Client Profile: Groceryships

By Jessica Payne, Jan Schwaid, and Dana Rizer

We’d like to take a moment to introduce you to one of our amazing clients, Groceryships.

While obesity runs rampant in America, it has taken an especially strong hold on lower income areas. Highly processed, nutritionally empty food is cheap, easy to find, and quickly consumable. Groceryships seeks to take on this huge issue on an approachable level; one group of families at a time, they teach parents how to put healthier food on the table. Groceryships – a portmanteau of “grocery” and “scholarships” - provides nutrition education, cooking classes, and medical screenings, as well as tangible goods like grocery gift cards and fresh produce. Just as importantly, they create a supportive group atmosphere focused on helping families build a healthier community, meal by meal.

We spoke with Dana Rizer, the managing director of Groceryships, to learn more about this inspiring nonprofit.

Tell us a little about yourself. How did you get involved with Groceryships?

I moved from New York City two years ago and met Sam and Groceryships almost immediately upon arrival thanks to an introduction from a mutual friend.  In my past life, I had been working with groups and private clients, helping them make connections between body-mind awareness and their relationship to food. I also was (and still am) a yoga teacher.

My first “job” at Groceryships was to start teaching a yoga class for the pilot program’s participants. From there, I shared with Sam some of the program content I had been developing and using to work with my own clients. There was so much synergy between our approaches, I quickly started taking on more projects—helping to further develop the current Groceryships Curriculum, and teaching and managing new groups. I started working as the Program Manager in February of 2015 and have continued growing in Groceryships ever since.

What's the big dream for Groceryships?

Groceryships’ main objective is to address the macro-issues of obesity and food system inequities in a micro way—by providing peer-led, nutrition-focused educational support groups, and by increasing access to healthy, unprocessed foods.

Our vision in South LA is to create a sustainable community where Groceryships groups can run continuously, led by local health leaders and former graduates.

Our big dream is that Groceryships moves far beyond our neighborhood and becomes a model that spreads to communities of all kinds throughout the United States. Because food affects all of us, learning how to navigate our modern food system in a healthy way is a skill that all human beings should be well-versed in.

What's your target demographic?

At present, we serve the low-income minority communities of South Los Angeles within proximity to USC’s University Park Campus.

How do you invorporate te company's mission into your life?

Groceryships’ mission is my life. To me, food (like yoga) is a lens that helps us to understand our relationship to all things—our bodies, our emotional selves, our culture, our environment. The awareness of that connection never leaves me, and it is the prime motivator for the work I do outside of Groceryships as well as in it.

Tell us about a day in your life at Groceryships.

A day in my life at Groceryships varies greatly depending on the day. We’re a very small organization, so I wear many hats from program manager, to educational director, grant writer, PR person, event planner, and sometimes even plumber, locksmith and janitor.

My ideal day is a day in which I get to participate in, or co-teach, a Groceryships Group. These groups are the heart and soul of Groceryships, and they involve ten individuals coming together for two hours to learn about healthy shopping and eating habits, and to share their real-life struggles and successes along their journey towards health. There are usually a lot of laughs, and often a lot of tears, in a Groceryships Group circle. It’s a special space were people get to reflect on their life and give and receive support in a community environment. And it’s one of my favorite places to be.

Beyond the Group classroom, I am often at the Community Center overseeing our team of volunteers and Group leaders, working on grant writing or program reporting, and working on partnerships with likeminded organizations throughout LA.

What's something unique about the culture of the organization?

Groceryships is committed to supporting leaders from within the community we serve, which means most of our groups are led by promotoras, and co-taught by our Groceryships Grads.

What's your greatest obstacle as a company, and how are you working to overcome it?

Our greatest obstacle is trying to grow as an organization to serve as many people as possible and keeping up the demands of rapid growth. We are constantly working on improving, from our data collecting techniques to our communication skills in the Group environment, to strengthening systems and organizational infrastructure.

What have you learned in your time at Groceryships?

Change is the only constant, and flexibility is more than what’s created on a yoga mat.

What's the best story to come out of Groceryships?

There are so many, but my favorite recent story comes from Leidy, a Groceryships graduate from our March 2015 cohort.

Back in December, Leidy got quite ill, and she needed a surgical procedure to return her body back to health. At that time, her doctors also noticed that she was anemic, and they told her she would first need a blood transfusion before the surgery could take place.

Although Leidy was mentally ready for surgery, the idea of a blood transfusion made her nervous. So, she started seeking advice. Someone told her that drinking beet juice would help her get her iron back to normal, and immediately she tried it.

Every day for two weeks, she drank fresh beet juice in her usual green smoothie. When she returned to the doctor for her blood transfusion, she requested that they first retest her blood. The doctor told her that even if she had been taking iron supplements, they wouldn’t have worked in so short a time. Leidy was insistent, and finally got the doctor to agree to take the test.

To the doctor’s surprise, Leidy’s iron levels were in fact back to normal, and the blood transfusion could be bypassed after all. Shortly thereafter, she had her surgery, and was well on the road to recovery when she called me.

She said she wanted me to know that as soon as she was healthy, she wanted to become a Groceryships Group leader. She said that now, her reason for leading a group wasn’t just to help out at Groceryships, but because she now knew for herself that food was medicine. Food could heal. And she wanted to share that experience with everyone she could.