Unlocking systems-level thinking in Cincinnati

Sustaining Momentum 

October 6, 2021

Green Umbrella, alongside The Health Collaborative and other partners, leads the Cincinnati project team. The team’s goal is to “amplify community voices in governance…[and] build bridges between the most marginalized community members and the most powerful,” according to Michaela Oldfield, director of the Greater Cincinnati Regional Food Policy Council at Green Umbrella, the team has successfully advocated for organizational policy changes and engaged close to 20 organizational representatives and community members in addressing food system inequities over the last year. 

However, community conditions have shifted slightly since the earlier days of the pandemic.

“We are seeing a decline in food needs, especially from the emergency food system...We are not just in crisis mode anymore,” Oldfield said in an interview earlier this month.

For communities that experienced a spike in the need for emergency food during the pandemic, priorities have started to shift away from getting food out to as many people as possible now that students are back in school and normal activities have resumed in many places across the country. And for a team like Cincinnati with a diverse range of partners, a decline in urgent food needs could mean a loss of momentum for their partners to be engaged in their project. 

Navigating this shift has enabled the team to prioritize working on an overall mission of ending hunger, not just providing emergency food. Yet the transition isn’t always easy.

“Focusing on the system's level work and not just band aid or programmatic solutions is really challenging,” Oldfield said. “For a lot of people, it's not immediately gratifying.”

To help work around this issue, Cincinnati has developed processes and structures to get their partners more directly involved in the development and implementation of more permanent solutions to food insecurity.

“We're often asking ourselves or our partners, ‘Where does this fit in the bigger systems issues? Are we getting at the root cause? Who is at the table making a decision?’ ”  Oldfield said. 

According to Oldfield, making sure community members and partners are really a part of the process of collecting ideas, deciding what to invest in and bringing together resources has enabled her team to feel motivated in identifying solutions to food insecurity that go beyond institutionalized charitable responses to hunger. 

Also, by broadening their focus from emergency food to talking about the root causes of hunger, opportunities have unfolded for Oldfield and her team to keep partners, especially their community advisory board, meaningfully engaged in their work. 

For one, the project team has had the opportunity to be more intentional in thinking about racial equity in their work. By participating in diversity, equity and inclusion training, Oldfield and her team have been able to think critically about white supremacy within the food system and ways to increase dignity for the people interacting with that system.

“One of the things that is coming through really loud and clear with a lot of our conversations with our community advisory board is the demand for dignity and choice,” Oldfield said. 

Acknowledging that this is a large issue within their city’s food system and a grave concern of their board, the team is currently working together to discuss and push for ways to improve choice for those engaging with the charitable food system. Those include posting a Google Form allowing people to submit ideas and working with the community advisory board and “neighborhood connectors” to evaluate submissions and put the ideas into place.

The Cincinnati team also has crafted various communications products to amplify the voices of their community members and provide a consistent platform for these voices to be heard. Community members have been able to share their own stories, in their own words, and at their own discretion, via a blog series. An added benefit is that the diverse experiences presented through the blog have helped spark a larger conversation around the structures holding food insecurity in place for some Cincinnati residents. 

Lastly, the development of community agreements has also helped the Cincinnati team to more formally keep their community members engaged in their work by fleshing out needs and expectations. Oldfield emphasized that having clear expectations can be important when trying to enhance collaborative work and sustain team momentum.

 “Setting community agreements at the beginning of the relationship, and then revisiting them keeps it front and center for you about why you even took on the project,” Oldfield said. 

One overarching goal for the Cincinnati project team: to secure funding to have these community voices and neighborhood experts continue to lead their work by bringing them on as full-time staff with a salary and benefits.

While they work to gradually accomplish this goal and develop more ways of meaningfully engaging their community, the Cincinnati team is one of many to watch. Their dedication to deepening their diverse partnerships and blending the expertise of their community into their work will be monumental in addressing food insecurity within Cincinnati. 

Stay updated on the accomplishments of the Cincinnati team by visiting their project page and viewing their community snapshot. You can also visit their website and blog.

Watch webinars on the latest science

COVID-19 Conversations APHA National Academy of Medicine