Roughly a third of all Junior Leagues have chosen to tackle the same structural challenge in their communities: food insecurity. That figure is less surprising when you consider that more than 40 million households in the United States are technically food insecure.
Whether it is community garden programs that are increasing access to food and educating communities on healthy food habits, enhancing food wellness with Kids in the Kitchen or making sure children who rely on school meals during the week have food for the weekend with our backpack programs, tackling food insecurity is clearly a driving issue for a critical mass of Junior Leagues. But what about tackling it as a collective? How can Leagues communicate among each other to exchange ideas and drive best practices, to strategize on advocacy and to leverage our scale to turn the tide on this profound challenge to our society?
Lexi Higgins, Program Associate for AJLI, offered her thoughts on AJLI’s Food Security Network (FSN), which is convening these League efforts and programs into a more unified coalition to drive change. Besides taking on food insecurity, FSN is a pilot for a model AJLI is similarly using to take on human trafficking and potentially literacy and education as well as generational poverty.
What motivated AJLI to pursue this initiative?
There are a couple of things that brought us to this point. The first being that we know a large number of our Leagues, more than a third of them at least, are working in some way in the area of food insecurity. Trying to address either food access or nutrition information and education to make the right decisions on a budget for households in their communities. So, we knew that there was a lot of momentum around this issue with individual Leagues, although there was not a lot of communication among Leagues that were working in this space.
The other side of it is that we know that as Leagues are moving toward the Issue-Based Community Impact model, they are trying to identify tactics other than direct service to address these systemic issues, whether it is food insecurity or something else. If we are going to move the needle on an issue as complex as food insecurity, we need to make sure our systems, our policies, the ways our communities are working, are catching up to address these systemic issues. How can we be better advocates in creating that systemic change?
We decided that since there is so much momentum around food insecurity within our Leagues, that we would use that as a model to explore what our role is as a service organization in addressing these big systemic issues. How can we start getting more involved, not only in our local communities, but also in the advocacy space, in the policy space, in the community convener space, in the coalition-building space? And how can we leverage our built-in network of 140,000 members and start shaping that power of association into something bigger.
Talk about the vision for what the FSN can be doing?
Exploring how Leagues might be able to expand their menu of tactics in addressing food insecurity, that could go a lot of ways in the future. One way is thinking about what roles Leagues might play in working with existing corner-stores or other local food vendors to increase their sales of fresh and healthy food.
On a macro level, we are looking at what are the policies that need to be in place—both locally and nationally—for any of the work we are doing in food insecurity to be supported by the community as a whole, and to create sustainable solutions that will remain whether The Junior League is there or not.
How does this translate beyond food insecurity into a model to address structural challenges in a community?
We as a membership organization and a service organization traditionally address community needs through direct service and through the lens of a charity model. We have to start exploring our role in addressing systemic issues because they are not really going to be fixed with the traditional direct service model that a lot of service organizations employ. But we also are not necessarily the experts on the issue or the experts on advocacy per se.
I believe there is a lot of potential in our network in finding a place to drive systemic change. But really figuring out what that role is for us—that is a key goal for the FSN and a huge question to address in any of our communities. We want to make the most impact that we can and there has to be more that we can do than direct service as important as direct service is.
Maybe that role is in grassroots advocacy. Maybe it’s being that community connector and convening the stakeholders because we have such strong relationships in our community. There’s a big conversation to be had in bringing in all of the Leagues that are working on this in our local communities to one table, which is a great place to start.
What are the upsides of having a community-impact organization address an issue like food insecurity or for that matter any structural challenge?
The people and organizations who are embedded in the issue of food insecurity and identifying its causes and solutions do not necessarily have the resources in terms of money, time, people and boots on the ground. Or necessarily the community connections that we as Junior Leagues do just by the nature of being a well-established, older organization.
So, we have a seat at the table in those communities versus the experts who are coming up with the solutions. We have an opportunity to give voice to those potential solutions where they might not otherwise be heard and create the right partnerships and community connections to move those solutions forward.