Tuesday, July 16, 2024

Geeta Pradhan, president of the Cambridge Community Foundation, right, is introduced at an Oct. 14 event by Michael Monestime of the Central Square Business Improvement District. (Photo: Marc Levy)

If there’s a way to get a message about solving hunger to go down easy, it’s with free food, and from the kind of Cambridge restaurants the food-insecure may not often see inside. An Oct. 15 block party held by the Cambridge Community Foundation at Starlight Square handed out lobster sandwich bites from Puritan & Co., beef empanadas fromWusong Road and and veggie paella from Mae Asian Eatery, along with offerings from Pagu and entire Diddy Burgers.

It was the foundation’s announcement of a five-year timeline for taking on the city’s biggest, most persistent problems, with the introduction of initiatives front loaded over the next 24 months.

After food insecurity, this winter will see an initiative to keep arts and culture thriving, followed by social innovations in the spring and education a year from now. In the winter of 2024, it’s housing stability, followed by resident engagement in the spring of 2025. The final component, economic security, comes in fall 2025.

“We make a heartfelt commitment to be bold, to shift from making incremental change to trying to solve the community’s most entrenched problems,” said Geeta Pradhan, president of the Cambridge Community Foundation, to the crowd at Starlight Square. “We will make big bets. We will harness our collective power and respond to our community’s greatest needs.”

Puritan & Co. lobster bites are handed out at the Oct. 14 block party.

This is not just about the foundation tapping Cambridge’s wealthiest people and innovation companies to write checks, though, but about “how to align the resources” the city already has, Pradhan made clear in a Tuesday call.

“We’re developing methodologies to build on the work the community is already doing and work collaboratively to solve problems,” Pradhan said. It’s about the CCF’s other strength: “bringing people together.”

“We know the right player”

The initial project does bring a $1.1 million investment in a new Food Access and Security Initiative, but it’s to strengthen the work being done by seven existing local nonprofits, according to a foundation press release. That’s done mainly through eight grants for the bulk of the money, $946,000, going to the Cambridge Economic Opportunity Committee and its Food Pantry Network, the low-cost Central Square grocery store Daily Table, Food for Free and Rescuing Leftover Cuisine programs, the Mass Farmer’s Market and citizen nonprofits the East End House and Margaret Fuller Neighborhood House. In addition to the mostly three-year grants, $20,000 is going to a program that matches food benefits with programs where they can be spent; and the Margaret Fuller Neighborhood House is getting $156,000 in state-funded infrastructure support.

Food For Free, for examples, said a $150,000 grant would go to another expansion of its Just Eats grocery-delivery boxes to people at six low-income housing sites within Cambridge. The program, which began during the pandemic, has been delivering through a network of community partners in Cambridge, Somerville, Boston and Chelsea.

“In Cambridge, a city with so much prosperity, no one should go hungry, and yet many of our families are making hard decisions about where to put their dollars as they meet basic needs,” Pradhan said. “By drawing on data, building on our past investments, connecting and collaborating with food-security nonprofits – and garnering the support of local donors – we can solve food insecurity in Cambridge.”

“We know the right players,” she said.

The five-year timeline is not for resolution as much as it is a construct that encourages the foundation and city to launch focused projects with a sense of momentum – “there’s a cadence,” as one person familiar with the plan put it.

The approach to addressing food insecurity is intended as a model for the initiatives that follow, in which funding becomes more powerful because groups work together instead of being siloed. “Nonprofits are already strapped,” Pradhan said.

Risks that may redirect

There’s a risk that comes with synergy, Pradhan acknowledged, that assets developed on their own to fill a need can suddenly seem redundant. “Sometimes you build a structure that may not work,” she said. “You have to be prepared for that kind of learning.”

The five-year plan is “much more about a shift in approach,” Pradhan said. It’s intended to be “a very organic process, and if things go wrong, we’ll course-correct.”

Over the course of the five years, there are concrete measurements to look for in addition to more general goals such as cross-sector collaboration and social innovations, and getting residents more engaged in social and democratic life and better connected to one another.

Low-income households should see increased financial stability from 25 percent to 50 percent, according to the CCF, and some 75 percent to 100 percent of students should have access to postsecondary opportunities such as college, trades and certificate programs as a result of the plan, up from 60 percent.

Initial plan materials can be found here.