initiatives msnt1How do you help people get out of poverty, able to move on and build a sustainable life? It’s an age-old question that faces every community. And of course, there’s no one-size-fits-all, easy answer.

That’s why The John R. Oishei Foundation launched an innovative program in 2009, creating the Mobile Safety-Net Team, with support from a network of key human services providers across Erie and Niagara Counties. “Every year, the Oishei Foundation would provide grants to meet basic human needs,” says Jeffrey Pirrone, MSNT Team Supervisor. “But the question was, were we really making an impact?”

Jeffrey and his team met with as many communities as possible to evaluate needs and barriers, then advised the Foundation staff and board. “We spent five weeks in each of 45 areas. We met with anyone we could, from food pantry users to elected officials. And, we built strong relationships, which led us to wonder, how can we do more?”


The team chose 12 communities for a deeper dive, then worked with the UB Regional Institute to develop a series of reports called “Strengthening the Safety Net.” With on-the-ground research, the Regional Institute was able to provide hard data for the community-based perspectives to understanding barriers to a better life. The report included recommendations as “a starting point to begin the conversation,” which led to Phase II of the MSNT initiative.

“Our goal was to sit with people, present the report, then listen. We wanted to know, ‘What are your priorities? How can we support them?’ We wanted to get people to collaborate, sharing ideas and results. Sometimes it starts with little things, but by working together, really great things can happen.”


Here’s just one example: the Healthy Corner Store Initiative, which launched in 2015. Neighborhoods without grocery stores also tend to be without healthy foods; when there’s no fresh fruit or vegetables available within a mile, it’s known as a food desert. The challenge: find ways to get people to a grocery store, or work with existing corner stores in those communities to offer healthier options.

The Northeast Buffalo Coalition chose the latter option. Starting with two corner stores in the University District, they developed a program that’s a template for expansion, with six more stores due to open in 2016. Coalition partners helped with everything from providing special coolers to negotiating prices, teaching stores how to store and display produce, and educating consumers with cooking demos and taste tests.


This coalition is just one example of a very active group whose partners offer distinct expertise. “Each one offers something to help meet the needs of this program,” says Jeffrey. “Overall, it’s a true example of community-driven initiative, where participants follow through on their commitment. What the community said they needed, the community created.”

Building on the concept of the Healthy Corner Store Initiative, MSNT is working to create more resource centers—true collective partnerships—within communities. The resource hubs can help people with everything from finding out about available services (healthcare, food stamps, etc.) to workforce development, ESL, job opportunities, and even foster parenting opportunities.

“We’re working closely with the new commissioner of the Department of Social Services, who is very community-oriented,” notes Jeffrey. “We’re also working with the NFTA to see how they can meet residents’ needs. It’s an exciting time.”