When most of us think of a home-cooked meal, the image that comes to mind is one of a familiar recipe made with specific ingredients that nourishes both body and heart. In order to provide more meals that satisfy in that same way, last year Food Bank of the Rockies and Food Bank of Wyoming launched the Culturally Responsive Food Initiative, a pilot program made possible thanks to a generous grant from Feeding America. As its name implies, the program pays special attention to the cultural food preferences of clients in service areas of Food Bank of the Rockies and Food Bank of Wyoming.
“Food security should more broadly include providing foods that people are comfortable with, know what to do with, are used to eating, and mean something to them,” said Avalon Guarino, programs outreach representative on the Western Slope for Food Bank of the Rockies. “For a long time, food security has just been putting more calories on the plates of people. It’s important to provide food that people would choose to eat.”
Although food banks in recent years have focused more on nutrition—providing more fresh produce, for example—the preferences of people from different cultural backgrounds has rarely been prioritized. The Culturally Responsive Food Initiative seeks to change that.
The Feeding America grant provided Food Bank of the Rockies and Food Bank of Wyoming the support needed to initiate the community conversations that formed the foundation of the Culturally Responsive Food Initiative program. “Food pantry users from different cultural backgrounds may have different food preferences, language access barriers, or feel uncomfortable coming to a food pantry that might not understand their cultural background,” said Amanda McGimpsey, manager of the Culturally Responsive Food Initiative. “We want to make sure as an organization we are serving all of our community in an equitable way.”
Eight counties participated in the initial phase of the pilot program: Denver, Morgan, Garfield, Pitkin, and Eagle in Colorado, and Sweetwater, Fremont, and Hot Springs in Wyoming. With collaborative help from partners in those counties, Food Bank of the Rockies and Food Bank of Wyoming were able to survey more than 100 local cultural and community organizations and agencies about client demographics, food recommendations, and communication channels. From there, more than 7,000 food-preference surveys were distributed to a representative sample of clients in eight languages: Amharic, Arabic, English, French, Russian, Somali, Spanish, and Vietnamese.
Once all the survey data was collected, the Food Banks’ project team developed customized food lists and sent them to community partners to be vetted. Once approved, the sourcing department began to seek sourcing channels for the preferred foods and, once acquired, made them available for distribution through Food Bank’s Hunger Relief Partners in Colorado and Wyoming.
Culturally relevant foods began to be available to clients during the 2020 holiday season and immediately garnered an enthusiastic response. Nubia Saenz, a community engagement volunteer, said that December’s mobile pantry in Fort Morgan, Colorado, was extra special because the boxes included masa, tortillas, beans, and rice. “This area is very dominantly Hispanic, so during the holidays it is always such a huge blessing to have [ingredients to make] tamales,” she said. “To tailor these boxes to the community we’re in is a huge, huge advantage [for clients]. It brings a sense of home.”
In Roaring Fork Valley, where Avalon orders the food for distributions, the reaction has been just as positive. “I ask people how they are liking the food, and they’ll say, ‘I love that we’re getting eggs and tortillas.’ I hear that all the time,” she said. Other requested items, such as dried beans, masa, oil, and fresh produce like tomatillos, have also become available. “To me, the most client dignity comes from client choice,” said Avalon.
Despite the challenges of the pandemic, the Culturally Responsive Food Initiative pilot project successfully created a sustainable operation that helps Food Bank of the Rockies and Food Bank of Wyoming be more culturally responsive in all of their operations. The program was so successful, in fact, it has since been expanded to include Food Bank’s entire 53-county service area.
“There were a lot of things we weren’t able to do, like going and having in-person conversations, but we’ve been able to find creative solutions to how we can incorporate feedback from the community and from our food pantry users,” said Amanda. “There are so many more opportunities that will open up, and we have the foundation built already.”
Feeding America is the nation’s largest domestic hunger-relief organization with a network of 200 member food banks across the country. The COVID-19 Response Fund helps food banks across the country as they serve the most vulnerable members of the community