Spotlight: Community Action Works to Ensure Year-Round Access to Healthy Meals and Skills Development Opportunities

By Rae Tamblyn, Research and Communications Analyst, NASCSP

Community Action Agencies (CAAs) across the country know that hunger is a year-round problem that affects one in six Americans. Nutrition impacts the health and well-being of individuals as well as the economic security of the entire community. The consequences of hunger spread through every aspect of life and across the socioeconomic spectrum, with long-term issues related to health and nutrition and productivity at work and school, among other effects.

Many people come to CAAs seeking nutrition assistance. During 2014, more than 3.5 million low-income individuals and families gained access to nutritious food from a CAA, including nearly 2 million children who received adequate nutrition, contributing to their growth and development. CAAs across the nation organize and operate food banks; counsel thousands of families about children’s nutrition and food preparation; help families gain access to nutrition programs like the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP); deliver thousands of meals to the elderly and home-bound disabled living in their communities, and initiate hundreds of self-help projects, such as community gardens, community canneries, and food buying groups.

As one example of an evolving, community-wide initiative, Salt Lake Community Action Program runs a comprehensive Nutrition program which not only provides food to individuals and families ranging in age from infants to elderly, but also provides opportunities for workforce development, building social capital, and information and resource sharing. This program is funded through the Community Services Block Grant (CSBG), Head Start funds, their social enterprise Central Kitchen revenue, and fund-raised dollars of corporations, foundations and individuals.

In 2009, Salt Lake CAP management decided to take steps to address the high malnutrition and obesity rates among low-income children. In order to provide their Head Start children with the best nutrition possible, Salt Lake CAP launched their own Central Kitchen. What started off as a pilot program in 2010 serving 300 meals a day has turned into a social enterprise serving more than 4,000 meals per day to their Head Start children and other children in the community. The children who eat at the Central Kitchen go home with 2/3 of their daily nutritional requirements. With the benefits of nutrition the children received while in Head Start during the school year and because more than 18 million children are at risk for going hungry during the summer months, it was an obvious extension to develop a program to extend into the summer.  Salt Lake CAP now runs the summer food program at sites throughout Salt Lake County, providing free dinner to low-income children ages 18 and younger.

In addition to providing meals, Salt Lake CAP is dedicated to addressing challenges in the lives of their clients to reduce food insecurity and hunger. Many people come to CAAs for emergency food. Across the nation, slightly more than 5.4 million people obtained emergency food, with more than 300 million pounds of food being distributed nationwide. CAA staff know that many community members who experience hunger and food insecurity are also simultaneously experiencing some other need or crisis. Each pantry waiting area run by Salt Lake CAP is stocked with information on housing assistance, utility assistance, budget counseling, medical programs, employment, educational opportunities, SNAP application assistance and other resources.

Through their volunteer programs at the food banks and Sauté, a regularly offered eight-week culinary course teaching parents the fine art of cooking, clients gain valuable skills applicable to a wide variety of employment fields. Volunteers who work at the pantries gain soft employment skills and hands-on work experience. Sauté graduates leave the program with forty hours of hands-on training from the Head Chef and knowledge in kitchen etiquette, cooking techniques, ServSafe certifications, and cost-effective meal planning. Sauté graduates also are able to gain practical work experience at the Evergreen Café, a café started in 2014 in partnership with Salt Lake County. Located in the Millcreek Recreation Center, Evergreen Café serves meals to seniors and clientele of the rec center. Staff put their skills to work either through cooking, teaching Sauté classes throughout the day, or working at catering events for the general public.

CAAs like Salt Lake CAP work to alleviate the burden of hunger facing families and individuals in need by providing food, increasing access to community resources and healthy nutrition, and offering educational opportunities. The anti-hunger work of the Community Action network creates long-lasting, community-wide benefits.