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Camden is a vibrant and resilient city. But like many majority-minority communities in the United States, it has faced longstanding structural racism in public and private decision-making. The resulting disinvestment in the city’s neighborhoods and its residents has resulted in Camden having one of the highest food insecurity rates in New Jersey. One third of Camden residents live below the poverty line.

The Camden Coalition started working on the issue of food security in Camden in 2012 as part of the Campbell’s Healthy Communities (CHC) initiative.

In 2020, as the decade-long initiative was coming to a close, the Camden Coalition began working with CHC partners and community members to ask, “what should the next ten years of food security work in Camden look like?”

Moving upstream

It was the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, when health and social service organizations across the country had shifted into emergency-response mode; but remarkably, even as attention had shifted to the “here and now,” what we repeatedly heard in these early planning conversations was the importance of looking upstream to address root cause drivers of food insecurity in Camden City. Our community understood that while providing food to people who are hungry today remained ever important, the only way to meaningfully increase food security was to invest in structural and system-level changes.

From this ambitious starting point, the Camden Food Security Collective (CFSC) took root. Today CFSC is a coordinated community that fosters food security through structural equity and engages a broad set of stakeholders to address the upstream causes of food insecurity with the goal of creating equitable, lasting solutions by 2031.

Over the past three years, the Camden Coalition has been honored to serve as co-backbone of CFCS alongside the Food Bank of South Jersey. As we transition out of our backbone role to focus on implementation of co-location strategies, we have reflected on lessons from our work.

It takes an ecosystem

Food security is not a one-dimensional issue. It is a complex set of experiences and environmental and personal factors related to availability, access, utilization, stability, agency, and sustainability. At the heart of complex care is the acknowledgment of the interrelated ecosystem approach.

CFSC’s common agenda includes a three-pillar approach to addressing food security: co-location of community resources, increasing residents’ financial security, and strengthening local food systems. The traditional approaches to food security focus on food. While this addresses the immediate need, it misses the opportunity to understand and address the larger context and conditions that create and sustain food insecurity.

A person showing up to receive food from a local pantry may be un- or under-employed without financial resources to purchase adequate food for their family. This person may need to prioritize the high cost of housing or medications, reducing their capacity to purchase food. Perhaps, due to their complex health conditions, they will never be able to work full-time and the benefits available to them are not enough. There are many situations that might lead someone to using the safety net food system and it is likely that they have an array of interrelated health and social needs contributing to both their food security status and their overall well-being.

Using the collective impact model allowed us to bring together and leverage existing community resources to create something more than the sum of those parts. This is exemplified by CFSC’s Community Hubs pilot, operated by the Camden Coalition, the Food Trust, and Cathedral Kitchen. This co-location strategy embedded community health workers into trusted community locations that were already offering connection to food and other services, ensuring that residents received holistic and person-centered support to address the needs they felt were most important.

Impact requires infrastructure

The recently released U.S. Playbook to Address Social Determinants of Health (SDOH Playbook) highlights the need for “community backbone organizations and other community infrastructure to link healthcare systems to community service organizations.”

While innovation may hold appeal, infrastructure remains indispensable. Many communities already have many impactful and effective organizations and programs, but what is often missing is the infrastructure needed to create coordinated and collaborative systems working in alignment towards shared goals. In search of the next big innovation, we overlook the more accessible opportunities for increased impact: time and space to build relationships, communication systems, shared measurements, and mutually reinforcing activities are vital components for increasing impact at a community and population level.

Our experience as co-backbone of CFSC is that building this type of infrastructure is crucial, but too often overlooked and under-resourced by typical funding approaches.

Where current funding models fall short

In addition to the recommendation to support backbone organizations, the SDOH Playbook also highlights the need for flexible funding to address social needs such as food insecurity, an issue we addressed in depth in this recent blog post.

A central challenge for collective impact initiatives like CFSC is that traditional funding models are not structured well to support collaborative approaches to system-level change. Funding opportunities are often structured to support short-term programmatic initiatives and require grantees to detail specific activities and outcomes in advance. This is not conducive to collective approaches that require resources for infrastructure, flexibility for crafting and implementing collaborative solutions, and time to work towards structural and system-level change.

Increasingly, funders are embracing flexible and trust-based approaches, and we hope to see this trend continue. Complex issues such as food security are underpinned by overarching socio-political conditions like poverty, structural racism, and social inequity. These problems have persisted and taken shape over generations and cannot be meaningfully addressed by funding that prioritizes a short-term and limited approach.

Looking ahead

The Camden Coalition’s mission is to improve the health and well-being of people with complex needs by demonstrating and advancing equitable ecosystems of care. From our monthly Camden Care Management Meetings to the Camden Coalition Health Information Exchange to our status as a NJ Regional Health Hub, we have a long history of acting as a backbone organization in support of both care innovation and stronger care infrastructure in Camden and South Jersey. Supporting CFSC as co-backbone has brought fresh perspectives, strengthened partnerships, and critical new resources into Camden’s ecosystem of care.

CFSC’s membership includes Camden community residents and representatives from more than 30 agencies and organizations – ranging from health systems to safety-net food providers to community-based organizations to schools to private industry and more. There is much work left to do, and we are extremely proud that this collaborative will continue building towards a shared vision for a food secure and equitable Camden.


For more information about the Camden Food Security Collective, please contact Rose Gaano at [email protected] or Sarah Geiger at [email protected]

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