Keithie Lawrence (Director of Community and Recovery Services) reflects on his role in growing the Brown Bag from an informal service to an official program over the past decade.
Keithie, can you please explain how the Brown Bag came to be and what your role was in that?
The Brown Bag goes way back maybe 13 years ago. We partnered with City Harvest to bring food to our residential program back in the 90s. One of the things, that I used to see was a great deal of waste in terms of the food. As the years went on, and I transitioned to Recovery Services, my thought process changed. One day, I and Executive Director Robert Anderson were talking about this, and we both agreed, let’s give it to the community, as a way to engage them. It was birthed from there. It was something I had been thinking about but for him to say it at the same time as I did, was confirmation. It was a very unique situation, I must say. We started giving out free bags of food on Tuesdays and Thursdays and it just flourished from there.
We wanted to meet the needs of the folks within the community and use it as an avenue and/or means to engage them. People didn’t really know what we’re or what we offered–they only knew about the residential program. Other than seeing the clients go out for nature walks and coming back in, that’s all they knew. We wanted to give them a different view or perspective of where we were going in terms of community services. My purpose was to use the food distribution as an avenue of engagement and see how I can better serve them in the community. Giving them food afforded me the opportunity to have conversations with them about how I can help them from a social-economic standpoint. There were many other things that I wanted to explore and try to help them with.
Before your conversation with Rob about this, what made you most acutely aware of how much food waste there is in this city or in this country, what put that issue on your radar?
It always bothered me to see how things were just being thrown away. I would say it became acute when I made that transition into my new role. My optics shifted as I looked at the community. It occurred to me that the food being wasted could be given to the community. Recovery Services is community. I said to myself wait a minute, why are we throwing all this stuff out? Robert agreed with me and I just took the initiative and ran with it. We’re throwing all this food out when we have a whole community right outside our door. The Recovery team was in agreement with this new endeavor, and we came together & made it happen almost 4 years ago. Unknowingly, seeing this operation grow to the extent it has presently. As a result, we were able to reintroduce ourselves to the community and begin to do the real work. Through this engagement, we’re able to refer people to the community center for services.
Just to be clear about the food that was being thrown out, was that CRW’s food? What food was actually being wasted?
It was food from City Harvest that was donated in very high volumes to Residential Services here at the Center for Recovery & Wellness.
So CRW’s connection with City Harvest actually predates the founding of the Brown Bag, you already had a relationship with them, and you leveraged the surplus food that you were getting and did something with it. Once you had that conversation with Rob and you decided to start the Brown Bag, what did you do to actually get to that point?
We have a very good team. During a meeting, I asked them, what are your thoughts about doing some kind of free food giveaway? They thought it was the greatest idea in the world. From that point on we ordered some bags, picked a target date, and we made it happen. Not knowing what was going to work or not, we just did it! There were some challenges. Above all else, it was about the community. As a team, we wanted to make sure the food was given out to the community. Everything else was kind of structured later based on what was working well and what was not, so as time went on it got better in terms of strategies we put in place. The community saw the consistency, now on the mornings of the Free Food days, you’ll see lines running down the block as early as 7:30 am.
And this all happened you said like 10 years ago?
No, the Brown Bag I would say started about four years ago. Educational Alliance’s relationship with City Harvest goes back 14 years.
Fast forward to today, what would you say are your top goals moving forward for how to improve the Brown Bag, or more broadly how to improve the ways that we serve our community in general?
We’ve already made a lot of progressive steps. Gail our new Volunteer Coordinator is about to start off a program where the Brown Bag is going to be pretty much contactless. We’re going to use an app to schedule appointments to cut down the line outside and make things more orderly. She’s coming in with a lot of innovation, and vision. We feel that Gail is going to do a great job building our volunteer services. Gail is already heavily involved in getting the apparatus of working well with others as it relates to serving the community. She’s already working with the schools, as it relates to donations.
Being that the community center is closed, there are a limited number of things that I can have her do because we’re not full-fledged open. Once CRW opens back up her role will expand with volunteer services. We’re very grateful to have her on the team.
Is there anything else that you’d like to share as a closing thought about the Brown Bag or Recovery Services as a closing thought?
One thing I’d like to point out is how far we’ve come here at the Center for Recovery and Wellness. Today we have become one of, if not, the premier 820 programs in New York with a community center model that treats the entire person in our care.