Five years ago, and with just $5,000 to its name, the Montbello Organizing Committee in metro Denver, Colorado, wanted to address a lack of access to fresh, nutritious, affordable food in its predominantly Latino and Black neighborhood.

“We’ve been working to draw grocery stores into our community, and after about two and a half years of trying, it dawned on us—they’re not coming,” Angelle Fouther, vice president of Montbello Organizing Committee, told a local news station. The residents, sick of being ignored, decided to take matters into their own hands.

With hard work on the ground—and strategic seed funding and support from the Kresge Foundation—the nonprofit group is now developing the Montbello FreshLo Hub, a multimillion-dollar, grocery-anchored cultural center with affordable housing, an art wing and mental health services. It’s been designed by, and will be built and run by and for, local residents. “We’re an example of a community who said they were tired of waiting to be rescued, so we’ll rescue ourselves,” Montbello Organizing Committee Executive Director Donna Garnett told a local news outlet. “We’re passionate about Montbello, and it’s important for folks to know we built this.”

What if funders simply got out of the way, allowing neighborhood advocates already engaged in grassroots resilience to dream big in their desire to nourish their communities?

That’s essentially what the Kresge Foundation set out to do with FreshLo. The three-year initiative was crafted to support existing food security projects located in historically under-invested communities around the country. Kresge focused on innovations in the South and Midwest, often overlooked by national grantmakers who typically give big on either coast, noted Kresge’s Stacey Barbas, a senior health program officer. The foundation is based in the Detroit suburb of Troy, Michigan.

Since its launch in 2016, FreshLo has provided more than $8.4 million in direct funding to 26 hyper-local organizations, including commercial incubator kitchens, an edible plant nursery, and a sustainable Indigenous farm. FreshLo stands for Fresh, Local & Equitable: Food as a Creative Platform for Neighborhood Revitalization, and it’s a joint undertaking of Kresge’s Arts & Culture and Health programs.

Kresge’s goals for its FreshLo grantees include improving access to nourishing food, sparking entrepreneurship, spurring financial development, and integrating, art, culture and community-engaged design—what the foundation refers to as creative placemaking—to encourage revitalization in under-resourced communities across the nation. Food is about health and creative expression, Barbas noted. It can also provide a powerful opportunity to develop relationships, build infrastructure, and strengthen local economies. “Food is a platform for a vibrant community,” she said, “and that’s especially true in low-income communities.”

What’s art got to do with it?

In what the foundation said is a first for philanthropy, Kresge intentionally integrated food, art, health, equity and culture into this initiative. Art and food are often connected in community life and local events, and together, they can strengthen the cultural fabric of neighborhoods. So centering investment around both, the foundation wagered, could foster a stronger sense of place for residents. What’s more, Indigenous, Black, and brown communities have long considered food an art form, an integral part of culture, heritage and identity. More than 1,000 artists and culture bearers have been involved in FreshLo, and more than 6,000 residents actively engaged in planning and participation in projects funded by the initiative.

When art is infused during the planning stages of a project, Kresge’s team said, it can support an authentic vision that emerges from a community’s unique interests. Take FreshLo participant Sankofa Community Development Corporation in New Orleans’ Lower 9th Ward, which was founded by sculptor Rashida Ferdinand. Ferdinand helped bring a food stand to a community lacking access to fresh food. In December 2021, this FreshLo-funded project broke ground on a food market and incubator kitchen, the first of its kind in the area.

As part of FreshLo, nonprofit organizations and coalitions received $75,000 in planning funds to design neighborhood-scale, food-oriented projects with creative underpinnings. More than 500 organizations applied for FreshLo funding—the most applicants for a grant opportunity in Kresge’s 97-year history. Given the overwhelming demand, the foundation funded six more grants than initially planned. Of the 26 funded, 23 received an additional $100,000 a year for two years for implementation. Kresge has also given additional completion funds to a handful of projects. The response, Barbas believes, proves there is a deep reservoir of untapped potential for philanthropy to blend support for creative expression with feeding a community well.

FreshLo aligns with Kresge’s philosophy that significant change to improve life for underserved individuals requires a multi-layered approach. Kresge encouraged an expansive, outside-the-box suite of funding proposals; grants supported project management, partnership development, community engagement, strategic communications and policy development.

One of the most important aspects of this undertaking, Barbas said, was the simple act of really listening to grantees about their needs, visions, strengths, interests and identities. Kresge also acknowledged the power inequity between the foundation and its recipients and worked toward minimizing that as much as possible. For example, Kresge allowed grantees to design site visits and direct group convenings. “We put the spotlight on the organizations and their leadership and we didn’t impose anything,” Barbas said. Many of the participants have worked for years to resist and rise in the face of a host of obstacles, including poverty and historical and ongoing racism and trauma, and insufficient access to fresh and affordable food, clean air and water, and safe, healthy, housing.

That said, Kresge was also willing to leverage its position as a major funder to meet with local grantmakers to talk up the importance of projects and encourage investment and partnerships.

According to the foundation, staff served as supporting players and conveyed an overarching message of, “How can we help?” Grantees, who explained that taking time away from the actual work to document their efforts in grant reports was a hardship, asked how else they might share their progress. Kresge staff decided to interview partners themselves and write up their findings on their behalf. Said Barbas: “It’s about being human, responsive and flexible.”

Faced with COVID, philanthropy pivots alongside nonprofits

The Kresge partnership also made it possible for these groups to adapt to meet the demands of a raging pandemic that shows no signs of abating, all while maintaining their financial footing during an economic downturn that has forced many nonprofits to close their doors.

According to Barbas, FreshLo demonstrates how essential place-based, hyper-local investments are for preparing communities for inevitable crises, whether they be rampant gentrification, a recession, corporate pollution and plundering, climate change, racial reckoning, community safety, or a public health emergency like the pandemic.

FreshLo grantee recipients shifted swiftly to direct food service in response to COVID-19. And that ability to adjust with agility was possible, according to Barbas, because these neighborhood cultural institutions are well-known and trusted and built with resilience as a core value. Relying on a neighbor has proven a necessity, not just a nicety, during tough times.

Take FreshLo participant Binghampton Development Corporation in Memphis, Tennessee. The organization developed a commercial kitchen designed to serve as a training ground and business incubator for culinary entrepreneurs from a host of backgrounds. Its Kaleidoscope Kitchen came to an abrupt pause once the pandemic hit. Nevertheless, the group has been able to support local food enterprises when opportunities have been scarce. For instance, it secured a catering contract for one chef to prepare meals for medical staff, helping a program participant earn critical income while also supporting frontline workers.

In Hugo, Minnesota, an Indigenous-led community organization called Dream of Wild Health was able to triple its farmland acreage with support from Kresge. Informed by Indigenous knowledge and traditions, the nonprofit has been able to cultivate enough land to yield fresh produce for its community, including a program that delivers food to elders who are at higher risk of getting sick.

Through its Corner Store Witness initiative, the Chicago-based Inner-City Muslim Action Network and its community partners held a virtual convening to discuss the challenges immigrant-owned corner stores in inner-city neighborhoods face, and how to facilitate a path toward long-term healing. (IMAN has since received what it called a “transformational” $10 million dollar gift from philanthropist MacKenzie Scott.)

Meanwhile, in Oakland, California, Planting Justice has long worked with people impacted by mass incarceration by hiring ex-offenders and training them to grow food, tend trees, and green the community. FreshLo funds helped this grassroots group support “living wage” jobs for formerly incarcerated individuals at its plant nursery. During the pandemic, the organization shifted course to providing immediate, critical fresh food distribution and green smoothie production for more than 1,000 residents each week. Kresge also helped fund 40 paid youth intern slots at a time when finding work has been difficult for youth. The nursery collaborates with local creatives, too—as part of the internship, participants engaged with a muralist, a photographer and an artist who turns military and police uniforms into paper.

Kresge’s contribution has been invaluable to its efforts, said Planting Justice co-founder Gavin Raders. “It was a crucial influx of support when we were going out on a limb as an organization—a big move and growth in one of the most disenfranchised neighborhoods in the Bay Area,” he said. “Kresge was the first national foundation to fund us, and it made a huge difference—it legitimized us in the eyes of other funders and enabled us to leverage their gift.” Planting Justice’s business boomed during the pandemic—it’s expanding to a nearby site to start an aquaponic enterprise and the nonprofit hired 15 new staff members to meet increased demand for its services.

“Back in 2016, Kresge was one of the first foundations that really heard us and were able to speak our language and truly understood the importance of multi-year infrastructure support,” Raders said. Planting Justice has hired 65 formerly incarcerated individuals since launching in 2009, and only one has returned to prison on a new charge. “From a funding perspective, that’s a good return on investment: Hiring formerly incarcerated people and giving them a living wage to be able to sustain a family can change the trajectory of someone’s life. And at the same time, it can save a community a lot of money; incarceration is expensive.”

Takeaways and next steps

While Barbas doesn’t pretend to have all the answers, she does have suggestions for other funders interested in this area. Her advice: Keep the focus on the folks on the ground who are doing the work. Cede decision-making to community leaders while providing the seeds to improve infrastructure, increase resources, and help groups handle curveballs as they arise.

Foundations interested in doing this kind of resilience funding should think about the long haul, she said. These communities were decimated over a period of time and revitalization is a years-long process. Don’t expect results overnight. Think in five- to 10-year increments.

Another major takeaway: Significant, multi-year investments in communities that have been historically depleted can yield big dividends. “We had a hunch that investing in resident-driven collective action and cultural solutions would help strengthen communities that had been neglected for decades,” wrote Barbas with colleague Regina R. Smith, managing director of Arts & Culture programs at Kresge. “The pandemic has proven that hunch right. The results of our grantees’ efforts show that place-based, culture-first investing is critical in times of crisis.”

While the FreshLo funding period has ended, the relationships with partners remain, said Barbas. Kresge is also building on work in the field: In December 2020, the foundation announced $1 million in grants to long-standing food enterprises in eight cities across the country doing work around a community-led concept known as equitable food-oriented development.

The strategy incorporates food and agriculture to create economic opportunities and healthy neighborhoods while building assets, pride and power by and with historically marginalized communities of color. “These grants reflect an important investment in the justice-first, community-led economic development work that is being led by communities of color across the United States,” Barbas said. As she can attest, there is a hunger for this kind of giving.