“We recognize the truth in the African saying that if you want to go fast then go alone, but if you want to go far, then you must go together.”
As the Food Equity Roundtable convenes over the year, members will periodically share insights about their work to alleviate chronic food insecurity in Los Angeles County. Cinny Kennard serves as the Executive Director of the Annenberg Foundation, one of the largest family foundations in the United States. Gary Gero is the Chief Sustainability Officer for Los Angeles County. The pair serve as co-chairs of the Roundtable, reflecting its cross-sector, collaborative nature. Here they share their thoughts on the genesis of the Roundtable and some of the challenges and opportunities ahead of them.
With so many issues in your wheelhouse, what prompted Annenberg’s interest in spearheading this particular Roundtable initiative?
Cinny Kennard: Back in March of 2020 when COVID-19 was declared a pandemic by the World Health organization, I was on the phone every day with Wallis Annenberg, our great Foundation chair. We would discuss the latest developments with the pandemic in greater Los Angeles and the staggering needs that were now being exacerbated by the COVID crisis. We regularly discussed what Annenberg needed to do to continue to address these persistent challenges. Like many people, we were both struck by the photos and news stories of people in long lines waiting for boxes of food. It was tragic and it seemed to be happening everywhere. We also knew, because of Annenberg’s recent significant work around older adults and their food insecurity, that this problem existed before the pandemic and would continue even after the pandemic ended.
We felt it was time for Annenberg to increase its work on food insecurity beyond just grantmaking even as several of our Annenberg trustees were supporting innovative ways for communities to produce their own food or seeking ways to help support the retrieval of some of the products that farmers would dispose of, including produce, dairy and other foods. Luckily a colleague shared with me that she was involved locally on the L.A. County Food Security Taskforce, and Annenberg immediately acted to engage with that work, to dive in and we have never looked back. The Chairman and entire Annenberg Board of Directors has been so supportive for the last two years while the Taskforce work has evolved into the new Food Equity Roundtable.
Food insecurity is such a pervasive problem in the County – nearly 1 in 10 residents struggle with it. But it remains hidden in the shadows somewhat in terms of civic priorities and media attention. How do we change that?
Kennard: This is a great question and one that we are grappling with. It is particularly relevant for me because I spent so many years as a broadcast journalist here and around the world. It is also relevant at Annenberg. The fortune that enabled the creation of the Annenberg Foundation 30 years ago was made from our founder’s visionary work in Communications. At Annenberg — with Wallis and our board of directors — communications is in their DNA! With that in mind, how do we push food insecurity more into the forefront, bolster the local narrative on this issue and amplify the fact that too many people are living life with food insecurity? Food is one of our most basic needs and while it’s true that there have been some excellent national articles about food insecurity, the coverage has been minimal compared to other issues. Locally this is something we want to tackle as my fear is that once the pandemic dies down, this issue will disappear from people’s radar. That would be so unfortunate.
What role can philanthropy play in solving the riddle of food insecurity in LA County? What unique skill sets or insights from leaders in the sector can be brought to bear to ending hunger in a systemic manner?
Kennard: I’m always amazed by the passion, the dedication, and the knowledge of my peers in philanthropy. Whether it’s foundations, corporations or individuals, L.A. has a vibrant philanthropic sector that has never lost sight of the real goal – listening to those who are most vulnerable and responding by filling gaps that exist, raising awareness about obstacles, providing resources that will allow Angelenos to thrive. In the case of the Food Equity Roundtable, the California Community Foundation, the Weingart Foundation and Annenberg all pulled together to make philanthropic support possible and representatives of all three organizations are members of the group. In the philanthropic sector we have the flexibility to adapt to the changing world and respond to urgent needs. We have access to data and experts who present potential solutions. Collectively, we have talented staff, many of whom have lived experiences. Here at Annenberg, we are so lucky to be able to help fund and pilot innovative projects that advance public well-being, spark new ideas, and spread knowledge. That is also in the Annenberg DNA – innovative and creative philanthropy. And the Food Equity Roundtable is a perfect example.
We hear a lot about special task forces and blue-ribbon committees tackling seemingly intractable problems – the U.S. opioid crisis, famine in Africa etc. It can seem daunting. What gives you hope that this Roundtable can really get after some of the structural inequities that have led to 10% of residents struggling to put food on the table each week.
Kennard: You are absolutely right! People want immediate action, not talk. And they are tired of these large groups that issue reports that quickly get shelved. That’s why we were so intentional about the composition of the Food Equity Roundtable – making sure we included people who are action oriented, who want to see major change, who have deep knowledge of either food, or systems change. And change cannot just be measured by increases in CalFresh enrollment or food distribution by food banks. Change must also involve the systems behind the scenes – the supply chain, the access to healthy, nutritious food, etc. It is daunting and our goal is to have a set of recommendations by end of Year One, which is this summer. Will it get done? We certainly hope so. We are committed to it and the energy around the table is impressive so far.
Gary Gero: From the County’s perspective, I think it is critical that there is political support for this effort and political will to implement. We’ve seen the County dedicate nearly $200 million in food support through the federal CARES Act and now the American Rescue Plan, so that is one indicator of the depth of support we have. But the real test will come when we start recommending real systemic changes to the way the County does its business. Given the level of interest and support we’ve enjoyed so far, I expect that the Board of Supervisors will support our efforts to reimagine our food systems.
Tell us about this unique private and public coalition – government and NGOs all trying to get on the same page. It’s got to be a bit challenging herding all these cats, no? What do you see your role as personally?
Kennard: Well first of all, this coalition is not so unique to those of us in philanthropy. Several years ago, Annenberg joined with about a dozen other foundations to fund the Center for Strategic Partnerships, a first of its kind venture in L.A. County built to spur collaboration between the private/philanthropic sector and the County of Los Angeles. It began as a three-year pilot focused on the issue of child welfare. During that time, it helped over two dozen private sector partners co-create innovative systems change with the County. In fact, when the COVID-19 crisis erupted this office led by Kate Anderson was able to morph into the philanthropic/LA County crisis connection point – a kind air traffic control center connecting philanthropy with the needs that intensified when COVID arrived. It enabled us all to move fast and have impact in areas of importance like COVID-19 testing for the homeless, equitable vaccine distribution, food insecurity and on and on. Now, this initiative is permanently located in the County Chief Executive Office and continues to expand its work, not only to include more issues facing the County but to bring more private sectors partners to the table. Having seen the Center thrive over the years, I know that a core tenet of its success is for each sector to listen to each other and to understand what each can bring to the table. That is my role with the Roundtable. As Co-Chair, I am listening to both County leaders and nonprofit leaders and offering suggestions based on what philanthropy can offer.
Gero: I would echo Cinny’s response and say that this type of collaboration is not so unique to us either. From its inception five year ago, the Chief Sustainability Office has always worked closely with philanthropy, community-based organizations, academia, and the private sector. We recognize the truth in the African saying that if you want to go fast then go alone, but if you want to go far, then you must go together. We’re going together to tackle food insecurity and access to nutritious healthy food for everyone.
It’s still early days for the Roundtable, but what has surprised you so far? What are you excited about?
Kennard: I’m very excited by the energy “in the room.” OF course, we are virtual for now and that is sometimes frustrating because there is simply no replacement for human in person connection! Despite the meetings being remote, there is a very positive energy that is inspiring. Everyone at the table has his/her own personal story to share about why this issue is so important. What has surprised me? The data! I know this is a challenging issue, but the data continues to shine a large light on the disparities that exist in Los Angeles. It’s less surprising than it is shocking. And that’s what needs to change.
Gero: I am heartened by the seriousness with which the Roundtable members are approaching this work and their focus on overcoming the historic and continuing racism in society and government that has created the inequities in food security that those data so clearly point out. We collectively know that we cannot address food insecurity without acknowledging and working to dismantle some of its racist foundations.
What is your personal stake in this initiative? Do you have any personal connections to the issue of food insecurity?
Kennard: It’s very simple. To me, food is a basic need for every life and there should be no problem with access anywhere. In 1943, the psychologist Abraham Maslow developed a Hierarchy of Needs to explain the five levels every human being must progress through to self-actualization. According to Maslow, human beings’ physiological needs for food, water, clothing, shelter, and sleep must be satisfied in order for them to address more complex needs like mental and physical health, relationships, long-term housing, and employment. In such an affluent society we must ask ourselves how on Earth anyone would be hungry; how any part of this country, any region, should be laden with the food insecurity challenge. It is personal to me because I run a family Foundation on behalf of the Annenberg family who believe to whom much is given, much is expected. And it is personal to me because it is an extraordinary challenge but at the same time an incredible opportunity where philanthropy can step in and try to help.
Gero: I am driven to this work for the same reasons I chose to work in public service, which is that I believe the government has the power to make real change when it makes its mind up to do so and I want to help foster that progress. I am the first generation of an immigrant refugee family and my father worked hard at his job on the ground service crew at an airline to manage to keep food on the table – albeit at times it was very simple dishes like cabbage and noodles or homemade soup from old vegetables. So, I personally know how important having enough food is and it is important for me to help make sure that others always have food on their table. The lack of adequate nutrition is a key factor in diminished educational and economic achievement. It creates a vicious cycle. I want to help end that.