Catherine Hagenbush

Catherine Hagenbush has built her entire career around food and nonprofits.

As an undergraduate student at Hope College in her native Michigan, she interned at a small organic farm, the West Michigan Environmental Action Council, and the Holland-Hope College Sustainability Institute.

“Food is kind of my thing, so I always knew I wanted to be around increasing food access for people,” Hagenbush said.

After graduating in May 2017 with her bachelor’s degree in communications, Hagenbush did a Google search for nonprofit jobs in Colorado and landed at Care and Share Food Bank for Southern Colorado, where she was hired as the Colorado Springs coordinator for the organization’s Cooking Matters program. Hagenbush transitioned to her current grant coordinator role in August 2018.

“I never saw myself in anything but nonprofits,” the 24-year-old said. “I think I’m most driven toward achieving goals when there’s a mission.”

Hagenbush talked with the Business Journal this week about Care and Share’s mission and collaboration with other nonprofits in the Pikes Peak region, as well as what hunger looks like in Colorado Springs.

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What are your professional responsibilities?

I work with the foundations locally and nationally, and write our grant applications and tell the story of what we do in hopes that it appeals to funders and they support our work. … I’d summarize it as: I often have to tell the story of why people need food and why the work we do achieves that — in 2,000 characters or less.

So, in 2,000 characters or less, what does Care and Share do?

Our goal is to make sure that everyone has food [and] no one goes hungry. We do that through partnerships — over 250 of them around Southern Colorado. People often think we’re just local but we are the food bank that serves Southern Colorado, so we work with all different kinds of partners — food pantries, schools, community centers — and we get food to them so that they can distribute it directly to neighbors who need food. We’re more like the large-scale food acquisition and distribution center.

… A majority of [our food] comes from national partnerships. We work with Feeding America and, because of that, we can get food at discounted rates — whether it’s farmers who donate food to us, or partnerships with places like Walmart or King Soopers. Their food that doesn’t sell — maybe the branding on it has changed or the design on the packaging — they donate it to us and we distribute that.

What has your work with Care and Share taught you about food access?

What was really impactful for me was the first job I had when I came here, which was teaching cooking classes. So I got to know Colorado Springs for basically the first time through going to different communities and teaching cooking classes to families who either don’t have great access to food, or have access to food and don’t know what to do with it to create healthy meals.

So that’s how I got to know Colorado Springs, and I’m so grateful. I wouldn’t trade that for anything because I got to meet normal people who, just by circumstances, don’t have adequate access to food or knowledge of how to use it. It amazes me that it’s really just normal people who are the ones that are seeking assistance from Care and Share. … People think it’s primarily the homeless population that we’re serving, but more often than not, it’s just a working mom who needs help, or somebody who had a medical bill that totally tipped the scales for them and they need help for the first time.

So I would say that’s the biggest thing I’ve learned about food access — that it’s just your everyday person. It’s the person that lives next door to you that is coming to seek assistance.

Why is education such an important component of food access, and how does Care and Share educate the community?

You know that quote: ‘You can give a person a fish and feed him for a day, but teach him how to fish and feed him for a lifetime.’ In teaching classes, you give someone a carrot and they might have no idea what to do with it, but then you show them all the ways that you can add it to something and they can create this amazing meal for their families.

… The Cooking Matters program is a six-week course where we go to different sites for an entire cooking class. We bring all the groceries and all the equipment to them. It’s a two-hour class, and we begin with the most basic food groups, how to hold a knife and how to cut a vegetable. They use ingredients that are accessible with their food pantries that are in their community, or things that you can get at Walmart, so it’s really accessible curriculum. We teach people what to do with the food that they get.

For example, Care and Share gets thousands of pounds of acorn squash in the fall, and … we recognize that if we’re giving out acorn squash, we need to provide some insight of what to do with it because it’s not a common item.

What’s the most rewarding part of your job?

It takes so much courage to ask for help — to say, ‘I can’t take care of myself or my family fully right now. I need help.’ So when you have a one-on-one interaction with someone who’s received food from Care and Share, it’s just overwhelmingly gratitude.

… In a different vein, it’s incredibly rewarding to see and be a part of all the collaboration that Care and Share does. When I first moved here … I didn’t realize just how plugged in Care and Share was. So when I got here and I would say, ‘I work at Care and Share,’ I had people constantly tell me their involvement with [the organization] — like, ‘Oh, you guys have a food pantry at my kids’ school.’ … So it’s rewarding to see just how plugged into the community we are, and how united we are with so many community stakeholders.

How are you involved in the community outside of work?

I really like to volunteer and see what other places are doing. … I volunteer at a place called Mary’s Home, [which is] a transitional housing program for moms and their kids. I do something called the Alpha Course, which is really just to bring people in and ask big questions about life and faith and meaning. It’s hosted downtown at a place called The Commons. It’s an eight-week course, and once a week we do dinner together and watch a video that has some different topic about meaning in life or faith — a lot of it is questions about the Christian faith. So we have discussions and bring some really big questions and disagreements. It’s really cool to see people willing to disagree or willing to share their experience, so I love being a part of that. I’ve met a ton of really cool people through that.

I also love running and paddleboarding, skiing, biking — anything I can do outside.

Which professional accomplishment are you most proud of?

Since I’ve been in a grant coordinator role, the team I work with has started to ask some bigger questions around why we do things the way we do and how we could do them better. So it’s not necessarily a monumental moment but I think, little by little, as an organization we’re getting way better at what we do and how we look at the barriers people are facing. Instead of just saying, ‘Oh, people don’t have food; let’s give them more,’ we’re starting to ask, ‘People don’t have food. Why, and how can we help overcome that obstacle so that they can have more consistent, safe, reliable access?’

I’m pretty proud of the way we’ve evolved. … There’s definitely some great grants that I’m really excited and proud that we landed as a team, but I think I’m even more proud of what I said before and how that will carry us forward even when I’m not here one day, or when other people are here. We’ve asked some good questions.