January 21, 2010

Contemplating a future without hunger

[Cross-posted at the DC Food For All.]

In celebration of their 30th Anniversary, the Capital Area Food Bank hosted a Hunger Policy Forum last Friday, January 15 at the offices of The Washington Post. Entitled, “Ideas & Inspirations for the Future,” the forum centered on a discussion by local and national experts about hunger in our nation and in the nation’s capital.

A few central themes emerged from the discussion. First and foremost among them was the notion that hunger is a problem that we can solve. Jim Weill, president of the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC), noted that “the recession is the worst since the 30’s, but we’re rich enough to end hunger overnight. It’s a political problem.”

In other words, as a society we are capable of ending hunger. But do we have the will? And what roles do food pantries play in the problem?

"The time has come to maximize our impact in the political arena,” added Janet Poppendieck, professor at City University in New York and author of several books on poverty, but this mandate has a double edge: if we fail in that, Poppendieck said, then we “allow the marginally concerned to feel much better about hunger, and we are in danger of functioning as a moral safety valve.”

The other theme I noticed was that this potential political willpower for the pursuit of policy change can only be realized through the development of community. John Cook of the Boston Medical Center noted that we are infringing upon a "great awakening in the United States about our community." He spoke hopefully about the opportunity that could come with a dawning awareness that "we are not individuals pursuing our own needs, but rather we are all connected."

From my brief time studying hunger in America, I've seen a little bit of both sides of this issue. In college, I interviewed 15 administrators at small food pantries in Salem, OR, and what I found was, honestly, a little disheartening: many viewed the food pantries solely as a place to receive emergency food and had little interest in moving beyond charity and towards the community-building that would make social change possible. To a number of administrators, hunger was viewed as a personal problem that individuals needed to deal with. The role of these pantries, then, was just to help needy individuals, instead of working collaboratively with others to identify and change the greater societal issues that perpetuate of hunger.

Yet in just a few months here in DC, I have seen something different. I've seen the ways that Bread For the City takes its role as a charitable distribution center as just a starting point, from which it works to identify the needs of the community it serves. As George Jones, Executive Director of Bread For the City, mentioned on the Food Bank's panel, the Save Our Safety Net was launched here; we've also supported the efforts of groups like DC Hunger Solutions to expand food stamp eligibility. We are not alone. Many locally-based organizations (like Miriam's Kitchen, and the Food Bank itself) are working to empower making structural changes in our society. And in just a few months, this blog itself has brought people together from different parts of our still-fragmented community landscape, opening up new possibilities for partnership and action.

Thirty years after the founding of the Capital Area Food Bank, people need help more than ever before. Given the overlapping arrival of the Great Recession alongside an era of powerful new tools of sharing and community building, perhaps this really is the dawn of a new chapter.

Amy Johnson is an Emerson Hunger Fellow. Photos courtesy of Kevin Allen.

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