Sunday, June 29, 2014

FOOD FOR ALL ERA 2: An Idea That Won’t Let Go

My wife is very determined, in her own quietly persuasive way, not so much on getting her way as on digging deeper to find something that makes things work better. Hence the year between the spring of 1984 and the summer of 1985 was spent investigating and researching and learning about all the anti-hunger efforts of non-profit organizations, governmental agencies, and corporations. It wasn't that nothing was being done. There were many local groups responding to what appeared to be growing numbers of homeless people, and of children going to bed hungry: Food pantries, homeless shelters, free hot meal programs run by churches and often by compassionate individuals. There were also the large multi-service organizations, regional food banks, the Salvation Army, Family Service, all attempting to do something about ensuring that people were not going hungry. On the world stage there were the many non-governmental agencies, small and large, devoting themselves to the task of addressing the symptoms as well as the underlying causes of hunger, usually related to one of our life-long concerns, persistent poverty. The famine in Ethiopia was capturing the imagination of the folk during this time and "We Are the World" was the song of the moment. Appeals for money were in front of us daily, on TV, radio, newspapers, and of course, our mailboxes.

When we looked at what the food industry was doing, there were the regular canned food drives that many of the grocers conducted, usually in connection with a food bank or local food pantry. And the food manufacturers gave excess or near-out-of-date product to the big regional food banks, usually through Second Harvest. It seemed to us that the food industry was a natural part of ensuring food security for everyone in society. So why not a partnership between food manufacturers, grocers, their customers and employees to provide a simple and easy method for raising funds to help end hunger right at the point where almost everyone purchases food for their own family, at the supermarket check stand. A display with a bar-coded card for a small amount to be added to a customer's grocery items each time he or she shopped. Fifty cents, a dollar, five dollars, would appear right on the grocery receipt and the card would provide information about hunger and how the donation would help alleviate it.

We began to ask questions of everyone we knew. For those we knew were anti-hunger activists the question was mainly "What would you do with large amounts of money being raised to address the hunger issue?" To anyone we encountered who had any knowledge of the food industry, especially the grocers, we wanted them to "tell us all the reasons why this idea would not work." This last question was the one we asked of any group we were part of, and of course, that included all of our friends. We were pleasantly surprised at the encouraging responses we received. I was also a little secretly terrified, knowing how much work was ahead from idea to actuality.

We even held some informal "focus groups" with as diverse handfuls of our friends as we could get to spend a few hours going over the implications of an "idea whose time had come" and just how we should go about beginning to test it in actual practice. Out of these sessions came the first mockup of a four by six card with a picture of a hungry child. One of our informal advisors came up with that idea. We later abandoned that type of appeal but we took it with us to a visit with Paul Gerrard, a legendary local grocer in our town, and Jack Brown, who lived in our town but was President of a regional chain of supermarkets. Paul was most encouraging and wished us well and said to come back any time for further advice. Jack also said he thought our idea was a good one and if implemented would raise lots of money for hunger. He also said that his company would probably be one of the last ones to take it on. One other visit we made was with Russ Reid, who was one of the people who put World Vision's direct mail and TV fundraising campaigns on the map. Russ wanted to take our idea to World Vision and run with it. We had a different vision of a more inclusive approach, so even though we had no money, no organization, no clue how we were going to proceed, we took our own and a few friends advice and pushed on.

One of our early advisors was Dean Freudenberger, who was a professor at Claremont School of Theology and an expert on American food policy. We picked his brain on several occasions as he offered to have us hold meetings at his school. One day he mentioned that if we wanted to find out more about how grocers thought and acted, we should talk to Milo Lacy, who happened to live a few blocks from the school. Milo had been a well-liked supermarket manager for an upscale store in Orange County and was now retired and conducting seminars for Japanese visiting grocers at Cal Poly Pomona. We went to see Milo and he and his lovely wife Mary Paul invited us to stay for lunch and a long conversation. The professor was right. Milo, this tall, lanky seventy-something salt-of-the-earth guy, knew more about the grocery business and knew more influential people in it, than we could have expected. Milo, after hearing our story and our ideas, laughed and said: "That is a terrific idea you've come up with -- and I know these grocers and you'll never get them to do it! But if there is anything I can do to help let me know."

So by the end of the spring of 1985, we had five commitments for the founding board of directors of what would soon become FOOD FOR ALL, Inc.: Linda and I, Rich Blakley, who was then pastor of Redlands United Church of Christ, Georgianna McBurney, an old friend and colleague from our Institute of Cultural Affairs days, and Milo Lacy the retired supermarket manager who told us the grocers would never go for our idea.

FOOD FOR ALL, Inc. was incorporated as a nonprofit July 1, 1985, our first Board retreat held in Desert Hot Springs on one of the hottest weeks of the year, and we were still operating out of our living room for an office with a friend's donated Otrona computer with a five by seven inch screen, and getting all of our copies and printing done at the old church house of Redlands UCC. We were all looking forward to a glorious journey.

Linda & The Otrona2

Linda and the Otrona – FOOD FOR ALL’S first computer

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