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Referral Advocacy – Data Driven Success!

If you follow this blog with any regularity you’ve probably seen several posts focusing on Bread for the City’s campaign to change the third-party referral system for local food pantries. Here a ‘referral’ means a written letter from an agency/organization vouching that a client ‘deserves’ access to food, clothing, furniture, or other goods.  Referrals were required as proof of a client’s eligibility – regardless of any primary proofs they could provide on their own (income statements, lease etc).

Over the last year we have intentionally listened to community experiences with referrals for food. Many clients expressed frustration at being asked to travel to Bread for the City just to get a piece of paper. Others wondered why pantries didn’t design their own intake processes to limit the burden on clients. After listening to these experiences we increased our advocacy to local pantries and the Capital Area Food Bank. We asked them to join us in exploring ways that together we could create more just and anti-racist policies. Most of them heard us and committed to creating more client centered processes. As we enter summer we can celebrate the knowledge that across DC people have lower barriers to accessing vital food resources!

We also use technology & data to inform our decision and improve our services. Our staff knew they were writing a lot of referrals – but the volume became even clearer when we ran reports and saw the raw numbers. As we started our campaign, we tracked our interventions and measured their impact. Here are some examples:

  • Between January – August of 2014, Bread for the City wrote over 1,141 individual paper referrals to city organizations as proof of eligibility for food, clothing, and in-kind goods. This model placed providers at the center of the system, and the burden of time, energy and transportation on clients.
  • Referrals were required by 16 food pantries across DC. These pantries represent less than 50% of total food pantries in DC but (as you can see in the below chart) there is high demand for their services. In 2014, we wrote approximately 94% of our referrals to 4 organizations- Martha’s Table (838 referrals), Salvation Army (117 referrals), Central Union Mission (73 referrals), Lutheran Church of the Reformation (48 referrals).

referrals graphicAfter a year of hard work & advocacy here are the exciting outcomes!

  • Participation – Client Engagement & Leadership:

BFC held open meetings and follow-up appointments with client leaders. Clients participated in meetings by sharing their experiences with the referral system and brainstorming ideas for how it could be improved. These conversations informed our outreach to pantries and internal programmatic decisions.

  • Social Capital – Relationship Building Across Community Agencies:

We teamed up with the Capital Area Food Bank (CAFB) to push for policy changes at the 16 organizations that required referrals. Of this group, 88% had a food partnership with the CAFB. These relationships expanded our outreach and led to an increased awareness and attitude shift in many local pantry leaders.

  • Values Informing Practice – Racial Equity Lens:

As you have heard from us, we are thinking a lot about racial equity at BFC. We are challenging ourselves as service providers to consider how we are perpetuating oppression and racism – in our own programs and also in the larger systems that we work within. Historically, social service provision has often been based on antiquated ideas of worthy and unworthy poor. We believe the elimination of paper referrals is an important shift away from a prejudiced charity model.

  • Policy – Food Pantry Changes:  

As of now 14 food pantries have agreed to drop their referral requirements. These pantries represent 88% of the referrals we wrote from Jan – Aug 2014. This is a huge shift that is already having a huge impact in the local food distribution system.

referrals graphic 2We’re proud of what has been accomplished through client leadership and community collaboration. Yesterday a staff member received an enthusiastic high five from a client because referrals would no longer be required at her regular food pantry! We feel her excitement about increased client choice and participation!

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