiday season, may we be inspired to volunteer at local food pantries, to participate in food drives, and to give back to our community in other meaningful ways. But, let’s also seek to get to know our neighbors on their own terms. May we approach our neighbors who are experiencing poverty and food insecurity in a spirit of warm curiosity and teachability, believing that they hold the key wisdom and insight that is needed to solve these problems.

This week’s Act Locally Waco blog post is by Kelsey Scherer, a Child Hunger Outreach Specialist at the Texas Hunger Initiative. Are you interested in writing a post for the Act Locally Waco blog? If so, please email [email protected]




I may be naive, but not about what you may think…

By Ashley Bean Thornton

I was having a perfectly good visit with a friend at work. We were sharing dog pictures and yakking and laughing when a passerby derailed our pleasant conversation. He didn’t even stop to chat. He just lobbed in a comment about the column on SNAP benefits I had in the Trib a few weeks ago and then continued innocently on his way.

At the mention of the column, my friend rolled her eyes and said something to the effect of, “I saw your article. You’d have a different attitude about food stamps if you had worked in the place where they hand them out to people.” As it turns out, that had been one of her jobs in her pre-Baylor life and, to put it mildly, the experience had left her skeptical about the whole food stamp system. To put it less mildly — she seemed angry. I could hear the frustration rising in her voice as she described, for example, parents who seemed to have enough money to pay for the cigarettes they were smoking but not enough money to pay for food for their children. She may have been a little surprised when, instead of arguing with her, I asked her to tell me more about her experiences working in the Food Stamp program.

Here’s the thing: I don’t totally disagree with my friend.

It makes me angry and frustrated to hear about people who “waste” their money on cigarettes (or whatever) while taking my money via taxes to pay for food. Just like everybody else in the world, I want to spend as much of my own money as possible on me, or – in an attempt to sound slightly more generous – on my friends and family and interests I care about.

So why do I support a system of government programs that makes me angry and takes money out of my pocket? Well, it’s not because I naively believe there are no problems with it. I know there are people whose children go hungry because their parents trade their food stamps for all kinds of things – from rent to drugs. I know there are people who quit their jobs when their earned income tax check comes and blow the whole thing on X-boxes and tattoos. I know there are “students” who apply for low-interest, subsidized, student loans and then drop out as soon as the check comes with no thought of ever paying it back. I am not blind to any of this, and even though thanks to Bridges out of Poverty training and other interventions I can understand it a little better, I still don’t like it. Like my friend, it frustrates me to the point of anger.

So why then? To tell you the truth, I wonder that myself sometimes. I guess it comes down to a few basic things.

First of all, I think we need something. I am not willing to go 100% “survival of the fittest” in regard to social policy. I can imagine myself falling on hard times or people I love falling on hard times, and I want a safety net to be there. Also, though I know there are problems, I do think we tend to exaggerate them for dramatic effect. It’s just human nature to dwell on and magnify the things that upset us and forget all the times the system works well. Food Stamp fraud, for example, is estimated to amount to about 1 cent on the dollar, not perfect of course, but not all that terrible for a system that serves as many people as ours. I believe it is doing more good than harm.

More foundationally, I subscribe to the philosophy that we are “all better off when we are all better off.” If I sell cars, I am better off if more people can afford to buy them. If I have kids, they are better off if the other kids in their school are not dealing with so many problems that they can’t pay attention in class. My town has better streets if more people have decent jobs and are a paying into the tax coffers. My hospital has more resources to take care of me if fewer people are using the resource-hogging emergency room as their primary source of care. I guess it doesn’t seem to me “the market” has a very good track record of maximizing this general prosperity all on its own. If we want more people to climb the ladder of success, I think we have to give the “invisible hand” a little hand every now and then – enter government programs.

Does that mean I think the current system of food stamps and other government programs is perfect? Absolutely not. Does that mean I think we should just throw money at it with no thought to accountability? Absolutely not. Does that mean I think it’s okay for parents to trade the food stamps that are meant to help feed their children for cigarette money? Absolutely not. Does that mean I’m enthusiastic about donating a chunk of my hard-earned paycheck every month to subsidize people who “don’t want to work.” Absolutely not. In fact, it irks me when I feel like I’m being pressured into some kind of blanket defense of the whole system just because I don’t happen to think we ought to defund it to the point that it has no hope of serving its purpose. And, it irks me the other way when anytime I criticize the system people accuse me of being unjust to poor people. That kind of all or nothing thinking seems counterproductive to me.

There is no doubt some people are bad and take advantage of the system. (I’ll just mention that  happens at the top of the economic pyramid as well as at the bottom.) It may even be the whole thing has some fundamental flaws that need to be addressed. I’m not saying it’s perfect. I am saying I think we need something, and I am saying I don’t think it’s a good idea to deep six what we have without something that looks better on the horizon.

If I am naïve it is not in blindly believing that SNAP or any of our government programs are perfect. It may be in stubbornly believing – despite lots of evidence – that if we set our minds to it, we have the capacity to construct a program of social “scaffolding” that will make it more likely that more of us can achieve financial security and success — and that if we do — we will all be better off for it. I’m okay with being naive about that.

High Hopes from a Boring Sentence

On Sunday October 20, on Section B page 1 of the Waco Trib, a few paragraphs deep into a story with the headline, “Poverty Initiative Moving Forward is an innocuous little sentence that made my heart go pitter-pat. Here it is: “The city of Waco recently hired the W.J. Upjohn Institute to come up with a plan to address income and employment in Waco.” Bland as it may seem to you, I hope to be looking back on that statement in a few years cherishing it fondly as a significant milestone in our efforts to reduce the rate of poverty in Waco.

Here is why that boring little sentence sets my heart a-flutter:

Reason #1: It’s a sign we are taking a systemic look at our poverty situation. – We have a high percentage of people in Waco (around 30%) who live in households with very little income – too little to support the basic needs of the household. This has a negative effect on our ability to achieve our potential as a community. While I believe that there may be a huge element of personal behavior involved in why any particular person ends up in that situation, I also believe that when such a high percentage of residents are in that situation it’s time to look at the environment. In other words, when 5% of the fish are dying, you can make the argument that there is something wrong with the fish; when 30% of the fish are dying, it’s time to take a look at the lake. My high hope for this plan we have commissioned from the Upjohn Institute is that it is a sign that we are getting serious about looking at the lake.

Reason #2: It’s a sign that we are committed to using facts to inform our strategy. – One of my favorite concepts from the 2012 Poverty Solutions Steering Committee report is, “Our work together needs to be based on facts rather than speculation.” I understand that facts are not a magic wand and that we must not fall into the trap of “analysis paralysis, ” but I do believe in the power of information. Facts, skillfully collected and wisely considered, will help us make better decisions. According to their project proposal Upjohn intends to gather information about, among other things:

  • Current economic and workforce trends in the city and surrounding areas and their potential impact on Waco,
  • Characteristics of unemployment, underemployment, and nonparticipation in the workforce,
  • The demand by industry for occupations by skill level,
  • Existing training opportunities for the city’s high-demand occupations,
  • the negative economic impact of poverty.

It is not a trivial exercise to collect this information, and I doubt we could do it very expeditiously without bringing in some hired help. I’m excited that this project will afford us the opportunity to, in a relatively short time, build a solid base of information to inform our strategy for moving forward.

Reason #3: I’m glad we are bringing in some outside perspective. – I have a deep respect for the brainpower that the people of Waco, especially our city leadership, have put toward the issue of reducing our rate of poverty, and one thing I particularly respect is that they have recognized the benefit of bringing in some ideas from the wider world. I didn’t know anything about the Upjohn Institute before reading their project proposal, but after reading the proposal and checking out their website, they look like rock stars to me. They have been studying employment and unemployment since 1945. The list of current and recent research projects on their website is long and wide-ranging, and the cities with whom they have worked stretch from coast to coast. I am looking forward to hearing how these years of practice and the expertise born from this experience can benefit us!

So, Welcome to Waco, Upjohn Institute! You can count me as one of your groupies! I’m excited to see you coming. I hope we pick every bit of useful information out of your big brains and put it to good use!

upjohn picIf you would like to learn more about this project, make plans to attend the Greater Waco Education Summit. George A. Erickcek, Senior Regional Analyst for the Upjohn Institute will be the keynote speaker at the dinner on Wednesday night, November 13. Hope to see you there!

A long way to go…but we may be making progress

by Ashley Bean Thornton

A few weeks ago Jimmy Dorrell graciously invited me to give a short, 5-minute, talk as a part of the annual Walk for the Homeless in downtown Waco. What looked to me like a few hundred people came out that beautiful Sunday morning to learn and to show their compassion and support for our homeless neighbors. My part was tiny – to give a little information about the “big picture” regarding poverty in Waco. I didn’t write down my talk word for word, but the following is basically the message I tried to get across. I hope to use this blog in the next few weeks to explore the ideas presented below in more detail…won’t you join the conversation?

Waco is a community with tremendous assets: our location on I-35 half way between Dallas and Austin, the river, Cameron Park, numerous higher education opportunities…the list of good things about Waco goes on and on. We are already a really good place to live, and we have the potential to be one of the best places to live in Texas if not the country.

If we are going to capitalize on that potential, however, we must build a wider base of financial stability among our residents. More of us need to be making enough money to support ourselves and our families and to have a little extra to make investments in our community. Financial stability among our individual residents and families is what leads to building up our tax base and our overall spending, which in turn builds up the livability of our community, and will put us on an upward spiral toward becoming an ever better place to live for every person of every level of income.

With that end in mind, the message today is … yes, we have a long way to go, but it looks like we are making progress. The new American Community Survey results regarding poverty in 2012 were released by the U.S. Census Bureau in mid-September. I don’t want to make too big of a deal about these figures because they are based on only a one-year sample of survey respondents instead of the 5-year samples Act Locally Waco usually uses when reporting poverty rates, but bearing that caveat in mind, I see some reason to feel encouraged.

Waco’s poverty rate for 2012 was estimated at 27%. Yes, this is still much higher than the Texas rate of 18% and the U.S.A. rate of 16%. On the positive side, however, this same survey in 2011 estimated our rate of poverty at 32%. In comparison, a rate of 27% is headed in the right direction. Another positive indicator is that the gap between Waco and Texas may be narrowing. In 2011 Waco’s poverty was estimated at 32% while the estimate for the state was around 18%, putting our poverty rate at 14 percentage points higher than the state. In 2012 the gap was only 9 or 10 percentage points depending on how you round it. (Our gap with the U.S. was 17 or 18 points in 2011 and is estimated at 11 or 12 for 2012.)

If this improvement becomes a trend in the course of the next few years, that will be great news for Waco: what do we need to do to keep the wheel turning the right way?

The following are three broad goals that may help to frame that conversation:

Make Waco a city of opportunity! – Attract, entice, lure, nurture, incubate, develop…whatever the right verb is…businesses and other enterprises that generate good paying jobs.

Make sure the pathways to opportunity are clear and well-marked, particularly for those of us who are living in low-income situations right now. – This has to do with education in the broadest sense from birth through adulthood. It also includes the often overlooked component of educating schools, employers and other institutions about how best to work with residents who are coming to them from low-income or extremely low-income situations.

Provide effective support to help more of us keep our footing on the path. – The path from poverty to financial stability can be a treacherous, discouraging obstacle course for some. Well aligned, supportive, health services, social services and ministries help people to stay on the path making progress.

These are admittedly broad goals, but perhaps they can help give a little shape to our work together. In the next few weeks I hope to use this blog to explore various elements of each of them and to think a little bit about how each of us might play a part in accomplishing them. What ideas do you have? I’d love to hear from you and even publish some of your ideas in this blog.

Meanwhile, this is an exciting time in Waco. If you haven’t found your niche yet as far as how to get involved, this is a great time to do it. Check out the rest of the Act Locally Waco website – you’ll find lots of ideas about how you can be a part of making Waco a great place to live for every person of every level of income.

Three Healthy Meals, Seven Days a Week

By Matt Hess, Executive Director of World Hunger Relief, Inc. This post is reprinted from the Farm Notes newsletter, September 2013.

“But those who plan what is good find love and faithfulness.” (Proverbs 14:22)

With a vision of three healthy meals seven days a week, for all people in McLennan County, the Food Planning Task Force was born. I was asked to be a co-organizer for a group of individuals representing many organizations. We set out to assess our local food system and to draft suggestions for our community in the form of a strategic plan. This spring we wrapped up the process by publishing a 60-page report outlining where our community is in regards to hunger as well as our vision for the future.

Although some of what we learned is surprising, much was confirmation that Waco faces many of the same struggles that the rest of our country and even the world face on a daily basis. Even though food has become cheaper, many do not have the resources to get enough food and many are only able to access inexpensive, unhealthy foods. So in Waco and increasingly around the world those that struggle with hunger also suffer from diet-related conditions like obesity and diabetes.

food planningThe good news is that even as we were drafting the plan, some of the goals identified were being accomplished. Waco now has a thriving Downtown Farmers Market, our food pantries are working together to collect and share data, and we are closing the gap in the percentage of people who are eligible for food stamps and the number of people that actually receive them.

But we still have a long way to go, and it is imperative that we continue to work together to address the areas where need is greatest and where we can make the most impact. The main source of nutrition for people at risk of food insecurity is food they purchase themselves. The second is SNAP (formerly known as Food Stamps). But as we listened, we heard many people report that they regularly face a decision between spending money for gas to drive across town to a grocery store or purchasing less healthy and more expensive foods at convenience stores.

Understanding this challenge presents opportunities to act. We have also learned of some creative solutions from around the country and World Hunger Relief, Inc. will be collaborating on evaluating which ideas may work here.

We also became even more aware that across all demographics food culture has been lost. People do not know how to cook the healthy foods their grandparents grew up eating. Despite these findings, our experience with school gardening has proven to us that given the opportunity, kids and adults learn to cook and enjoy healthy foods when they are invited into the kitchen. Incorporating the sharing and rebuilding of these skills and passions has been a growing part of our gardening program, and we are encouraging other organizations to make food preparation skills a priority as well.

School meals remain a significant area of opportunity as well. The school meals programs provided by the USDA have the ability to provide breakfast, afterschool meals, and summer meals, in addition to 20,000 lunches during the school year. Unfortunately, these programs are not reaching all of the kids in need, and students report that the meals can be lacking in quality. Improvements are being made locally to some schools with the addition of salad bars, the practice of growing vegetables on campus, farm-to-school programs, and by introducing fruits and vegetables as snacks. We are grateful for those in our districts trying to provide maximum nutrition in a program that needs improvements at the federal level. Education and advocacy efforts in which we are engaged with the Texas Hunger Initiative are beginning to see fruit in expanding the number of meals available, and we are hopeful that some of the improvements in quality will spread to more schools.

I am encouraged by the dedication of the hundreds of people who spend time assessing and planning. It is exciting to hear of the success of others in our community who are working on other areas of the plan as well. There is much that needs to be done for seniors and disabled people in our community. Pantries are working to provide more holistic care, there are efforts to rescue food that would otherwise end up in landfills, and the McLennan County Hunger Coalition is working hard to facilitate the sharing of knowledge and ideas. While we are not directly involved in all of these efforts, we are grateful that others in our community are filling these needs.

Through this planning process, I gained friends and co-laborers. I have confidence that these people, filled with love, grace, and knowledge, will lead Waco on a path that more fully embodies our call to feed the hungry. To find out more about this effort, visit the Food Planning Taskforce website. I plan to speak about it on Farm Day on October 26, and at churches for National Hunger and Homelessness Week November 18th to the 23rd. Follow our progress by reading the WHRI blog as well

This week’s Act Locally Waco blog post is by Matt Hess, Executive Director of World Hunger Relief, Inc. Would you like to write for the blog? If so, please email [email protected]. We would love to hear your thoughts on making Waco a great place to live for every person of every level of income.


Hunger Action Month: Thoughts about SNAP

By Ashley Bean Thornton

When I was a child, my parents worked and made money. They went to a store and spent some of the money on food. They brought that food home and made meals for me or sometimes we went out to eat. Now that I am an adult, I work and make money. Then I go to the store and use some of that money to buy what I want to eat, or (more often than my parents did) I go out to eat. I have to say, I love this system! It has worked well for me my whole life so far, and Lord willing, it will continue to work for me for the rest of my life. In fact, it works pretty well for most of us most of the time. I agree with the people who say, “The best nutrition program is a good job!” No kidding! Who doesn’t agree with that?

Like most things though, it doesn’t work for all of us all of the time, and therein lies the rub.  What do we do when people (for whatever reasons good or bad) don’t have a good job that allows them to make enough money to buy food? Or even more confounding, what do we do when people are working, but still not making enough to feed their families?

Do we say “Tough luck. So sorry. No money, no food. Them’s the breaks!” A few of us might feel that way, but I think it’s very few. Most of us realize that nothing really good happens when people – especially children — go without food. There are countries with a higher percentage of people begging in the streets than we have, but I don’t think we want to model ourselves after them.

What about food pantries, food banks and food rescue? I love the idea of “people helping people” – of families and friends and faith-based groups and other organizations coming together to feed each other through grassroots efforts. If my house burns down or I lose my job and I need enough food to tide me over for a few weeks — then God bless the local food pantry! Food pantries are perfect for emergency, short-term situations.

But what if I am disabled (mentally or physically) and I can’t work ever and I need help with food for years?  What if I am a 70-year old woman on a (very!) fixed income and I unexpectedly end up with custody of my three young grandchildren for the foreseeable future? What if I lose my job, and it ends up taking me months instead of weeks to find a new one? What if I am a divorced mom with a high school education, young kids, and a part-time low-paying job with no benefits? These are the realities for many, many people in Waco, and they are too much for our system of food pantries to handle on their own. That’s why government programs such as SNAP (formerly known as food stamps)  and the National School Lunch Program are vital to our food safety net.

First, food pantries and food banks do not have the capacity to meet all the need. According to Bread for the World, food pantries and food banks provide about 6% of the food assistance provided by our nation’s nutrition programs. In other words, if Waco follows that trend, for our local food pantries to meet the whole need, we would need 16 Caritas’s, 16 Shepherd’s Hearts, and 16 of all the other food pantries on the list…do we really see ourselves funding all of that through private donations? That’s a lot of golf tournaments and soup suppers! Right now, we’re not even doing a terrific job of keeping the shelves stocked at the one Caritas we already have.

Second, much as I love the spirit of a food pantry, they are really a terrible way to get your food when you think about it. If, like me, you have never had to make use of food pantries as a source of food you may not realize that, with the exception of Caritas, most food pantries in Waco are open for only a few hours, one or two days a week. Only a handful are open after 5:00, and those for only an hour or two, and only on one or two days a week. The only Saturday food pantry I know of is the Wheels of Life Mobile Pantry that is open for two hours, once a month. The only Sunday food pantry that I know of is Victorious Life Church which is only open one hour from 12:00 – 1:00. To make things even more complicated, most food pantries request that you only take advantage of their services once or twice a month. Imagine trying to juggle the time spent securing food in this manner with looking for a job, or going back to school, or taking care of children. In an emergency, I could probably make this system work for a few weeks, and would be grateful for it! But as weeks stretch into months, this process of “hunting and gathering” food can itself become time-consuming and de-stabilizing for families (not to mention discouraging!) The SNAP program allows families to take advantage of regular store hours and helps lend a little “normalcy” to lives that are already over-stressed.

Third, many families have found they need BOTH government assistance AND food pantry/food bank assistance to make ends meet!

helpings-with-borderI would love for every adult in Waco to have a good paying job and to be able to stroll into the grocery store and buy good food for her family.  I have high hopes that will be the reality for more of us in coming years as we build up our city, but that is simply not the current situation for many of us right now.  And even in the best of times, there will always be some of us who need help. It’s easy to be leery of government programs like SNAP, but in this particular case it is worth it to learn more about the system before condemning it. It may not be perfect, but it does an awful lot of good, for an awful lot of people. I hope I never have to find out what it’s like to apply for SNAP benefits – but if I ever do, I hope they are there when I need them.

If you or someone you know could benefit from the SNAP program,  contact the Helpings SNAP Outreach Program by phone at 254-753-3545 or check out the Website.   You can support the Helpings Outreach program by donating to the McLennan County Hunger Coalition.

Learn more about how SNAP works at these websites:

This week’s Act Locally Waco blog is by Ashley Bean Thornton.  If you would be interested in writing for the blog, please contact [email protected].

What do we want for Waco?

By Ashley Bean Thornton

Sometimes people wonder about the things that get included in the Act Locally Waco newsletter. Why do we include things like “Art on Elm” or “Do Well, Be Well with Diabetes” or “First Friday Downtown.” What do these things have to do with reducing poverty?

It’s because poverty is not a problem like a weed that can be pulled out. Poverty is a vacuum. It’s a hole where something good should be, but isn’t. The only way to make the hole smaller is to put the good things in, things like healthy lifestyles, a booming economy, art, beauty, opportunity. To make Waco a great place to live we need to focus on what we want, not just on what we don’t want (poverty).

With that in mind Act Locally Waco uses the following twelve aspirations as a guide. They are a slightly modified version of the aspirations adopted by the Poverty Solutions Steering Committee and presented to the Waco City Council in June of 2012. They express what we want for Waco. Is this what you want too? If so, join us! Get informed. Get involved! Get a great community!

What we want for Waco…

1. To improve the health of our children and to support healthy, safe lives for all. – More children in Waco will be born healthy and more residents of Waco will be healthy throughout their lives. We will all be safe.

2. To prepare our children for success in school and beyond. – More children in Waco will start school ready to succeed, and more children will succeed through high school graduation.

3. To launch our young people into productive lives. – More young people in Waco will successfully make the transition from school to productive work that pays enough to establish a satisfying quality of life, and more will know how to manage resources wisely to sustain that quality of life.

4. To gainfully employ our working-age population. – More Waco residents will find and keep jobs that pay enough to sustain a satisfying quality of life without the need of government assistance, and more will know how to manage their resources wisely to maintain that quality of life.

5. To care for our elderly population. – More of the elderly people in Waco will have the resources they need to live out their lives with security and dignity.

6. To support residents who face special challenges. – More Waco residents who face physical, mental and social challenges will have the resources they need to live their lives with security and dignity.

7. To align our social services effectively. – Social-services and policy will be coordinated to effectively support upward mobility from economic dependence to independence where possible, and to effectively and respectfully serve those for whom independence is not possible.

8. To strengthen our neighborhoods. – More of our neighborhoods and residential areas in Waco will be clean, safe and attractive. Neighbors will work effectively together to accomplish common goals.

9. To make our shared spaces beautiful. – More of our shared public spaces and commercial spaces will be clean, safe, attractive, accessible and accommodating.Logo - 11-30-2012

10. To energize our economic base. – Our local economy will create more job opportunities with the living wages needed to help employees achieve their goals.

11. To empower our residents. – More residents of Waco will have the cultural, political and leadership skills and sense of responsibility to advocate effectively for themselves, their families and their communities. More people will participate in the collaborative work of making our city a great place to live for every person of every income level.

12. To enjoy life together! – Waco residents and visitors, regardless of socio-economic status, will enjoy opportunities to appreciate natural beauty, to have fun, to enjoy the arts and to grow socially and culturally.

Bridges out of Poverty: Sometimes you have to care enough to do it wrong!

“If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.” – G.K. Chesterton

By Ashley Bean Thornton

In last week’s blog I introduced you to a fascinating company, Cascade Engineering in Grand Rapids, Michigan. According to a 2003 article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Cascade’s CEO, Fred Keller, “…doesn’t think that the role of business is to focus only on economic success, especially at society’s expense, and then just ‘give back’ charity to the community. He believes in ‘doing something good and then making it good business,’ looking for win-win outcomes for Cascade and society together.” One of Cascade’s most obvious ways of walking the talk regarding Keller’s philosophy is their highly successful “welfare-to-career” (W2C) program which boasted a 97% employee retention rate in 2012. High retention rates are good news for both the employees and the company, but the news wasn’t always so good at Cascade.

The company’s first foray into welfare-to-work back in 1991 was an abysmal failure. They recruited ten welfare recipients. Within two weeks all ten had quit or been fired. Even more embarrassing, they discovered the van they had provided to help these employees get to work was being used to make liquor runs! Cascade’s next effort in 1995 was no more promising. They worked out a program with Burger King where prospective employees could work at Burger King for six months to learn basic job skills before transferring to higher-paid work at Cascade. Not one single participant made it through the program.

That’s a frustrating start! How many of us would’ve given up? Instead, Cascade used these “stumbles” as learning opportunities. They kept trying and learning and improving until they developed the winning program they are using today. Along the way they gained insights that benefit not only their W2C employees, but all of their employees, and their company as a whole. (Read more about it in the article.)

We should study exemplary programs like the one at Cascade and learn all we can from them, but even if we copy these programs down to the last jot and tittle, chances are they won’t work for us on the first try. The most important lesson we can learn from Cascade is to keep trying, trying, trying until we figure out what DOES work. In our efforts to reduce poverty in Waco I imagine we will need to make space for some false starts and “do-overs,” but that is far better than never trying.  Anything worth doing is worth doing badly…at first.

Bridges out of Poverty: One word – “Plastics!”

By Ashley Bean Thornton

By the third day of Bridges out of Poverty training last week, my brain was pretty much full to capacity and overflowing, so I almost missed one of the best parts of the whole training: The story of Cascade Engineering.

Cascade Engineering , headquartered in Grand Rapids, Michigan, specializes in large scale plastic injection molding which is used to create all kinds of things from car parts to trash cans to furniture. In fiscal year 2012 they did over $338 million in sales, up from around $285 million in 2011.

Why were we talking about plastics in our Bridges out of Poverty training? If you take a look at the Cascade “2012 Triple Bottom Line Report,” the connection becomes clear.  The report includes not just financials, but also metrics on their social and environmental accomplishments.  For example, on the last page of the report, in the same annual scorecard where they report their sales, they also report a metric called “Welfare to Career Retention Rate” – 97% for 2012, by the way. This metric is evidence that Cascade has developed a successful strategy for recruiting individuals from poverty and retaining them as valuable, productive employees.  In so doing, they have moved the concept of “social benefit” from the realm of charitable donations into the realm of business strategy.

Here’s a quote from the letter the CEO, Fred Keller, wrote to introduce the 2012 Triple Bottom Line Report. Read and be inspired! :

“Sometimes I am politely asked if our Triple Bottom Line focus on People and Planet takes away from Profits. With the release of this year’s Triple Bottom Line Report … we have a great opportunity to address the common misconception that these three priorities are necessarily at odds with each other. In truth, they can be. But if you do it right, the opposite is true. Commitment to People and Planet can accelerate Profits because teams committed to such worthy endeavors tend to work harder and with greater innovation than if they were merely going through the motions of the job. Also, commitment to People and Planet introduces business value that almost always results in greater long-term rewards.”

The story of Cascade engineering helps us to evolve the conversation about poverty into a conversation about potential – for the people involved and also for the businesses that employ them.  We can learn from that!

It wasn’t easy though…more on the journey in a blog to follow.