Robert Wood Johnson Foundation® Honors Lisanne Finston, MSW, MDiv, With a 2011 Community Health Leaders Award
PRINCETON, N.J.—Most people who see a homeless person sleeping on a subway grate keep on walking, but not Lisanne Finston. When she encountered the growing homeless population as a college student during the economic crisis of the early 1980s, Finston went to volunteer at the local soup kitchen and knew she had found her life’s work. But since then, she has taken a new approach to feeding the hungry.
“We need to get out of this mindset that junk food is acceptable to give to the poor,” said Finston, who laments the tax write-offs corporations receive from donating junk food to the emergency food system. “Half of the food on food bank shelves is cookies, candy, soda, and other sugary drinks. We have to turn this model on its head.” That’s just what she is doing as director of New Brunswick, N.J.-based Elijah’s Promise, which has a mission to “Empower Lives, Invite Justice, Alleviate Hunger.” Finston has taken the local soup kitchen and turned it into a catering business and café that feeds hundreds of families in the New Brunswick, N.J., region each day with healthy, locally grown fare.
For creating a unique, sustainable model for feeding the hungry and homeless, Finston has been named one of 10 recipients of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Community Health Leaders Award. The award honors exceptional men and women who have overcome significant obstacles to tackle some of the most challenging health and health care problems facing their communities. Finston will receive the award during a ceremony in Baltimore, Md., on November 9.
Finston has also created initiatives that help break the cycle of poverty. She launched a culinary school that has trained more than 500 people in cooking and catering skills. Her Better World Café is pay-what-you-can, and while about one-quarter of its patrons volunteer in exchange for their meals, most are paying customers and the enterprise is close to breaking even. “Our community café attracts customers from across the economic spectrum because the food is fresh and always delicious,” Finston said.
When she can’t get donations of healthy food, “we grow our own,” said Finston, who ensures a supply of nutritious, locally grown fare by working with the Rutgers Cooperative Extension and through community gardens.
Community Health Leaders National Program Director Janice Ford Griffin said that the selection committee honored Finston for her lifelong commitment to providing healthy food for all people, and for empowering low-income people with the skills to feed themselves and earn a living. “Lisanne Finston’s unique leadership engages people from all walks of life in New Brunswick in a comprehensive, strategic approach to specifically addressing hunger and nutrition for homeless families, while simultaneously improving diets and access to healthy food for the entire community,” Griffin said.
Finston is working toward replacing what she calls the “old-fashioned charitable model of giving away donated junk food” with an income-generating approach to feeding the hungry. For example, the food service branch of Elijah’s Promise maintains contracts with schools and child care centers that feed about 300 children a day. Finston directs the feeding of another 100 people a day in the café, another 300 people daily through Meals on Wheels and other local organizations, and over 100,000 meals a year in the soup kitchen.
“We are heading in the right direction, but we still need to reform a food system that values cheap, easy, and processed foods over healthy, locally grown fare,” Finston said. She is doing her part by continuing to expand on her social enterprise model, creating recipes for healthy breakfast bars and muffins that Elijah’s Promise could one day sell, and the profits from which would feed the hungry.
“I want to see rich and poor dine together and eat healthy food that is good for people and the environment. Food pantries should be community corner markets, and soup kitchens should be community restaurants,” Finston said.
Camilla Comer-Carruthers, project director of Healthier New Brunswick, said, “Lisanne is always focused on benefiting the people served by her organization and the most vulnerable in the community. Her collegial style and supportive approach have led many of us in the community to see her as a mentor and trusted advisor.”
The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has honored more than 190 Community Health Leaders since 1993. The work of the nine other 2011 recipients includes a project to help people with disabilities safely and confidently handle routine medical exams in Delaware; a transportation and support program for families with children battling cancer in San Diego; a community initiative to ensure access to medical care in the Kansas farm belt; a campaign for early detection and treatment of breast cancer for uninsured and underserved women in Miami; a nurse training program for disadvantaged Hawaiian students; a home health aide service for elderly Asian Americans in suburban Philadelphia; a rural community health outreach program in the Delta region of Arkansas; health education for Mexican Americans in Brooklyn, N.Y.; and health care for the working poor in Altoona, Pa.
Nominations can be submitted for the 2012 Community Health Leaders Award through November 28, 2011. For details on how to submit a nomination, including eligibility requirements and selection criteria, visit www.communityhealthleaders.org.
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The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation established the Community Health Leaders Award to recognize individuals who overcome daunting obstacles to improve health and health care in their communities. Today, there are more than 190 outstanding Community Health Leaders from nearly all states, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia. For more information, visit www.communityhealthleaders.org.
The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation focuses on the pressing health and health care issues facing our country. As the nation’s largest philanthropy devoted exclusively to health and health care, the Foundation works with a diverse group of organizations and individuals to identify solutions and achieve comprehensive, measurable, and timely change. For nearly 40 years, the Foundation has brought experience, commitment, and a rigorous, balanced approach to the problems that affect the health and health care of those it serves. When it comes to helping Americans lead healthier lives and get the care they need, the Foundation expects to make a difference in your lifetime. For more information, visit www.rwjf.org.