United Way supports groups fighting hunger year round

The spirit of giving permeates the holiday season, as people open their hearts (and wallets) and lend support to those who might need a helping hand. However, for many organizations in the Greater Cleveland area, providing assistance to those in need is a year-round endeavor.

Hunger is one pressing issue facing Northeast Ohio every month of the year. According to the Greater Cleveland Food Bank, food insecurity strikes one in five local children, while one in six adults is "at risk" for hunger.

In response to these sobering statistics, the United Way of Greater Cleveland is dedicated to providing critical support to multiple organizations working to fight hunger. This support not only includes funding, but also comes in the form of service coordination, so the needs of the community are met on all fronts.

<span class="content-image-text">A child enjoys her sandwich at the summer lunch and enrichment program for kids initiated by the Lakewood Community Services Center for kindergarten through fifth graders.</span>A child enjoys her sandwich at the summer lunch and enrichment program for kids initiated by the Lakewood Community Services Center for kindergarten through fifth graders.One of the United Way's longtime partners is the Hunger Network of Greater Cleveland, an organization dedicated to reducing hunger and increasing nutrition by providing food and other services. Among other things, the nonprofit has received back-office support from United Way—for example, at the end of 2016, the Hunger Network was awarded a crucial grant for technology upgrades—and funding and support for important initiatives.

"[The United Way are] fiscal agents for our two government contracts to procure food," says Jennifer Scofield, chief executive officer of the Hunger Network of Greater Cleveland. That means the organization helps with the "nuts and bolts of the work we have to do to administer" these contracts. In fact, a United Way of Greater Cleveland team is the "local coordinating body for our emergency food and shelter program grant," she says. "That's really important. They facilitate all of that work, so that we can help our pantries buy what they need to buy to do their work."

The United Way has also provided an $82,750 grant to the Hunger Network that supports "program capacity" for hunger relief efforts, specifically more than 70 food pantries and hot meal sites that provide local neighborhoods access to healthy food. "That primarily means supporting our infrastructure and staff," Scofield says.

Being a funded agency of the United Way has opened many doors for the Hunger Network—specifically by allowing the organization to "tap into" additional information and resources, Scofield says. "Every few days or so, I usually have an email pop up from someone at United Way." For example, she receives meeting invitations and advisories, as well as support for public policy and advocacy. Scofield is also a member of the United Way's council for agency executives, which provides opportunities for shared learning and networking opportunities with other nonprofit leaders.

"[The council] really is a resource that can impact the work I do on a pretty much daily basis, and it helps me stay connected to what those ongoing priorities are in the community, and how does the Hunger Network—or how do I—plug into any of that," she says.

More than money

Scofield considers both the financial and networking resources from United Way extremely valuable. "Financial support is important because it helps you continue to do your work," she says. "[But] knowing that you're part of a community that United Way can bring together, and that there are opportunities to make those connections so that you can work together to become stronger. … That helps carry us through as well."

The idea that a community is stronger together permeates the work of the Lakewood Community Services Center, which has also benefited greatly from United Way support, specifically in the area of funding.

In 2019, the Lakewood Community Services Center initiated its sixth season of a summer lunch and enrichment program for kids in Lakewood in kindergarten through fifth grade "who qualify for free and reduced meals during the school year but don't have any support for food in the summer," says Trish Rooney, the organization's executive director. "This introduces them to food that they then [can] go back and introduce to their families, which is the long-term goal of this [program], that this kind of food gets incorporated into the family's way of eating." In addition to providing healthy, delicious food—salad bars and fruit are favorites, Rooney says—participants also get swimming lessons, Lakewood library trips, or field trips to the Cleveland Metroparks or Mahall's 20 Lanes bowling alley.

For the summer program, Rooney can't overstate United Way's impact. "They're not just integral to it—without them, there is absolutely no way we could offer this program," she says. "They really understand that mental health, physical health, healthy food, all tie together to improve the outcomes for these kids."

<span class="content-image-text">The summer lunch and enrichment program for kids initiated by the Lakewood Community Services Center provides socialization and opportunity for kids to have outdoor experiences.</span>The summer lunch and enrichment program for kids initiated by the Lakewood Community Services Center provides socialization and opportunity for kids to have outdoor experiences.Creative thinking

Recognizing that these things are intertwined sets United Way apart, she says. "They've always understood that—probably before most organizations have. They're very forward thinking. They really encourage people to do these creative approaches to health and well-being."

"They've really encouraged us to go for this," she says. "It's a big undertaking for a small organization. But United Way gives you the courage to do it, because they want to see this kind of thing. They're really partners. They truly, truly are partners."

Being funded by United Way also helps their organizations attract other sources of funding, both Rooney and Scofield say, since donors view United Way support as a seal of approval. And the impact of these grants ripples outward and resonates in many ways across the years.

For example, several years ago, United Way funding helped the Lakewood Community Services Center purchase a van. This not only allowed the organization to make multiple weekly trips to the Greater Cleveland Food Bank to pick up free, fresh produce, it helped facilitate monthly door-to-door delivery of these goods and other grocery items to seniors living in five subsidized housing complexes. Ongoing United Way funding also ensures the on-site pantry at the Lakewood Community Services Center's Madison Avenue location remains replenished and free to those in need.

"Every single one of the people that we serve gets some extra benefit because of the United Way money," Rooney says. "We are so grateful."

This article is part of our ongoing "Roots of Change: Forging a More United Way" dedicated series in partnership with United Way of Greater Cleveland.