Patty Stonesifer: Envisioning a Bigger Table

by June 26, 2013 at 9:00 am 0

From Joey Gavrilovich. Follow him on Twitter @joeygDC, email him at joey[AT]

"Patty Stonesifer"

Patty Stonesifer (Courtesy Stonesifer)

This is Part II of a conversation with Patty Stonesifer. Part I ran June 5.

In January, the board of Martha’s Table surprised the philanthropic world when they announced that Patty Stonesifer, the founding CEO of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, would become its next president and CEO. Ms. Stonesifer also served as the Chair of the White House Council for Community Solutions, appointed in 2010 by President Obama. In 2012, she completed her term as the Chair of the Smithsonian Institution Board of Regents. This is part two of an exclusive Borderstan feature about Patty Stonesifer’s new role.

Now nearly three months in at Martha’s Table, Stonesifer shares that for her, the process of moving from the global foundation world to the local human service world meant recognizing the direct role the surrounding community must continue to play for her organization to succeed.

A big part of this is educating that community on what Martha’s Table does.

A New Way of Reaching People

“Most people think of us as the place that does hot meals in the parks, but that’s only a part of our food and nutrition programs. Most of the poor in the District are not in the parks in the evening, they’re in their homes, and so in addition to prepared meals, the distribution of quality produce and groceries becomes essential.”

The hot meals served in the parks through a volunteer-run mobile food kitchen called McKenna’s Wagon make up about a third of the 60,000 meals Martha’s Table serves a month. The rest are groceries, said Stonesifer. Those groceries have been distributed to families from the organization’s pantry at the 14 and V Streets NW headquarters.

Stonesifer’s vision for the organization involves reaching more families in need of groceries where they live, similar to how McKenna’s Wagon serves the homeless population near city parks.

“Those groceries make up 40,000 meals each month that I think could be 400,000 if we could find the right places and ways to distribute it,” said Stonesifer. Over the past two years, the organization has started distributing to families from four District schools as well as the 14 and V headquarters. Garrison Elementary at 13 and S Street NW is one, and the other three are spread across the District.

For Stonesifer and Martha’s Table, this approach creates a “virtual grocery store” in the schools, and is about more than just charity. “We think that poverty is more complex than that. In my view, this idea of meeting families right there in the schools when they are at the time of the month when they’re often short on groceries and short on cash is a way to meet the need, but also to bring nutrition education into the space, and for parents to learn more about their children’s nutritional experience.”

“I think that kind of program could expand quite dramatically if we’re able to get the resources here. It always comes back to getting new resources.”

Breaking the Cycle of Poverty

Securing resources for the organization’s success and expansion comes back to how effectively Martha’s Table connects with the community, and Stonesifer speaks of creating more collaborative efforts for the organization going forward like what is being seen now with DC Public Schools. Increasing collaboration and building upon the organization’s existing donor base to expand service comes back to what Patty Stonesifer herself brings to the Table.

“There is no question that the attention that I’ve gotten since taking this job is an asset not just for Martha’s Table, but for the importance of early childcare and education, for the importance of no child going hungry, and for the importance of meeting people’s basic needs,” Stonesifer says, sharing a few of the organization’s key focus areas.

“And I’m lucky that I can talk to the Secretary of Education about early childhood. So if I can be part raising the profile on it, that’s exciting to me.”

But what led Stonesifer to seek out and apply for the position at Martha’s Table was a kind of access she did not have in her previous positions. “I took the job because I wanted to move from theory to practice,” she explains, “that direct understanding of what it means to stand with this mother I sat next to at last night’s parent-teacher meeting, and of what she’s going to face when she gets home later still having to feed her other kids and then be ready for work in the morning. These aren’t trivial issues, and I intend to be a very vocal advocate.”

While her advocacy would undoubtedly reach an audience, that alone, says Stonesifer, will not be enough.

“These issues can’t be addressed by Martha’s Table and the next 10 organizations — they have to be addressed by the citizenry in total. We all have to decide that every working parent should be able to get and afford quality childcare. We have to decide that no child should be hungry. Because we know how to feed children, and we know how to care for children, but what is the political will, and the process, and the funding, and the delivery for breaking the cycle of poverty?

“It’s the people we serve who will have to create more change than anybody else. But they would like to know they have their neighbors and the public behind them, and that the resources they need are within their reach.”

Martha’s Table services more than 1,100 people a day in the District. Get more information.

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