This spotlight is a feature of WhyHunger’s digital storytelling that showcases grassroots organizations and community leaders through dynamic stories and pictures, to give a real view of projects that are working to alleviate food insecurity and increase communities’ access to nutritious food. We believe that telling one’s story is not only an act of reclaiming in the face of the dominant food narrative of this country, but also an affirmation that the small acts of food sovereignty happening across the country add up to a powerful, vital collective. Up today: Soil Born Farms; Sacramento, CA. Story and photos by David Hanson.
In 2006, Soil Born Farm’s Food Access Coordinator, Randy Stannard, heard about a man selling peaches at a crazy low price at one of the city farmer's markets. He heard the man had incredible fruit but no permit. Since Soil Born Farms is a non-profit in Sacramento that supports farmer’s markets and encourages sustainable growers and farm education programs throughout the city, Randy found the man with the peaches and the man invited Randy to his orchard.
The orchard makes an thick L-shape beside and behind a modest two-story house in the northern suburbs of Sacramento, CA. It’s a quiet street with some empty lots, a suburban area where retail and residential have trickled in slowly rather than undergoing a full-on, mass development assault. The kind of outer city place that still has overt, physical reminders of its rural past, like tall, dry native grasses or a lot with an old barn still in back.
Randy walked with Carlos among his and his wife Maria’s 150 fruit trees. The couple had planted the trees twenty years prior, as soon as Carlos bought the empty lot. Apricots, grapefruit, oranges, apples, plums, pluots, cherries, peaches hung from the trees’ shady ceilings. A row of nopale cactus stood one story tall. Randy couldn’t believe it all grew on this non-descript semi-suburban lot and that Carlos had never intended to sell any of it until that year.
Now this story will sound like a movie writer’s or campaign speech writer’s ideal of American Dream: Immigrant Version. But it's true and it’s told just as Maria told it to me while we walked under the fruit.
Carlos moved to the US at age 15. He and his father and brother left the small pueblo of Atangillo and worked on a dairy farm in the States. Then they went back to Mexico. But Carlos didn't want to stay in the small town. He wanted the American dream. So he moved to Tijuana and drove a taxi, shined shoes, and worked in a restaurant. Eventually he settled in Sacramento. When the construction season slowed down in winter, Carlos returned to Atangillo to visit his family and his girlfriend, Maria. He and Maria wrote letters to one another, too.
In 1972 Maria moved up to Sacramento to marry Carlos. They lived on the other side of town from where the orchard and home now sits. Carlos worked construction for 29 years. They had kids and Maria stayed home to be with them. They wanted their kids to love the land and enjoy simple pleasures, like the ones Carlos and Maria remembered from their pueblo. They didn't want their kids to be spoiled.
In 1985 Carlos bought a piece of land in the north side of the city. He planted fruit trees there and he'd go most evenings to water and tend to them. By 1993, he and Maria had saved enough to build a house on the lot and move into their fruit orchard. Their kids could wander into the yard and sit in the shade below a ceiling of fresh fruit, just like Carlos had imagined.
Carlos never intended to make money off the orchard, even though he had 150 trees. He simply wanted to grow fruit and share it with his family. But Maria saw it differently. She asked why he worked all day on the fruit and they could only eat and give away so much of it, then the rest rots. So Carlos decided to try to sell some of his fruit.
WhyHunger and Hunger Is are proud to support breakfast programs around the U.S.
Children who miss meals regularly, especially breakfast, are more likely to be held back a grade, and receive special education services and mental health counseling than children who do not struggle with food insecurity. Children who eat a healthy breakfast have increased brain development, ability to focus, better attendance and overall academic capacity, according to the Illinois School Breakfast Financial Sustainability Report written by the Greater Chicago Food Depository.
I spoke with Suzanne Lee who works in the Policy and Advocacy Department of the Greater Chicago Food Depository Breakfast Program to learn about how policy, breakfast and social good are helping nourish kids in Chicago. Suzanne explained that a new state law has been passed in Illinois that mandates free After the Bell breakfast for any school that has a seventy percent or more poverty rate. This law will be implemented this coming year to help 78,000 children in Chicago access healthy, free meals to start their day!
To prepare the schools and the families for this major change, the Greater Chicago Food Depository (GCFD) has leveraged a grant from the Hunger Is initiative to host five events throughout Chicago to make sure the whole school system is prepared and the children and families know how this new After the Bell breakfast program will work. They also printed and distributed educational material that further explains the new system.
The GCFD utilizes a dual strategy for promoting healthy breakfast for children; offering community support for legislation on a state and local level, like After the Bell breakfast, that will benefit children and families in need alongside educational events, as well as creating literature and campaigns to explain the benefits of the legislation and encourage participation. All too often the very people who can benefit the most from a piece of legislation like this have not heard enough about it to embrace it enthusiastically and support it.
In the not too distant past food banks and emergency food providers saw their role simply as giving food to hungry people. Fortunately, that has changed and GCFD is a good example of a more holistic approach to fighting hunger and poverty. The support from Hunger Is has helped GCFD and organizations across the country to strengthen this trend and multiply the impact of their strategies to reach many more hungry people, and especially help children access nutritious meals.
This spotlight is a feature of WhyHunger’s digital storytelling that showcases grassroots organizations and community leaders through dynamic stories and pictures, to give a real view of projects that are working to alleviate food insecurity and increase communities’ access to nutritious food. We believe that telling one’s story is not only an act of reclaiming in the face of the dominant food narrative of this country, but also an affirmation that the small acts of food sovereignty happening across the country add up to a powerful, vital collective. Up today: Youth Farm and Market Project; Minneapolis, MN. Story and photos by David Hanson.
“I’m the resource queen,” says Scelena, a large woman with a tattoo on her shoulder exposed beneath a tank-top and between the long braids of her hair. “They’ve got programs for kids out here. You just gotta find them.”
Out here is North Minneapolis, the city’s most drastic low-income zone with a mix of African-Americans, Latinos, whites, East Africans, and Hmong.
Next to Scelena sits Amphavanh, a southeast Asian immigrant who speaks fluent English. She lives in an apartment above a store in a really bad part of North Minneapolis. So bad, she says, that she can’t let her fourteen year-old daughter ride the bus to the grocery store. Another mother nods. She doesn’t let her young teen ride the bus, either. “And she’s bigger than I am,” the mom says.
These five women are seated at a table in a church basement on Emerson Ave in North Minneapolis. They’re here for dinner and dialogue. Their children work with the Youth Farm and Market Project’s (YFMP) new garden at Nellie Stone Johnson pre-K through 8th school, a YFMP expansion project that is a direct result of a CFP grant.The children have been cooking stir-fry chicken, rice with squash and zucchini from the garden, fresh fruit, and a peanut sauce. After the dinner is prepared, the participants split into three groups at three tables: children, teens, and adults. Each table has a leader from “Community Cooks,” a program of the community organization, Appetite for Change (AFC), begun by Michelle Horovitz. The leaders, Tasha, Princess, and Jesse, are residents of North Minneapolis. They come from the same place as the kids and mothers. AFC partnered with YFMP to conduct this dinner and dialogue in the fashion that AFC has been developing Community Cooks since it began with a pilot program in 2011.
So before everyone digs into the food that the children have been tending to all summer, everyone talks about food issues. The young kids are asked what they’d buy if they were given money and sent to the grocery store. These kids have been at Youth Farm and Market long enough to know that tomatoes, green beans, broccoli, onions, apples, oranges are the things they should be eating. Jesse writes their answers on a white poster sheet tacked to the wall.
At the adult table, Princess passes around a sheet of paper with an illustration of two meals (plus their price, and nutrient contents) to feed a family of four:
2 Big Macs
1 six-piece chicken nuggets
Fat: 37 grams
Carbs: 123 grams
Protein: 23 grams
Grocery store $13.78
Fat: 39 grams
Carbs: 80 grams
Protein: 67 grams
As the mothers look at the sheet, Princess continues, asking what the women do to find healthy, affordable food at grocery stores. Someone mentions dried mangos. Another mother wonders where you can get those. Someone says Wal-Mart sells them cheap. Another woman says you can dry them yourself for cheaper. One mother says she grew up in Brazil and they ate all their meat and veggies fresh. Her daughter is big, she says. Really big and she has asthma. She’s worried she might get diabetes. But they have a garden in the backyard and they work together in it. She makes it fun for them.
Amphavanah talks about living in an apartment above a storefront. She can’t grow anything. Years ago she had the chance to get a box for growing veggies, but she didn’t know how to, so she passed it up. Now she says when she can move into a house, her daughter Mela, can teach her how to grow produce like she learned at YFMP.
It was a hot and sunny Wednesday morning, as I set out at 9a.m. excited for the unknown towards the Bed-Stuy Campaign Against Hunger’s Healing Garden at Far Rockaway Farm to meet my colleagues and fellow interns at WhyHunger. Having taken class trips with extended stays on farms throughout my middle and high school years I was no stranger to “a day on the farm”; however, I had never worked on an urban farm in New York City and knew this trip was special because it was not only a volunteer day, but WhyHunger was also working with Bed-Stuy Campaign Against Hunger (BSCAH) to film a video project about the intersection of hunger and health and their work.
Once I arrived, we were given a tour of the farm by BSCAH’s Green Teen Internship Program supervisor, Sam. Afterwards, we were filmed as we sat down for an informative Q&A session with Sam to learn about the farm. The Healing Garden in the Far Rockaway neighborhood of Queens is a production farm used to grow organic produce and even has chickens onsite to produce fresh eggs. BSCAH’S Green Teen program employs 15 local youth in the community to maintain the farm and its programs. As supervisor and a former Green Teen herself, Sam oversees these youth workers, and helps manage the farm and harvest produce along with a host of other tasks. The Healing Garden, Sam explained, was established in order to link agriculture and nutrition with community and economic development. And that connection was easy to see as I got to work! I spoke with the teens I worked alongside and found that they lived in the community and some had received their first exposure to gardening and farming practices through BSCAH’s program.
From the info session with Sam, I learned about an initiative that I did not get to see firsthand but was inspired by, the veggie prescriptions partnership between the Healing Garden and the nearby Addabbo Family Health Center. Those who suffer with diet-related diseases, like diabetes and high blood pressure, can get a “prescription” for produce from the clinic and bring it to the farm to pick up their free meds - fresh, organic fruits and vegetables grown by teens. This is a unique and creative initiative that promotes good health in the community. As a Public Health major at my university, I thought this initiative was a truly innovative approach because not only does it increase accessibility to fresh produce, but it encourages maintaining a long term relationship with a healthcare provider and connects more people in the community to the farm.
After the info session, I was assigned the task of tying tomato stalks that were hanging low on the soil or loose, to a higher wooden post. I worked with two boys, who were employed as Green Teen interns. As fellow interns and all the same age, I learned that one of the boys had fairly recently migrated from Jamaica with his mother and younger brother, who was also a Green Teen intern. As residents of the Far Rockaway community, this was his second summer as an intern here and he intended to continue into the fall as well. He told me his mother comes to their market and has incorporated much of the farm produce into her dinner recipes. While chopping kale into compost, his younger brother and I talked about our shared Jamaican family background and how time spent at the farm has positively affected his transition to New York.
By 2 p.m. my chopping days were over and WhyHunger, the film crew, and all the BSCAH staff began to exit the farm for the end of the workday. After a hug goodbye from my compost-chopping partner, I felt much appreciation and gratitude. As a born and bred city girl, I was curious but not initially thrilled about the idea of laboring on this sunny, 91-degree day. However, filled with great experiences and connections at the end of the workday, my perspective was completely changed and I was grateful for the knowledge and exposure I gained about the farm from those who worked there. As I left, I questioned, is urban farming in my future? I do not know, but I certainly would be open to it! Not just a beautiful green space, the Healing Garden at the Far Rockaway Farm further unites the community, partners with local entities for health promotion, increases accessibility to organic and local produce, and contributes economically to the area. In addition, it gave me a lesson on agroecology right in my own city.
The "How Hungry Is America" hardship report was recently published by the Food Research & Action Center (FRAC) and highlights the progress made in the fight against hunger and the need that is still there.
“Have there been times in the past 12 months when you did not have enough money to buy food that you or your family needed?” That question was part of a survey conducted by Gallup in 2015 as part of the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index, in which 177,281 households participated.
FRAC reports on the answers to that question and reveals two important findings:
• The situation is getting better: 2015 had the lowest rate of “yes” answers in the eight years Gallup has been asking this question; December 2015 had the lowest monthly rate of food hardship in the 96 months the question has been asked; and
• Too many Americans in every community and every state still struggle to put food on the table. Nationally, one in six households answered the Gallup question with “yes."
Food Hardship in U.S. Declines Significantly from 2013 to 2015
The nation has made considerable progress in reducing food hardship since the height of the recession in 2008 and through 2013. The rate has fallen from nearly 19 percent in 2013 to 16 percent in 2015.
There were numerous causes of this nearly three-point drop in food hardship, potentially including:
• the improved unemployment picture;
• the increase in the share of eligible families actually receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps);
• the ongoing impact of the improved Earned Income Tax Credit and refundable Child Tax Credit that Congress made permanent in 2015; and
• the impact on family finances of Medicaid expansions and other health insurance affordability improvements under the Affordable Care Act.
Still, in 2015, 16 percent of surveyed households indicated they experienced food hardship. As the economy continues to recover from the Great Recession, these findings show that there are millions of Americans who are being left behind.
The persistence of a high rate of food hardship underscores the failure of the economy to provide family-supporting wages and the failure of Congress to respond with adequately robust initiatives to boost jobs, wages, and public programs for struggling families, such as benefits and eligibility in SNAP and child nutrition programs.
Food hardship is not an isolated or concentrated phenomenon.
At least 15 percent of households were suffering food hardship:
• in 25 states; and
• in 72 out of 100 Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSAs).
Food hardship — a marker for household struggles with hunger— harms children, working-age adults, people with disabilities, and seniors. It harms health, learning, and productivity; and it
drives up health and other costs for families, employers, and government. This is a serious national problem that requires a serious national response. Yet, as the survey findings indicate,
and despite significant improvements over the last two years, the country fails to grapple seriously with food hardship and poverty, despite the harm they do and despite available solutions.
Each Thursday at Martin Luther King, Jr. elementary school in West Oakland, Monica Parks shows up before her three girls are out of class for the day. She sets up tables and a tent for shade. She displays cabbage, greens, onions, apples, oranges, tomatoes, avocadoes, mangos, cherries, and strawberries.
When the students walk out of the cafeteria, they meet their parents on this concrete courtyard beside the flagpole and in front of the school walls’ murals of historic African-American figures. Monica waits there to sell the locally-sourced, pesticide-free produce.
“I had one little girl come up to the table and look at an orange,” Monica says. “She said she’d never eaten one. She said she didn’t like them. I told her it tasted like a Starburst, and I peeled a pink-flesh orange for her. She took a wedge and her face lit up. She likes oranges now.”
It’s no surprise the girl had never eaten an orange, or never eaten one that tasted like an orange is supposed to taste. West Oakland has fifty-three liquor stores, and, until recently, no grocery stores (they now have a co-op of the Mandela Marketplace, another USDA's Community Food Project (CFP) grant recipient). In 2005, the East Bay Asian Youth Center, a program begun at Berkeley High in 1976 as a way of addressing inner-city youth violence and gang activities, conceived a new project called the Oakland Fresh School Produce Markets (OFSPM). Recognizing the city’s lack of access to fresh food and subsequent trend of diet-related health disorders, OFSPM set out to assess the different communities in their food security issues.
Director of OFSPM, Christina Cherdboonmuang and youth volunteers took to the neighborhoods on bikes, evaluating corner and liquor stores for food opportunities and surveying residents about food access and health problems. They discovered that over half the residents they met had to travel out of their community to find healthy, fresh food and over half either suffered from or had family members who suffered from diet-related disease like diabetes and hypertension.
Christina and the students brainstormed solutions to the obvious food insecurity. Rather than attempt to initiate farmers markets, which have the challenges of being cumbersome and involving risk on the part of the farmers, the group decided to sell produce at stands outside local schools. Furthermore, the farmers market in the conventional sense of a big parking lot full of tented vendors from outside of West Oakland seemed to be an intimidating or impersonal space to many residents.
This spotlight is a feature of WhyHunger’s digital storytelling that showcases grassroots organizations and community leaders through dynamic stories and pictures, to give a real view of projects that are working to alleviate food insecurity and increase communities’ access to nutritious food. We believe that telling one’s story is not only an act of reclaiming in the face of the dominant food narrative of this country, but also an affirmation that the small acts of food sovereignty happening across the country add up to a powerful, vital collective. Up today: Florida Organic Growers; Gainesville, FL. Story and photos by David Hanson.
“Please don’t make me get squash,” Keri says to her sister. “We had so much squash with grandma and I don’t know what it was – the mushy texture, maybe – but I just never wanted to eat it again. It’s a creepy gourd to me. We got enough creepy people in our life, we don’t need creepy vegetables.”
So Keri and her husband John, and Keri’s sister and her baby boy do not buy squash at the Alachua Farmer’s Market on a Saturday in late November.
They buy radishes, arugula, artisanal cheese, green onions, spinach, lemons, cherry tomatoes, sweet potatoes, spring mix, and broccoli. For just over $25 in EBT food stamp money.
“We’re ‘pescavores’ and this is enough to feed us for a week and a half,” Keri says. “It would cost over $50 to get all this at Publix or Ward’s (the best chain grocers in Gainesville).”
Keri is a funny, expressive woman. She shares her enthusiasm for her market morning ramble audibly, commenting on the beautiful greens or debating aloud whether they should get the pecans. They end up being too expensive of an indulgence. This is her 24-year-old sister’s first farmer’s market experience. Keri called her and said, “Come on! Bring your little boy. Let’s go to the market together as a family, European style!”
The Alachua Farmer’s Market has a small tent to the right of its entrance. The tent has a table with a laptop, a credit card swiper, and some pamphlets. Since 2009 Florida Organic Growers, a local non-profit with a mission to support and promote sustainable organic agriculture, has managed the swipe card booth at this market on Saturdays, and the bigger, busier downtown farmers market on Wednesdays.
The Alachua County government funded the first year of the EBT and swipe card booth. Funds from the USDA's Community Food Project (CFP) grant have supported the last few years. Annual costs run $27,000 to operate the swipe option. There’s the equipment cost and the paid labor to be present at the booth, but the majority of that overhead figure pays for the USDA’s reporting requirements for food stamp use. It’s an ironic twist – that a hindrance to making fresh, local food available to food stamp recipients is the cost of record-keeping for the USDA, who hands out the food stamps – but it speaks to the hidden complexities of opening farmer’s markets to low-income populations.
“No single vendor at the market could afford the EBT swipe card costs,” says Derek Helmick, a part-time employee for FOG. Derek is a policy, numbers-minded person. The kind of person needed to find matching coordinates between the bureaucracy of government programs and the microcosm small-scale of a weekly farmer’s market like this one in Alachua County. Helmick has nearly completed a guidebook to break down the process of bringing EBT swipe machines to any farmers market, anywhere. They hope for twenty-five more similar market programs in Florida next year.
The swipe machine can be used with credit and debit cards, as well. So it’s not the stigmatized “food stamp booth in the corner.” Whether you swipe your Visa or your EBT card for $25, you get 25 in tokens to spend that day or on future market days. That means the farmer vendors see more purchases with the option of credit card swiping open to all consumers.
Last week, we celebrated the critical donations of time and talent that so many give to WhyHunger and our partner organizations each year as part of National Volunteer Week. This week, we are lifting up the importance of volunteers once again in this Q&A with Kate Cahill, Board of Trustees and Treasurer at MEND, Meeting Emergency Needs with Dignity.
Why is MEND volunteer run?
MEND is a coalition of 16 food pantries across Essex County, NJ, and each of those pantries, which are based in houses of worship, are run almost entirely by volunteers. Historically, much food pantry work has been volunteer-based, especially in churches and temples, as a secular expression of religious faith in their communities. MEND has served those in need, regardless of religious affiliation, for 36 years, and its structure reflects that rich history.
Over time, the increasing need in Essex County, the dedication and appeal of caring for one’s neighbor, and the desire to give back has attracted community members to the effort. Today many of our pantries’ volunteer corps are comprised of a mix of those from the house of worship and the community. That said, MEND does have a part-time Coordinator from Catholic Charities, to whom MEND contributes a portion of her salary. She serves as the central point for the MEND pantries in terms of coordinating activities and communication with pantry managers, as well as the primary intermediary between the pantries and the MEND board of trustees.
How many volunteers are there? Is there a general number of volunteer hours? Are there various tasks they are working on a day to day basis?
Volunteers work at two levels, with the individual pantries and with MEND’s central office. Most volunteers serve at MEND’s 16 pantries in roles that involve transporting, collecting, and distributing food. Each pantry has a pantry manager and a core group of volunteers. Larger pantries have additional tiers or teams of volunteers for specific tasks or days. Each pantry operates on its own schedule (for daily, weekly, or monthly distributions), and recruits its own volunteers. The distribution schedule, number of patrons typically served, and storage and operating space available to each pantry will determine its number of volunteers and how many hours each will contribute. Holidays, such as Thanksgiving and Christmas, will require extra volunteers. While MEND does not track each pantry’s specific volunteer hours per week or month, we can comfortably say that approximately 250-300 volunteers support MEND pantries.
Across pantries, whether large or small, the tasks are quite similar. All pantries must resource food (through fundraising, food drives, community food bank purchases, sales at grocery stores, and MEND donations of food and funds), sort it, shelve it, and package it for distribution to their patrons. Some MEND pantries offer soup kitchens or day care with specific groups that run these activities.
One key benefit of being a MEND pantry is the MEND Advisory Board, which is a monthly forum for pantry managers to share best practices as well as frequent challenges. MEND views its pantry managers as critical resources and strives to support them in these especially demanding times. The Advisory Board is led by MEND’s Coordinator, and it is also the primary mechanism for communicating and implementing MEND activities, such as food drives, holiday family support, fundraisers, and advocacy for those in need.
From time to time, volunteers may work at MEND’s central office, usually on a specific project, such as a newsletter or special event. The MEND board of trustees is a working board, and its members fulfill various roles on a volunteer basis, such as running the annual MEND gala, promotion and social media efforts, advocacy, fundraising, grant writing, and cultivation of donors. MEND recently hired a part-time grant writer, who is managed jointly by a board member and the Coordinator.
How do you see the community being impacted/changed by the amazing work MEND is doing?
We are stronger together. In aggregate, MEND pantries serve over 100,000 individuals each year, and throughout its 36-year history, have served 1.8 million. Consequently, MEND’s track record, growing visibility, support, and infrastructure allow its pantries to better do what they do best, serve their clients! While local pantries are a wonderful source of knowledge around what their patrons need most, they often do not have the budget or the resources to always identify those who are in need, fundraise sufficiently, or find the time to advocate on their own. With MEND’s support, pantries can have a greater impact at the local level, and together, at the county and state level.
As MEND pantries become more effective, they attract additional volunteers who are looking for opportunities to become involved with their communities and give back. We hope that as we raise awareness of our pantries, and about hunger and those in need, we inspire more individuals in the community to support our pantries in the campaign for food justice.
Could you speak a little bit about the power of volunteering and how much of a difference volunteers make?
The power of volunteering can be immense as passions are tapped for worthy causes. What is important is to have a practical avenue for those passions so they are leveraged to the fullest. At MEND, we strive to support our pantries and our organization in ways that provide volunteers with meaningful roles. This is an ongoing effort as needs change and new ideas arise. To think a few hundred volunteers each month can serve over 100,000 in need during the course of a year is an amazing testament to the power of volunteering.
Do you have any advice for people who want to start volunteering but maybe don’t know how to go about doing so?
Ask in your community! If you start local, you may be able to tap friends and colleagues for advice. There’s nothing better than serving in the community in which you live. You’ll meet new people with similar interests and may see an entirely different side of life. Educate yourself on the cause, and who knows where it will lead. If there’s an organization or group with a mission that might fit your passion, contact them. Most organizations that could use help are really busy and don’t have resources for public relations or outreach, but they would be very happy to hear from you. As you get further involved in the world of volunteering you’ll learn of more and varied opportunities to give back. Chances are your initial experiences will be a stepping stone to finding the right fit. Then you can become an inspiration and ambassador for volunteering and help others get involved as well.
WhyHunger is proud to announce the launch of its new Find Food Texting Service that will allow more people than ever to find healthy food in their neighborhood via a simple text message! This is a national service that is critical in making food even more accessible to those in need and it eliminates the extra step of making a call. To find food all you have to do is text your zip code to 1-800-548-6479 to get an instant listing of places in your area that you can go to for food assistance.
As part of the Nourish Network for the Right to Food, the WhyHunger Hotline 1-800-5 HUNGRY (1-800-548-6479) refers people in need of emergency food assistance to food pantries, government programs and model grassroots organizations nationally that work to increase access to nutritious food and build self-reliance. Help is available by phone Monday through Friday from 9am-6pm EST and now with the new text option, information can be retrieved 24/7.
In addition, WhyHunger continues to add resources (food banks, food pantries, food access sites) to its comprehensive Find Food Database of emergency food providers from around the US with the most up-to-date information about access to healthy food and nutrition services. If you need any further assistance, don’t hesitate to call our Hotline number directly, search "find food" or send a text!
If you think this is a valuable resource as much as we do, please consider helping us spread the word by downloading and sharing Hotline flyers to your networks and on social media. Available in English and Spanish.
My name is Betty Fermin and I work at WhyHunger for the Nourish Network for the Right to Food. As part of my work I talk to people on our WhyHunger Hotline who are looking for food and manage the Nourishing Change newsletter which provides a space to share critical thoughts around the systemic change that needs to happen to end hunger and transform the emergency food system. Since I’ve started writing about how to transform the emergency food system, I have been thinking more and more about my personal connection to this work. The deeper I delve into the work I do, connecting people to food in their area nationwide and sharing information on this growing movement; the connection to what’s always happened at home is something I have begun to think about more.
Growing up, I always knew that my parents worked hard but they just did not make enough to buy food for our table. I’ve stood in line to get SNAP (formerly food stamps) with my mother many times so she could get that extra help to stretch the food budget for my mother, father, brother and I. In recent years, my mother has begun to go to a food pantry just to get some extra help. She recently told me that there hasn’t been a day in the last fifteen years when she felt like she made enough money to have a good amount of food on the table.
My parents both work in the school food system. My mother is a lunch lady at an elementary school and my father brings the food to different schools, so they are an important part of getting children fed and play an active role in our food system. But the irony is that as they help provide nutritious food to hundreds of kids, they themselves don’t make enough to feel secure or meet their basic needs. Now that I am working for an organization that is trying to end hunger, I’ve tried to share my work experiences with my mom. My mother is from Dominican Republic so I have to translate everything to Spanish to make her understand what I do, which can be a bit difficult. After one of these conversations, I decided to sit down with her to ask her some questions about her job, the emergency food system and what she thinks needs to happen for systemic change to actually occur.
I began by explaining what stigma means and asked her if she believed there’s a stigma when it comes to people seeking help from the government?
She understood stigma as discrimination and believes that it’s definitely a factor for people seeking help. She felt strongly that people need help since so many don’t make enough money to make ends meet. So even if there is the stigma there, she believes that it’s a necessary evil and it’s just a balance of knowing what’s out there and what’s good for you.
I then asked her how she felt as a person who gives food to the children and is such an important part of their day, while not having enough for her own table?
She told me that she thinks this question makes the process of seeking help seem negative. She explained that, sure it can be thought of as a negative thing, but if you need the help and it’s there then there’s no need to feel bad about looking for it and using it. That is the irony of life, that I work in food and also have to seek help for my own food. “Esa es la ironía de la vida que uno trabaja en comida y también tienes que buscar ayuda.”
She explained, “yeah and just like anything that helps people, people can take advantage and just have food piled up in their houses which isn’t good. The good thing is that places like that are considerate at least the one I go to is and if you don’t want a certain can or box you can leave it for someone else. I take what I need, not just to have it sitting in my house.”
That’s a point that made me think because while I help people just locate a food pantry in their area, the politics as to what happens inside each food pantry is particular to each place. I told her about the work that Bed-stuy Campaign Against Hunger is currently doing with their small choice pantry, in which the clients shop in a pantry that looks like a store and have a choice as to what they can take home. The healthy food tends to go first and then the cans and boxes. Often an assumption is made that people that go to these places don’t care about their health, but that isn’t really the case. While they are trying to get fed, it’s important that the food they get isn’t high sugar, high sodium and empty calories to just fill bellies but to nourish them in a way that is healthy and just.
Someone that has been fighting for change when it comes to school food is Michelle Obama and that’s something I remember my mother commenting on specifically over the last five years when it comes to how it affected her work, so I asked her, how much have you seen the school food program change since Michelle Obama instituted the healthier changes?
She told me, “There has been a lot of change! Now there are salads and many meals come with vegetables on the side such as carrots and celery. They give water and don't give sodas. It's a good change because it’s encouraging kids to drink water and just be healthier. These changes often create more work for us staff, as the food is made fresh in most cases instead of being brought from a factory where it came prepared or pre-packaged, which of course benefits these students in that they’re getting the healthiest food, so it’s not something I’m mad about. It means that there is more food with less salt and more fruits and vegetables. While the favorites like pizzas and burgers are still on the menu, us lunch ladies make them with healthier ingredients.”
I asked her, what she would want someone who has never had to worry about having enough to eat to know about what it’s like?
She explained, “I don’t really think about it because I think people also go to those places so that they have enough money for other expenses such as bills and rent. Life is expensive and when what one makes isn’t enough to get by, it’s comforting to know that pantries are there to help.” “ Es una ayuda para uno.” She said she thinks it’s important to keep talking about healthy food and to keep healthy food accessible so it is available for those that want it and not at crazy price.
I asked her if she knew about the Fight for 15 and if she thought it would create lasting change?
“The Fight for 15 is good in theory but I am worried that then everything else will go up too; rent, bills and unions will raise their dues. It’s a struggle because I’ve been working for over 15 years and worked for every raise that I’ve got. While I do make around $15 an hour, it would be pretty life changing for anyone starting off in this or any other job to start off with $15 an hour. Of course anyone that believes they should make more should fight to make more and that’s great, but I’m interested in the effects that it will have in the prices of everything else.”
Then I asked her what she thinks of my decision to work in the “anti-hunger” space?
She told me, that she feels good that I am helping people and that it’s part of my work. She said she just wishes for me to go far, farther than I even think possible.
I followed up by asking her, what gives her hope?
She said that she believes that one day there will be a nice future; one with peace and tranquility. For the world to change for the better, for there not to be hunger one day. “I think it has to come from the people. The way people think has to change so that they can effect change.”
I learned a lot about my mother from this interview. We both are very positive people and I think I get my belief from her that, while things are difficult there is still a possibility for change to occur.
I think the most eye-opening thing for anyone that is reading her story, and even for myself, is the tendency we have to think of needing food assistance as a negative thing and something someone would have to hide. There’s this shame that’s been associated with getting help from places like food pantries or from SNAP and my mother has made me realize that there’s no need for that.
I grew up not worrying about food because my parents had it covered. At least I believed they did, because they never showed any signs of worry even when they clearly were getting outside help. Having grown up using these programs, I did not ever think that people thought of them negatively until I began to work in the anti-hunger space and saw how much partners have to advocate in order to keep them around. I think that is very telling of the difference between the people working to “get rid of SNAP” and the people using these food assistance programs; the difference being that the people using it don’t think of it as leeching off the government, they genuinely need this help in order to get food for their family. It’s a needed resource. There is no other option but to use these programs and I’m grateful that my parents had that extra help and that so many others do nationwide.
These resources are a helping hand for so many people and something I am proud to help people access. While it’s difficult to build that positive narrative when even the government is constantly trying to cut SNAP and other food assistance programs, I think it’s important for stories like my mom’s to be lifted up to show just how essential they are for folks across the country.