After years of working for a non profit that delivered summer meals to children across Dallas, Dr. Keven Vicknair noticed an oversight. She and her team were making a difference by feeding children in need, but their hungry parents were being forced to go without.
“Here we are with a truckload of food to feed their kids”, says Keven as she sits in her office located off Al Lipscomb way in South Dallas.
“After a few years of doing that you realize that there’s their parents and they’re hungry too!”
This inspired Keven and a few of her fellow employees.
“For low income families it’s not just that they don’t have enough money to buy all the food they need for their family, they also don’t have money for transportation, for rent, the whole gamut, right? Let’s take the infrastructure that we build around this solidly funded summer food program for kids and use it to expand services year round so that we can bring food to families. That’s the origin of Equal Heart.”
In January of 2015 Equal Heart opened it’s doors and spent their first six months building a solid foundation for itself on top of accessible funding through summer food for children programs. By June of that same year, only six months later, they were feeding 8,000 kids a day and beginning the process of getting its mobile food pantry on the streets.
“In December of 2015 we kicked that off and today, not even a year later, we have fed almost 4,000 families. We have a mobile food pantry that goes out once or twice a day, to one or two apartment complexes and delivers groceries to everyone that’s there. At least 40 pounds, sometimes 60 to 70 pounds of produce and staples.”
Keven and her team quickly discovered that it would not be sustainable without some sort of additional funding or support. “When we first started we just thought we’ll get food from the bank, repackage that and ship it out and that did not happen. We are not a food bank agency for various reasons.” Keven said, “but we were lucky enough, we had a great staff member that showed up on our doorstep and her passion was food recovery.”
That staff member was Jackie Anderson, a food recovery and waste reduction advocate that is now a program manager for Equal Heart.
“We waste more produce than we actually consume in this country. Throwing food away is worse than driving a car. Food in the landfill turns into methane which is 25% worse than the carbon dioxide emitted by your car” Jackie explains during an interview in the Equal Heart warehouse as fellow members gathered and loaded crates full of recovered food into mobile food pantry vans.
This innovation allowed the program to gain traction and become sustainable.
“It has saved us a ton of money. We’ve recovered about $800,000 worth of food and redistributed that to over 4,000 families. In terms of sustainability on an environmental scale, without a doubt, this is sustainable. Is it sustainably ending hunger for families? We haven’t checked that yet.”
According to Jackie, nearly 477,000 people in Dallas are suffering from food insecurity. Otherwise described as lacking reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food. This presents a huge challenge to families just trying to get by and make ends meet on a daily basis.
“We have a theory that we’re still testing, and that’s this idea that if you give the family this food then those resources that they would have spent on going to the grocery store or getting to a food bank, they can shift towards other things. They are resourceful families that just need a little bit of a step up and that’s what we’re giving them is a hand up, through our hand out.”
Equal Heart also stays sustainable with the help of a partnership with Americorps. This partnership allows Equal Heart to employ members of the community that, under normal conditions, may not be able to find work.
“Our problem isn’t just hunger, it’s young adults who don’t have a pathway to employment. So the benefit to the community is reduction of hunger and the benefit also to the community is that these Americorps members now will graduate to be a little bit more stable, a little bit more sustainable and have a history of success.”
Christina Penate, a current community hunger Americorps member working with Equal Heart, says she spent months searching for work after a run in with the law left her with an uncertain future.
“I’ve been walking three years in recovery now. I let my life spiral out of control. I have a lot of passion for giving back and going this route was, was really really good.”