It’s great to have a nonprofit’s name in the form of a question. It is a good way of having the conversation with the community already having begun before you open your mouth. In the case of Why Hunger? this conversation has been going on for 35 years, ever since singer and activist Harry Chapin first posed the question and then even better, got together with founding (and current) Executive Director Bill Ayres to do something about it.
The organization is a grassroots support organization that tries to build the movement against hunger and poverty by amplifying the voices of innovators who we think come from the grassroots.
At the recent Feeding America national summit, I met with Harry Chapin’s daughter Jen Chapin, who is a wonderful singer-songwriter, who some in the western region may remember from her address and performance at a conference in Tucson last year hosted by the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona.
I also had a chance to speak with Jessica Powers, director of the National Hunger Clearinghouse at Why Hunger? Below are excerpts of my discussion with her.
The organization has been working on an essential new resource for those running nutrition programs which has just been made available.
So tell me a little bit about the types of support that Why Hunger? provides.
We do training and technical assistance. We do capacity building through some small grant programs, and we also use the vehicle of storytelling a lot. We try and find out about innovative approaches that people are using, and we try to amplify those voices to a wider audience in order to inspire people about things they could try in their own communities.
Can you give me an example of what you are working on?
Sure. Through our grassroots action network, we currentlyhave 3 food desert projects that we’re working on. The technical title is ‘building community power to eliminate food deserts’, and we’re working in Southwest Arizona, in the Mississippi Delta, and in Central Coast California.
And what we do is we bring together different stake holders who are working on food systems issues who may not be talking to each other currently, so that might include ranchers, people from public health, people from the school system and food bankers. And then through a facilitative process, we talk about the history of that area, how they got to the current situation that they’re in and what their vision for the future is. Our role is really to facilitate moving that forward that we actually think the community should determine for themselves what is the best solution for them, but that our role is to help move that forward by being sort of a consistent presence and helping with any challenges that arise in moving the work forward.
Tell me a little bit about this guide which is now available for people to download from your website. [DOWNLOAD HERE]
The National Hunger Clearinghouse works on capacity building for emergency food providers, and we focus mainly on food pantries and smaller agencies. Through that program, we had a lot of conversations with people, and they kept saying that there was a lot of innovation happening in food sourcing and nutrition education, and it was really hard to find out what was going on and to find a place which could be a hub for that information.
We did research and created program profiles on a host of organizations that are working on those 2 different issues. And so we organized them sort of by strengths. So in the nutrition education guide, we’re looking at programs that maybe are better at working with diverse communities. Some are better at evaluation. And the idea is that people can then tailor it to the program that works for them in their area.
(The ‘From Hunger to Health’ blog is also cited in the guide, so let’s hear it for cross-promotion, folks!)
Has your organization done any work to uncover the roots of hunger, and answer that tricky question, “Why?”
Yes, in many ways, that is our mission. We have a Food Security Learning Center on our website which is an encyclopedia of food system issues. Everything from water to community food assessments to race in the food system, youth in the food system etc. We have a particular lens, which is that we want to see healthy nutritious food available to people. So the articles are definitely written with that lens. But I guess the big thing that we do is try to disseminate information and try to share stories with a wider audience.
What do you think food banks could do or be involved in that they are not currently as a whole involved in?
I think that we all acknowledge that the root cause of hunger is poverty, and if we’re not talking about poverty and solutions to that, then we’re spinning our wheels. So I would challenge food banks to do more of that, to talk more about wage disparity, to talk more about living wages and healthcare and things like that, that are forcing people into the position where they need emergency food assistance.
This came up in the speech by Matt Habash, last year’s winner of the John Van Hengel Award (Prestigious food banking award), and he was encouraging people to make that link to poverty. But in subsequent sessions that I attended, people from other food banks were saying, “Oh my god, I can’t go near that because it’s a political hot potato, and it’s outside our wheelhouse, etc.” Are there other things that they could do?
It is not only a case of the food bank using its own voice. They could be sharing more information and insights with the agencies that they work with, and helping them build their advocacy skill set. They can also use State Associations as more of the political voice.
I think it is a question of framing. It has to be about opportunity. The whole childhood hunger piece, when you talk about children having an equal opportunity to become leaders, to become educated. I think that’s something most people can agree on regardless of their party politics. And I don’t think that people talk about that enough.
So are you suggesting that food banks take more of a leadership role in putting together coalitions and becoming the backbone organization for a wider variety of community organizations?
Yes. Increasingly we’re seeing that there is a political movement that wants to privatize charity. That means putting the burden onto the food banks, so I think food banks need to stand up to this. When you look at the total pie of food distribution, food banks are still a relatively small piece in this country and so they can’t be expected to take on such an increasing burden, and I think they need to be more vocal about that. I think when we have discussions that are based solely on poundage or distribution or logistics or supply chain, then it sort of takes away from our ability to say, “Hey, wait a minute, this is supposed to be an emergency response, not a long-term solution,” right?
Thanks, Jessica, and thank you for your work in putting together such a great guide.