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Building Healthier Communities Through Innovation
It was late March 2020 and I was sitting inside the old food bank (also affectionately known as “the haunted house'') at 8PM on my laptop, trying to create a forecast with the data I had on hand at that time, long before we brought on all the technology support we have today. The prediction model I was trying to create, one that would tell me where we would be in 6 months if our trajectory of need continued, was bleak at best and catastrophic at worst. At that time our numbers had increased by 50% and there was no way that any model I was creating could predict the unthinkable: that we would in fact peak at a 700% increase by year end.
What I remember most about that time was the fear I saw in the eyes of those we served. Early on, people understood that the pandemic was going to impact people differently, and some greatly. Survivors have great instincts and are more in tune with the world, in particular to threats. Threats like invisible viruses that would shut down the entire world. And the fear that follows these instincts is one that can consume someone.
I would often stay at the food bank late just to answer the phone so I could soothe some of the panic (soon we would move our landline to the cloud for this very reason). It was clear to me that the trauma made it almost impossible for some people to know the day or the week or time, and I often found myself running up to the food bank on Sunday evenings to give groceries to families that were just trying to make it through each day.
On those late nights at the food bank I also noticed something that I will never forget. Car after car would circle the building all night long, not realizing that I was inside working. Not because there was an immediate need, but because scared, traumatized, survivors just needed to know that their food source was still there. That we hadn't closed down. It's an instinctual thing to circle food.
There are things that I've seen from the front lines of hunger that I can't unknow, and watching people circle the food bank at night in complete terror is one of them. I had to find a way to make people feel more secure and I had to do it quickly. Within the first couple months of the pandemic, my executive team and I started making strategic decisions that no other organization at the time was making.
We took a crisis and started looking at it through the eyes of who we served. We approached everything from a very human perspective and dug deep to understand how to serve those that were feeling the most vulnerable at the time.
We asked ourselves how we could preserve dignity for everyone that would find themselves experiencing food insecurity.
We asked ourselves how we could create more connections in a time we were all forced to be disconnected.
We asked ourselves how we could create safety and convenience in moments when people needed this the most from their community.
There were a few solutions that we executed within a few weeks that changed the game for us in terms of being able to provide service:
We moved our landline to the cloud so we could answer all calls from our cell phones and text in multiple languages.
We converted our distribution to 100% home delivery using unmarked vans that looked like any grocery delivery service.
As many of you have seen firsthand, these innovative approaches were just the beginning of a remarkable transformation that continues to resonate throughout this community.
There has been an even more ambitious solution in development for a number of years that you will be seeing come to light soon. This solution was born on one of those late nights by a chance phone call to my board Vice President Teri Hochstein where I said "People are calling all hours of the day and night needing help and I can't be here 24 hours a day. It's not sustainable. We need a vending machine or something." As soon as the words left my mouth, Teri started to google and texted me photos. She had an idea. Free standing, self-service, WiFi enabled, refrigerated parcel lockers.
That spark of an idea has been something we have spent the last two years developing. About a year into that development, we had a regularly scheduled meeting with Pierce County Councilmember, Dave Morell, where we surprised him with the concept. (Truth be told, I surprise people often like this just so I can see their genuine response.)
Dave has been a supporter of our work from the very beginning of the pandemic and has been a first responder for our communities in so many ways. He seemed to understand the scale of the food insecurity crisis and the impact it would have on the rural area he serves long before other decision makers. Our organization considers him a strategic partner and in that fateful meeting in October I decided that Jenson and I would show him a presentation that we'd not shown anyone yet. "Turn back to the page with the lockers" he said, after I got through the packet. He tapped the photo of the prototype firmly with his index finger and said:
"Now that's an idea. That's the type of outside the box thinking that everyone needs to see right now."
I remember looking at Jenson and thinking, this is it. Another spark.
Shortly after this meeting we built out the program concept with Teri and sent the formal pitch to Dave. The idea eventually became a proposal that was passed by the Pierce County Council and funded as an innovative pilot, gaining us another year to get it fully conceptualized and solidified. And then sparks began to fly.
And here we are today, on the eve of a solution that will be game changing for food insecurity. A network of regional food lockers that are internet connected, temp controlled, self service, and open around the clock.
One that provides a dependable safety net for our communities without stigma. One that allows a working mother the ability to pick up groceries she's ordered on the way home. One that allows a family in crisis to access food and other useful info with just a text. No more shame. No more antiquated systems. A thoughtful and human centered solution.
In addition to providing food resource services to the community, we also believe the lockers can be a regional network of information hubs that will display emergency and human service info. Beyond that, we believe they can be used as a centralized retail outlet for local farmers and food producers, providing distribution infrastructure while keeping money in the local economy. The dream for the lockers is to create a platform for a more healthy, supported, and safe community. Using technology to connect us in a way that improves lives and creates long term sustainability. To me, there is no bigger dream.
There will be more to come, so keep connected by following our updates on Facebook and Twitter. We have our initial set of these lockers on order and anticipate them being operational by sometime in the next few months. Once we have proven out the model at the farm on 410, we will expand to include other locations throughout Pierce County. We'll keep you in the loop!