Originally published as a column in the May 19th edition of the Newburyport Daily News:
This week marks five years since Our Neighbors’ Table opened the Jardis-Taylor Center, a facility that provided a new home for staff, volunteers and a state-of-the-art grocery market and distribution warehouse.
Through the generosity of the lead benefactor, Greg Jardis of Amesbury, and the thousands of donors who contributed to the $1.1 million campaign to Create a Place at the Table for Everyone, ONT was able to offer a free, full-service grocery store in a setting that reflected its core values of "Service with Dignity and Community," according to ONT Executive Director Lyndsey Haight.
Haight said in a statement that over the last five years, ONT has surpassed its strategic goals, which included declaring Amesbury its first food-secure city in 2018; surpassing 1 million meals per year in 2018 (originally projected for 2020), distributing 5 million meals in five years; and opening a second community market in Newburyport in 2018.
ONT has also doubled the number of people served each year from 2,000 to more than 5,000, serving a total of 8,365 people in 4,218 households over five years; launched the regional Food Security Advisory Group and set a goal for a food-secure region by 2029; and served as a statewide and national model for guest-centered and equity-driven food access strategies.
Because of health restrictions during the pandemic, ONT is celebrating this special occasion through videos and interviews being shared on its website, ourneighborstable.org, and its Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn pages.
Our Neighbors’ Table is pleased to announce that we have been certified by Points of Light, the world’s largest organization dedicated to volunteer service, as a Service Enterprise! Achieving Service Enterprise certification is a prestigious accomplishment for an organization. Our Neighbors’ Table has joined the top 11 percent of nonprofits nationwide in volunteer management and organizational performance. Certification signifies that organizations have the capability and management expertise to strategically use volunteers to improve the performance of their organization.
ONT completed an extensive assessment, over 20 hours of training and coaching, and an extensive internal planning process to continue to improve how we integrate volunteers in all aspects of our organization and service delivery. By achieving this level of excellence and certification, Our Neighbors’ Table is now optimizing how we leverage the time and talent of volunteers to achieve our goal of universal food access.
“As an organization that operated solely with volunteers for 18 years, it was an important exercise for our team of staff to understand the unique context of working in a volunteer-led mission," said Lyndsey Haight, ONT’s Executive Director. “Going through the Service Enterprise process helped us to ensure that we are engaging and supporting volunteers to the best of our ability.”
Volunteers are an engrained part of ONT's culture and are essential for our service delivery. As an organization founded by volunteers with such strong roots in volunteerism, ONT is proud to be recognized for the participation volunteers have in our mission!
The Service Enterprise program is a national change management program that helps organizations gain a greater return on volunteer investment to better achieve their mission. For more information regarding volunteer opportunities with ONT, please visit ourneighborstable.org/volunteer. For further information regarding Service Enterprise, please contact the Massachusetts Service Alliance.
ONT’s Annual Breakfast is a time when we typically gather together and chart our progress toward making sure all of our neighbors have access to wholesome, nutritious food every day. This year, while we could not gather in-person, it was more critical than ever for us to see how we are meeting the unprecedented need across the region.
The Annual Breakfast was broadcast live from ONT’s Market at the Jardis-Taylor Center on October 20. This year’s theme was “Unity in Community” in honor of the extraordinary efforts of so many to ensure our neighbors have food on their tables. Despite the virtual nature, the spirit of ONT was alive and captured thanks to pre-record videos of ONT partners, volunteers and former guests. Viewers saw that universal food access is possible, even in a pandemic, when a community comes together.
ONT Board Member Dana Marshall of 92.5 the River returned to emcee the morning and hosted a conversation with former guest Dot, who bravely and movingly shared her story. Dana also presented the 2020 community champion awards, another highlight of the broadcast. Beloved ONT volunteer and board member Bob Murciak was honored as the individual champion for his unwavering dedication to ONT. The four school districts of Amesbury, Newburyport, Pentucket and Triton were recognized as champions for going above and beyond to connect their neighbors and students with food in this unprecedented time. Congratulations 2020 Community Champions!
Thank you to our presenting sponsor, Institution for Savings, who kicked the broadcast off with a surprise $10,000 match challenge. This challenge helped ONT raise a record-breaking $80,000, which will put over 80,000 meals on the tables of our neighbors. Thanks to everyone who gave and helped spread the word to exceed that challenge! Thank you also to all of our sponsors, who supported this event and hosted virtual watch parties. And huge thanks to LMV Productions for donating his time and talent behind the camera to make the broadcast an inspiring one.
The recording of the Breakfast broadcast is available if you’d like to view the inspiring morning. Stay tuned to our social media channels as we continue celebrating Unity in Community throughout the rest of the year!
Originally published as a column in the September 21 edition of the Newburyport Daily News:
In our history, local food drives, collecting nonperishables purchased by community members, were a vital part of filling the shelves in Our Neighbors’ Table’s food pantries. Early partnerships with local stores like Stop & Shop and Vermette’s yielded a trunk full of surplus bread or desserts. But for most of our 27 years, most of our food came either from food drives, direct purchases or from a food bank. Today, things look a little differently. More than 25% of the food that stocks our markets is “rescued” from local retailers and wholesalers, redirected from landfills to our shelves and ultimately to neighbors who can really use it.
Our Neighbors’ Table, based in Amesbury, has been providing dignified food assistance to northeastern Essex County since 1992. In 2016, we turned the traditional food pantry model on its head, replacing it with a one-of-a-kind grocery market that guests and community members have likened to Stop & Shop or Whole Foods. In 2018, more than 4,000 people living in the greater Newburyport area shopped for groceries in our markets, now located in Amesbury, Newburyport and Merrimac. In 2018 we declared Amesbury a Food-Secure City and now set our sights on doing the same in Salisbury, Merrimac and Newburyport by the end of 2020.
While serving our neighbors in need is our primary mission, “rescuing” food and being good stewards of our land has also become an important part of our operation. Here are just a few of the ways ONT is lessening the impact of waste on our environment.
There’s still a long way to go for the mainstream food industry, from restaurants to grocery store patrons, to become better shoppers and reduce waste in our food supply chain. For now, ONT has been able to put that surplus and rejected food to good use. I’d also like to think we can serve as a model for us all to change the way we take food for granted and lessen our own footprints in the vast land of food waste.
Sustaining Investments from the Cummings Foundation, the Mary Alice Arakelian Foundation, the United Way and More Will Drive Progress Throughout Northeastern Essex County
Our Neighbors’ Table, a non-profit organization that has turned food assistance on its head by providing flexible, personalized programs through Northeastern Essex County, today announced that it is poised to declare Newburyport, Salisbury and Merrimac “Food Secure Cities” by the end of 2020. This comes on the heels of declaring Amesbury its first Food Secure City in 2018. Additionally, Our Neighbors’ Table has laid out a strategic plan to ensure its entire service region in Northeastern Essex County is food-secure by 2029.
Our Neighbors’ Table has secured both short and long-term investments that help make this vision possible:
“The volume of meals we have distributed has more than doubled over the last three years. Our focus now is ensuring those meals get into the hands of all of our neighbors who need it,” explains Executive Director Lyndsey Haight. . “While the economy is thriving for some, we are seeing more and more people in our community falling through the cracks. We’ve seen first-hand the impact we can have when individuals, city- and town-services, businesses, and community groups come together. Food security is something we can provide for every person living in our community.”
Despite the economic recovery and the prevalence of wealth in the region, the level of food insecurity in northeastern Essex County has increased by almost 10%, by more than 15% in Newburyport and by 40% in Salisbury, since 2015 (data provided by Greater Boston Food Bank).
Serving 11 communities of northeastern Essex County, ONT has established a strong collective formally known as the Food Security Advisory Council (FSAG) that is working together to better understand the barriers that prevent local residents from accessing adequate and nutritious food on a daily basis and to formalize effective strategies to make food available and accessible to everyone when and where it is needed.
Food Insecurity is defined by the USDA is a household-level economic and social condition of limited or uncertain access to adequate food.
The Food Security Advisory Council includes the Mayors of Newburyport and Amesbury; Anna Jaques Hospital, Superintendents from the Amesbury, Newburyport, Triton and Pentucket school districts; Children’s Health Care; Councils on Aging in Salisbury and Newburyport; and law enforcement, social service providers, and town officials from across the region.
Hunger affects 1 out of every 16 people living in northeastern Essex County. That means there are 6,000 neighbors with empty plates on their tables. Even more staggering, 1 out of every 5 of our seniors and 1 out of every 8 children in our region are struggling through each day without enough food. Our Neighbors’ Table has eliminated the traditional approach of strict schedules, cumbersome qualification and limited food selection by offering people-centric experiences and access to fresh, wholesome food when and where people throughout northeastern Essex County need it. Our grocery programs provide food assistance to individuals and families living in Amesbury, Boxford, Byfield, Georgetown, Groveland, Merrimac, Newbury, Newburyport, Rowley, Salisbury, South Hampton (NH), and West Newbury. Visit ourneighborstable.org for more information.
Feeding America and the Greater Boston Food Bank have just released updated data on the rate of food insecurity across the US and Massachusetts. According to Feeding America’s “Map the Meal Gap” report:
So, that’s good news right? Well, unfortunately, the picture in northeastern Essex County seems to be bucking the trend.
First, let me provide a little context. Since 2015, ONT has worked with data estimates of 6,000 food insecure individuals in northeastern Essex County (1 out of 8 children; 1 out of 5 seniors) across our service area (GBFB, 2015). However, the latest data provided to ONT from Greater Boston Food Bank indicates a regional increase to 6,500. While that may not seem like a huge number, it’s a more than 15% increase in need across 5 of the 10 Massachusetts communities we serve.
While it may come as a surprise to many, the cities of Amesbury and Newburyport have consistently been home to the highest number of food insecure individuals in our region, with Newburyport topping the charts. Here are some of the facts:
When you’re in a growing economy, there is a mindset that “a rising tide raises all ships.” However, it’s important to remember that a growing economy can also result in the cost of living outpacing wage growth, especially for those living on fixed incomes or working in our local service industries. Massachusetts, according to Feeding America, now has the highest food costs in the country, leaving local residents with an average $21 shortfall to afford 3 meals a day.
Let me rephrase that: A family of four would typically consume 84 meals in a week. But current wages, cost of living and food costs now force that family of four to live on only 61.6 meals for the week, meaning everyone can only eat twice a day, or, most likely, mom and dad will alternate days eating so their children don’t have to go without. “Sorry, Mom, it’s Tuesday – it’s Dad’s turn to eat.”
This rise in need likely does not come as a surprise to those of us providing food or financial assistance; teachers who see students come to school hungry every day; or emergency room physicians who see the spike in illness related to malnutrition. But for many, this need – right in our backyards - remains hidden in the shadows.
So what can we do – collectively – to make sure that our friends and neighbors and colleagues are getting what they need to get on the path to food security?
Step 1 is understanding:
We must better understand the local barriers that prohibit people from accessing adequate, quality food to support a healthy lifestyle (the USDA definition of “food secure”). Last year, in partnership with members of its Food Security Advisory Group, ONT surveyed local residents to measure rates of food insecurity and understand its causes. In a diverse sample including individuals and households across the age spectrum, 25% (1 out of 4) tested positive for food insecurity. Among them, 55% reported employment as their primary source of income, yet 70% reported “not enough money” as the primary obstacle to keeping themselves and their family fed.
The other alarming statistic we’ve uncovered is the gap between those who need help and those who are getting it. In recent years, various organizations have begun measuring the SNAP Gap – the percent of people who are eligible for SNAP (aka food stamps) but are not getting it. Nationally, the SNAP Gap stands at roughly 15%. In Massachusetts, it’s about 25%. In ONT’s service area, it’s 60%! Sixty percent of people who are eligible for SNAP are not getting the benefits they need. As we work with our local partners who are also providing food assistance, that SNAP Gap is consistent with how many people in need in Newburyport are utilizing services and programs available.
Why is this important? It requires us to examine what services are available and how they are delivered. We ask ourselves these questions every day:
ONT is excited to officially announce the opening of a weekly market in Newburyport. The program opened in June thanks to a partnership with Community Service of Newburyport and is currently serving residents of Newburyport, Newbury and West Newbury every Thursday, 11:00am – 2:00pm. After years of partnering on referring local residents to each agency’s services, CSN’s move to their new location at St. Paul’s Church in 2018 was the catalyst to bring ONT and CSN’s strengths and resources under one roof. The soft opening in June allowed both organizations to get settled in and work out any challenges. CSN officially welcomed the community at their ribbon-cutting on October 22nd, and both organizations are now looking forward to getting the word out.
Contrary to public perception, Newburyport has the most residents struggling with food insecurity of the 12 cities and towns served by Our Neighbors’ Table. Based on data from the Greater Boston Food Bank, more than 1300 people living in Newburyport do not have a reliable source of food every day. What’s also staggering: of those in need, only about 40% are actually accessing help through public or private organizations. “The need is there, but it’s out of sight. It’s hiding in the shadows,” shares ONT Executive Director Lyndsey Haight. ONT guests often report feelings of shame or embarrassment for needing help, a feeling ONT works to break down through our focus on hospitality and a dignified shopping experience. “We’ve been focused on treating each other with kindness and respect for 26 years. Providing service with dignity is the right thing to do, and it’s also the most effective way to bring people out of the shadows and get them the help they need,” says Haight. “Our markets might be bright and pretty, but we still understand that no one wants to have to shop here. So our priority is to make it as enjoyable as possible and to ensure that we offer the food selections that our guests tell us they need most.”
For the last five months, ONT has been working with Newburyport residents and leaders to build an infrastructure to ensure no one has to go hungry. Building on the success in Amesbury, which was declared a Food-Secure City earlier in 2018, ONT is focused on partnerships, raising awareness of the need and reaching out to residents in need. Drawing from the data provided by GBFB, ONT has partnered with the Councils on Aging in Newburyport and Salisbury, Anna Jaques Hospital and Children’s Health Care to conduct a local needs assessment to understand where, for whom and why food insecurity persists. The first 30-day survey phase was completed in September and revealed that, of 250 respondents, 1 out of 4 (25%) reported experiencing food insecurity in the last year. Survey participants cross all ages and gender. Employment was cited most often as their primary source of income, yet the vast majority of respondents identify lack of enough money as their primary barrier to accessing food.
The information gathered is being used to drive further research and to implement creative programming and strategies to eliminate barriers between people and food. The weekly Newburyport Market is a first step. Partnerships with Newburyport Public Schools and Children’s Health Care are helping to reach people where they are, break down the stigma and shame, and help people get the help they need. Since just last year, ONT has already seen a 70% increase in the number of Newburyport residents accessing their market programs.
ONT’s 2020 Strategic Plan lays a Path to Food Security, focusing on the communities of Newburyport, Salisbury and Merrimac, where current data demonstrates greatest need. The core component of ONT’s success in creating a food-secure Amesbury and expanding regional food security is its strategic partnerships with public and private institutions and with private citizens. ONT has convened local leaders to form the Food Security Advisory Group. Members include Anna Jaques Hospital, Children’s Health Care, Mayor Holaday (Newburyport), Mayor Gray (Amesbury), superintendents and school personnel from the Newburyport, Merrimac, Pentucket and Triton school districts, the Merrimac Police Department, Pettengill House, Newburyport and Salisbury Councils on Aging, and the Greater Boston Food Bank.
Over the last 8 months, the Food Security Advisory Group (FSAG) has convened and declared food insecurity an important issue in our region. More importantly, the members of the group have agreed that time and resources need to be dedicated to understanding and addressing hunger and food security for all residents. Working through its Regional Assessment Working Group, member agencies and municipalities have launched the first phase of our regional food security assessment. Surveys are being administered at Anna Jaques Hospital, Children’s Health Care, local Councils on Aging, libraries and online to start to understand where and why local residents experience barriers to getting enough food and getting enough nutritious food.
“Current research shows that 80% of illnesses and hospitalizations are tied directly to the food that we eat,” shares Dr. Gail Fayre, Chief Medical Officer at Anna Jaques Hospital. “Our joint efforts will help inform best practices to address local need.”
Over the next two years, ONT and the FSAG will focus on uncovering areas of unmet need and developing creative strategies to ensure no one falls through the cracks. “Our region is fortunate to have a number of food resources available. The challenge is understanding why people do not or can not participate in these resources and if the existing programs are best suited to meet their need,” states Lyndsey Haight. “But we are deeply encouraged by the interest and commitment of local leaders to solve this problem.”
For more information about the Food Security Advisory Group or how you can get involved with the regional assessment, please contact ONT Executive Director, Lyndsey Haight, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Our Neighbors' Table is grateful to be a 2017 recipient of the Cummings Foundation $100K for 100 grant program. This important grant allows ONT to continue to be innovative in expanding our service delivery options to the surrounding towns. Thanks to the support of the Cummings Foundation, ONT is able to ensure that every person who comes to our door is provided with nourishing food, kindness and dignity.
The Cummings Foundation was started by Bill and Joyce Cummings in 1986 to give back after the success of Cummings Properties, their commercial real estate business. Now one of the largest foundations in New England, Woburn-based Cummings Foundation currently has almost $2 billion in net assets, and it has awarded more than $200 million in grants to Greater Boston nonprofits alone. Its giving is concentrated in Middlesex, Essex, and Suffolk counties and benefits a broad range of causes, including human services, education, healthcare, and social justice.
Bill Cummings has written a new memoir, Starting Small and Making It Big, detailing his life, career and his dedication to philanthropy. All proceeds from the sale of the book will go to the good work of the Cummings Foundation. Below is a review of Starting Small and Making It Big.
STARTING SMALL AND MAKING IT BIG
An Entrepreneur's Journey to Billion-Dollar Philanthropist
Review by Heather Lauten, Esq.
Today's corporate temperament prizes decisions made on the basis of a simple opportunistic edict: do what will produce the greatest revenue while consuming the fewest resources. There's nothing wrong with that thinking, per se, but there's a vital piece missing from those broad strokes: doing what's right.
This value system (not to mention our current political discourse) has clouded the confluence between opportunity and opportunism, promoting thinking in which the latter is the province of the prosperous and the former describes a concept that people feel has escaped them. What remains is a society in which too many believe they're helpless to effect change, compelling children to march for their lives in Washington in the face of public apathy, and allowing the civic void to be filled by those who mask intolerance and ignorance by calling it innovation.
In his new memoir, "Starting Small and Making It Big: An Entrepreneur's Journey to Billion-Dollar Philanthropist," Bill Cummings offers a welcome rejoinder to this diminished thinking, showing us not only that hard work and diligence can lead to success but also that success can foment fundamental justice and genuine structural change along the way.
When Cummings first went into business for himself, negotiating a good deal to purchase a hundred-year-old beverage enterprise in 1964, his dad gave him some advice about opportunity that stuck with him: "The most important thing about being lucky," he said, "is recognizing good luck when it comes along, and then taking advantage of it. Life is mostly what we make of the opportunities that come our way."
"Starting Small" details Cummings' story of how, with a practical sensibility and belief in himself and others, along with an eye for making his own luck, he worked his way from conventional working-class beginnings to founding a real estate company with a portfolio of more than 11 million square feet of debt-free space in his totally unleveraged style.
What makes Cummings' self-made-man narrative unique, and worthy of attention, though, is the rest of the story. With the kind of detailed guidance that budding entrepreneurs will earmark for reference, and the charming conversational tone of a man who enjoys telling a tale, Cummings' book describes not only the life he and his wife, Joyce, have created by making the most of the opportunities that have come their way, but also how they have become philanthropists on a scale few accomplish, having already given more than a billion dollars to charitable causes.
Members of the Giving Pledge, established by Warren Buffett and Bill and Melinda Gates, Cummings attributes his and Joyce's extraordinary dedication to giving back to their community-to institutions large and, mostly, small-to what he describes as their "belief in the goodness of all humanity."
That strong-held belief, Cummings illustrates from the beginning of "Starting Small," comes from his and Joyce's strong family backgrounds, and life-long association with like-minded people who shared their values and supported their endeavors, but it's also clear that Cummings genuinely likes people and has the gift to recognize their best qualities.
"At Cummings Properties, one of our major goals is to find out what good employees do best and then keep them busy doing it," Cummings writes. In "Starting Small," Cummings paints convivial portraits of his colleagues, many of whom have long tenures with his company, the average length of service for the 360-person firm being more than 11 years.
On the occasion of one colleague's 40th anniversary of service with the company, Cummings describes how equipment operator George Holland received not only an engraved rocking chair celebrating the milestone, but was shocked to be handed the keys to the company's first brand-new backhoe, which had his name painted prominently on the door.
Other stories are tender, and at the heart of the book is a tragedy, when Cummings' protégé, 41-year-old Jamie McKeown, was stricken by a fatal heart attack. Cummings' account of his more than 17 years spent mentoring Jamie, and his profound pleasure in having cultivated a person who cared as much about improving his community as he did about growing a company, explains how the loss served as a sort of turning point for Cummings' altruistic views.
In describing Jamie at his funeral service, Cummings said "no man I have ever met cared more about doing the right thing," and that Jamie "led by example." Cummings writes, "Although Joyce and I had formed Cummings Foundation 10 years before Jamie died, his death was a stark reminder to me that if she and I were to do meaningful good things, together with the foundation, we really needed to get started."
Doing the right thing, leading by example, and incorporating charitable giving into every aspect of his immensely successful business is how Bill Cummings has honored Jamie and others who have impacted his and Joyce's thinking, some on a grand scale, and many, many others on a small, local level. In some ways, "Starting Small" is a textbook on how-and why-to give, as individuals, and, importantly, as an integral part of the corporate culture.
A single paperback can be purchased online via Amazon.com and Cummings.com/book for $16.95. Options for discounted bulk purchases - three paperbacks for $40 or a case of 26 books for $300 - can be found at Cummings.com/book. All books are shipped free of charge. Many readers have raved about the book for use as graduation gifts.
Ms. Lauten, an attorney, is a member of the Cummings Properties team.
Tonight, Santa will make his annual visit to the Our Neighbors' Table Wednesday meal. Each year, he comes to dinner to visit with our guests, young and old. Children get dressed in their frilly dresses and bows and sweaters and ties. And the excitement bursts from their faces the moment they see his jolly face.
This is a special time of year, when cheer and gratitude fill the air. I’d like to share a favorite story about a very special gift we received at a previous Santa visit. Some of you may have heard this story before, but it is worth retelling as it captures the true essence of the season of giving.
On this particular night, the crowd had gathered as usual to see Santa Claus - many familiar faces sprinkled with new families coming for the first time. As I was greeting and lining children up for their photos, a woman dressed festively in an elf hat and holiday sweater pulled me aside. "My son has something he wants to say to you," she said.
I knew this woman, we'll call her "Lynn", and her son "Steven". Lynn is a single mother with two young boys. She works as an assistant manager in a fast food restaurant. Her mother, who also struggles financially, provides help with the boys when she can. The family shops weekly at our market and is especially grateful for the extra food that comes with the Summer Lunch Program.
So back to the Christmas dinner. I bent over so I could hear Steven" as he stands closely to his mother, looking bashfully at the floor – his voice so soft and hard to hear in the crowd.
"Hi, Steven. Merry Christmas!" I say.
Steven slowly looks up at me with his big brown eyes and barely whispers "Merry Christmas" as he holds out his hand. As I look down, I see a crisp $10 bill folded neatly in his fingers. And he is handing that $10 to ME!
Surprised and a bit confused, I ask Steven “What’s this?”
"I had a birthday and I got this birthday money."
"And you're giving it to us?" I asked. "Why?"
Steven looked at me with a shy smile and replied, "So you can help families who come to Our Neighbors' Table."
My heart nearly burst! I couldn't help but wrap my arms around him and give him a big squeeze. Steven, his mother and grandmother continue to come to dinner at ONT and use the market when things get tight. Steven has grown since his birthday donation, his shoulders getting broader, his face taking on the strong jawlines of a young man. His voice is strong, no longer a whisper. He talks about football and his favorite cars.
This holiday season, if you were thinking of giving, but wondered what an impact your gift would have, think of Steven and his family. Every day they struggle. But for Steven, the meals he gets at Our Neighbors’ Table have already given him hope. Steven knows, even on his tough days, that he has the power to make life a little better for someone else. His is the kind of gift that keeps on giving.
Today, in our community, 1 out of 8 children lives in a food insecure household, uncertain if they will get their next meal. We have the power to fix that, and, with the community’s support, with YOUR help, Our Neighbors’ Table can ensure no child in our community has to go hungry.
This year, ONT will put more than 1 million meals on the table for families like Lynn and Steven, that’s twice as many as we distributed last year. Every $1 you give equals 1 meal!
Happy Holidays to you and yours from all of the families here at Our Neighbors' Table!
Steven's compassion is an example to us all. Will you join him in helping a family who needs help? Give the gift that keeps on giving.