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Addressing the root causes of food insecurity

 An empty shopping cart parked in the aisle of a grocery store.
Jane Carlson
Tri States Public Radio
The Galesburg Community Foundation's Hunger Collaborative convened in 2021.

The Galesburg Community Foundation's Hunger Collaborative engages non-profits in a new approach to reducing hunger.

More than 30 non-profit organizations in Knox and Warren counties are working together to address food insecurity in the region.

But their work goes much deeper than getting food to the table.

The Galesburg Community Foundation’s Hunger Collaborative convened in 2021.

It’s both an outgrowth of what local organizations were already doing during the COVID-19 pandemic to keep the community fed, and an alliance of those working directly and indirectly in food assistance to find lasting solutions to the hunger problem.

“What we have decided is a good use of resources is not how we make sure people are fed. But we’ve changed the conversation to what causes people to be hungry and ways in which we can invest in those root causes of hunger,” said Josh Gibb, CEO and president of the Galesburg Community Foundation.

The roots of hunger
A decade ago, Galesburg’s Aldi grocery store moved from Main and Henderson streets to the north edge of town.

And this year, the Save A Lot on East Main Street closed its doors.

That makes for a significant swath of the community living in a food desert, including those who live in two of the three family housing sites operated by the Knox County Housing Authority in Galesburg.

“That kind of got me thinking, how can we assist our residents? Because in a food desert, not only is there that lack of access to food, but many times there’s just a lack of many other resources,” said Kim Sibley, participant engagement manger for the Knox County Housing Authority.

Sibley received a grant from the Hunger Collaborative to provide free city bus rides for housing authority residents.

She said many residents without vehicles already use city buses to get to the store, but using public transportation requires more trips to get everything families need – and to walk groceries home from the bus stop.

“So this will help address the need to get to the store more often and meet that need. Transportation is key. It doesn’t answer the problem, but it’s key in addressing the issue,” Sibley said.

Transportation is one of four root causes of hunger in the region, identified by non-profits in the early stages of the Hunger Collaborative.

The others are access to and awareness of services, workforce and skills readiness, and housing and homelessness.

The goal of the collaborative is to tackle those disparities and develop strategies that reduce hunger.

Organic collaboration
The earliest roots of the Hunger Collaborative can be traced to the Clinton Health Matters Initiative, which zeroed in the social determinants of health in Knox County in 2017 and launched local conversations about food insecurity.

Then, while local organizations were working together during the pandemic in food assistance, Iowa-based River Bend Food Bank was making plans to open a hub in Galesburg to better serve the region.

River Bend Food Bank’s Galesburg location opened last year. It’s not formally part of the Hunger Collaborative, but Gibb said it definitely complements it.

He said the pandemic also forced the Galesburg Community Foundation to reconsider how it supports the work of local non-profits.

“As we were rethinking our granting approach, we were knowledgeable about what River Bend was trying to do, and we were inspired by the work that the non-profits were doing together. They were collaborating in a way that we hadn’t seen. We called it organic collaboration,” Gibb said.

Gibb said addressing hunger during the pandemic gave organizations a “unifying rallying point.”

The Galesburg Community Foundation decided to invest $750,000 in the Hunger Collaborative on top of its normal granting, to keep that organic collaboration going but direct resources in a new way.

Local donors contributed $100,000 more.

In addition, the Knox County board committed $1.4 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds.

An ongoing grant cycle
The Hunger Collaborative is governed by an advisory board of non-profit leaders in each of the four areas identified as root causes of hunger.

That board does the first review of grant applications for the Hunger Collaborative.

Four grants have been awarded to non-profits in three of the identified root causes so far.

That includes the transportation grant for the housing authority. It also includes a workforce readiness SkillsUSA grant in collaboration with the Galesburg Area Vocational Center and awareness of services grants for Bridgeway and the Western Illinois Regional Council.

The granting itself also takes a different approach, with an open, multi-year ongoing grant cycle instead of a standard fixed yearly one.

That provides flexibility as non-profits are working to develop solutions and gives some breathing room for evaluating outcomes.

Jillian Isaacson, director of grants and programs for the Galesburg Community Foundation, said the entire process is organic.

“The reporting is unique to each grant and each situation. We have one grant that is only a two-year grant, most we are aiming for three. The grant application will be open all the way through the end of 2024, but that’s a work in progress as well,” Isaacson said.

Complex and multifaceted
Roger Pavey is the executive director of the Western Illinois Regional Council and a member of the Hunger Collaborative advisory board.

He said typically with grants, a funder says there’s money for a specific purpose, and an organization tries to find a way to make that fit the needs of the community.

“Which is kind of backwards if you think about it. So what the Hunger Collaborative is doing is looking at it from the other angle. You know, please propose innovative solutions to problems that will have a lasting difference,” Pavey said.

Pavey said he sees it as a truly a collaborative endeavor, where the grantor and the grantee are coming together to solve problems.

WIRC got a grant from the collaborative that falls under access to and awareness of services -- a bilingual resource wiki for social services in the area.

“Right now it’s hard, if I need rent assistance, or I have bed bugs, or fill in the blank, I have to call around from agency to agency to see who might be able to help me,” Pavey said.

The interactive site will be in English, Spanish, and French for the growing number of immigrants in the region and provide constantly updated information.

Pavey said the long lines that formed at food pantries during the pandemic were a symptom of something bigger -- that people were having trouble sustaining much less thriving.

“We know that is multifaceted and complex. Poverty is complex,” Pavey said. “Being able to access resources and putting those resources together in a bundle is the key. Because a person in poverty in rarely, maybe never, has one need. They have multiple needs.”

Tri States Public Radio produced this story.  TSPR relies on financial support from our readers and listeners in order to provide coverage of the issues that matter to west central Illinois, southeast Iowa, and northeast Missouri. As someone who values the content created by TSPR's news department please consider making a financial contribution.

Jane Carlson is TSPR's regional reporter.
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