Does a $100,000 survey really payoff?

You may have seen on the front page of The Tribune last week a story about the Hunger Free Communities Grant the Food Bank Coalition received from the USDA.  The grant was $99, 561.  That’s a lot of money for a survey.  I knew when I read the article that people would have the same reaction I had when we applied for it: “That would feed a lot of people.  I’d rather have the money for program than a survey.”  However, this grant is far more precious to our county than $100,000 spent on a one-time food giveaway could ever be.

Edward Teller, who led the Manhattan Project that developed the hydrogen bomb, is often credited with the saying, “Knowledge is power.”  The wisdom behind this grant is that it will produce knowledge of the hunger realities in our county that we could not otherwise accumulate. Knowledge based on science, not opinions, or even solely the data that is collected by the Food Bank programs is what this grant offers. Scientific data taken from in-the-field studies is power, because it brings together the best information we have as non-profits. It also surveys the resources that we have to meet the needs of this county that are not already met. It explores how we might better serve those future needs, resulting in a Strategic Plan – a vision of the future and a pathway to get there.

The most powerful aspect of this grant, however, is that it will create a unique San Luis Obispo County version of a Food Policy Council (FPC).  Such councils exist in many variations in all parts of the country.  It is a gathering of people representing many groups, from non-profits, education, health, agriculture, business, and religious communities. They’re interested in improving access to healthy food for our food insecure neighbors, and recommending ways to our leadership to improve our county’s food system. Imagine leaders in our county working together, learning from one another, studying our uniqueness and creating a vision. This vision makes the most of its abundant resources in a responsible way to provide local healthy food, especially for those who currently may not have access.  We can accomplish here what seems to have been impossible lately at the state and national level – leaders that work together for the greater good of all.  We have decided to call our version of an FPC the Food System Coalition of San Luis Obispo County.

Someone has said it takes money to make money.  The same is true in grant writing.  Originally, we applied for money to feed hungry people from the produce of local farmers rather than importing.  Sounded like a good idea and in effect the USDA said, “We like the idea so much that we’ll give you a planning grant so that we will know these things: 1) You’ve thought it out fully as a community; 2) It is truly a county-wide endeavor with all the important stake-holders represented; and 3) That it has the sustainability to endure once the grant money been spent.  We can’t argue with that, and we feel honored that the USDA gave the Food Bank and San Luis Obispo County one of only nine other planning grants awarded nationwide.  What we hope will follow is an implementation grant – the next step in a two-stage process. That, of course, is much less likely now that so many seem to want to dismantle the good that the government can do for its people.  Fortunately, we have benefited – and will benefit for years to come from the investment the USDA has made in San Luis Obispo County.