Re-imagining the Work of Ending Hunger, Part 1

June 22, 2011

Please welcome Rev. Lisanne Finston, the Executive Director of Elijah’s Promise, to the Dodge blog today. Based in New Brunswick, Elijah’s Promise’s mission is to empower lives, invite justice, and alleviate hunger, which they do in many creative, thoughtful and entrepreneurial ways: from their culinary training program, to their community gardens initiative, to A Better World Cafe, their “pay what you can” community kitchen in Highland Park. Elijah’s Promise is rethinking the traditional models of alleviating and ending hunger. Read on:

Culinary students at Elijah's Promise

Culinary students at Elijah’s Promise preparing breads for A Better World Cafe (Monica Holder Photography)

By Rev. Lisanne Finston
Executive Director
Elijah’s Promise

There’s a lot of talk these days about “sustainability.” In the midst of this Great Recession (and from where I stand, it isn’t over yet!), we are all looking for ways to live more simply, support our local economy, reduce our “footprint”, care for those who are struggling to make ends meet, and ensure that we really do make things better in our community for the next generation.

At Elijah’s Promise, we have been talking about “sustainability” for many years. Our approach has been to work on developing more sources of locally grown food through purchasing directly from area farmers and expanding donations through groups like Farmers Against Hunger and Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Middlesex. Staff, volunteers and culinary students work hard to grow food, process this healthy food into delicious meals and freeze and store it for use year round. Imagine ratatouille made from Jersey Fresh tomatoes, squash and eggplant warming the palates and lifting the spirits of the homeless.

Harvesting kale and greens from the Garden for Hungry

Harvesting kale and greens from the “Garden for the Hungry” quarter acre plot at the Cooperative Extension of the Middlesex County EARTH Center

Lunch at the Soup Kitchen Elijah's Promise

Ratatouille prepared with locally grown ingredients

We are integrating this farm to table system into the soup kitchen, into culinary training, and catered meals for area schools and meals on wheels, and of course the sustainable fare at A Better World Café, all of which add up to over 200,000 meals of fresh healthy food into our local food system this year. Through this farm to table approach, we are combating the long-term and very expensive diseases of diabetes, high blood pressure, and obesity; and ensuring that our neighbors have good food to eat.

Each year we train over 70 people in culinary arts and place them in jobs throughout central New Jersey. These graduates, all formerly unemployed, are now working, paying taxes, paying rent, buying food, clothing and other goods for themselves and their families. Instead of taking money out of the “system,” these graduates are now putting significant resources back into our community, making it far more sustainable.

Culinary students at Elijah's Promise

Culinary students at Elijah’s Promise

We have developed a catering business and a café to create employment opportunities for the very people we feed and train, and at the same time, they generate revenue to support our programs. That’s “sustainable.”

This cycle of social good, which harnesses the power of food to feed people and fuel a stronger, healthier, more “sustainable” community, is taking root all over the nation. It’s about ending hunger, providing access to good food, promoting health, fostering a healthier environment, strengthening our agricultural base, and making thoughtful economic development decisions.

During this recession, as we witnessed the highest levels of food insecurity in decades and the growing recognition that obesity and diabetes are public health issues that are directly connected to diet and food access, there is more attention and greater opportunity to not only ensure people have enough to eat, but that they have access to healthy, good food and the tools to feed themselves.

This “food revolution” as it is referred to, is more than just a call to “eat local,” or “buy organic.” It is a real grassroots movement to re-tool a broken food system that has rewarded the values of fast, cheap and efficient at the expense of nutritious, sustainable and equitable food. From the McDonald’s dollar menu to the local soup kitchen and emergency food pantry, highly-processed food (laden with sodium, high fructose corn syrup and other realities of this broken food system), have forced those who struggle at the bottom of our economic ladder not only to confront the inequities of health, employment, education, and housing (to name a few), but also must hunger for good food—a basic need and a basic right.

If we are to really engage in the work of ending hunger in our communities, then we must do more than collect cans for our local emergency food center. We must work to re-tool the food system from the field to the fork. Join us and many others across the state and nation in this exciting work as we join together to build a healthy, just, sustainable food system, so all may eat, and all may eat well!

Stay tuned for Part 2 next Wednesday.

Images courtesy of Monica Holder Photography (where noted) and Elijah’s Promise