Shifting Money, Shifting Power: Participatory Budgeting at FoodCorps

What does it mean to be an equity-driven organization? At FoodCorps, we’re always learning how to center equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) in all aspects of our work. But in the past year, we’ve experimented with a new process for making financial decisions collaboratively. 

Called “participatory budgeting,” this process is a way to shift power within organizations and institutions. The Participatory Budgeting Project defines it as “a democratic process in which community members decide how to spend part of a public budget.” For FoodCorps, this means staff deciding as a group how to spend money, rather than leaving these decisions to just a few senior leaders. 

In 2020, we received a grant from the Walmart Foundation to fund our equity and strategic planning work. These funds were meant to help FoodCorps make thoughtful progress in a way that aligned with our EDI goals. Given this flexibility, our EDI team decided to try a participatory budgeting process, something new to FoodCorps. Through this process, we set out to practice inclusive decision-making, to try out a new tool for collaboration, to build community, and to provide new opportunities for leadership among staff. 

The results were incredible. Staff proposed a series of projects to increase inclusivity and equity both within and outside of FoodCorps, and through a voting process, selected four initiatives to receive a portion of the Walmart Foundation funding. These projects were: 

  • A program supporting racial diversity in school nutrition leadership. This project will create a talent pool of diverse leaders in school nutrition that includes BIMPOC service members, FoodCorps alumni, and current school nutrition leaders. The goals of this program include elevating the field of school nutrition, providing hands-on leadership skill development among emerging school nutrition leaders, and advancing conversations about racial equity in school nutrition programming. 
  • A training supporting transgender inclusion at FoodCorps. This training promoted shared language, common understanding, and basic best practices to help create a welcoming environment for transgender or gender nonconforming staff, service members, and other partners.
  • A council of FoodCorps service members. The goal of the council was to invite service members into crucial conversations and give them more opportunities to co-create the service program they lead in their community each day, generating a better service experience for new and returning members. 
  • A mental health first-aid training for staff and AmeriCorps team leaders. This training was intended to build the capacity of our state teams to support service members in mental health crises, as well as to create more awareness in general of mental health issues and coping strategies.

The process offered a lot of insights and lessons we hope to use in future decision-making processes. For one, the majority of projects proposed were developed by BIMPOC (Black, Indigenous, multiracial and people of color) staff. And staffers who didn’t propose a project still had the opportunity to weigh in, offer their perspective in a meaningful way, and witness the energy and enthusiasm around projects their peers imagined. Carving out an opportunity for leadership in this way — especially for those not typically elevated to leadership positions — was deeply meaningful to many folks on staff. 

Today, the projects funded by the participatory budgeting process are either underway or completed. A new Service Member Action Committee is weighing in on FoodCorps’ decisions and priorities. Staff are dedicating their time to uplifting BIMPOC in school nutrition, making connections that will deepen our understanding of the field and allow us to build more authentic partnerships in our work. And a number of staff and service members have been trained in both mental health first aid and in transgender and nonbinary inclusion. 

Participatory budgeting serves as a useful tool in making decisions and pursuing projects with equity at the center, and we’re excited by the opportunity it creates for more staff to move into equity leadership roles. We look forward to future opportunities to shift power, invite more people to the table, and make more equitable decisions. 

Thanks to the Walmart Foundation for its support of FoodCorps’ equity, diversity, and inclusion work.