Sometimes in the non profit world the best thing that can happen is to lose your funding.
Why? Well, what better way to critically evaluate what you are doing than looking at your program from these perspectives:
Why is your cause no longer resonating with funders?
Are you focused on transforming people’s lives or achieving transactional success?
Do you have a sustainable program or does it rely on funders constantly keeping it going?
These are not easy questions to answer. For our Portable Pantry program, which distributes over 25,000 pounds of food per month to thousands of seniors, they were particularly difficult to answer. It would seem that ElderPoint was making a difference and who wouldn’t want to support healthy options to seniors? Our seniors needed the free food we were bringing, after all we all know about the choice between food and medicine they face every day. Then we asked ourselves the hardest question of all: Were we actually bringing the food they needed? Only our seniors can answer that. You may be thinking, “What? They never asked what their seniors wanted? Shameful!” Yes. Shamefully, we had been moving along growing a program that we had thought was helpful, but we weren’t seeking enough feedback. So we asked and our seniors responded:
They need fresh.
They need quality.
They need a variety of choices.
They need it offered right in their building/mobile home park/community because they can’t get to produce stands and carry their items home.
At ElderPoint we strive to meet seniors at the point of their need
The best way we could answer all the questions from above and meet that need was to establish a produce co-op. The idea is to charge a nominal amount to be able to provide a senior with a reasonable portion of top quality produce. Yes seniors struggle to buy food AND medicine. So if we can provide a way to stretch their food dollars, they are happy. If they can get a great selection right at their doorstep, they are happy. If they are providing the nominal amount, and we do our job to source the quality produce for the best prices, the program is sustainable. Not only is the program sustainable, but the program costs are significantly reduced in terms of food costs, amount of storage space required, the refrigeration required and the transportation costs of moving food. Additionally, the produce co-op takes less staff time and effort, meaning we can go to multiple locations per day.
There are a few things we sacrifice. We no longer can distribute USDA and food sourced from the food bank. Although these items have a lower sourcing cost, the rules surrounding this food requires we distribute it separately from the co-op. This would again raise our storage, refrigeration and transportation costs as well as returning to an unsustainable model. We simply can’t afford to distribute free food. We were really concerned this would create a hardship for our seniors, but again, we needed to hear from them and their answer has been quite clear. They prefer to pay the small amount to have the quality and selection over the free food. We were cautious about our transition away from free, but the seniors demanded it! So we met their need.
We are now wrapping up our first full week of co-op only and it has been fantastic! Our seniors have been so enthusiastic saying over and over that they “like this better!” We know it won’t be for everyone. Although our numbers served this week were very strong, they were lower than the free food distributions. This is not a program of transaction. This is a program of empowering seniors to chose food sovereignty and healthy options.