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What can a congregation do to give low-income people a hand up, not just a handout?

Phina Borgeson, Interfaith Sustainable Food Collaborative Advisory Board

Members of the Spiritual Action group at Sonoma United Methodist Church have been helping people enroll in CalFresh. They had prepared an en excellent resource list on where people in need could get food in Sonoma and the Sonoma Valley. But two things spurred them to further action. One was recognizing how many people among their parishioners’ families and friends had suffered from the economic downturn in 2008. The other was the fact of Sonoma County’s low enrollment in CalFresh.

With encouragement from Sonoma County’s Human Resource Department and the support of a mini-grant from the Interfaith Sustainable Food Collaborative, they began working the Valley of the Moon Certified Farmers’ Market, Tuesday evenings on the Sonoma Plaza. 

The best approach, according to Dave Ransom, seemed to be to ask folks not, “Are you eligible?” but, “Do you know anyone who...?”  Young adults without enough work, elders on very limited incomes, single parents overstretched trying to make ends meet, all were suggestions of potential CalFresh participants. 

Members of the Spiritual Action team prepared a flyer in Spanish and English posing questions about these key groups. They also adapted a flyer with eligibility information from basic County materials. The $500 mini-grant from Interfaith Food, provided by Hazon, enabled them to hire a bilingual intern to help engage Spanish-speaking shoppers.

Rebecca Barragan, eligibility supervisor in the county’s Human Resources Department, trained church members in how to pre-screen prospective applicants. Rich Hacker, a member of the congregation, worked with her to arrange the training, and to see that an eligibility worker was available one day a week in Sonoma to interview those who had been pre-screened.  

The bilingual worker spends half a day keeping appointments at the church, a few blocks southeast of the Plaza, and then half a day at La Luz Center in Boyes Springs. Over two dozen people have been enrolled at the church location.  About 30 have been enrolled at La Luz, some who heard about the opportunity through the Farmer’s Market outreach on the Plaza.

Even more people have been reached through the efforts of congregants contacting neighbors and friends. Now a second phase of outreach had begun through sending bilingual flyers home with charter school students and including them in baskets prepared and delivered by the food program at FISH (Friends in Sonoma Helping).  

The Sonoma UMC Spiritual Action team invited members of other congregations in Sonoma to meet with them on October 5. As the seasonal market on the Plaza winds down for the year, they began to explore additional venues for CalFresh outreach, as well as identifying other projects for achieving food justice in their community. How might small member congregations work together to develop a relationship with a local CSA including access for low-income members? How might youth from the congregations work together to engage food system equity?  

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Phina Borgeson is a founding member of the Sonoma County Food System Alliance and a leader on the Social Equity Pillar Team