REAL Talks Episode 6 - Internal and External Engagement with DEI: A Conversation with The Food Trust

Author: , Andrea Weiss, and Lindsay Mensch

In episode 6, our guests from The Food Trust share how they engage in the practice of DEI within their own organization, and with the external communities they partner with.

Reaching for Equity in All Lives podcast cover art includes a graphic of a green tomato with a photo of a young girl cooking superimposed inside.

Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) as an explicit organizational practice is transformative. How do you bring others along in the process, create buy-in, and then ensure that the commitment is going to produce results?

As we’ve heard in previous episodes of REAL Talks, sometimes we just have to start somewhere and adapt. Thankfully, this doesn’t have to be entirely improvised. There are tools and guidance available that can help frame the DEI process while also letting it be emergent.

In this episode, our guests from The Food Trust share share tools and practical advice from their own experience as an evolving organization.

To learn more about The Food Trust, visit

Mentioned in this episode: William Bridges' Transition Model

Episode 6 Transcript

Kolia Souza: Welcome to episode six of REAL Talks, Reaching for Equity in All Lives. I'm Kolia Souza, Food Systems Equity and Advocacy Specialist with Michigan State University Center for Regional Food Systems.

Andrea Weiss: And my name is Andrea Weiss. I'm Communications Director at MSU Center for Regional Food Systems.

Kolia Souza: And we're your hosts for this podcast. Andrea, we're several episodes into this series now, and there's some key themes that have been emerging.

Andrea Weiss: Yeah, from our friends at Double Up Heartland, we heard about creating a DEI learning environment through shared language and shared experiences, the challenges of action learning, and how deeper connections built through DEI efforts can strengthen all aspects of our work. Ben and Willa from Farmers Market Coalition shared how a genuine commitment to DEI might mean slowing down the organizational change process.

Kolia Souza: For me, it's important to note how diversity, equity, and inclusion as an explicit organizational practice is transformative in and of itself. It doesn't escape me that change is scary and not everyone in an organization is going to buy into it. So how do you bring others along in the process, create that buy-in, and then ensure that the commitment is going to produce results?

Andrea Weiss: This can feel like a huge mountain to climb. As we've heard in previous episodes, sometimes we just have to start somewhere and adapt. Thankfully, this doesn't have to be entirely improvised. There are tools and guidance available that can help frame the process while also letting it be emergent.

Kolia Souza: And that's a perfect segue to meet this episode's guests.

Mark Edwards: I'm Mark Edwards, I'm the President and CEO of The Food Trust.

Carolyn Huckabay: I'm Carolyn Huckabay, and I head up the communications team at The Food Trust.

Kolia Souza: Can you tell us about who The Food Trust is and what it is that The Food Trust does?

Carolyn Huckabay: Sure. So The Food Trust was founded in 1992. We are based in Philadelphia but we are a national nonprofit. Our mission is delicious, nutritious food for all. We work with neighborhoods, institutions, retailers, farmers, and policymakers across the country to make sure that all communities are well nourished. Backed by three decades of research and evaluation, our holistic approach to nutrition security weaves together four key elements including access, affordability, education, and advocacy, which all work together to support that mission.

Kolia Souza: So as you talk about this intersection with food, health, certainly you're going to run into a lot of issues, or I should say opportunities, where diversity, equity and inclusion are concerned. Could you both talk a little bit about the work that The Food Trust has been doing to create a culture of diversity, equity, and inclusion or DEI?

Carolyn Huckabay: So I think that what you said is really important, and in preparing for this interview we were talking about the challenge of compartmentalizing DEI. Everybody says don't make it a box you check off, we know that. But for an organization like us that was built to address these problems that have come about because of systemic inequities, we exist to disrupt these systems that were built to separate us. So equity should be the north star of what we're doing, it shouldn't just be an initiative. It shouldn't even just be a core value, although that's important too. For us, it's really the top of the list and that's what we're trying to build.

Mark Edwards: Yeah, so I would just add to what Carolyn has said is that that work has taken us through a process whereby we look at how we provide services and we look at how we operate as an organization. The service delivery component of what we do is outward facing so that we have stronger relationships and connections to communities so that the communities in which we are working give us information that is valued, information that informs, decisions that we make about changes or ways in which we can improve the services that we provide to that community.

From an internal perspective, just as my colleague has indicated, we look at that in a very holistic way in terms of how we operate, how we deliver services in concert with our internal colleagues. And so throughout the organization, making sure that the voices of all staff are heard and incorporated into the decision-making process so that there is this method of communication throughout every level of the organization, where people are involved in how we do what we do and can give us input into ways in which we can use a continuous improvement approach to our work based upon what they learn, based upon what they see and experience at their level within the organization.

Kolia Souza: Let's talk more about the internal work. What do you believe helped position your organization to embark on its DEI journey?

Mark Edwards: I've been with The Food Trust now just over a year. And when I came into the organization, I came in at a time when the organization had experienced some attrition of its top leadership, so there was some layoffs. And we had staff who, in my opinion, were suffering from some survivor guilt. And in other cases, the world was shifting and they needed to take on additional responsibilities as the organization was shrinking.

At that very same time we had the advent of the pandemic, and then we also had the social unrest that we have all been living throughout our country. And in the case of Philadelphia, some of that was local for us that made the national news. And all of these things happened at the same time. There was just a lot of... The earth was sort of shifting beneath the feet of so many people, and the staff at that time needed to do what it could to begin to take control over what it could.

And so the staff began to come together and form a DEI group. I then came into the organization amidst all of this as the leader of the organization, having worked with the search committee of the board and the leadership of the board to develop strategic priorities for the organization. And so I was very focused on developing strategic priorities for the organization, strengthening its financial base, and really moving the organization forward in this new environment.

And so the approach that I took coming in was to not make any changes but to begin with what I called a listening tour. And interestingly enough, I worked with Carolyn on this and she helped me with my onboarding. And so we set up meetings, and I set up meetings, in some cases, it was with teams, small teams. In other cases it was one-on-one. And it was just for me to hear from the staff about their experience of The Food Trust and what they thought was important.

And so we did that work, and it was really interesting because I had to make a shift in terms of my own priorities to be able to build relationships, build rapport with the staff first before I could lead the organization in a new strategic planning process to think about who we could be, who we might be in the future, and ways in which we can improve our services to the communities.

Kolia Souza: The trust building process is key to change efforts, ambiguity is already hard enough to deal with. Is there anything else you did to help ease into that process?

Mark Edwards: So we did a fair amount of work, and we used some tools, nationally recognized tools out there to help staff understand what that process would involve so that they could expect certain changes to be made within the organization through the strategic planning process that was natural. So they didn't feel like here's yet another thing that's happening to us as a part of being a part of a process that is evolving into the future state of the organization.

And then when we launched the planning process itself, we made sure that staff at every level in the organization was involved during a three-phase process of planning. What's unique about that for The Food Trust is that that had never occurred before in the history of the organization since its inception in 1992, whereby the entire staff played a particular role in the organization. And so we had small group breakouts, and these were all virtual. So people were really able to have their voices heard. And so when we come with these new strategic priorities, staff can really feel bought in because they were part of the process.

Kolia Souza: Mark, you mentioned that you introduced the staff to some nationally recognized tools to aid in the process. What were some of those tools?

Mark Edwards: One of the tools that we used which was important for me as the leader was a tool by a nationally recognized father of transition, William Bridges. And he has a tool that we presented and we framed to the organization, and that tool is a graphic representation of the process of change. And so it talks about- if you can envision a square and in the bottom left-hand corner you draw a line in the bottom left-hand corner, and there's a small portion there that represents ending, losing, and letting go. And then you skip to the upper right-hand corner and draw another small line. And that color is green and that's the desired place of the organization. But then you have that big space in the middle that is gray, and that is referred to as the neutral zone. And those are the three phases of transition that he talks about.

Kolia Souza: Can you say more about the neutral zone?

Mark Edwards: That neutral zone is the space between ending some things and letting some things go, and having the world that you've been accustomed to change as you go through this process of planning and thinking about who the organization's going to be. And the lion's share of that process is just that, it feels like a long time when you're going through it, but then in hindsight when you look at it doesn't feel as long.

And then you get to that desired place, which is where the organization is trying to get to. And then we just used some other tools that are important in helping to build momentum and get people to be excited about the new possibilities. And that is to identify what we refer to as low-hanging fruit or early action items. So we've got these new strategic priorities, but what are the early action items? What are the things that we can accomplish within these new strategic priorities in the first 30, 60, 90 days?

Kolia Souza: Carolyn, how would you describe the experience of the change process, especially as it's centering diversity, equity, and inclusion?

Carolyn Huckabay: I have felt very invigorated by this process because we're now seeing the fruits of our labor coming true. Mark has been saying, trust the process, we're going to do this right. We're not just jumping in. We need to do this.

To back up, when Mark arrived, the DEI initiative, which was fully formed by staff, totally voluntary, we had come up with a series of recommendations for him and for the organization. And he arrived and I dumped this giant stack of recommendations on his desk, and said, "We've been working really hard. Here we go."

And Mark said, "Take a step back. We need to be strategic. This stuff on your list isn't actually DEI. It's HR and it's policy and it's strategy."

And so although those things were all true and very important to our staff to feel heard, once we took a step back and followed the process that he was laying out for us, we are now seeing the results of a strategic plan that centers DEI.

Kolia Souza: So Mark, what's been your perception of the staff experience?

Mark Edwards: It's been very invigorating for the staff to one, be a part of something like this that they haven't been part of before. And I think what we've experienced now is that people now, they see it. In the beginning when we begin to talk about it, I think people wanted to be positive and believe that these things would occur, and that it would be very positive for the organization and really represent new directions, new opportunities for them to build new skillsets, develop new relationships, take the work in a new direction, go deeper in neighborhoods and communities. And now they're seeing that actually come to pass.

Kolia Souza: Seeing things come to pass, to go from planning to manifesting I think is critical for buy-in to work that involves change and culture building.

Carolyn Huckabay: One of our six priority areas is culture, and steeped in that priority area are projects that we've been planning and we've been setting the foundation for this whole time. So it's really empowering to see the results of this work and to know that it's not just a flash in the pan, it's not just a one-time thing. It's baked into our organization's culture.

Kolia Souza: Everything that you just talked about has to do with engagement: what does it look like to take a diverse, equitable, and inclusive approach to engagement within your organization, but then also outward facing with the community. Can you talk about what it looks like to practice DEI in community engagement?

Mark Edwards: This is an outcome of our current strategic planning process, and so we're just in the beginning stages of taking this approach that I just described to the next level. But what it looks like from an external perspective is working with... We have staff that are responsible for community engagement. So that is to say, they're solely responsible for going out and working in neighborhoods with people on the ground, understanding what community groups and neighborhood associations are doing in the food space.

And so as it relates to decisions that we make about where to go next and what parts of the neighborhood we should be in, we are guided by them to determine where we should be. And they know their neighborhoods, they know their communities best. And we have this feedback loop to make sure that the work that we are doing is responsive to the needs that are articulated by communities.

We have also set up an advisory council, and this advisory council is made up of partners with whom we work as we provide the services that we do in this case, for example, through our farmers markets. And so they meet with our staff several times throughout the year, they meet on a quarterly basis. There is a game plan that is established by that group to consist of the work that they would do throughout the year, and then when they come together, they report on that work. And they talk about the experience that we're having in the field on a daily, weekly basis to determine those things that we need to be aware of as an organization to help address, to make the customer experience and the partner experience best.

Carolyn Huckabay: Yeah, I agree with Mark and I think it's all about relationship building. We're not just going into a community and saying, "This is what you need. We're going to give it to you. And then we're going to leave." It's about getting to know the people that we're working with and getting to know the gifts they bring as well.

An example is during COVID our corner store team in Camden, New Jersey went out to the corner stores to just check in with owners to say, “How are you? How's your family? What's going on with your PPE? What can we do for you? What are you hearing?” And the corner store owners said, “No one else is checking on us. We don't know what to do. We're not getting any guidance. We feel lost.”

And because The Food Trust staff care so deeply about the people we work with and that's part of our philosophy, we're able to check in with folks. And in this case, from that moment, we were able to help connect corner store owners with one another on WhatsApp. And as a result of this, there is now an association that's been built in Camden of corner store owners. It's a cooperative and all the corner store owners in Camden are just helping each other and advocating for one another, and that was built out of this moment where they felt completely alone. And these moments of connection really help them.

So I think that's a really powerful part of what The Food Trust can do and what service organizations can do, is just literally just building relationships with people. And that's internal too. I think that's the answer to both of those questions.

Kolia Souza: I don't think we could have ended the interview any better.

Andrea Weiss: Something that stood out to me in this conversation is how Mark described transition processes as a critical piece of The Food Trust's DEI work. This is astute because organizational transition of any kind is challenging and often feels a bit chaotic, and so when we layer that with DEI, which is so emergent and responsive, things become even more so. It was very interesting to hear how focusing on transition processes is helping The Food Trust bring clarity to what they're doing.

Kolia Souza: I really appreciate Mark speaking to the tools The Food Trust used to make the practice of organizational DEI actually practical. Many of the organizations and coalitions we've talked to or work with are tackling food system transformation, addressing the root causes of nutrition insecurity. And it becomes really challenging to take on such big problems into actionable steps that produce impact.

Andrea Weiss: And it sounds like identifying early and incremental wins has been working well for their team.

Kolia Souza: Furthermore, as Carolyn alluded to, to differentiate among an organization's operations, to step back and examine what actually constitutes DEI and what doesn't, that's where there's an opportunity to manifest or to see the results of DEI-centered efforts, whether that be in the strategic plan, programming, policies, practices, or hopefully across all these things.

Andrea Weiss: This stood out to me too. I love the metaphor of equity as the north star for The Food Trust, because the organization was founded to address systemic inequities. And as we've talked with people from organizations trying to figure out how to do equity work in all different kinds of practice, I've heard a common theme of trying to develop an understanding of what that means. Our contexts, the priorities of our communities and funders, and more all affect the ways that this practice plays out.

Kolia Souza: This is where it becomes really helpful to create community around our DEI practice. I think it would be fantastic to do an episode where we bring all of our guests together to talk and ask questions about what they heard in each other's episodes. I would love to hear how they're connecting with the themes from one another's conversations, but many thanks to Mark Edwards and Carolyn Huckabay for talking with us about how The Food Trust is creating a culture of DEI, both throughout the organization and in their community engagement.

To dive deeper into this work, you can check out diversity, equity and inclusion resources like the Food Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion webinar series provided on the Nutrition Incentive Hub website

Andrea Weiss: You can find all Real Talks episodes on Apple podcasts, Google podcasts, and Spotify. Please share this podcast and check out our other episodes. Real Talks is a podcast created by the Michigan State University, Center for Regional Food Systems. The series is hosted by Kolia Souza and Andrea Weiss and produced by Lindsay Mensch and Andrea Weiss. The podcast is supported by the Nutrition Incentive Program Training, Technical Assistance, Evaluation and Information Center, and Gus Schumacher Nutrition Incentive Program. Grant number 20197003030415, project accession number 1020863 from the USDA, National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

REAL Talks is a podcast created by the Michigan State University Center for Regional Food Systems. The series is hosted by Kolia Souza and Andrea Weiss, and produced by Lindsay Mensch and Andrea Weiss. The podcast is supported by the Nutrition Incentive Program Training, Technical Assistance, Evaluation, and Information Center, and Gus Schumacher Nutrition Incentive Program, grant number 20197003030415, project accession number 1020863 from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture.