Conscious Alliance: Fighting Hunger, Empowering Youth
Justin Levy is the executive director of Conscious Alliance, a nonprofit organization that supports communities in crisis through hunger relief and youth empowerment. Justin began working with Conscious Alliance in 2004, and quickly broadened the organization’s scope by not only addressing hunger, but also engaging young people through service-learning.
You may have noticed “Art that Feeds” food drives at concerts you’ve attended in recent years — that initiative is an exciting partnership between Conscious Alliance and renowned music artists. Recently, Justin’s vision has led to powerful new partnerships with many natural foods companies and other nonprofits, which has expanded the organization’s impact.
“Our first food drive ever, at the Fillmore Auditorium in Denver, we collected 4,000 meals and that food went to Pine Ridge Reservation [in South Dakota],” says Justin. “Pine Ridge is roughly the same size as Connecticut, for 40,000 Lakota, and there is only one full-service grocery store on the reservation.”
This clear problem with food access on the reservation is something Justin and his team have been working to address, and slowly, things are shifting. “There’s a big movement toward access to healthier food, there’s a big conversation around sustainability and growing your own food on the reservation, and I think that there is an incredible amount of energy and power with the youth on the reservation—self expression through art, through music, through spoken word—and it’s about how can we help harness that energy and amplify it,” says Justin.
Justin received his degree in Service-Learning Program Development at Warren Wilson College in Asheville, North Carolina. He was named one of the Top 25 Influential Young Professionals in the ColoradoBiz awards, and was selected or BizWest’s 40 Under 40 Class of 2017 in Boulder County.
Listen at the link below, on iTunes, Stitcher, Google Play or wherever you get your podcasts to hear more about Conscious Alliance’s work with Pine Ridge Reservation and their evolution as an organization. “We went from an organization that was searching for food, to an organization that was looking at how to distribute a million dollars’ worth of food,” says Justin. Tune in to hear just how that happened.
Welcome to Rootstock Radio. Join us as host Anne O’Connor talks to leaders from the Good Food movement about food, farming, and our global future. Rootstock Radio—propagating a healthy planet. Now, here’s host Anne O’Connor.
ANNE O’CONNOR: Hello, and welcome to Rootstock Radio. I’m Anne O’Connor, and I’m here today with Justin Levy, executive director of Conscious Alliance, a nonprofit organization committed to supporting communities in crisis through hunger relief and youth empowerment. Welcome, Justin.
JUSTIN LEVY: Thank you so much for having me, Anne.
AOC: It’s great to have you here. I have known of your program for some years now and you guys have really been doing a lot of great work out there. Can you tell our listeners, what is Conscious Alliance?
JL: Yeah, so as you mentioned, we are a national hunger relief and youth empowerment organization. We started in 2002—15 years ago—by hosting large-scale food drives at concerts across the country. And that’s how we kind of built our brand, by working with large-scale musicians like Jack Johnson, Dave Matthews, Michael Franti, and many others.
AOC: So what a fun way to start, right? Like you take the power and the energy of those big gatherings and say, “Hey, let’s do something good in the world too.” And the people that you mentioned certainly would be right there with let’s do something helpful while we’re having a great time.
JL: Absolutely, it’s generating a young audience to contribute to the food drive. And all the food in each city where the bands play, the food goes locally to a Feeding America food bank. And we’ve been able to generate millions of meals that way.
AOC: So, from there, some other things have happened in the work. You’ve distributed meals and you’ve also sought out a particular community that you felt needed some long-term focus, some extra help, some, if you’re welcome, how can we contribute there? Can you talk about that community?
JL: Yeah. Conscious Alliance from, really, day one has worked with the Pine Ridge Reservation community in South Dakota. Our first food drive ever at the Fillmore Auditorium in Denver, we collected 4,000 meals and that food went to Pine Ridge Reservation. Pine Ridge is roughly the same size as Connecticut, for 40,000 Oglala Lakota, and there is only one full-service grocery store on the reservation.
AOC: So let’s just say that again—40,000 people, one full-service grocery store.
JL: Yes, with the land mass roughly the same size as Connecticut. So, you know, access to food is not great, and access to healthy food is not prevalent on the reservation. And Conscious Alliance, since day one, has found it really important and critical to our work to not only work with the Pine Ridge Reservation but stay there and continue to show up and continue to work with the community leaders.
AOC: So that’s been 15 years, that relationship in the making. And I know that I’ve talked to you about how important it is to keep showing up and to not dive in and dive out. Can you talk about what it took and continues to take to build that relationship so that you’re welcome in this place that you really… You know, the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation is not a place necessarily where any group could just come in and be there. Talk about how you developed that relationship.
JL: I think at this point to, honestly, our entire staff, going up to Pine Ridge feels like a second home, it feels like visiting family at this point. And it does take work; it takes work like any friendship and any relationship. You have to continue to show up and be there for people and with people, actively listening to what the community needs are, and what ideas the community leaders and the elders and also the youth have for their community, because it’s really theirs. And so I think that’s the stance that Conscious Alliance has taken from day one, is to listen and to be available to offer support for these wonderful pillars within the community, these people who are working everyday for the youth and for the elders, and see how we can help amplify their impact and their message.
AOC: And what is that message on Pine Ridge these days? Pine Ridge has a long history of struggling. And what is it that you’re hearing when you go to the reservation and you bring food and you partner with folks there? Where are they at and where are things… You know, we want to talk about, maybe, there’s been chronic health conditions, diabetes, obesity, heart disease. There have been real challenges there. Can you talk about how do you work with them and where are they at?
JL: Sure. So I don’t want to overgeneralize, but with a lot of the folks that we work with there’s a big movement towards access to healthier food. There’s a big conversation around sustainability and growing your own food on the reservation. And I think that there is an incredible amount of power and energy with the youth on the reservation, self-expression through art, through music, through spoken word. And it’s about how can we help harness that energy and, again, amplify it.
AOC: How do you help people understand that within our country there are areas where people are really suffering, where there is no food access, where there are people who are actually going hungry to bed at night, and this is happening right here in the United States of America?
JL: How do we go about educating our supporters and onlookers of Conscious Alliance? We do it through hosting over a hundred large-scale food drives at concerts around the country with major acts. You know, it’s one thing for Conscious Alliance to say, “We’re doing work with Pine Ridge and this is why it’s important and this is why it’s critical.” It’s another thing when somebody like Nahko, or The String Cheese Incident, or STS9 is willing and able to use their channels to help us spread the message. And I think that’s where Conscious Alliance has been really successful, by working in partnership with bands and musicians, with the artists that are creating posters for us for our “Art That Feeds” food drives. And quite frankly, the natural food community help us spread the word to a larger audience. And I think that’s where we’ve found success and sustainability within our programs.
AOC: So you have been partnering also with the natural food industry to, like you said, spread the word and clarify your message and also to get support for healthy, nutritious food. How does that align with meeting people, kind of, where they’re at? I mean, you talked about, you know, there’s heightened awareness, a movement towards people wanting to grow their own food, thinking about the nutritional value, thinking about how can we do this in a healthier way. How do those two pieces fit together?
JL: So, if you don’t mind, I’d like to go into a little bit of the history of how we got plugged in with natural food. So Conscious Alliance being in Boulder, we saw an opportunity. Boulder is kind of known as being a healthy city, and we met Justin Gold from Justin’s and their former president Lance Gentry in roughly 2008, as they were a company of four employees and were trying to decide what community partner they would have as a company as they continued to grow—what nonprofit would they support?
And Lance brought up Pine Ridge Reservation to their team of four and started talking about the work of Conscious Alliance, and as team Justin’s decided that we were the organization they were going to stick with throughout their lifespan. And around the same time, Whole Foods bought Wild Oats, and Whole Foods chose us as the national charity to donate a million dollars’ worth of food to.
AOC: That’s kind of huge, right? There’s a little boost for you.
JL: Absolutely huge for us! We went from an organization that was searching for food to an organization that was looking at how to distribute a million dollars’ worth of food. And that’s where we even strengthened the relationship with the over 30 Feeding America food banks that we work with, which started with the musicians and their touring schedule, but then we were able to help distribute product to their food banks.
Shortly after that we met Neil Grimmer and the Plum Organics team. And it’s just kind of a ripple effect from there. The natural food world and the food communities really tighten it, and wonderful. And with every brand we got on board we were able to get another. So some of that food went across the country, a lot of it went to Pine Ridge.
And in 2015, at Expo West—or a couple weeks before Expo West—we were talking about the idea of the nation’s first all-natural and organic backpack program for kids. And we got on the phone with Justin’s, Plum Organics, and Suja Juice, who were all major partners of ours, and they loved the idea and they said let’s launch this at Expo. And so the first morning at the show, we launched this program, we put out a press release with all those brands’ help. And 15 minutes later we had the nation’s first all-natural and organic backpack program for kids on Pine Ridge. It went from three brands to about ten brands in a couple hours. And now 250 students on Pine Ridge Reservation—109 of them are considered homeless because of their sub-standard housing—all of them are on free breakfast and lunch, and many of them don’t know where any food is going to come from for the weekend. And for the last three years now they all go home with a backpack full of natural and organic products.
AOC: Wow, that is a beautiful thing for those families, and then the ripple effect in the community, right? I know that there’s another program that you also do that is beyond food as well, right? There’s a program that you work with other partners to bring in household goods and other things also to areas. Could you talk about that?
JL: Again, it kind of happened naturally with Conscious Alliance being in Boulder, with the outdoor industry here and many retail destinations, and really looking at what the need was on Pine Ridge and talking to the community leaders, and realizing that we could also be an access point for household goods, jackets, clothing, and many other goods. So we work with local businesses like the Columbia family of brands—Columbia Mountain Hardwear, Columbia Footwear, and prAna—as well as Bed Bath & Beyond and many other brands to provide access to that product for folks on Pine Ridge. So we’re able to donate about $300,000 worth of clothing, school supplies, and household goods to the reservation.
And what we do there is set up large-scale free stores that are set up where you would walk in and all the men’s clothing would be together and all the women’s clothing, and then there’s the kid’s corner with the toys and shoes. And so the community can actually come in and shop for free about once every two months or so.
AOC: So you’ve become, kind of, the distributor of people’s contributions. One of the things, I wanted to get back to food, and you’ve talked about how people are looking towards healthier foods. They’re looking for ways to be healthier communities. And I know the great work that you’re doing brings a lot of food into a lot of places, and that food is also packaged food mostly, right? But I know that you also have worked—because of course a huge element of healthy food is fresh food. Can you talk about the gardening programs that you’ve seen on Pine Ridge or in other places that you’re working to support there too?
JL: And I think, as you can tell at this point, Conscious Alliance is literally that. It’s a conscious alliance of brands and partners and community members who are coming together to make a difference. And that also leads into our garden program. About four years ago we teamed up with Kimbal Musk and the Kitchen Community to put a learning garden at Pine Ridge School on the reservation. And it’s a wonderful outdoor classroom, play space, gardening education space.
And it was that drop in the water that has created many more programs now. So that garden is still very much utilized. And since we installed and started running programs with that garden, Pine Ridge School has installed about four more gardens including gotten a USDA grant for a greenhouse. And Conscious Alliance works to support those gardens and this program in any way we can, whether it’s helping to bring in soil or some seeds, or working with Angie’s Boom Chicka Pop to bring in their popcorn seeds.
And so not all of those gardens are our programs, but we love the ripple effect that’s happening there and we want to support it how we can. So that’s happening. And then last year we launched a family garden program where students who liked gardening at schools were able to get a family garden at home.
AOC: Not just in Native communities but all across our country, communities have forgotten how to garden, forgotten how to prepare food, forgotten how to do these things. So we have to go back to those basics in a lot of ways.
JL: Yeah, I think what makes the family garden program so special is that the kids are really the leaders, because they’re the ones that took an interest in school to learn about gardening and that’s why their family got the family garden at their house, at their home. And so I think it’s a pretty special thing to be able to have the youth be the leaders within the family when it comes to gardening. And it’s a sense of pride and excitement for them to be able to teach their parents, or teach their grandparents, or re-spark an interest for their parents or grandparents to garden again.
AOC: If you’re just joining us, you’re listening to Rootstock Radio. I’m Anne O’Connor, and I’m here today with Justin Levy, executive director of Conscious Alliance. Today we’re talking about hunger relief, youth empowerment, and especially on American Indian reservations in South Dakota.
What’s your experience with cooking and…you know, once you’re handing out food to people? As you go through this work and you meet people and you learn about communities, how do you find cooking in the worlds that you touch?
JL: The average household on Pine Ridge has 17 family members or multiple families living in one home, so it’s a lot of community. Pine Ridge is economically isolated and spiritually very, very wealthy. There’s a wonderful sense of community, wonderful sense of home and family. I can’t say enough that every time we go up there we get invited to these large meals. And I honestly eat more than what we’d eat in Boulder—just these warm, home-cooked meals. And a lot of it is soups and stews and things of that nature, warm food that bring people together.
And I’ve seen that a lot on the reservation and to all the other communities that we serve in a big way. And as we…one of the questions you brought up earlier was, “How do you meet people with where they’re ate with their food needs?” And some of it comes with just real education around what the product is and how to prepare it. And I can say, as being someone that travels so much, I need it too, and I learned it from going to college in Ashville, North Carolina, at a farm college. But it takes that intro. And so part of it is, hey, this might be a new product or a new application of a product, but here are some quick and easy recipes. Because people are busy with their family and people are working, so how do you apply this product for clean eating and healthy eating in a way that doesn’t take six hours?
It’s something that we’re often working hand-in-hand with our brand partners within the natural food world to say, hey, can you come up with some simple recipes that maybe you haven’t published yet? Or could we come up with some infographics on “Here’s three great ways to enjoy this product,” with other food that’s accessible within the communities we serve?
AOC: So I want to ask you about that farming college. You’re speaking of Warren Wilson in North Carolina, and that’s a pretty interesting college because it has a program that’s part farming and part service in addition to the academic side. Can you talk about your experiences there? And how did that set you up for the work that you do now?
JL: So to be completely honest I had very little interest in going to college. I had very little hope that I would succeed in college. I’m extremely dyslexic and didn’t learn how to read until I was 21 years old. And I found Warren Wilson from a friend and went and visited. And Warren Wilson takes a very holistic approach of—it’s one of the only work colleges in the country, so every student has to work 15 hours a week in addition to going to classes. And the other piece that really caught my eye was that every student has to participate in service learning and community service.
AOC: What a great combo of requirements, right?
JL: It’s phenomenal, and it does set up many students for success as they leave Warren Wilson, because not only did they learn about an issue or a topic through an academic class, but many of them got to participate hands-on and be part of the solution as well.
AOC: So solutions in the food system—you’re identifying some of them. Sometimes it seems so big and intractable. Can you help our listeners understand? I mean, you’ve made these inroads, you’ve made these contributions. What do you think the average person, given their lives, what can they do to help improve the food system?
JL: I think one of the things that the listeners can do is pay attention to “best by” and “best by” dates on their food. That is a “this product is literally going to taste and look the best at this date.” That doesn’t mean that the product and the food in the kitchen is not good for multiple days or weeks afterwards. I think that there’s a big food waste issue within the U.S., and I think that that’s a big first step that folks can take. And it really comes down to looking at your food and smelling the food and using your senses as a way to judge whether the food is safe.
AOC: So this is maybe for some people a really novel idea that you’re suggesting here. Maybe they don’t know that 40 to 50 percent of the food in our country gets thrown away. So that kind of enormous food waste that you’re talking about is—you see firsthand when people don’t have access to food, and then on the other hand we have the situation in which maybe up to 50 percent of what we have purchased, post-purchase, actually isn’t used.
JL: Correct. It’s a staggering number. And like I said, it really comes down to trusting ourselves and using our senses to decide whether a product is suitable. And many of them are, and the nutritional value of that product past the “best by” date is still 100 percent. You’re still getting the same vitamins and nutrients as you would two days prior, before it hit that date.
AOC: Right, and particularly things like bulk items like rice or pasta, those kinds of things. But even with the fresher foods, what you’re saying is hey, look, that date is just a date, and that doesn’t have to be law of the land here. You can use some common sense and take a look and see if that’s still an item that is worth using, and use it.
JL: Absolutely. New Hope did a wonderful presentation on food waste at Esca Bona conference in Austin a few weeks ago, and I think that it turned a lot of folks within the natural and organic space, really had them take a hard look at the meaning behind “best by” and “use by” dates on their products.
AOC: Right, I think companies are always struggling with food safety issues and best quality product and then also having to track those products through their “best used by” dates, right? So I think sales folks are always wanting longer dates, and I think the quality safety people in companies are generally wanting shorter dates. So it’s that’s push-pull, I think, within companies really has an impact on the industry, and I think that’s shifting. I think it’s shifting over time here as we see the waste.
JL: And that’s one of the—where Conscious Alliance can come into play. We have relationships with C.H. Robinson for trucking and also a really close relationship with our friends at Convoy of Hope. And we’re able to work together to rescue food that may have 20 days until the “best by” date and grocery stores can’t sell it anymore. And Conscious Alliance and Convoy are able to capture it and make sure that it gets into the hands of folks that need it quickly.
AOC: Justin, you are doing such great work out there. Thank you so much for everything that you’re doing. Can you tell our listeners, if they wanted to find out more about your work and the work of Conscious Alliance, where would they go?
JL: You can go to ConsciousAlliance.org and learn about all our programs and a variety of ways to plug in, get involved, and activate.
AOC: Justin, thanks so much for joining me today.
JL: Thank you so much for all your support. We appreciate it.