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USC center teams with Coachella Valley food bank on community poverty project

A needs assessment will look at which specific areas are preventing families from feeding themselves

With food banks throughout the country facing increased demand, the Sol Price Center for Social Innovation (Price CSI) has partnered with FIND Food Bank in the Coachella Valley to develop interventions that get at the root of food insecurity.

Price CSI, which is housed in the USC Price School of Public Policy, will build an integrated data platform the community can use to track indicators of opportunity, social connectedness and risk.

“Our focus is looking for innovative solutions to end urban poverty,” said Professor Gary Painter, director of social policy for the center. “While not all of the Coachella Valley is what we’d classify as urban, the kinds of challenges it faces are part and parcel to the challenges faced in urban areas in the U.S. and throughout the world. It’s a great opportunity to support a community that is already coming together with technical expertise.”

Searching for sustainable solutions

FIND received a $500,000, three-year grant from Feeding America. The Laura and John Arnold Foundation funded just five of these community pilots across the country. Price CSI will play a major role in the first year’s focus — a needs assessment that will look at what specific areas are preventing families from feeding themselves so that the nonprofit partners will know where interventions could make the most significant impact.

As our organization has grown bigger, the number of people in the community needing food keeps growing.

Maura Daly

“As our organization has grown bigger, the number of people in the community needing food keeps growing,” said Maura Daly, chief external affairs officer at Feeding America. “We’re barely keeping up with needs. So the question became, how can we truly make a difference in the lives of these people we serve? These community pilots are the beginning of our journey of investing at a community level to test some of the concepts and approaches we find promising.”

Having Price CSI on board was a big part of FIND (Food in Need of Distribution) getting the grant. A strong data partner was a requirement of the process from which FIND was chosen from about 35 food-bank applicants in the Feeding America network.

The collaboration started when Heather Vaikona, director of community investment at FIND, attended the “Prioritizing Place” national forum on place-based initiatives, convened by Price CSI and the Center on Philanthropy and Public Policy in December 2014.

Vaikona was unaware of Price CSI when she signed up to attend, but knew she needed a strong academic partner to help guide the work. She was introduced to Painter and later emailed him about FIND’s plans, recognizing that they were aligned with the center’s mission.

Our partnership with the Sol Price Center for Social Innovation really drove forward our ability to do this work.

Heather Vaikona

“Our partnership with the Sol Price Center for Social Innovation really drove forward our ability to do this work,” Vaikona said. “Each pilot site was required to have a data partner, someone who has the capacity to ground our work in evidenced-based decisions. Even though USC is 120 miles away from us in the desert, there is not another school of public policy or anyone else near us that has the capacity of Dr. Painter and the center.”

Coachella Valley has a particularly high rate of poverty. According to Vaikona, FIND served 50,000 people a month and 6 million pounds of food in 2009, and in 2014, that total was up to 96,000 people a month and 11 million pounds of food. That’s more than 25 percent of the area’s population — an unsustainable growth rate for the food bank.

Teamwork needed

It will require a collective effort to impact all the areas that contribute to food insecurity. FIND’s early partners have a common concern for reaching and serving clients. Partners include United Way of the Desert, Regional Access Project Foundation, Desert Healthcare District and the Riverside County Economic Development Agency.

Food bank truck

The project is aimed at eliminating food insecurity in the Coachella Valley. (Photo/courtesy of FIND Food Bank)

“After three years, we hope to have a clearer understanding of the challenges residents face, and I think Gary is constantly moving us from the continuum of data to story,” Vaikona said. “We hope to build local capacity to use data to effectively make decisions. We hope to have a huge influence on how all sectors have a role to play in making our resources more effective for and accessible to residents.”

Price CSI signed on to lead the data exploration in the first year of the project. The second year focuses on identifying a work plan and activating action networks. And the third year concentrates on sustaining the effort. Since it will likely take 10-plus years to see dramatic changes in the area, Vaikona said she hopes to keep the relationship with the center going as long as possible.

Painter and executive director Richard Parks are leading the effort at the center, which also involves postdoctoral researcher Jung Hyun Choi, USC Price PhD student Matthew Miller, Master of Public Policy students Sean Angst and Rachel Huguet, and Master of Planning student Gwen von Klan.

Policy areas

The researchers are currently gathering data around nine policy areas: food security, health, housing, employment/income, transportation, education, environment, public safety and social connectedness/civic engagement. Once the data has been compiled, the researchers will use their mapping and visualization skills to analyze the results.

Vaikona credits the respect the center commands for its past work in the City Heights neighborhood of San Diego for getting data from county offices that don’t normally share with local and nonprofit organizations.

For the center, which launched at the end of 2011, this project marks the first opportunity to do a large-scale funded project outside of City Heights.

“It’s an exciting opportunity to take the first step in tackling the kind of work that we expect to be doing over the center’s duration,” Painter said. “The data collection work will help catalyze new research on Southern California.”

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USC center teams with Coachella Valley food bank on community poverty project

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