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How Community Based Organisations in America are Mitigating Barriers to Food

Updated: Jun 11, 2020

By Sadia Bundgaard

In mid-February, 2020, I was sent a proposal by UC Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy, to see if I would be interested in conducting an impact study for a California based non-profit organisation. This Spring is the final semester of my one year, mid-career Masters in public policy, and this study would be part of my Capstone project. When I read through the proposal, I was immediately drawn; an assessment of food insecurity and a school pantry project headed by White Pony Express (WPE). What made it even more compelling was the organisation funding both WPE, and this particular impact assessment; Women Forward International

Things moved on rather fast, and I started almost forthwith. WPE was formed in 2014, with the goal to help eliminate hunger and poverty, starting at home in Contra Costa County. WPE’s school pantry programme had been running for almost five years, together with other initiatives. One of the biggest advantages to being a small, community based organisation is that you are able to move swiftly, without a heavy machinery to boggle you down, whilst also having the in-depth knowledge of the local communities whom you seek to serve. This is one of the main reasons why when the big international aid agencies operate in the field – often in complex settings – they establish partnerships with national and local civil society organisations, as these have access to knowledge and a network that is unmatched. It also means that it is often the smaller organisations that are able to produce fast results in a short time. This has certainly been the case with WPE, and their simple model appealed to many businesses and donor organisations, such as WFI.

WPE’s simple, yet impactful model is premised on addressing two trends that are having a harmful effect on both humans and the environment; the colossal amounts of food that goes to waste every year in America and the equally growing number of households that are becoming food insecure. In Contra Costa County, approximately 10% (over 116,000 people) live below the poverty level. Concomitantly, the U.S. has one of the highest rates of food wastage in the developed world, with an estimated 40% of food going to waste each year. WPE’s approach was to create a programme that would partner with retailers, who wished to distribute surplus food and goods to those in need. Hunger and Structural Inequality Still Impact Women and Children the Hardest

Data from 2017 reveals that households with children have a substantially higher rate of food insecurity (15.7%) than those without children (10.1%). Approximately 13 million children in the US do not have enough food to eat. The impact on children who experience food insecurity is staggering, and they are at a higher risk of developing asthma, struggling with anxiety or depression, and performing poorly in school or physical activities. Evidence also shows that food insecurity rates are the highest among female, single-headed households, together with households with an income levels below the poverty line. WPE’s School Pantry Programme aims to target specifically these two demographics by setting up pantry programmes in the poorest districts of Contra Costa county. The Food-Environment Nexus California is one of the most progressive states when it comes to climate policy and action. As such, the State of California’s recycling board (CalRecycle) established a State Bill (SB1383), which requires food producers in California to reduce their disposal of organic waste by 50% in 2020 and by 75% in 2025. The longer term objectives behind this Bill is to reduce greenhouse gas production and air pollution by drastically cutting down on waste that ends up in landfills. This is also in line with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal objectives; specifically Goals 2 and 12.

One such measure is to educate and encourage businesses to not chuck away food and – instead – to donate excess amounts to organisations, who are able to distribute food to those in need. WPE’s model fits wholly into this strategy in that they have already established several partnerships with corporate as well as non-corporate businesses and the organisation is working with CalRecycle and Central Contra Costa County Solid Waste (Recycle Smart) to educate businesses on their options for diverting food waste from the waste stream. Impact Metrics are a Key Determinant for Assessing Programme Outreach and Tailoring Response to Target Beneficiaries in the most Effective Way Possible Documenting interventions is a crucial part of programme roll out. Not only is it a key metric for measuring effectiveness, but it also tells you what might or might not be working/having the intended outcome. This in turn will help programmes design better intervention to achieve the desired goals. Now, five years into the first pantry programme roll-out, WPE – together with Women Forward – want to measure impact at a more meaningful level.

WPE has primarily grown as a community based, volunteer organisation, with limited funds. As such, the focus has been on delivery and service, rather than setting up stringent metrics for impact analyses. What has changed – however – is that they have grown in size and reach as an organisation in a relatively short time. This now necessitates setting up structures that can measure impact. WPE has, up until now, primarily focused their food pantry data collection on the number of distributions and the pounds/weightage of food delivered. While being mindful of the fact that they currently have limited capacity to expand their data collection efforts to better capture the end users of their programme, they are, however, well aware that this is a key programme capacity that needs to be developed in order to grow as an accountable organisation, both internally and externally.

After a few initial meetings, and going through strategic documents, I discovered the need for a rapid baseline assessment. Since WPE had hitherto not conducted any form of impact analysis or assessments, there was no baseline or disaggregated data of the beneficiaries of their school pantry programme. Since it is not possible to gather quantitative or qualitative data on end users retroactively, we therefore agreed that I would design a rapid quantitative survey, which would help us capture baseline data on end users, and showcase how the programme is improving the lives of those who are most vulnerable. The survey design was simple, so that it could be conducted in a short amount of time. I also chose to keep the format anonymous, with no personal markers. The reason for this was to ensure a higher rate of participation, as some people might not be willing to go on the record, even though they would otherwise have no issues providing basic feedback that would help strengthen and improve the services rendered under the WPE school pantry programme. This was a particularly important determinant to consider in the survey design given the demographics of the overall Contra Costa County, which comprise a large Hispanic population – not least potential undocumented individuals. Anonymity would help create the safe space needed to ensure feedback. The volunteer enumerators were also guided in how to ensure that the information was communicated well and the questions understood as accurately as possible to avoid errors and bias.

The goal was to collect between 500-800 surveys, which would inform the primary baseline data needed for an assessment and analysis of the WPE school pantry programme. This would then be triangulated with secondary data and desk review research. In my next journal, I will share what happens when force majeure is declared – in this case the Covid- 19 emergency – and how important it is to always operate with contingency planning, no matter how impermeable your plans may seem. (accessed 24.02.2020) (accessed 24.02.2020) (accessed 21.02.2020) (accessed 21.02.2010). (accessed 31.03.2020)


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