How To Create A Community Collaborative Solution & Updates

Since my East Side Table update in March, our theoretical snowball rolled down the hills of East Saint Paul, picking up momentum, solidifying its core while doing great work that I have been remiss to share until now. The mission and goals outlined by the working council partners have become a reality in the shape of community events and meals, cooking demonstrations, a website that is days away from being available in several of the predominant languages of our community, and as of Monday, the final 10th week of the pilot program providing healthy food meal kits and information to over 100 families will be carried out.

November Outreach

Yesterday morning our monthly meeting took place the day after election day. I realized it was one year exactly from when the same room full of health and community advocates cried and found solace in one another's mutual disappointment and fear for their respective communities. It led me to stop and appreciate what can happen over one year in what seems like a blink of an eye.

All of these accomplishments were possible because of the dedicated and passionate program manager and buy-in from the multiple partners to assist in carrying out the programming and preparation for this initiative. But there’s so much more to it than that and more than I could call out by myself in this section update. Thankfully, the HealthEast Foundation (who initiated and funded this work with the belief that prevention and a holistic approach to public health needed to be explored as a solution equally important to addressing health disparities later) suggested we, the working partners, brainstorm what exactly worked from day one and why.

The final version of our discussion and recommendations to others will be more nuanced and available by years end but I thought I would point out a few of the major items we all agreed on. Here’s my summary:

Two months ago we were asked “If other communities want to replicate the Neighborhood Integration Initiative, what are the main steps
that you would suggest they should take? Where can you share tips for “must do’s,” or “things to watch out for,” based on your experience?” This prompt, and others that followed were facilitated by The Improve Group, who organized the thoughts of over 20 participants who were part of this work in different ways and amounts of time. With their help, an intense hour molded a pile of generalized observations and suggestions into phases within the experience. From there we collaborated in grouping similar items and gave titles to each recommendation that were simple and still effective in relating what we wanted to share.

The end result was a whole wall that seemed to yell out “this is how you create community-driven solutions for big awful problems”. I couldn’t help but take a picture of it all. It was inspiring to see how our work might end up being replicated by others because of the is opportunity to reflect and give voice to the process, not just the programming.

When the whole report is available to share I’ll be sure to post it here. Until then, here’s my typed of version of the major themes you see represented on that wall with a sort of paraphrased explanation after where I thought it might be useful. Zoom in for detailed thoughts under each one.

(also known as where can I get one of those sticky fabric?)

(also known as where can I get one of those sticky fabric?)

What were the most important activities and decisions that happened in each of these phases that you would tell other communities that want to replicate this work?

Phase I: Laying The Foundation

  • Listening To Community

  • Establishing Meeting Culture (The importance of a welcoming and open dialogue and social meetings carried over to all phases)

  • Create Shared Vision For The Project

  • Catalyze the Initiative (to prevent mission drift, make sure the goal and intent is solid and supported by a larger organization who organizes the work)

  • Invest in Diverse Community Partners (take time to research who you invite outside of the normal partners to capture a whole representation of your community)

Phase II: Co-Design

  • Foster Collaborative Relationships
  • Encourage Honest Discourse
  • Plan and Organize Efficiently (solid project management basics here but also meeting setup that allowed for effective communication and exchange of ideas)
  • Compensate Partners Appropriately (this might be one of the most important when working with already stretched-thin nonprofits, providing a stipend for the participation was useful in allowing staff to take on this role outside of the work they already were performing)
  • Identify Community Resources (a resource map at the start helped to focus on strengths and prevent duplicate efforts as the project aim was brainstormed)
  • Hire Effective Facilitator To Guide Process
  • Promote Innovation (build off of those community partners’ experiences in ways they might not be able to provide solutions by themselves and establish clear roles based on strengths)

Between Phase II & III:

  • Secure Future Funding (to ensure sustainability of program and rework of pilots)
  • Prevent Vision Drift (check in regularly to make sure initial shared vision isn’t softening)
  • Develop Evaluation Plan

Phase III: Implementation of Strategies

  • Ensure Cultural Lens Continues (make sure output is culturally appropriate & accessible)
  • Intentionally Develop Infrastructure (hire dedicated full time staff to oversee implementation and plan for next phases)

Typing these out, they seem so vague but I hope they’ll at least highlight the work that has gone into this project and the freedom we had as a group to collaborate and create and idea of a solution that could be tested while also inspiring something for your own community based solution pilot project.

"So What’s Next?"

Months ago a meeting myself and several other participants were invited to talk about the group's most recent accomplishments with a program officer at the Saint Paul Foundation, where HealthEast had applied for support. That meeting led to unrestricted general funding so more pilots and programming can continue well into 2018!

My time instructing at the Mississippi Market has crossed over to create a partnership with East Side Table meal kit recipes being adapted and taught at the Cooking With Co-Op Basics Classes. When it was uncertain whether or not I would stay in Minnesota, Terese took over instructing but you might find me behind the stove again soon.

We have a second meal kit delivery pilot planned for Spring 2018 (aiming for May, post-tax season).

Nothing is slowing down. We are brainstorming additional events, partnering with other community groups to offer healthy food demonstrations or programming, and updating the East Side Table Website with additional resources and information... all thanks to the group at large, but also to the very talented Terese Hill, our East Side Table Coordinator.

Terese works with her whole heart to keep our timeline on track and resources available while remaining open to creative solutions and ideas. (Seriously, I’m so impressed with her, and the entire HealthEast staff and fellow working partners for remaining motivated and excited to keep rolling that snowball around our neighborhoods. I hope you will be as well.)

If you are feeling particularly generous, you can donate to the HealthEast Foundation or attend their fundraising gala on November 18th. Visit here for more information.

Cheers to everyone involved and here’s to bigger and stronger ideas for other communities in 2018!

Winter Pilot Workings

March 21st Tabling at Urban Roots: obtaining feedback about the meal kits and recruiting possible participants

March 21st Tabling at Urban Roots: obtaining feedback about the meal kits and recruiting possible participants

Earlier this month I was asked to represent the East Side Table group for a potential funding opportunity that may expand the program's efforts in the years following our pilot (funding for the first 18 months is available but learning from our findings and implementing them on a larger scale or through another pilot are options we've discussed). Reflecting on my own experiences and discussing all the work we've accomplished recently was a wonderful opportunity to stand back and appreciate all that has been, and will soon be happening here on the east side of Saint Paul. Since the new year, our East Side Table (EST) working group has spent the winter preparing for the roll out of the Meal Kit & food education pilot with objectives I wanted to share here:

  • Provide input and collaboration between organizational members to hire a EST Coordinator, including the interview process.
  • Work alongside University of Minnesota business students to brainstorm and finesse our target market and a business plan for the meal kit pilot.
  • Assess Local Crate as a provider with the potential to reduce the logistical weight of said program and allow deeper effort in community engagement, education and impact measurement.
  • Contribute culturally appropriate recipes and ensure dietary relevance of recipes with Local Crate.
  • Create a shared resource calendar of events held by EST Members and other Community Groups - emphasizing the importance of meeting community members where they are and using events as pilots within a pilot to test appropriateness of recipes and delivery logistics.
  • Plan events to start March 21st and actively determine more events and partners for community events. The Meal Kit program is slated to run for ten weeks and will begin in late August - at the peak of local produce season.
  • Work together to identify themes and a cohesive marketing vision for the EST including key wording, colors, iconography, logos as well as brainstorm potential providers of design and website - ideally, local residents/businesses.

This past Tuesday, the first community cooking class and tasting of recipes was introduced. Youth participants for the urban gardening and conservation nonprofit Urban Roots, along with their families and representatives from the project, prepared Thai Beef with Basil & Brown Rice and Moroccan Lemon Chicken with Kale & Couscous. I’m excited to hear feedback at our next meeting in April, and for all the upcoming events planned throughout this spring and summer. Also exciting for me is the opportunity to learn what works and what doesn’t. I’m thankful to Diane Tran and the rest of the HealthEast team who have advocated for the foundation board to provide funding for these pilot programs and hope to see a similar investment from other health care system foundations across the U.S. (Please share any you have had experiences with as well!)

Expect another update mid-summer as we finalize our meal kits and participate in community events!

Introducing East Side Table

Towards the end of programming for Urban Oasis (unfortunately, the organization dissolved recently due to lack of funding), I began attending a series of Working Group meetings that had already been over six months in the making. Put together by a local healthcare system operating in the east metro area called HealthEast, the thought was to bring various community health, mental and cultural support organization representatives into the same room to identify pilot program ideas that would address issues affecting residents living in poverty but also those primarily suffering from chronic diseases (i.e. heart disease, diabetes, hypertension) along with feelings of exclusion, cultural stigma or other mental health challenges. Since several of these issues can be present in one person, or throughout a family, and are often addressed by a number of different service organizations, the HealthEast Foundation introduced this community level project development plan in hopes of providing collaborative solutions. With invited organizations that range from dental, elder care, food insecurity, immigrant assistance and counseling, these solutions could be based on the span of skills, experiences, and resources of each organization - along with their close understanding of the diverse cultures they served.

Eventually, a plan for health and nutrition developed as did a plan for mental health and resiliency. I joined the health and nutrition team, then titled East Side Table (EST). Before my inclusion, extensive groundwork had already been laid with weekly meetings discussing which public health issues to address and how. Food access, and eventually food literacy became key issues (“The ability to know the story of where one’s food comes from—farm to table and back to the soil (i.e. seed-to-table, farm-to-fork) 1—and also to grow, plan, purchase, preserve and/or prepare food for eating.” - Minnesota Food Charter). I’ve copied the actions proposed by the EST group from the HealthEast Foundation documents provided at quarterly stakeholder events: “EST partners considered extensive research data as well as their own knowledge of the challenges to healthy eating that their low-income clients encounter every day. In May/June 2016 they surveyed 205 East Side residents regarding challenges to healthy cooking. The results mirrored those found by the Minnesota Food Charter and studies throughout the nation: the top three barriers to cooking at home are time, motivation, and expense – all of which can be addressed to some degree with improved food skills. Interestingly, survey respondents indicated little interest in cooking classes, per se (perhaps because of a perception that they would be time consuming), but they did express interest in improving cooking skills. For that reason, the partners chose to offer tastings and demonstrations rather than formal classes”

In addition to the education piece, it was suggested that a meal kit delivery service using local produce be tested as a pilot program for a large group of households. Bringing together these two solutions (though admittedly, the meal kits could be perceived as a food first-approach in my own opinion), the EST members outline their overarching goals and objectives:

Goal: Improve food skills to increase consumption of healthy foods.


» Improve skills to prepare healthy, safe food within one’s own food traditions

» Improve food planning, selecting & budgeting skills for those living in poverty

» Increase willingness to try new, healthier foods

Since August 2016, I have been able to bring my past experiences (planning cooking demos, administering youth cooking classes, teaching and assessing nutrition and gardening programs, and working with low income residents at the 61st Street Farmers Market) to the EST working group meetings. I feel thankful to have joined the discussion when I did, and am excited to talk about the processes of applying to accept SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits, doubling these benefits, how I assess food education programs, and the logistics of planning cooking classes and demos. During my participation, the organizations involved frequently remarked at how we've collectively learned so much more about our own East Side community and the issues impacting our residents. We have enjoyed the individual contributions and perspectives that have shaped the EST into what it is today, and feel inspired to collaborate and connect outside of the project. Our accomplishments in the past few months will be outlined in another post shortly.