You can’t judge a book by its cover, and you can’t judge someone’s level of food security by looking at them either. Food insecurity is a self-identified problem plaguing Polk County, that one organization set out years ago to end, in a rather creative way – by empowering the food-insecure to solve it themselves.
In a bright community space at Lakeview Tower in Winter Haven, seniors browsed an assortment of colorful, fresh fruits and veggies in wicker baskets placed invitingly around the room.
ElderPoint Executive Director, Jane Hammond looked on while describing the little talked about issue of food insecurity within the county.
A biochemist turned software developer for the biotech industry may seem like an unlikely candidate for running a nonprofit focused on assisting the elderly, but Jane has always had the cause in her heart. “I’ve always had a passion for seniors and trying to improve the quality of life for seniors whether that’s just one on one in my neighborhood or trying to turn it into something bigger,” she said.
When her husband’s work relocated the family to Polk County, Jane found herself without opportunities in her industry. She took some time to settle her family. Of all things, a lawn mower became the catalyst for her service to the elderly. “A friend of mine gave me a lawnmower, and if you’ve ever gotten the right thing at the right time, that little gesture of something, that solved a problem for you.”
She wanted to take the lawn mower and turn it into something bigger, so she set out to find an organization that could help connect her to seniors in need of having their lawns mowed.
She soon came across Faith in Action of Central Lakeland. There, she volunteered using her ability in software to develop a program matching seniors’ needs to volunteer skills. At the time, the Executive Director decided to move on and the organization was at a crossroads.
With only enough money to continue for six months, Jane stepped up to the task. Using her systematic and process design and flow-driven skills, she built it into what it is today.
“I’m really good at taking something and streamlining it and making it really efficient – it’s what I did through code, now I do it with bananas,” she laughed.
Here they are, now as ElderPoint, twelve years later with 17 locations for their markets and kiosks.
Jane explained, “The purpose of our food program is to deal with food insecurity.” According to the USDA, food insecurity is defined as when the food intake of household members is reduced and their normal eating patterns are disrupted because the household lacks money and other resources for food. Transportation being a large concern.
“We’re overcoming access because we’re right here,” she said looking around the Lakeview Tower community room.
Though food insecurity is a problem in much of the country, it is magnified in Polk County. According to Jane, “The Lakeland/ Winter Haven area is the second most food insecure in the nation.” Data on FeedingAmerica.org notes that there are 95,800 food insecure people in Polk County.
Jane admits that statistic takes many people off guard considering, “it just seems counterintuitive that a metropolitan area that is rated so high in philanthropic endeavors and certainly a focus on food, why are we then the second most food insecure?”
She explained that seniors have particular issues for why they can’t access appropriate food. Do they have transportation to the grocery store? If so, can they carry the bags back for whatever quantity they want to purchase? Do they have to buy in too large of a quantity, risking their limited resources on something that may go bad? Are they limited to the number of bags they can bring?
“What food insecurity is really about, in our area, we don’t have a lack of food per se, we have a lack of infrastructure to adequately distribute the food and make it available,” she said. “There are little hidden pieces to basically how a senior can survive that subtly impact their ability to procure food and maintain healthy food.”
For many years, ElderPoint did a free food bank concept, serving a staggering 103,383 people in 2014. But Jane saw that this wasn’t sustainable.
“By numbers, it served a lot of people, but we realized we weren’t transforming lives. We weren’t moving anyone out of the food line.”
They set out to redesign it into something that would, “Empower people to not be dependent on others for their food, but rather find their own way out and find their own food independence.”
The idea was to have markets around the county where seniors could buy fresh fruits and produce at an affordable price and make it accessible to them.
“If you look at our prices, it’s all ridiculously affordable because our goal is: We buy it all at wholesale, but we price it to cover only the cost of the produce itself and a little bit of gas to get it around.”
They buy the produce fresh from the Plant City Market and also have a partnership with Farmer Jack. “Doing that, we’re able to be much more culturally relevant in every single market that we go into because we like to take requests everywhere we go.”
As the program took off, ElderPoint realized they could only do the markets so many times a week though the demand for them was through the roof. To solve this issue they created kiosk markets which are a smaller format of their markets and exist in places where the elderly are likely to congregate such as a senior center.
In addition to their 17 locations, ElderPoint is looking to bring on 12 new kiosks in the first part of next year. The next step for the nonprofit is procuring refrigerated units with glass fronts to put in their kiosk locations. This will keep the produce fresher for longer, allowing them to offer it for more days. They’ve even been in talks with professors at Polytech about having the students design something for them.
“We have a weird little dream,” she began, “but you always have to plant these seeds because you never know where it will go.”
Their “weird little dream” is an old-school carousel style vending machine that could be put in a common area for everyone to use such as the library downtown. They would like to make the vending machine accessible by coin or token and available not only to seniors but moms looking for a quick healthy snack for their kids, the homeless, or anyone else.
“We’re all coming to the table together to try to take out the stigma of food insecurity and empower people to eat healthier.”
Learn more about what ElderPoint does for the community and how you can help at www.elderpoint.org