Are there better ways to address some of our community’s most pressing challenges?
Recently, the United Way of the Greater Triangle launched the “Innovate United Challenge – 100,000 Kids Hungry No More.” The goal: finding innovative solutions for reducing the number of children in our community with limited access to nutritionally adequate or safe food.
It’s a timely challenge. Today, North Carolina ranks among the worst states for food insecurity. According to a 2014 Hunger in America Study, almost 20 percent of children in North Carolina under the age of 18 live in food insecure environments. And of North Carolina households receiving food assistance, 81 percent report that they don’t know where their next meal will come from.
Part of the problem appears to be getting food to children. In a recent Hunger Research report by the UNC School of Government, 71 percent of eligible children receive free and reduced price school lunch while only 34 percent of eligible children get free and reduced price breakfast.
There are many reasons why these programs are not fully utilized. They include language barriers, transportation issues, and the fear among children of being branded as poor if they do pick up their meals. Lowered attendance, academic performance, and chances of graduation are all among the real consequences of these skipped meals.
The United Way of the Greater Triangle convened a group of community leaders from across the university, nonprofit, and funding community to explore these challenges.
They emerged with a call to action stating, “We are not going to let 100,000 kids in our community go hungry every day.”
The United Way then partnered with Bull City Forward (which Christopher co-founded) to launch an Innovation Challenge with the winning idea receiving $50,000. As Mack Koonze, CEO and president of the United Way of the Greater Triangle, said, “From teachers and students to farmers and social entrepreneurs; businesses and nonprofits, the spirit of innovation can change lives by developing, implementing, and scaling high-impact ideas to address childhood hunger.”
40 ideas, 1 winner
In response to the challenge, more than 40 ideas were submitted, ranging from very early stage concepts to well-established programs with potential for real results. On the basis of their social impact, breakthrough potential, feasibility, sustainability and scalability, 12 ideas were selected as semi-finalists. From this group, four ventures were chosen for an intensive six-week accelerator of mentorship and business coaching in preparation for a final pitch competition at the United Way’s CEO Sleep Out.
The finalists featured:
• Pennies 4 Progress, a social enterprise launched by a pair of N.C. State students to raise funds for local education causes through an innovative point-of-sale donation strategy.
• Yes2Fresh, a collaboration between local social entrepreneurs and Urban Ministries of Wake County to get fresh food directly to eligible families through local grocery stores.
• Grocers on Wheels, which created a mobile fresh-food delivery and education system for “food deserts” in low-income communities.
As Jim Keaten from Child Nutrition Services says, “My expectation is to share this model with the other schools in the Triangle and across the state.”
The United Way also hopes to expand the scale and impact of its own innovation activities through a proposed social impact fund. It is also deeply interested in helping promising ventures collaborate with one another to maximize their collective impact.
Challenges catch on
The concept of innovation challenges is catching on – especially focused on food.
In Charlotte, Queen City Forward has partnered with the Knight Foundation, Wells Fargo, Compass Foods, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina and others to launch a challenge to increase access to healthy food in the city. And N.C. New Schools is partnering with industry to launch an innovation challenge in the spring across its 150 schools focused on food availability.
In a time of pressing need, we need breakthrough ideas. But we can’t afford a lot of sizzle and no steak. We need to keep testing whether these ideas are working, find ways to connect promising ideas together, and put sustained investment into the highest impact ventures. Only then will we get the kind of results our state and nation so clearly need.
Christopher Gergen is CEO of Forward Impact, a fellow in Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Duke University, and author of “Life Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives.” Stephen Martin, a director at the nonprofit Center for Creative Leadership, blogs at www.messyquest.com. They can be reached at email@example.com and followed on Twitter through @cgergen.