Five years ago, author and entrepreneur Peter Norback set out to do something about the hunger he saw around him in Tucson, Arizona. And since then, a simple food collection project -- sparked by the question of "What if everyone could give a can of food a week?" -- has grown to touch far more lives than he could have imagined.
For nearly two decades, Norback, 72, has lived in Tucson's Miles Neighborhood, a working-class area bordering the University of Arizona. After the consolidation of the publishing industry in the late 1970s, Norback had to abandon his career authoring trade reference books and go instead into the corporate world as a skilled product manager. He prides himself on being a man who can figure out what he wants, and then work hard to accomplish it. So from the moment Norback asked himself what kind of difference a single can a week could make, he set to work designing a donation program to find out.
He approached the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona with the idea and, to his surprise, did not receive overwhelming support at first. However, several neighbors showed support and encouraged him to give it a try. Soon after, Norback's One Can A Week program was born.
The concept is simple: For several hours each Sunday, Norback visits his neighbors to collect the donation of a single can. He then drops all of the items at the local food bank.
"I did it very slowly, because people can jump into these things and they get all excited and they burn themselves out," Norback told The Huffington Post. "You have to slow down. Yes, it's a fun idea but you've got to temper it a little bit. I did 10 homes a week at first. It took me three months to get to through my neighborhood."
Today, Norback says about half of Miles participates in the One Can A Week program, totaling approximately 100 houses that he and his small team of volunteers visit each week.
In a 2012 documentary about the program, Lupita Gaona, one of the program's participants, talks about his dedication and unfailing consistency in the early days of the program. When his pick-up day fell on Christmas and he still arrived at her door, all she could think was, "He's better than the mailman."
Norback is not only consistent, but also accountable. He treats each of his neighbors like a personal investor, providing them with quarterly reports on how much food and money the project has generated for the local food bank. His feedback helps residents trust that their involvement and effort are worthwhile and make a clear difference.
"It's very hard to find people who want to commit," Norback said of the difficulties of executing a community service-based project. However, because he's the one who picks up the food each week, the program requires very little work on the part of others. Since its inception five years ago, Norback says, One Can A Week has collected 62,570 pounds of food and $13,760 in donations from the Miles Neighborhood alone.
While the food bank's management team was resistant at first to One Can A Week, they've come to appreciate its success and growing influence on the community.
"It sounded like a scheme to us, to get people in a neighborhood to donate one can a week, and we kind of looked at him like he might be a little off his rocker," explained the food bank's former CEO Bill Carnegie in the documentary. However, after its surprising success, he said, "One Can A Week is really a way to address the issue of hunger and make a difference in your community ... It would be wonderful if every community did it. If every community here in southern Arizona was involved in this, we could eradicate hunger in a couple of years."
And now similar programs are popping up across the country building on Norback's model.
"I'm changing lives and I'm doing it very subtly," said Norback. "It's with signage and me just being there. I show up all the time. You have to do it every day, every week."
Last year, Norback expanded his program into three locations of regional grocer Sprouts Farmers Market. He spends several hours each week standing quietly in the stores with One Can A Week signs in hand, waiting for customers to ask him about the program and offer donations.
"It's great for business, because they don't want anybody messing with their customers, pitching them and annoying them. So I just stand there, and I have a small food bin I leave there during the week," said Norback. "Each store is starting to produce a lot. We've done tons of food in less than a year."
For his latest project idea, Norback envisions a campaign to fight the stigma around food stamps. He believes that if he could start a celebrity-based campaign, with T-shirts and buttons, to showcase how even successful people have struggled at various points in their lives and had to rely on federal assistance, that others will begin to act more empathetically. The tag line would read, "Say something bad about me. I was on food stamps, too."
"They're copping an attitude, saying taking care of people is a good thing, and I was there, too," said Norback. He's excited to see what could happen if some famous names unite behind the message. But in the meantime, he'll continue visiting his neighbors and the markets day in and day out, collecting one can of food at a time for those who need it.
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