Partner Spotlights

Meeting the Moment with Curt Ellis

"We have kids who need food, families that need shelter, 12 million workers who need jobs, and a nation that needs policies of economic justice that bring our fellow Americans onto a path of building wealth, not surviving poverty."

By Curt Ellis, Co-Founder and CEO of FoodCorps

In 2020, the intertwining and inequitable systems, from health and education to legal and democracy and beyond, in this country were laid bare by the COVID-19 pandemic and the renewed and growing call for Black liberation and justice. As part of this year’s Annual Report, we asked nine leaders from the New Profit community what 2020 and these national reckonings looked like for them, their organizations, and the social sector writ large.

Continue reading to hear from Curt Ellis, Co-Founder and CEO of FoodCorps, a former New Profit grantee-partner that, together with communities, serves to connect kids to healthy food in school.

To hear from the other eight leaders and to access more content from the New Profit 2020 Annual Report, click here.

What is the biggest challenge that philanthropy/the social impact sector is/has faced as a result of the events of 2020?

The philanthropy and social impact sector has a playbook, even if an imperfect one, for how it engages in response to natural disasters, economic downturns, epidemics, injustices, and political crises. We learned in 2020 that there’s no section in that book for what to do in case of “all of the above.”

The last year forced those who care about equity, community, and health to grapple with the colliding needs of immediate direct relief and longer-term systemic reform. How do we put groceries in the trunk for that line of cars at the food bank in San Antonio, while fixing the ways our inequitable food system has contributed to the comorbidities that are costing COVID patients their lives?

It forced us to re-evaluate the solutions we had built-in real-time and reimagine our work to meet the moment. How do we crack open a philanthropic marketplace that traditionally relies on pre-existing programming, so it instead gives communities the adaptive and responsive support they actually need?

How do we crack open a philanthropic marketplace that traditionally relies on pre-existing programming, so it instead gives communities the adaptive and responsive support they actually need?

It also called on us to do the most challenging work of our professional or philanthropic careers, at the same time as we were caring for our kids at home, our friends and relatives who were at risk, and our loved ones who were sickened or lost to COVID. How do we find the confidence to work and give at our capacity, when we are kept awake by own fears about what the future holds?

The truth, of course, is that the conditions we have seen in 2020––the intersectionality of our challenges, the tension between short- and long-term fixes, the distance between what philanthropy thinks is needed and what communities are looking for, and the ways in which our efforts to make a difference are shaped and alternately strengthened and hindered by our own lived experiences––these are not new realities. We have just been given the glasses we’ve needed to see them better.

What innovations/solutions did you create in response to the events of this year?

As our country learned this year, when schools close, many kids lose more than a chance to learn; they lose a chance to eat. In this pandemic economy, one in four American families has been pushed into food insecurity, and is unable to put enough nourishment on the table for their children. FoodCorps responded to this crisis of food access on both direct and systemic fronts.

In the communities where we provide boots-on-the-ground support, FoodCorps mobilized AmeriCorps members to aid schools and districts in turning the nation’s largest restaurant chain––school cafeterias––into a takeout operation. FoodCorps members conducted family outreach for the Mayor’s Office of Food Access in Boston, giving parents and caregivers information about where to pick up grab-and-go meals. They drove the bus routes in rural Montana, delivering school food (and homemade carrot muffins) to students in need. In Mississippi, FoodCorps members got behind the lunch line to prep meals when a COVID exposure sent cafeteria workers into quarantine. All the while, FoodCorps folks across the country connected with students and families over Zoom, coaching them on how to start a backyard garden, or how to turn dinner prep into a science lesson where kids learn the six plant parts––and then eat them.

At the national level, the realization that feeding kids is part of the essential work of America’s schools opened the door to significant policy progress. FoodCorps launched a strategic communications campaign to elevate school meals as an election issue, partnering with chefs and influencers to release a School Food Voter Guide and disseminate FoodCorps’ policy platform. Alongside coalition partners, we advocated for the USDA to support school meal providers with the flexibility and support needed to operationalize emergency food access on an unprecedented scale, including the scale-up of innovations like Pandemic EBT (which puts the value of school meals onto SNAP cards families can use to buy groceries), and creating a nationwide trial of Universal School Meals, where every child gets to eats free––temporarily suspending the stigma and barriers to access that have long plagued the program. Now, as the nation’s attention turns toward recovery, FoodCorps is part of a growing chorus of advocates calling for Universal Meals to become long-term policy.

What do we need to do collectively to “Meet the Moment?”

At FoodCorps, we’re lucky to have Eliza Greenberg on our Board. When I bring Eliza a challenging situation, which I think I’ve done on a biweekly basis this year, she sometimes reminds me that whatever I’m grappling with “probably says something about you, and something about the context.”

The context of this moment is presenting itself all too clearly. We have a pandemic to stop, and a climate to save. We have public trust to regain, and public institutions to rebuild. We have a 400-year history of racist oppression to end, and the deepest repair imaginable to work toward. We have kids who need food, families that need shelter, 12 million workers who need jobs, and a nation that needs policies of economic justice that bring our fellow Americans onto a path of building wealth, not surviving poverty.

What this moment says about me, about all of us, is harder to confront. It says that we haven’t done it. We haven’t solved the problems we’ve been telling each other our programs or our giving strategies are going to solve. We haven’t shifted the most intractable policies and systems and beliefs that hold injustice in place. We haven’t even fixed all the ways our own institutions––our nonprofits and philanthropies––perpetuate the inequities inside our organizations. Not yet. But 2020 was a lot, and that’s the work that 2021 is for. Coming together around the table and committing ourselves to the shared work of creating a future where everyone thrives, where everyone is free.

To hear from the other eight leaders and to access more content from the New Profit 2020 Annual Report, click here.