Carla Moore of United Methodist Community House: “Communities themselves can rise and engage in strategies to develop access to health affordable food options”

Communities themselves can rise and engage in strategies to develop access to health affordable food options. We see this with the development of community gardens, food co-ops, and various grassroots agencies engaging communities in nutrition education, including elements like gardening, growing window box foods, and providing education about strengthening local food systems and how to […]

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Communities themselves can rise and engage in strategies to develop access to health affordable food options. We see this with the development of community gardens, food co-ops, and various grassroots agencies engaging communities in nutrition education, including elements like gardening, growing window box foods, and providing education about strengthening local food systems and how to cook and preserve food.


In many parts of the United States, there is a crisis caused by people having limited access to healthy & affordable food options. This in turn is creating a host of health and social problems. What exactly is a food desert? What causes a food desert? What are the secondary and tertiary problems that are created by a food desert? How can this problem be solved? Who are the leaders helping to address this crisis?

In this interview series, called “Food Deserts: How We Are Helping To Address The Problem of People Having Limited Access to Healthy & Affordable Food Options” we are talking to business leaders and non-profit leaders who can share the initiatives they are leading to address and solve the problem of food deserts.

As a part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Carla Moore.

Carla Moore is an accomplished nonprofit executive with nearly 30 years of experience transforming and growing nonprofit organizations. Carla brings a comprehensive understanding of all aspects of nonprofit management — from vision and strategy to planning, implementation, and evaluation. She is deeply passionate about developing staff, volunteers, Boards, and community partners to achieve targets and make a lasting impact.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

My career choice has been rooted in my worldview that creates a sense of obligation to live in service to others — this fulfills my sense of purpose. In non-profit, hands can be short, and I took advantage of every opportunity to fill in the gaps. The non-profit area has been my greatest classroom. Education has simply provided the validation for the work. The nonprofit arena is where theory meets practice, and both are needed.

While my initial engagement in community work was from a more individual approach…helping the child/family/older adult succeed, I quickly gravitated to the more macro side of community work. I have learned from and embraced a systems approach to management. Over the course of my tenure, I have learned that all things are connected in some way. Understanding that every community operates through systems, and watching community leaders work towards change, inspired a passion within me to see better for my community. The Nonprofit area allows me to engage in the work of systems change and community collaboration.

Are you able to identify a “tipping point” in your career when you started to see success? Did you start doing anything different? Are there takeaways or lessons that others can learn from that?

A tipping point for me was when I really grasped the element of belief and its relationship to vision. I am creative and I can dream with the best of them. For me, vision is something that is easy to develop. It is the manifestation power that seemed to be lacking. Vision requires sweat equity. That too has never been a problem for me. But there was still a missing element, and it was belief. Belief is so much deeper than just understanding something to be true. Belief in the manifestation arena requires a confident knowing.

While I had seen success at various times, I did not know how to consistently succeed. During my self reflections, the pattern that continued to emerge was the element of confident knowing. It was tucked away in those moments of “I can’t tell you why I know, I just do.” As I began to apply this level of knowing to the vision and work ethic, I began to see doors open more consistently. I would be remiss not to point out, the confidence in knowing comes from the sweat equity… You still must do the work, the element of knowing just makes that work more fruitful.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person to whom you are grateful who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

The leader in this would have to be my co-CEO, Eric Williams. His first day on the job, I gave him the rundown, which included my assessment that the Agency could not support us both. His response was the Agency won’t survive without us both. That day changed the course of my plans and probably this Agency. Had I left, as intended, I would not be where I am today and the development happening now would have been unlikely.

While this may sound a bit heroic, our Agency really does not have any singular heroes. My success structure really consists of an entire team, as I have some of the most dedicated and selfless directors that any leader would covet. They have stood with me and our Agency through thick and thin, during times of plenty and starvation. My success is their success and theirs is mine. We operate from a very team-oriented position and believe strongly in power-sharing. The evidence of this is our co-CEO leadership model. Another example is our Board of Directors hosts two seats, per Board meeting, for frontline staff to attend. Those seats come with full voting rights during the meeting. We all contribute to the success of our Agency, not any specific individual.

You are a successful leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

Humility must be at the top of the list of character traits that have been instrumental to my success. Having worked my way through the ranks, I understand how valuable the frontline is. They have such a wealth of knowledge when it comes to how things actually work. Being able to be humble enough to listen and receive their feedback and explore their recommendation has paid forward some of my greatest successes.

The vision tri-component: vision, sweat equity, and knowing. Eric and I were at our wits-end with budget spreads and other pressing tasks. I said, “let’s go for a walk.” He will tell you to this day, he thought I was crazy, and we did not have time to go walking, but he graciously humored me. We took a route that led us to circle the block across the street from us. Its western border sits on a main corridor of the city. We stopped in front of a large blighted-looking property, which sits directly across from our current facility, on the backside. I said, “I want this building, we need to expand, and we need sightlines to traffic.” Less than a year later, we owned the property. That’s not so amazing, unless you understand that our most recent audit, at that time, showed that we were nearly 600k dollars in the negative. In my mind, I already saw what could be and believed it was a component of our future success — there was no other course than to obtain it.

Innovation has also been key. There is a certain level of risk you must be willing to take if you are going to be an innovator. This trait has always been demonstrated through my creativity and my openness to try new things. I can be a bit of a pilot queen, but it is in the willingness to try the unknown that great solutions and strategies are found. Failure is one of the most powerful teachers and there is no room for fear of failure. Innovation will challenge your comfort level with both change and risk, but its benefits yield great rewards.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Everyone around me knows my philosophy, “What is supposed to happen, will.” I believe this with every fiber of my being. As I have worked towards the collective good of others, everything I have ever needed has come to me. When I needed specific talents to add to the team, the right person always presented themselves. When I didn’t know where funding was going to come from, a return from a previously planted seed would come through. When I’ve needed expertise, I have found it. The caveat is that you get to choose if what is to happen, happens with or through you. You make this choice by the work ethic you apply towards making it happen.

Ok super. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about Food Deserts. I know this is intuitive to you, but it will be helpful to expressly articulate this for our readers. Can you please tell us what exactly a food desert is? Does it mean there are places in the US where you can’t buy food?

My definition of a food desert is a community space where people reside, but access to fresh food through markets and grocery stores does not exist. These spaces are typically filled with fast-food and corner/party stores options. They also tend to be in locations wracked with poverty.

Can you help explain a few of the social consequences that arise from food deserts? What are the secondary and tertiary problems that are created by a food desert?

With the exodus of the population from the 3rd Ward and the decay of the housing market, commerce and resources also diminished. These things are slow to return, and often when they do, good food habits of residents are not readily adopted due to several factors. Not having convenient access, in many cases a home, tools/utensils to prepare healthy foods, nor the know-how. When conditions that create food deserts exist, residents defer to convenience foods and takeout, which generally are not healthy choices.

Inequity is always a byproduct… It is almost a “chicken and egg” situation. The lack of access is an inequity in and of itself; however, it also creates inequities, which drive other inequities and most importantly determinants of health.

These determinants impact the success of our community’s youngest and oldest members. Children need proper nutrition to aid their ability to engage in learning and social environments. Older adults need proper nutrition to age well. Therefore, our Agency has shifted to in-house food service. We want to serve our clients and students fresh meals, sourced from our local food producers/growers, and prepared and served with cultural relevance. This is important to us, as we can be confident that when our clients and students are with us, they are being provided quality nutrition. Our Fresh Market ensures they can take nutritious foods home with them.

Where did this crisis come from? Can you briefly explain to our readers what brought us to this place?

For my neighborhood, it has been a long history of insufficient investment and reinforced stigmas, driven by racism. My agency sits on a main corridor that borders our third ward, which is home to the City’s highest concentration of Black and Brown communities. Placing businesses in a district that was seen as risky, due to this history, has been a significant causal element that has led to our particular food desert.

Can you describe to our readers how your work is making an impact to address this crisis? Can you share some of the initiatives you are leading to help correct this issue?

I have been working on a community development project for the past three years. This project will bring expanded child development services for working families, an activity center for older adults (also serving to bring access to the many resources this community has), and 93 units of affordable housing for independent older adults. Attracting banking, pharmacy, and grocery has been nearly impossible. Because my project will bring a concentration of vulnerable residents, I have an obligation to ensure they have access, at minimum, to fresh food. When approached by Access of West Michigan, about initiating a fresh market, it felt like the right fit, even though food systems are not in our historical competencies. But not having access exuberates other issues associated with poverty and hunger.

Can you share something about your work that makes you most proud? Is there a particular story or incident that you found most uplifting?

I am most proud that we have implemented a system and membership strategy that achieves consumer dignity. We are a small farm stand style market that only sources Michigan made and grown products. Fresh and organic is the costliest option these days — our market makes these options affordable to all shoppers. While we accept many forms of payment, including EBT/SNAP, Double-up Food Bucks, Prescriptions for Health vouchers, WIC, and traditional forms, we also have an income-based sliding scale.

What makes our system dignified is that every membership can have their own profile to which their eligible percent discount can be applied. All market members are given a 5% discount. A member can also sign up for an income-based shopping discount. Every time a subsidized member shops, their eligible discount is applied during the transaction and does not require the member to disclose or do anything more than any other consumer. Regularly priced sales help offset the cost of subsidizing lower-income shoppers; however, who is who, is unidentifiable to others.

In your opinion, what should other business and civic leaders do to further address these problems? Can you please share your “5 Things That Need To Be Done To Address The Problem of People Having Limited Access to Healthy & Affordable Food Options”? If you can, please share a story or example for each.

Civic leaders need to ensure equity in investments happen. I am certain Grand Rapids, MI is not the only city with investment equity issues. Municipalities also have tools they can use to incentivize business development in depressed areas. Prioritizing and incentivizing these areas would be a great start.

Business leaders also need to make sure they are benefiting the neighborhoods in which they are located. Their employees should reflect the surrounding demographics. There should also be a reinvestment back into the communities in which they reside.

Philanthropic leaders need to adjust their methods of distribution. Many processes inadvertently or intentionally disqualify applicants. The trend continues to be a top-down approach and your needs must align with their perception of what you need, to gain their support. Allow the people in need to share in the development of and/or identify the solutions to their problems. Those in need can’t do any worse than those who control the resources and who support unrealistic solutions that have yielded little impact. Of the millions of dollars that have been poured into impoverished areas, foundations must be willing to take an honest look at how the needle has moved. Funding programs is like buying Band-Aids. Share the power, then fund them to success, not survival. Unfortunately, many of the communities’ philanthropic leaders target are often economically depressed, but they also are home to many communities of color. The Bridgespan Group provides a good look at these disparities and how the funding decreases significantly for entities led by professionals of color. Their research shows, Black-led organizations are 24 percent smaller than the revenues of their white-led counterparts, and the unrestricted net assets of the Black-led organizations are 76 percent smaller than their white-led counterparts.

Communities themselves can rise and engage in strategies to develop access to health affordable food options. We see this with the development of community gardens, food co-ops, and various grassroots agencies engaging communities in nutrition education, including elements like gardening, growing window box foods, and providing education about strengthening local food systems and how to cook and preserve food.

Are there other leaders or organizations who have done good work to address food deserts? Can you tell us what they have done? What specifically impresses you about their work?

Access of West Michigan is a leader in our local food system. They have helped to establish five other fresh markets in areas where food access is insufficient. We collaborate and engage in information-sharing to support one another in our efforts to eliminate these food deserts. We also will combine purchasing efforts to leverage cost, when it makes sense. The markets only source locally, as an added strength to our local system.

Another way organizations are impacting the food system is through establishing access to learning and the development of community gardens. There are many efforts throughout our urban core that are teaching community members how to grow food and even how to use fresh foods as staples in their diets. Since this work is regenerative, having access to all parts of the food chain is important as is education around urban farming. Local farmers also serve as collaborative partners.

Lastly, I hold co-founders Alita Kelly and Khara Dewit in high regard for their efforts around establishing the Southeast Market. They have a unique model that is also expanding community access, awareness and promoting empowerment. They too are located in the Third Ward, and we consider them collaborators in the fight.

If you had the power to influence legislation, are there laws that you would like to see introduced that might help you in your work?

I feel fortunate to live in a state that is second in the United States for food production. Michigan is innovative in that we served as an initiator for the Double Up Food Bucks program pilot. Double Up Food Bucks help stretch EBT/SNAP dollars with a focus on fresh produce, community, and improved economies for farmers, not just the end user, again ensuring a more regenerative system.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

We are in the process of building a state-of-the-art community center for older adults, an expanded child development center focused on ages 6 weeks through two years old, and residential units for independent older adults. The big picture is a replicable model that emphasizes the use of an intergenerational lens. By developing increased programs and services to older adults, we can generate revenue more than overhead, to endow and subsidize the cost of care for children. Currently funding for this demographic does not exist in our State.

How this relates to our work within food justice, is that in addition to the Fresh Market and community garden (access), a learning kitchen is also part of this plan (know-how). A learning kitchen is a place where the neighbors can gather to exchange and share cultural food preparations, stories, and memories. Bringing community around food is a bond that helps transcend many of the racial issues we face. This is a bonding of community that is made stronger by sharing food. This has been demonstrated by Seitu Jones during his ArtPrize entry and award in 2017. If we can bring people together around food, we can bring down barriers and help to eliminate several of the systemic issues we face as a city and beyond.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Mackenzie Scott. From all the articles and social posts that I have seen that speak of her passion for the success of women and her desire for the greatest level of impact from her investments, I just have a high level of respect for her.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

WWW.UMCHOUSEGR.ORG and WWW.THEFRESHMARKETATUMCH.COM

This was very meaningful, thank you so much, and we wish you only continued success.

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