Three students at the UMass Amherst School of Public Policy recently helped the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts address a question that food banks across the country have been wrestling with: what to do with donations of less-than-healthy foods, without alienating the individuals or corporations who donated them?
Sarah Brown-Anson, Elizabeth Leibinger, and Hadassah Masudi Minga—all students in SPP’s Master of Public Policy and Administration program—examined the issue for their yearlong capstone project. Fittingly, their capstone supervisor at the Food Bank was an SPP alumna, Laura Sylvester, who received her MPPA in 2016. They also worked closely with a faculty advisor, Marta Vicarelli of the School of Public Policy and the Department of Economics.
The Food Bank of Western Massachusetts makes it a priority to distribute healthy food to the member agencies it serves, with an emphasis on produce, healthy proteins, and other nutritious items, said Sylvester, the organization’s legislative and community partnership coordinator. Still, she added, “right now, there’s no internal policy that would allow us to refuse food of low nutritional quality. We don’t have a way to say to a corporation, ‘Sorry, we don’t want that pallet of candy or that pallet of soda.’” While such items comprise a very small percentage of the donations it receives, Sylvester said, the Food Bank saw the need for an official policy that would help it effectively deal with unhealthy contributions without risking damage to its relationships with donors.
The SPP students surveyed twenty-one food banks across the country to determine what, if any, nutrition policies they have, how they developed those policies, and how the policies have affected donor relations. They used the findings of these extensive surveys to identify best practices for designing and implementing nutrition policies, and to put together a detailed set of recommendations for the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts as it considers whether to develop its own policy.
Among their findings, Brown-Anson said, was that the way food banks communicate their policies to their various stakeholders, including staff, clients, member organizations, and donors, is crucial. “We found it was very important how the policy was framed, both internally, to get buy in, and externally, to ensure organizational clarity about their goals,” she explained. The group’s recommendations also addressed the need to put together a strong committee to draft a nutrition policy and the importance of developing a system for evaluating the effects of a policy, on both donor relationships and on the organization itself.
The capstone project, Leibinger said, offered invaluable professional preparation, allowing her and her partners to hone their analytical skills and gain important experience both working with a client and working as part of a team—skills she’ll put to good use at her job at the federal General Accounting Office, where she started shortly after graduating in May.
Working with the SPP students has been a rewarding experience, Sylvester said. “They grasped really quickly what the issues were and came up with ideas that expanded the initial scope of the capstone, taking it in directions that we hadn’t even anticipated.” As the Food Bank moves toward developing its own nutrition policy, she said, “having Sarah, Beth, and Hadassah’s capstone gives us a great blueprint and will make it easier when we do tackle it.”
Photo: Laura Sylvester, legislative and community partnership coordinator at the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts and an SPP alumna (second from left) with (from left) Hadassah Masudi Minga, Sarah Brown-Anson, and Beth Leibinger at the 2018 School of Public Policy Capstone Conference
About the School of Public Policy: Established in 2016, the UMass Amherst School of Public Policy is a hub for research and teaching, preparing students for leadership in public service. The program’s focuses include social change and public policy related to science and technology.
— Maureen Turner, communications manager, School of Public Policy