At Elijah’s Promise in New Brunswick, New Jersey, food is more than charity—it’s a way to build connections in the community. Along with a soup kitchen, the nonprofit runs a workforce training program through which people can get vocational degrees in pastry baking or culinary arts, an urban agriculture space, cooking classes, a commercial kitchen for local food businesses, and Mercado Esperanza, a monthly community market where those businesses can sell their goods, and where local dance troupes and musicians perform.
COVID-19 changed some of that, though. More people were in need of the soup kitchen, for one. The monthly market also couldn’t operate, and vendors who relied on Mercado Esperanza to sell their wares were suddenly at a loss. Before the pandemic, New Brunswick had a poverty rate of 33%. Anthony Capece, associate director at Elijah’s Promise, was worried about how a community already on the economic fringes would fare.
But the nonprofit was able to pivot. It ramped up its social services, even helping people sign up for unemployment, and though programs including Mercado Esperanza had to be put on hold, the nonprofit was able to still provide an economic opportunity to those business owners who aren’t able to vend. Elijah’s Promise invited them into the commercial kitchen and paid them $15 an hour to make extra meals.
Elijah’s Promise is one example of how investments in small food, art, and community institutions can help neighborhoods handle a crisis, according to a new report from the Kresge Foundation, a private philanthropic foundation that gives grants to community development efforts. Kresge runs the “Fresh, Local & Equitable Initiative,” nicknamed FreshLo, which focuses specifically on these hyper-local investments. The Mercado Esperanza project was one grantee; FreshLo funding helped create “Friends of the Mercado,” a steering committee made up of local residents to guide the market.
FreshLo has been investing in such community initiatives since 2015, and to date has provided $8.4 million in grant funding, as well as technical assistance and education opportunities, to 23 organizations across the country. Capece says the request for proposals from Kresge focused on smaller and medium-size cities, which allowed Elijah’s Promise to tell its story in the context of New Brunswick, not in competition with larger cities, which tend to have more capital. “When philanthropy starts to focus at that local level, it’s just going to be a level of capital that these agencies have never seen before,” he says. “It creates this momentum, it creates this notoriety, and it really like, allows a lot of innovative projects that work perfectly well for the context of the community that these organizations find themselves in.”
This local funding is always important for communities, says Stacey Barbas, a senior program officer on the health team at Kresge, but it also sets up these communities to better handle a crisis. “The pandemic has really hit at the community-level very hard. [It’s] not unusual for these communities that are typically under-resourced and underserved to feel the brunt of this,” she says. But remarkably, she’s seen neighborhoods band together, even without larger governmental aid. “They’re working to keep each other fed, make sure that people are housed, make sure that people are protected. . . . Those hyper-local organizations around the community, those who have already have relationships and connections with each other, they use those relationships to pivot and then quickly address the pandemic.”
It’s clear, Barbas says, that this sort of neighborhood strength and resourcing is essential to how a community weathers hardship. But to be able to do that, it has to be supported long before a crisis happens.
The Kresge report details the success of FreshLo in general, both for revitalizing low-income neighborhoods and for increasing local access to healthy and affordable foods. More than 6,200 community residents and 490 artists have participated in the planning process of community development efforts, and more than 350 residents have directly received pay for working at a FreshLo-supported food enterprise. This local investment has brought residents together, built local democratic economics with strong community leaders, and integrated together food, art, and culture in a neighborhood.
During a pandemic, those benefits are even bigger. The report highlights how the 23 FreshLo grantees pivoted to support their communities even as government programs failed to materialize. “What this particular initiative has taught us is the importance of spending investment in food and art and those projects that create a sense of place and community,” Barbas says, “because once the foundation is gone, the community now has this infrastructure to not only work within its community but to help when other things like a pandemic come along.”
Barbas hopes other philanthropists see the value in such hyper-local investments, as well. During a national crisis like the pandemic, it may seem best for charities to doll out broad, sweeping aid, or for national nonprofits to receive the bulk of support. But these local community groups are incredibly effective, per the report, even though they’ve long been under-resourced. “Local knowledge and relationships to community are the strongest safety net that philanthropy can support,” she says.