Accessibility, variety, and independent shopping experiences were all hot topics of conversation at the first Seattle Food Committee (SFC) Service Focus panel, as audience members learned and discussed how to meet the needs of mobility-limited people.
The conversation – the first in a series that will revolve around nonprofit services targeting food insecurity issues – focused on strategies for making food services more accessible to mobility-limited customers. The series is an SFC event organized by Solid Ground’s Food System Support.
“At the core of our work, we want it to be about providing an independent shopping experience for folks who are able to participate.” ~Joe Gruber, University District Food Bank Executive Director
The event brought in nonprofit staff to talk about their experience providing services to mobility-limited people and answer audience questions.
Joe Gruber, Executive Director of the University District Food Bank, Brian Sindel, Food Bank Manager at Jewish Family Services (JFS), and Louren Reed, Distribution Specialist for the Chicken Soup Brigade, spoke at the event.
Bringing the food bank to the person
Much of the presentation time focused on home delivery services, which bring high-quality food options to customers who might have difficulty accessing traditional food banks.
While traditional food banks can provide great options to many customers, they are not always easily accessible for mobility-limited people. The University District Food Bank, as Gruber points out, used to be located in a church basement, which limited its options for improving accessibility.
Those challenges have pushed food-focused nonprofits to bring their food banks to their customers, instead of relying on all customers to come to them. As organizations become more aware of the broad spectrum of customers that they serve, many of them are stepping up their home delivery services, including for existing customers.
“As it often turns out, home delivery is the most convenient option – and so we are seeing more and more of our traditional walk-in clients transition to a need for home delivery,” Sindel says.
While the home delivery services are valuable to customers, they also create challenges for traditional food banks. Making sure that the food bank can store food for delivery is a challenge on its own, even before tackling the logistics of choosing, packing, and delivering food to customers.
Building strong volunteer networks
To run home delivery services, the nonprofits rely heavily on volunteers, who give their time and effort to help make sure that the programs run smoothly and provide high-quality services to mobility-limited people. All three of the nonprofit panelists emphasize their reliance on volunteers, from packing bags to delivering meals and groceries.
We couldn’t pack up all of the bags of seven, 14, and 21 meals every week without each of the volunteers that come through,” Reed says.
Thanks to the need for extensive extra help, one of the biggest focuses for nonprofits that want to provide home delivery services is recruiting the volunteers to help run them.
Food programs that target specific groups, like JFS, have natural advantages in recruiting new volunteers and customers. Strong connections in specific communities help spread opportunities through word-of-mouth, and creating strong networks of people helps food programs keep volunteers and customers involved.
However, the value of strong word-of-mouth recruitment is not limited to community-specific nonprofits like JFS. The Chicken Soup Brigade, which serves homebound seniors and those living with serious illnesses, brings in 45% of its volunteers through word-of-mouth, Reed explains. Even deliberate in-person recruitment outreach brings in a smaller share of the group’s volunteers.
The panelists also emphasized the need for strong relationships between volunteers and customers, alongside the network of volunteers.
Strong relationships improve volunteer retention by giving them personal connections to programs. Personal connections to customers also help volunteers better adjust to customer needs to provide a more effective, personalized home delivery service.
An independent shopping experience
While food delivery services are valuable, the speakers also emphasize the need to close the gap between the food bank – or home food delivery – experience and the traditional shopping experience. Creating an “independent shopping experience,” complete with high variety and easy access, is a core mission of the University District Food Bank, Gruber says.
While home delivery service can help reach mobility-limited clients, it cuts down on the shopping experience that the food bank tries to provide for its customers. To offer those alternatives to its customers, the organization also works to improve the accessibility of its main shopping space.
“Home delivery is one option. But at the same time, the more that we can make our open space – our shopping space – more conducive to access for folks who have some mobility limitations and challenges is really kind of paramount,” Gruber says. “At the core of our work, we want it to be about providing an independent shopping experience for folks who are able to participate.”
Alongside improving the accessibility of their spaces, panel members suggest that home delivery services could give way to a “pop-up” model in the future, with onsite food banks for mobility-limited customers. While these pop-ups require volunteer and time commitment, they can effectively bring the food bank experience to customers, particularly in high-density housing.
Overall, the food bank staff offered an inside look at how nonprofit services have targeted food insecurity issues and adapted to better serve mobility-limited customers. While the three nonprofit representatives who spoke at the event offered different perspectives on strategies based on their own experiences, there was a common focus on improving food bank accessibility – not just in home delivery services, but also to open up the traditional food bank experience to all customers. They also offered a glimpse at future plans, including pop-up food banks that could bring that food bank experience to the customer, rather than relying on the customer to come to them.
For more information on the Seattle Food Committee (SFC) Service Focus training series, contact Food System Support Program Manager Frank Miranda at firstname.lastname@example.org.