Zach, community outreach manager for the Foodbank, didn’t initially focus his work on hunger relief and food access. In college, he worked with a group of peers to provide food access to homeless and low-income populations through an organization called Food Not Bombs. He later served in the Peace Corps tackling food insecurity in West Africa where he worked in natural resource management. Following his Peace Corps service, Zach joined AmeriCorps, a network of national service programs made up of three primary programs that each take a different approach to improving lives and fostering civic engagement. “It all came back to food and hunger,” he says. “Making sure folks have enough food but also thinking about global food systems.”
He started working at a food bank in North Carolina focusing solely on food stamp outreach before joining the team at the Foodbank of Southeastern Virginia and the Eastern Shore nearly two and a half years ago. As community outreach manager, Zach oversees two team members, handles relationship management and communication with Partner Agencies (soup kitchens, food pantries, etc.) and leads our organization’s SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) outreach.
Early in his work with SNAP, Zach realized there are common misconceptions about the program, particularly from some older adults who assume there’s a cap on funding. “What I’m hearing a lot is they don’t want to take the benefits from someone else, someone who’s ‘more deserving,’” Zach says. “I tell them there are funds available for whoever is eligible and applies for it.”
He also tells them this important message: “You are deserving. Everybody deserves to eat. Everybody needs to eat.”
Zach has learned that there are also misconceptions about the individuals who utilize SNAP benefits. “I think a lot of folks think that people who use food stamps aren’t working,” Zach says. “Most people who use SNAP are working or they’re not able to work because they’re children, they’re disabled or they’re a senior.”
When Zach works with individuals to help them apply for SNAP benefits, he aims to make them feel comfortable as he asks questions. “The process itself can be really alienating and dehumanizing,” he says. “A lot of low-income folks jump through hoops to get very basic needs met. If I can make it a little easier, bring a little levity to it and make that front end feel more human, then maybe it sets them up for success when they get through the rest of the process.”
Since joining our Foodbank, Zach and other Foodbank team members have assisted individuals in submitting over 1,300 SNAP applications. One group that Zach provides SNAP outreach to is a cohort of women receiving training to launch or advance their careers through the Women in Skilled Careers (WISC) program offered through Virginia Career Works.
Zach also provides regular SNAP outreach to individuals who are incarcerated and nearing their release date. If an individual is going to live with a family member who is on a fixed income, receiving SNAP benefits would help to sustain the household’s grocery expenses. “They can feel like they’re contributing while they’re sorting out what comes next,” Zach explains.
Outside of his role at the Foodbank, Zach works with inmates to promote creative, nonviolent conflict resolution. Since 2015, he has been a co-facilitator with the Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP), a worldwide movement dedicated to building peace in homes, schools, institutions and communities. Zach is specifically involved with an AVP program co-created by incarcerated individuals. In the program, they focus on areas such as communication, conflict resolution skills, problem solving skills, anger and frustration, trauma and empathy work. The hope is to get as many individuals involved in the program as possible with the idea that if more inmates are armed with nonviolent methods of conflict resolution, a potentially threatening situation could be deescalated quickly.
This program builds trust among inmates and gives them a community of individuals to lean on. “The best thing we hear is that for a whole weekend, they forgot they were in prison.”
Looking ahead, Zach’s ultimate goal at the Foodbank is to not have a job, meaning that we will have reached our vision of a hunger-free community. “What attracted me to this Foodbank is the longer-term direction, moving away from just food in, food out, making sure that we’re looking at a systems approach and how we can try not to have folks come visit us,” he says.
Until then, his personal mission is to promote access to food while treating people with respect and dignity. “At the end of the day, I’ll know we provided somebody with a basic need in a way that made them feel seen, heard and valued.”