Nothing Works…but Everything Might

Tag: The California Endowment

Sick of Food Deserts? Try California FreshWorks–And Have Some Jobs On The Side

The American Constitution Society Blog (ACSBlog) published my guest post about the launch of the California FreshWorks Fund today.  I’m cross-posting it here:

On July 19, first lady Michelle Obama announced the launch of the California FreshWorks Fund, a $200 million public-private partnership to provide financing to food retailers and distributors willing to locate in food deserts.  Spearheaded by The California Endowment (“TCE”), a private, statewide foundation with a public-health mission that it interprets increasingly broadly, the Fund pulls together an impressive array of banks, philanthropies, industry players, government agencies, and investors under the umbrella of healthy food.

Why food, and why now?  Food deserts — areas without access to healthy, fresh food, namely grocery stores, but usually with abundant access to unhealthy fast food — are disturbingly common attributes of lower-income neighborhoods.  Across California, four million people live in food deserts, which correlate with higher rates of obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes than areas with grocery stores. I’ve written previously in this space about the unhappy cohabitation of racially isolated poverty and diminished access to healthy food.  And we can little afford such poor healthy food access now, when our nation faces a tsunami of obesity and its attendant costs in health care and economic productivity.  As TCE Director of Community Health Marion Standish and I wrote here last week, the increasing rate of childhood obesity threatens to wreak even more havoc in future years as obese children become obese adults.  And we know that access to healthy food decreases the risk of obesity.

But that’s not all. California FreshWorks and initiatives like it bring more than fresh food to underserved communities: jobs, increased property values, and increased tax revenue roll into town too. And that’s why healthy food financing initiatives are precisely the right thing to do now, in the face of a sluggish economic recovery, including a stubbornly weak job market. On average, 24.3 new jobs are created for every 10,000 square feet of retail grocery space (grocery stores are usually 20,000 to 50,000 square feet in size). A similar initiative in Philadelphia resulted in a 4 percent to 7 percent increase in property value, along with further commercial development. And increased retail, employment, and property value means increased tax revenue.

While food deserts are often densely populated, meaning significant block-by-block income (though not per-capita income, the more usual measure) waiting to be spent in area stores, the high cost of entering food deserts has long deterred retailers — even though grocery stores in food deserts can become profitable. The Fund provides loans and some grants to retailers to help overcome this barrier to entry, with longer time horizons for payback so retailers can, over time, generate the necessary level of sales to be profitable.

The Fund, though it draws on philanthropy for some of its funding, is not itself a charitable endeavor traditionally conceived. This is Philanthropy 2.0 — a highly networked and intensely collaborative effort that seeks robust, lasting, large-scale change.  (Interested in new approaches to large-scale philanthropic efforts?  FSG Social Impact Consultants founder Mark Kramer’s work on Catalytic Philanthopy and follow-on book, Do More than Give, with Leslie Crutchfield and John Kania, are must-reads.) The Fund is in the business of investing in communities, and its industry partners and investors intend to make a profit — but the initiative only reaches its objective if a healthy share of that profit remains in the community in the form of jobs and increased tax revenue.  Keep your eye on this program as it goes to work on one of the nation’s toughest problems in a big, diverse, and economic crisis-ridden state. The combination of public health improvement and economic revival could be a tempting recipe.

Read more about cross-sector approaches to improving public health and education and fighting poverty from my blog, Nothing Works…But Everything Might.


Moving the Needle on Poverty: Why Nothing Works, But Everything Might

Today, the American Constitution Society Blog published a post I wrote about poverty and collective impact.  I’m cross-posting it here:

Countless urban neighborhoods are drowning in a miserable mix of poverty, bad schools, food-deserts lacking grocery stores and food-swamps providing an overabundance of fast food (I’ve written previously in this space about health care reform and the power of real food), and a dearth of jobs. Every year, countless non-profit community agencies provide a stunning number of hours of service to these communities. Yet intergenerational poverty maintains its stubborn, iron grip. Time and again, children drop out of school and face pathless futures.

It’s easier to design solutions to discrete problems than to back up and look at an entire social system. And so we try to improve the educational lot of poor children by spending more money per child, by lowering the teacher-to-student ratio, by going “back to basics,” or some other idea intended to leave no child behind.  But think of all that these approaches leave to the side: healthy, fresh food, without which children cannot retain facts and learn how to think; physical education opportunities, without which children are at a much higher risk of obesity; public safety, without which children live amidst the kind of stress and fear that fractures their ability to learn; and child care, without which children lack the kind of consistent adult guidance necessary to sustained learning. And we haven’t even touched health care.

The scenario is similar if an agency tries to move the needle on unemployment by improving only an individual’s job-seeking skills.  We’ve left aside job development (are there even jobs to apply for?); public transit (where is the job, and can the person get there?); child care (who takes care of the children while Mom and Dad are working?); job skills; and — critically important but often overlooked — financial management skills like budgeting, saving, and improving credit scores.

We face a situation where nothing seems to work — the best-executed and best-intended interventions fail to move the needle, year after year after painful year.

But where nothing works, everything might.

Think about it.  What if we tried to solve an entire set of interconnected problems at once?

Sounds a little crazy, doesn’t it?

But we don’t have to wonder whether this will work; we already know it does.  Here are just a few examples from California and elsewhere:

Promise Neighborhoods.  Modeled on the Harlem Children’s Zone, this federal initiative, currently run out of the Department of Education, makes grants to communities to develop schools with wrap-around social services, “from cradle to career to college.”  The California Assembly recently passed a bill to create a state-level program; Senator Harkin has dropped a bill to make Promise Neighborhoods a permanent federal program. Follow its progress at PolicyLink’s Promise Neighborhoods Institute.

United Way SparkPoint Centers.  The Centers provide integrated financial counseling services to families with the goals of increasing assets, improving credit scores, increasing income, and a reduction of debt-to-income ratio.  I recently wrote about the United Way of the Bay Area’s ninth SparkPoint Center, soon to open in San Francisco’s Mission District.

California Endowment’s Building Healthy Communities program.  TCE’s ten-year strategic direction focuses on the importance of place to health.  The program’s milestones involve reducing childhood obesity and youth violence and increasing school attendance and access to quality health care. 

Oakland Unified School District’s African-American Male Achievement Initiative.  The Initiative will create systems that support prevention, intervention, and retention for African-American youth.  The Initiative actively seeks partnership with community organizations, the school district, parents, and foundations to build “full-service community schools” that include employment, language, and health care services alongside education.

Obvious challenges to this approach abound. The attempt to coordinate a large number of agencies could rapidly generate barely controlled chaos, and where those agencies must co-create an agenda and attack plan, patience and time are required in large measures. Funders like to give money to agencies working on discrete, easily measured problems, because it’s easier to quantify and describe clearly bounded outcomes. The kinds of projects we’re talking about have five- and ten- and twenty-year time horizons, and that’s longer than funders want to contemplate. Partnership with, and capacity-building within, the vulnerable communities most in need of these projects is critically important but arduous work.

But a sea change is coming. Boston-based FSG Social Impact Consultants leaders Mark Kramer and John Kania recently formulated a concept they call “collective impact,” denoting cross-sector collaborations that integrate and coordinate a wide range of services and programs focused on a single social challenge. In a blog post titled “Revolutionary Reboot,” I wrote that “collaborative projects powered by collective impact also function like a human body:  organic, proactive as well as reactive, and able to shift constantly in response to the conditions it encounters.” For organic problems, there are organic solutions with collaborative DNA.

You can track related developments at the Healthy Eating Active Living Convergence Partnership; PolicyLink; FSG Social Impact Consultants’ Knowledge Exchange; and many more sites, including my blog, Nothing Works…But Everything Might.