Food for Health is an AHF program dedicated to addressing food insecurity, or individuals’ and communities’ limited access to healthy food. This week, we speak with two of the program’s catalysts about what Food for Health is, does, and means to the people who benefit from it each day.
Food for Health
How AHF is serving public health, starting with meeting basic nutritional needs
Whitney Engeran-Cordova is the Vice President of Public Health Programs for AHF.
Carlos Marroquin is the National Director of Food for Health Programs at AHF.
CORE TOPICS + DETAILS:
[2:15] - The Current State
Problems Food for Health is built to address
First up in our conversation, Whitney succinctly addresses the primary issues relating to food insecurity.
“Most food delivery systems are done at a very local level, obviously through churches and through other kinds of institutions. Some of those tend to not be as stable as we would like them to be in terms of how they get the food, how they distribute it.”
Food for Health was designed to bring stability to this system.
[3:38] - Three Models for Success
Varying methods for getting food where it’s needed
The first model for food delivery is food pantries, built to serve people who desperately need food at a very low cost or for free. They offer food that’s healthy, fresh, and designed to meet nutritional needs.
The second model is the AHF Marketplace, which is essentially a storefront. These small grocery stores offer food for sale at very affordable prices, especially designed to be oases in “food deserts”— places where healthy, fresh, and nutritious food is difficult or impossible to find.
Finally, the third model is an experimental concept in which AHF develops a restaurant-style environment. People can come and eat food that’s priced very, very low to be affordable for everyone. This concept is designed to serve people who don’t have the ability to cook their own meals and want hot, well-prepared meals.
[11:59] - The Beginnings of Food for Health
Seeing and meeting dramatic need
Carlos emphasizes that even though the pandemic put food insecurity issues into stark relief, those issues were already quite present before then.
“We saw lines at the food banks that literally people had to wait for hours to get food, and that was prior to the pandemic. When the pandemic hit, it was chaos because now people couldn't go to work, now people were losing their jobs and there was no access to food. There was very little access. And the regional food banks…were struggling to keep up with the demand.”
AHF leaders such as Carlos and Whitney saw there was a need for long-term solutions, not just short-term fixes. This was how Food for Health was born.
[14:32] - The Next Step in A Legacy of Service
Passionate messages on the future of AHF
Whitney and Carlos both believe that this historical moment is a pivotal one when it comes to serving human need worldwide, both for AHF as an organization and each of us as individuals.
“This is the time,” Whitney says, “for us to really lean in. Whether it's about food, whether it's about housing, whether it is about advocacy and holding government accountable for its actions, whether it is in healthcare… this is our time to be of maximum use to the people that we serve.
“AHF was founded on the premise of taking care of those who were dying and giving them a death … with dignity. That turned into other things, and as that turned into our healthcare, it's now turned into our housing, it's turned into food, it's turned into our care for people in STI clinics. It's turned into so many elements of what we've done…This is really in service of our overall greater mission and that it is perfectly in keeping with what we do and what we know we do well, and that this is our time in this global moment to be of maximum service to those that we serve and to our communities.”
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Hello and welcome to the After Hours podcast. I'm your host, Lauren Hogan, serving as your liaison to take you through this journey to learn more about AIDS Healthcare Foundation. Before we start the show, please make sure to remember to check out the show notes so you can follow along. Now, let's get started.
Hello everyone and welcome back to another episode of the After Hours podcast. As always, I'm your host, Lauren Hogan, and today I'm excited for this episode because we get to touch on a new subsidiary of AHF that's helping so many people within our community, and that is Food for Health. So today I have two special guests joining me who are literally the catalysts in getting this program up and running. So really quick you guys, just introduce yourself and we'll get right into it. So Whitney, we'll start with you.
Hi, I'm Whitney Engeran-Cordova. I'm the Vice President of Public Health Programs for AHF.
Hi, my name is Carlos Marroquin. I am the National Director for Food for Health Programs, AHF.
So first question, really easy for you guys, what is Food for Health and why did we feel like we needed to start it?
Hey, take that Carlos. Go ahead.
Well, Food for Health program is a new program that was established a little bit over a year ago, and we are here to address food insecurity. And look, the fact is that there are millions of people that don't have access to healthy food, don't have access to a supermarket because it may not be nearby, and simply because the cost of food is just too expensive. And people that are ill need food to be able to survive.
Just to add to that a little bit, AHF typically gets involved in issues ... Right now we're involved in three pillar issues for people's health and for the public's health. One is obviously healthcare. We take care of 1.6 million people in 45 countries. The second is housing. We have begun really working on housing availability and trying to find new and innovative ways to make sure that people have housing. And the third pillar for a person to live is really their food and having food and the ability to eat. And so we really decided to open this program for a couple of reasons. One was to try to find new ways to deliver food. Most food delivery systems are done at a very local level, obviously through churches and through other kinds of institutions. Some of those tend to not be as stable as we would like them to be in terms of how they get the food, how they distribute it.
We wanted to find new ways to do it. So we've developed three models really, of how we want to deliver food, and that's what we're working on developing those three models. And I can go into it or Carlos can go into it. I don't know if you want to keep going with the questions or do that.
Go ahead. By all means.
So how about I'll talk about the three models and then Carlos, if you want to maybe talk about some of the specifics of those models. So the first model is what we call the food pantry, and that is really where we find places where people really need food and they need that food for free. And so we now have two locations, which I'll let Carlos talk about, where we're providing food for free and we're putting food together that's healthy, fresh produce, other kinds of things, and we're working with local partners, local farms. In particular, we're looking for small, local farms, not corporate farms that we can work with that support local business. We want to keep the carbon footprint pretty small, so we'd like to find the food in areas that are close by, to where we're being of service so that we don't really add to the issues of the environment. And Carlos, do you want to describe where we have the pantry, and then I'll talk about the others?
Yes. So our food pantries are located in Los Angeles and we look for particular areas that are food deserts where the most vulnerable people live. So we have one here in Los Angeles on Eighth and Alvarado area in the Westlake area of Los Angeles.
That's at St. Clair, right? That's at one of our hotels.
Yes, at the St. Clair. And the other location is over at Fort Lauderdale at our Brower House partners that we have started actually as a community farmer's market. So we are really excited about those two because we have seen this far, being able to serve over 68,000 people in the short time that we have been in existence.
About a year, right?
So that's the first model, which is to be able to give out food for free. And we're going to be expanding that model. In 2023, we're looking to open at least two new locations. And right now we're talking with our partners, our affiliates, and all of our different regions to see where would be the best places for us to really open that up. In particular, we're looking at Chicago and we're looking at Houston to try to find places where we can really expand and be of service to communities. So that's our first model, the AHF Food Pantry. The second model we have is the AHF Marketplace where we're trying to create basically a store. It's like a small grocery store, but the idea of this grocery store is that we put it in again, in food deserts or in areas that are in the most need.
And then we buy food and sell it at a price that is below what is being offered anywhere around, and we take EBT or food stamps to be able to hopefully make food go further. So we have made arrangements with food wholesalers, again working with local farms, and we take that food and we discount it to the point where people are getting between 15 to 20% more food with their dollar than they would otherwise. And so by selling the food at a lower price, that allows us to then continue to create more markets, create more spaces where people can buy food without us having to subsidize the entire effort. Instead, we're just making sure that people get a real bang for their buck in order to do that. So Carlos, you want to tell them where we have our-
Yeah, and I think that the other thing that is really important, and it's going to be key for us is as we begin to open up more of these marketplaces is we able to identify food deserts, because there's many people that literally have to drive miles or take a bus for miles to be able to access affordable food. So we're very proud of the fact that we do partner with a local farm, family owned, and we are able to bring fresh products, fresh produce and fruits to our marketplaces. So it's really unique.
And then the third, real quick, we're looking at developing and we're still working on this one, is a way to have a restaurant environment where people are able to come and eat and they're able to get that food at a very, very low price, so that we can try to take not only people who need food to take home to their families or cook, but if people don't have the ability to cook or don't cook, then we have some places where people can get hot food or hot meals. We want those hot meals to be good, we want them to be done by people who really care about food, and then we want to sell that at a very low price. The other thing I'll mention just real quick is that we're trying to find ways to innovate these models.
So I want to give you an example. I really want to give Carlos so much credit for this because he really thought about this. One of the things that's been real tough has been the line, for instance, that wraps around for our food pantry at the St. Clair. We would have people lining up five, six hours, even more in advance and wrapping around the building waiting for food, and that was a real challenge on a number of fronts. One, it was a challenge to the neighborhood because we had people lining up at three o'clock in the morning, four o'clock in the morning, and there were neighbors and other businesses there that needed to operate. But in addition to that, that wasn't the message we wanted to send. We didn't want people to have to wait in line for hours in order to receive food. We really wanted them to feel more like customers coming to a store and getting the food that they need and really improve that customer experience.
So Carlos and his team developed an electronic line where people are able to register for the line in advance and then people can come in at the appointed time to pick up their food, and we have really eliminated that line. So finding ways to improve the customer experience, to make it more seamless, to find ways of really treating our customers with respect as they come in. Just because somebody needs help doesn't mean they shouldn't be respected and we really wanted to make sure that they felt respected and not having to stand in line for hours on end. So Carlos and his team have really done a really great job in developing that, and just finding unique and interesting ways to deliver these services that are both health conscious, environmentally conscious, and also ways that are sustainable for us to be able to provide that for a long time.
So I kind of want to talk about when AHF really realized that there was this need, and I want to talk about this because I saw some of this too with some of the food drives we did initially. So what part do you guys think that COVID actually played in contributing to food insecurity? I know that when I also participate with our affinity group Black, and we had some food drives, we partnered with some local organizations and for me, it was so shocking to see who actually needed food. People think that, "Oh, you can't afford it, so it's low income folks." And COVID showed us that that wasn't the case, it was everybody from A to Z that were really suffering from food insecurity. And you guys' opinion, how do you think COVID-19 affected what we needed to do around helping with this food crisis, honestly, that we were going into?
Well, I'll tell you, one of the first events that we did was in Atlanta, and that really opened my eyes, because there were people from all walks of life coming to get food that needed help. And so COVID-19 played a huge, huge part in us deciding that this was something we needed to get involved in, because the legs were knocked out from under so many families, that need. I was just joking before we started this podcast, my son and his wife and my three grandchildren still live with us. They lost their housing and their jobs at the beginning of the pandemic. Both college graduates, doing a lot of good stuff, but they didn't have any place to be and they moved back in with us. So I think it played a huge role. Carlos, what do you think?
Yeah, well the fact of the matter is that people were suffering prior to the pandemic. They were already struggling. We saw lines at the food banks that literally people had to wait for hours to get food, and that was prior to the pandemic. When the pandemic hit, it was chaos because now people couldn't go to work, now people were losing their jobs and there was no access to food. It was very little access. And the regional food banks and everything, they were struggling to keep up with the demand. So I think that for us being able to come in as the pandemic was ending, it showed a lot of leadership and showed that we understood that the problem was going to be long-term. It's not short-term, this thing that is going to get fixed next year, whatever is not going to happen, actually the predictions are that it's going to get worse. So I think that be able to understand that, that the need is great, especially in vulnerable communities, it helps us to understand where we need to be.
I want to make the point that as the COVID-19 pandemic became apparent so quickly and affected so many segments of our society, I just want to remind our listeners and particularly our staff that we have been serving people in that are victims of a pandemic for over 30 years. We know this. We know what pandemics look like, we know what it is to be of service. Now this COVID pandemic obviously affected almost every level of society, and obviously the country locked down and the world kind of locked down, but we know how to do this. And so what I think is particularly important for all of us at AHF to know is that we were built for these moments. We were built for this time. We were built for addressing and seeing large scale problems and addressing them. And so what I would say to all the AHFers listening or anybody listening is that this is the time for us to do our best good.
This is the time for us to really lean in. Whether it's about food, whether it's about housing, whether it is about advocacy and holding government accountable for its actions, whether it is in healthcare, this is our time to be of maximum use to the people that we serve. And so this is one new element of our ability to be of service, but it is in a long tradition of the work that AHF has done since its founding. If you recall, AHF was founded on the premise of taking care of those who were dying and giving them a death ... people were going to die of AIDS at that time and the lifespan was very, once you were diagnosed, it wasn't very long before a lot of people died, and Michael and the founders wanted people to die with dignity.
That turned into other things, and as that turned into our healthcare, it's now turned into our housing, it's turned into food, it's turned into our care for people in STI clinics. It's turned into so many elements of what we've done. And so I really want to make that point that this is really in service of our overall greater mission and that it is perfectly in keeping with what we do and what we know we do well, and that this is our time in this global moment to be of maximum service to those that we serve and to our communities.
Absolutely. Another thing I wanted to touch on that you guys have kind of said too is the partnership aspect. You guys are partnered with local farmers to get all fresh, organic food, nothing's processed, nothing is dwindled down with preservatives and additives and those types of things. So how did you guys develop these relationships with these local farmers to actually get food into our spaces?
Well, it was really important for us to do that, because I have served at different capacities in different food banks, and most of the food that we see coming to a lot of the pantries and our food that is donated and it's almost expired, and that's heartbreaking because as Whitney says, we have to give people dignity. And being able to give people good, fresh food was important to us. So we visited several farms and we were able to contact one of the local farms. They are in Riverside and also in Santa Maria, and small farms, but their products are fresh. So they literally cut the products a day before they bring them to us. That's how fresh they are. So that's how we've been able to do it. We make sure that these are people that knew their stuff and they do know their stuff. They knew farming, they love farming. And for us to be able to lift different groups as we are lifting the community is key, and it's important because it shows the kind of organization this is about.
I think that's an important element is making sure not only are we trying to help our clients, but we're trying to help the small business community, because we saw what the effect of the pandemic had on small business. And so if we can help, we are being very mindful of who we're working with, who we're contracting with and how we're doing that because we want to try to do it in the best possible way.
And so I think that's also a new innovation, but I think it may be just part of the time we live in, but we are being very careful of the sources of the food. We're being very careful of the people that we're working with, and we're trying to make sure that at every level, this program is being of service, and that includes the provider community including the farms, because this is again a small business, family-owned. They are the coolest folks. Love them to death. They invited us out into the farm. We sat down at a little restaurant that they run that is part of the farm, and it's really quite something.
And Lauren, something else that is really important that we are doing is we're making sure that there is no waste. So we have programs set up so that when some of the stuff that we are not able to sell, let's say at the marketplace, we work with local organizations that fit the beyond house like the Hollywood Food Coalition. So we donate this food. We donate a lot of the products that we are not able to sell, and in the process, we have also helped other organizations like shelters, women's shelters, there's other groups even including churches that have struggled to have food to serve their communities. We have done a lot of different events, popups, if you will, in South central East LA. We just recently joined the East LA Pharmacy where we are able to bring some fresh produce to their Christmas event. And being able to just be there with them and see how these programs are really impacting not only the MacArthur Park area community, but just in general all over, whatever we invited, we have been there for them.
So this is such an amazing program, and I know you guys talked about us being in Los Angeles and Florida, but what does expansion look like? Are you guys looking to expand into other cities or states?
We are. So we're looking at Chicago right now. We're looking at Houston. We're really trying to be targeted in finding the places where resources and food deserts and where there's really the greatest need. We need to make this sustainable. We need to make sure that we're able to continue to build the program. Just like in any AHF community ... I've been at with AHF now for 16 years, and one of the things that has been so amazing to me is that when we make a commitment to a community, we don't break it. And that is here in the United States, that is all over the world. There are some places where we provide healthcare where we're the only healthcare provider for HIV and AIDS in that community, in that village, in that town.
So when we make a commitment, we believe that commitment, it means that we stay. So when we are looking at how to build Food for Health, we want to make sure that we are going to communities in the most need and that we are providing the best service we can there. So I think Chicago and Houston are the places we're looking at right now. We're also looking at some other locations in Florida to see where we can launch. But we're getting requests from all the bureaus, from our Northern Bureau, our Southern Bureau, and our Western Bureau at AHF to bring programs there. And so we're looking at each one, and you'll see a steady growth for Food for Health, but one that has to be sustainable and we have to find government partners to help us and others to really make sure that that operation remains sustainable.
And just to be clear, anybody can use this program, correct? It's not specific for just one community or one demographic. Anybody can use our Food for Health program?
We have people coming from miles away. Like say for example in over Florida, we are in Fort Lauderdale. We got people from South Miami coming over there to get food. Here in LA, one of the things we look at some of the data that we're receiving. We ask people usually their zip code, how many people in their families. But when we look at the zip codes where people are coming from, it's unreal how far some of these people travel just to come and get some food.
And there are no requirements for using Food for health. We certainly want it to go to those who are in the most need. But if you're coming and you're showing up, we're going to assume that you're in need and we're going to help you.
And it is the same thing at the marketplace. People are coming from different places because the food is affordable. We hear all the time, "Wow, these prices are great." The other thing that we're establishing is being able to work with the clinics and the well centers, the pharmacy, because there's some people that just cannot afford to buy food and they need to take food with the medication that they're receiving. So right now, we're creating a voucher program where we're going to be able to assist those people that cannot afford food and they need to have it with their medication.
Amazing. So we are at time, guys. So I do have one final question for you guys before we sign off. How do people get involved? You guys talked about you fed over 68,000 people this year. It's a lot to take on. So if people want to get involved and help, how can they do that?
You could go to our website at foodforhealthahs.org, and there's a place where you could sign up to volunteer. And we do take volunteers. We love volunteers. By the way, our pantries are operated by volunteers. So we're very proud of that because a lot of these volunteers actually have come from the line. We invited those people that are standing in line to see if they want to volunteer. And you'd be surprised sometimes, they're fighting over here because they all want to volunteer. So we have people from all kinds of walks of life that are joining us. One of the volunteers in particular that I like to mention, she came to the marketplace, she's in a wheelchair, Jezel. And I asked her, I say ... She actually came one of our affiliate groups, [inaudible 00:24:33], and they came to look at the place out there and I looked at her and she was in the corner in her wheelchair, and I walked to her and I say, "Hey, I need some help. Do you think you want to volunteer?"
She looked at me, then she looked at her wheelchair, she looked at me again, she looked at her wheelchair. And I said, "Yes, I need your help." And she looked at me like, "Do you understand that I'm in a wheelchair?" And that's not an issue. So to make it shorter here, she came. I gave her the address to come to the pantry. She came that Tuesday and she has not left since then. She's one of our top volunteers. She comes in her wheelchair and we make space for her. So it's all about volunteering and giving the people an opportunity to participate.
And if any AHF staff want to get involved, I encourage you to reach out to Carlos and to reach out to the Food for Health team. Reach out to me and we'll get you hooked up if you want to come and help. We'd love to have you come and help.
Well, thank you both so much. This has been an amazing episode, and you guys are doing such great work. And we look forward to seeing what you guys do in the future to help all of these folks that are in need. So thank you.
Thanks so much, Lauren.
Thank you so much for joining us. If you enjoyed this episode and you'd like to help support the show, please subscribe, share it with your friends, like, post about it on social media, or leave a rating and review. Follow us on Instagram @afterhours, and see you next time.