The PORCH Equation: Simple Idea + Neighborhood Networks = 350 Families Fed

Nearly all of the 350 families receiving food from PORCH are referred by social workers, says PORCH co-founder Debbie Horwitz.

“It is the essence of genius to make use of the simplest ideas.” — Charles Peguy

With the economy struggling in late 2009, Susan Romaine, Christine Cotton and Debbie Horwitz of Chapel Hill knew that food donations to pantries and other relief agencies were lagging. With hunger and food insecurity increasing due to high unemployment rates the trio, who actively volunteered and supported local food relief agencies, came up with a simple idea – email their friends and neighbors to ask for canned tuna.

Thirty emails and more than 230 cans of tuna later, the trio knew they  had an idea that could grow. And how that idea has grown. What has unfolded from those original emails is an expanding network of neighbors sharing, collecting, sorting and distributing food to neighbors.

Known as PORCH (People Offering Relief for Chapel Hill-Carrboro Homes), the Chapel Hill group now provides healthy sources of food to 350 families in and around Chapel Hill each month, as well as even more healthy food that is directed to pantries and local schools. PORCH has also been a powerful means of building community while educating people about the issues surrounding hunger and food insecurity.

The PORCH model is pretty simple: volunteer neighborhood coordinators pick up food from donors on a pre-set day each month and take it to be later sorted and distributed. Once each month, volunteers deliver this food to recipients at a pre-determined location.

Numbers

14 – percentage of Orange County residents who are food insecure

18,030 – number of food insecure persons in Orange County

Source: UNC School of Government

Chapel Hill & Orange County are generally thought of as prosperous areas of North Carolina – and rightly so. UNC is here and the Triangle area for years has been a magnet for good paying jobs.

Yet underneath that veneer of plenty there is a significant amount of poverty, with many struggling to get by.  According to Horwitz, the typical PORCH client is working at least one and sometimes multiple jobs — but still lives below the poverty line.

Many PORCH clients in Chapel Hill are refugees who  escaped political violence at the hands of the government of Myanmar. Clients are almost always referred by social workers, many of whom see children struggling in school as a result of hunger and food insecurity.

Recipient families come to the distribution site to receive food, but also help with distribution. Both recipients and volunteers form an impromptu community of people who work and fellowship together. It is not unusual for a grateful recipient to bring gifts to the volunteers as a means of thanks. Most often it is a favorite food that is lovingly prepared and packaged for each volunteer.

This hub of volunteers & recipients working together on distribution day reveals the face of hunger & food insecurity – and the grassroots nature of PORCH has helped to guide the group toward better meeting the needs of the people served. PORCH surveys clients to see what foods they would like to receive and how they are able to use the food they are currently getting.

That connectivity has led to a push toward healthy rather than processed food. Enter Weaver Street Market. Members of the food co-op donate money to support PORCH and three other local agencies through WSM’s Community Food Partnerships. Weaver Street also assists with the purchase, packing, storage and delivery of food items to the pick-up points.

“I think our goals are aligned,” Horwitz says of Weaver Street’s partnership with PORCH. “We all want more people to have access to fresh, healthy food.”

Taken together, Weaver Street’s partnership has allowed PORCH to provide 60 additional families with a week’s worth of food each month. The co-op’s purchasing power and other means of support has also allowed PORCH to increase its local impact.  (You’ll hear more about Weaver Street’s Community Food Partnerships & its commitment to ending hunger in Orange County in an upcoming post.)

In addition to the 350 families receiving food on distribution day, PORCH impacts hunger through its Food for Pantries program, which delivers hundreds of bags of healthy food to 11 local pantries. Another program of note is the Food for Schools program, which provides healthy food and easy-to-prepare meals to 20 area schools.

As Horwitz, Romaine & Cotton’s original seed has continued to flower into a powerful grassroots organization in Orange County, the PORCH idea is taking root elsewhere. Eleven  other North Carolina communities have adopted the PORCH model as a means of fighting hunger & food insecurity. The idea has also spread to other states. Given the simplicity of the volunteer-driven model, that growth and spread of the PORCH concept is likely to continue over time.

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