Practical Activist Q&A: Donna Leuchten Nuccio & Molly Hartman, Reinvestment Fund
- Bluestone Staff
- February 26, 2021
Featured photo: Reducing food insecurity through Reinvestment Fund projects
Donna Leuchten Nuccio is a Senior Director of Lending and Investments, and Molly Hartman is the Program Director for the Healthy Food Financing Initiative at Reinvestment Fund. With their colleagues and partners, they work to increase food access, reduce food insecurity and improve opportunities for all communities to lead healthy, vibrant lives. Reinvestment Fund is a community development financial institution (CDFI), working across the United States with offices in Philadelphia, Baltimore and Atlanta, to bring underserved communities access to essential opportunities. From affordable housing to nutritious food and healthcare to schools where children can flourish and strong local businesses, Reinvestment Fund has had an undeniable positive impact with $2.4 billion in total investments and over two million people affected by their work.
Last month we featured the Opportunity Finance Network (OFN), the national association of CDFIs, of which Reinvestment Fund is a member, and the Vermont Community Loan Fund, a CDFI working to building robust and vital communities in our home state. To keep the awareness of CDFIs going, we had the opportunity to talk with Donna Leuchten Nuccio & Molly Hartman of Reinvestment Fund and hear about the work they’re doing connecting finance to healthy food.
Q: What’s the most important thing that you want people to know about CDFIs and the work you do at Reinvestment Fund?
Donna: CDFIs are slowly becoming more well-known, which is exciting for those of us who have spent years working in the industry. One of the things that I like people to know is that CDFIs are part of a whole ecosystem of capital. CDFIs bring capital to underinvested communities -- from Community Development Corps (CDCs) to developers who are doing the work on the ground to social enterprises. What makes Reinvestment Fund unique is that we have a Policy Solutions team that can really think about the data and the policies that create the inequities in the environments that we work in. With that insight, we can bring in capital to begin to effect change and fuel opportunity. We take a really broad approach and ask: what does it mean to have a healthy community? How can communities have homes that are affordable and safe, access to high quality schools, healthy food and access to healthcare? Our role is to think about how to get these fundamental building blocks of a healthy community financed and how to get money to the organizations that reflect and are accountable to the community they are serving. As the intermediary, we create the linkage that connects capital to community and equitable wealth building.
Molly: In the food space, the ecosystem perspective is just as important. There are a lot of players in the food system. --policy is a big piece, and financing and capital are also key. Many people are interested in food systems and what it takes to get healthier food to more places. What’s often missing is the understanding of why things are the way they are, to inform the most effective solutions. One of the ways to get to solutions is to begin by “following the money” and understanding the whole supply chain.
Q: As we talk with people in the CDFI community, Reinvestment Fund is often described as “the gold standard.” What’s behind your success?
Donna: That’s really very kind. But we believe that every CDFI has a core set of strengths and their own market or community where they are the gold standard. At its core, Reinvestment Fund brings a holistic, data-driven approach to creating equitable communities. We’ve been able to work in a breadth of sectors and also grow to a scale that has equipped us with the infrastructure (human and systems) to be able to access and deploy different forms of capital and resources. At the same time, we’re not so large that we can’t be nimble and look at new opportunities. When we first entered the food space, the term of “food desert” didn’t exist but we were seeing the lack of access to healthy food as a serious issue in underinvested communities. We were able to work with innovative partners who were ready, willing and able to serve the need and look at the role of capital to start a healthy, food financing movement.
Q: Your team is working on building equitable food systems. Can you break that down for us and give us some examples of your work?
Molly: Equitable food systems begins with recognizing that the food system works well for some people and doesn’t work well for others. We got our start in food systems work as part of the Pennsylvania Fresh Food Financing Initiative. The Pennsylvania initiative, which was largely retail focused, was beginning to take shape as access to food began to bubble up as a policy issue. Our Policy Solutions team was also beginning to study the issue of inequitable access to healthy food. What our national research found through our Limited Supermarket Access analysis is that low-income communities in both rural and urban areas are disproportionately affected. People living in those communities know that—they have been living with the lack of access to fresh, healthy food. The data helps us understand what viable solutions could be, from new grocery stores to more innovative models like pop-ups and mobile markets. We are now also looking at the supply chain more broadly. An example of this work is our partnership with the Philadelphia Department of Public Health on the Philadelphia Food Justice Initiative. The initiative is working to support community-led solutions in the food system. These include projects like small business development, community food programs and events, to urban farming and gardening. These local solutions ultimately build food justice, particularly in Black and brown communities.
Photo right: Molly Hartman
Q:Can you talk about America’s Healthy Food Financing Initiative (HFFI) and Reinvestment Fund’s role in the program?
Molly: The healthy food financing community has been advocating for a national program that could build on the Philadelphia model for more than a decade. In 2010, the federal Healthy Food Financing Initiative (HFFI) launched to support healthy food financing through the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s CDFI Fund and through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Many CDFIs have been able to use this funding, with additional capital through philanthropy and other funders, and are working around the country to invest in food systems and access. With the 2014 Farm Bill, the federal program created a permanent home for HFFI at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. We were then selected by the USDA as the National Fund Manager, to help design and administer the America’s Healthy Food Financing Initiative program. The national program is funded through Congressional appropriations and provides grants and technical assistance to support innovative projects that need grant capital to get off the ground. Since 2019, we’ve provided grants to thirty projects though the program, including food retailers and food enterprises, such food hubs and food incubators that are working to address food access gaps in underserved areas. Many of these are rural and native-owned projects focused on local food systems. There are also more non-traditional models like pop-ups and virtual markets that are in early stages of development.
Photo right: Donna Leuchten Nuccio
Q: CDFIs like yours are really on the frontlines when it comes to addressing the multiple impacts of the pandemic and what that means in communities across the country. What are you proudest of when you think about what your team has accomplished and has in the pipeline for this year?
Donna: I don’t think anyone would have identified CDFIs as emergency-relief organizations, but the communities we work in were facing great need and it was apparent that we could mobilize the people, resources and systems to move money where it was needed most. I am in awe of what CDFIs were able to do to quickly get money to businesses and communities in need. For example, so many businesses were left out of the first round of the Paycheck Protection Program last year. When CDFIs like us realized that, we were quickly able to respond and ensure that small businesses and nonprofits, particularly small businesses owned or led by women or people of color were not overlooked. We also did a large emergency funding program for early childhood education providers in Philadelphia. In the food space, we pivoted a program that we had in New Jersey that addressed child food insecurity through early childhood education and summer food programs. We saw that the immediate need was less about infrastructure and more about getting food to kids who were out of school. Many programs can take months to get going, but we were able move very quickly. During challenging times, traditional lenders tend to tighten their credit box and that’s when CDFIs take a larger front seat role. We had higher originations last year than in previous years and we have a strong pipeline right now, and that’s because CDFIs fill that gap for those that may be left out of the traditional financing system. We experienced similar circumstances during the last housing crisis too. These experiences have helped us learn and build on our work in ways to best serve out our mission.
Q: You both wake up every day and are doing mission-driven work. How did your career path bring you to community development work?
Donna: When I was in college, there was a lot of dialogue around social justice and trying to unpack the forces and the conditions that have created the inequities in our communities. My undergraduate degree was in sociology and I was working to get at the “why” behind social structures and also the social construct of race. It took me a while to find the path where my skills and interests could make the most sense so I could get closer to those underlying issues. My first job out of college was a Congressional Hunger Fellowship and I was placed on the research and advocacy team at a food bank in Milwaukee thinking about how to advocate and implement stronger anti-hunger programs. Addressing systemic inequity has been the focus of my career. My path has led me to investing in food businesses and more broadly in community development projects to think about how to address the capital access behind the systems change.
Molly: I’ve always been drawn to the community development field -- particularly to the effort to redirect resources to communities that have been historically disinvested. I might not have known the term “redlining” when I was growing up, but have always been interested in the reasons behind the stark disparities that we see between urban neighborhoods. Prior to my current role, I worked in local government, and I believe that policy has so much to do with why things are the way they are. I was excited to join Reinvestment Fund in Philadelphia because they’ve been a leader in community development in the food access space and with innovative public/private partnerships.
Photo above: Rogers Vegetable Farm, Sumter, S.C.
Q: Do you have any advice for people who are looking to connect their values more to their daily decisions and to get more involved in supporting community development?
Donna: Begin with what interests you or with an issue that is close to your heart. When you understand where you sit in a community and what is happening in that community, you can be part of incremental change. Start small so it’s not daunting or overwhelming. Another option could be to donate to or invest in a CDFI to support community development. Some CDFIs, like Reinvestment Fund, offer promissory note programs as a way to get involved.
Molly: Getting involved in local politics is another important way to have an effect. If you want to see a better world, get involved in your community. Who’s running for local office, who’s on your zoning board, what zoning decisions are being made, what kind of development is happening in your area? Use your voice and your resources to advocate for a more equitable system. To get involved with food issues in your community, get connected to your local food policy councils, or get involved with a local food co-op. There’s a lot of democracy happening at the community level.
Q: 2020 was a rollercoaster of a year, and one that shined the light on economic and social justice. What are you reflecting on as we begin 2021 and look to the future?
Donna: As we reflect on our mission and truly live out our mission, we need to make sure that in no way does our work either contribute to or ignore structural racism. There is always a possibility that you could be supporting or contributing to it without knowing it, so we must be diligent that what we do each day doesn’t ignore racial injustices.
Molly: I agree with Donna that racial justice must be an important focus. I also think there’s a renewed emphasis on climate change and climate justice, and the broader understanding of how food systems connect to the environment, and that’s important to our work.
A life insurance policy from Bluestone Life can benefit nonprofits like Reinvestment Fund and CDFI loan funds. A percent of Bluestone’s revenue and a complimentary Impact Rider can be part of the solution for food systems change. We encourage the Practical Activist in all of us to get involved in your community and support organizations like Reinvestment Fund who are working for positive social and economic justice in communities who need it most.
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