How a Small Funder Combines Giving for Hunger and Long-Term Food Sustainability

The Marcus Foundation, like a lot of small family funders these days, is really into sustainable food systems and the way we feed our communities. 

Resting on the concept that hungry people can’t focus on anything else until that need is met, its core funding interest in food begins with hunger. But the Marcus Foundation, a small, Denver- and Washington D.C.-based funder, has an interesting two-pronged approach, looking for organizations working on short-term critical needs, as well as underlying, system-wide challenges. 

To clear up some potential confusion, there are actually a lot of Marcus Foundations. Close to 30 in the Foundation Center’s directory alone. That’s complicated further by the fact that the Marcus Foundation we’re talking about is actually an offshoot of The Grace R. and Alan D. Marcus Foundation, and both are still active. The Marcus Foundation in question split off into its own entity in 2009, and currently has just two trustees, Amy Halperin Wood, based in Denver, and Jonathan Halperin, in D.C. (Their late father, Theodore Halperin, was a trustee of the Grace R. and Alan D. Marcus Foundation.)

Setting all that aside, the Marcus Foundation is all about food, a complex and intersectional issue that has been on the rise in environmental funding and other arenas of philanthropy. 

Related: The Bumper Crop of Funders Working for Sustainable Food

“The foundation understands community food resources to encompass a web of issues related to hunger, including poverty, community development and economic policy,” the website states. In addition to giving to some local hunger initiatives like Hunger Free Colorado and We Don’t Waste, Marcus doesn’t shy away from the systemic issues that can often be intimidating for a small family funder. 

The foundation identifies business practices, environmental advocacy and agricultural methods as ways to pursue sustainability, to “change the fundamental incentives and dynamics that cause these problems.”

The foundation gives just around $70,000 a year, but has supported some interesting efforts. For example, one major recent grantee is the DeLaney Community Farm, a project of Denver Urban Gardens located in the middle of Aurora. The membership-based farm seeks to provide healthy, local food for people across economic levels, but also serves as an educational project to reconnect the community to food and land. 

The foundation also has an interest in media and culture-related programs. Past giving has also gone to Grist, as well as Participant Media, a company founded by Jeff Skoll that’s behind films like Spotlight, Food, Inc., and An Inconvenient Truth. In particular, the funder has been involved in collaborative outreach on hunger using the Participant documentary A Place at the Table as a platform. 

While a lot of family foundations have been drawn to food issues lately for a variety of reasons—including trustees’ concerns about their children’s health, environmental threats, or just their own passion for food—it’s not always easy to make the jump from local projects to systemic solutions. Marcus offers one example of how even a modest grantmaking budget doesn’t have to stick to small potatoes.