It’s In the Bag–The Pittsburgh Tote Bag Project–part one

The Pittsburgh Tote Bag Project arose from the experience of its founder, Sue Kerr, a social worker, when she accompanied clients to a monthly food distrbution at the Greater Pittsburgh Food Bank. There, she noticed the wide variety of containers people had brought to transport food home: rolling suitcases, wheeled coolers, backbacks. She also saw the struggles of those who didn’t — or couldn’t — bring something of their own. Sue proceeded to form an organization that collects and redistributes tote bags to hunger non-profits. Here’s part one of my interview with Sue on why and how she has built the organization.

Thanks to Beth Kanter for introducing us to Sue and her work. 

Tell us how your project got started.

The “a ha” moment came in July 2009. I was at a food distribution, waiting for clients to finish their business and live tweeting various observations just to put that experience out there. I noticed that some folks came with bags, baskets and other devices to carry their food. The vast majority depended on the very thin plastic bags and paper shopping bags (made for clothing, not cans) passed out by the Food Bank (this was at the Food Bank itself, not a food pantry). One man came out with a bunch of plastic bags. One broke and a cabbage rolled away from him. He dropped his bags and ran after it. It struck me that the cabbage was pretty important and too heavy for a thin bag. I just had this moment where I considered that donating tote bags instead of plastic and paper bags would be more helpful. So I tweeted that thought. Little did I know, the region’s largest community foundation, The Pittsburgh Foundation, was monitoring my tweets (as was the local Department of Human Services, in fact).  Christopher at the foundation offered to send me some totes. A few arrived in the mail that week and our first tote drive was launched.

I don’t remember the exact thought and we can’t find the tweet. I didn’t realize I would be launching an entire project. It just seemed like a cool idea, something I could do with my personal network.

How were you drawn to working with food banks and in hunger relief?

When I was 25, I had the opportunity to spend a year in a rural Kentuckytown as part of a social justice ministry project with the Catholic Church. I helped convert an old airport building into a community center with a food pantry.  As I met the various pastors and their communities, I learned that there were dozens of very small food pantries all over the county of about 10,000 people. I began asking them if joining forces would be more effective, if perhaps we could provide a week’s worth of groceries rather than a few days. They agreed and we soon had a rotation worked out with 2 or 3 faith communities doing a food drive each month so no one was overburdened and the pantry had a steady source of food. It worked!  I took care of signing families up for the pantry, passing out the food and making sure the churches had a list of what we needed. We were not connected with a food bank. I had no idea how that system worked, we were just literally winging it.  The local extension project did the meal planning and the shopping lists.

 Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank is one of the mostly highly respected organizations in this region. The sheer magnitude of their efforts – distributing 1.9 million pounds a month – was something I vaguely knew about. This project has taught me an immense amount more about their work.  As a social worker, hunger and poverty have been consistent memes in the lives of the people I’ve served. Whether it is working with women who left abusive partners or families rebuilding their financial lives after an economic blow, food resources have always been part of the dialogue. I’ve worked in housing, foster care, residential, and workforce development programs. The Food Bank has played some part in that work since I graduated from the School of Social Work. 

You’ve brought together some “unlikely suspects:”  environmental groups, artists, hunger groups, and other human services groups.  How did you do that, and what’s the secret to creating a successful diverse collaboration?

That’s been an interesting development. Our original plan was to work with the local hunger relief organizations and the business community to tap into those tote bag sources. As we began using social media tools, word spread and two themes emerged – the environmental aspects and the connection with the crafting/arts communities.  We started talking and soon we had a whole new array of organizations serving as tote bag donation drops and/or organizing tote bag drives.

And there was overlap. We made a commitment to use each bag we received, so repurposing the bags that were torn, soiled or stained was a goal. We reached out to crafting organization/crafters for ideas of what we should create. That led us to thePittsburghCenterfor Creative Reuse. We pass on the bags and they organize occasional workshops focused specifically on tote bags. Otherwise, the material goes into their regular programming.  It is a win/win. They also serve as a bag donation spot.

The key to our success has been to bring a value to the organizations with whom we partner, a reason for them to invest in our work. For example, we provide a regular supply of crafting materials to the PCCR so it is a natural alliance. Our marketing emphasizes the benefits of reducing dependency on disposable bags which attracts environmental organizations.

We also tapped into the relationships of our volunteers. One woman is a quilter. She knew two very community oriented store owners who happily agreed to serve as donation drops. Another volunteer approached her boss with a request to donate an e-newsletter; there is a strong history between her steel industry heritage organization and the emergence of the food bank (via the demise of “big steel” in the 1980’s.)  I approached the Gay & Lesbian Community Center of Pittsburgh because of their Downtown location, non-traditional hours and the opportunity to partner with a diverse array of supporters.  

By tapping into our various networks, online and face to face, we drew in partners who were invested in us and, eventually, the project itself.  It isn’t a hard sell to a potential collaborator. I often say “you need a flyer and a box” in terms of resources. Marketing is the biggest investment.  

One secret for us has been to respect the boundaries and resource constraints among our collaborators. If a site can accept totes, but not food for whatever reason, we do our best to share that information. In return, if someone does bring food, the site understands it was an honest mistake and we work it out.  We also work very hard to promote our collaborators using social media. If they have any social media presence, we link, connect, retweet or do whatever we can to keep them engaged within that medium. That effort builds the relationship and shared investment in our respective missions.  We truly want to support them and promote their good work to our fans/followers/tweeps/supporters.

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