Curtis E Lay by Jules Doyle

Published on August 29th, 2011 | by Curtis E. Lay


Curtis E Lay by Jules Doyle

Show Us Your Cans! Partnerships Between Derby And Food Banks

We each have a mental shortlist of reasons that we love roller derby. Near the top of my list is the work that roller derby leagues do with local charities—the deeply-rooted ties to the communities from which our leagues arose. Roller derby and community outreach are inseparable in my mind. One of the leagues I ref for, the Rat City Rollergirls, supports many organizations around Seattle, and my most personal connection is with the Ballard Food Bank.

Undoubtedly, many in the roller derby world have experienced a food security crisis first hand. While living in rural North Carolina in the 1980s, I had my closest brush with true hunger. My parents’ marriage, flagging for years, had ended, and Mom was left to care for me, my brother, and herself on paltry child support and a salary that barely cracked five digits. For about a year, we typically would share generic mac-n-cheese or a ghastly 79¢ frozen pizza for dinner.

If you have lived through a similar experience, then I encourage you and your league to form a partnership with a local food bank. It is an amazing means of outreach that requires a little overhead, some charisma (which derby girls have in spades), dedicated fans (ditto), and a few easy phone calls. The returns on that simple amount of effort are immeasurable.

The Problem

Food security is an epidemic. The Department of Agriculture estimates that nearly 1 in 7 American families don’t know where their next meal will come from. Food banks in small communities, middle class neighborhoods and urban centers count their clients in the thousands per month. In the funk hanging over the American economy, food bank usage is increasing. The number of clients served by the Ballard Food Bank, located near Rat City’s practice facility, has jumped 43% since 2009.

Of the people served by Western Washington food banks, more than 40% have recently had to choose between buying food and paying rent or bills, and nearly half do not qualify for food stamps or other government support. A staffer at a California food bank told me that over 50% of her clients are children. And let us not forget, as we so often do, the chronically homeless.

While requests for food assistance are on the rise, most staffers I spoke to say that donations of food and money have remained flat or dropped slightly over the past several years. The problem is exacerbated by dependence on cheap, unhealthy processed foods, says Kelly Siefkin, Communications Director for Sacramento Food Bank & Family Services. “This isn’t just about hunger,” she told me. “It’s also nutrition. It’s about providing clients with healthy food and with information to make good nutritional choices.”

The Opportunity

Your bouts attract legions of fans that are deeply and personally invested in your league, and want to be more a part of it. Each fan has their own mental shortlist of reasons they love roller derby. On many of those lists is the way that roller derby leagues connect with their communities. Your city probably has a food bank with increasing demands being placed on it.

Sound like a food drive might be in order at your next bout?

Leagues of all sizes, from Maine to Hawaii, are already involved. Suburbia Roller Derby, based in Westchester County just outside of New York City, has a following of several hundred fans and home teams styled after, among other things, the local nuclear power plant. At a recent bout, they held a food drive for the nearby Tarrytown and Sleepy Hollow Community Food Pantry, which serves over 125 families each month. Dixie Whiskey, president of Suburbia Roller Derby and also a volunteer at the food pantry, described their efforts. “We promoted the food drive along with the event and offered the incentive that if you brought 5 cans of food, you would get $1 off your admission.” Donors were also entered into a drawing for free tickets to a future bout. “We ended up getting about 12 huge bags of food,” she said. “I filled my van with it.”

The Sac City Rollers attract 500-1000 fans per bout in the cultural melting pot of Sacramento. In just 5 amazing years, Sac City has raised over $20,000 for Sacramento Food Bank & Family Services, mainly through their “Red Red Holiday” invitational tournament each December. Sac City’s marketing director Lipstick Librarian describes the tournament itself as “innate awesomeness”: skaters from participating leagues are sorted by skill level and randomly reassigned to tournament teams that then duke it out bracket-style. All proceeds go directly to the food bank.

Larger leagues filling big venues are also involved. At a recent bout, the Denver Roller Dolls asked fans to “vote” for their favorite teams by placing food donations into team-specific barrels. In 2010, the Rat City Rollergirls began the “Show Us Your Cans!” campaign: at each home bout, the first 200 fans that bring canned or non-perishable food donations receive unique RCRG swag. This year’s effort brought in nearly a ton of food plus hundreds in cash for the Ballard Food Bank.

Photo: Milly Cluckey
Sandra Kimberling of the Rat City Rollergirls works at a “Show Us Your Cans!” donation area at RCRG’s July 2011 championship bout. Photo credit: Milly Cluckey.

There are many more examples out there, and the leagues I spoke to were eager to share their experiences. What’s more, the food banks themselves are thrilled with the relationships. “It makes us feel loved!” said Nancy McKinney, Executive Director of Seattle’s Ballard Food Bank. “The partnership with the Rat City Rollergirls is really awesome—they are getting the word out to people in a mass-marketing sort of way that I hope cascades into other food banks and neighborhoods around the city.”

Kelly Siefkin of Sacramento Food Bank & Family Services concurred. “I can’t overstate how lucky we are to have rollergirls working with us.” She then told me that her organization had previously not even considered roller derby as a partnership opportunity. “It’s a two-way education that is happening. The Sac City Rollers are spreading awareness and collecting thousands of pounds of food and raising money, and other non-profits in Sacramento are learning about the compassion and initiative of the roller derby world.”

Getting Started

If this motivates you and your league to do a food drive, here’s good news: it’s easy, it’s fun, and it’s a good outlet for creativity. The basics aren’t rocket science: find a food bank to work with, advertise that you’re collecting donations, think of a fan incentive that is appealing and simple to manage, and then let your natural charisma and the awesomeness of your fans take over. Have some big, dry vehicles available to transport the food, and keep a cash can or two ready because many fans will forget to bring food but want to donate anyway. If doing a donation drive isn’t within your means, food banks can always use volunteers.

One bit of advice is to have a good conversation with your partner food bank before the event. Modern food banks are very innovative and will have resources and ideas to get you started. Many have “wish lists” of items they especially need, such as healthy foods, hygiene products, baby food, or items particular to populations that they serve. This may help you target donations that address both the hunger problem and broader health issues. You can also coordinate logistical details, like if they would like to have an information table at the bout. More importantly, you can learn about their mission and foster personal bonds with food bank staff and volunteers.

It Matters…A Lot

Statistics about food security seem overwhelming, but remember: at the heart of the statistics are people. Sure, your league can’t take on the whole problem, but you can take on a part of it and be a friend to the most vulnerable in your city. Back when my family was struggling, some friends from a local church would occasionally bring us groceries. After weeks of eating starch, salt and artificial ingredients, we would almost reel at the rediscovered sensations—flavors, textures, vitamins, and that invisible sense of belonging and togetherness when a family gathers around a table with real food on it.

It is a priceless gift, and it is so easily given. Go for it.

PHOTO: Purdy Grrrl of the Sac City Rollers presents Robin Simpson, Volunteer Services Manager for Sacramento Food Bank & Family Services, with a donation from Sac City’s fifth annual Red Red Holiday tournament. Photo credit: Donalee Eiri

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Curtis E. Lay

Curtis E Lay is a level four certified WFTDA referee, plying his trade in Seattle. He writes about officiating for Derbylife.

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Curtis E Lay is a level four certified WFTDA referee, plying his trade in Seattle. He writes about officiating for Derbylife.

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