Jen Chapin Keynote Address at the Feeding America Western Region Food Bank Conference

Singer-songwriter and WhyHunger Board Member Jen Chapin delivered a poignant keynote address at the Feeding America Western Region Food Bank Conference in 2011. Read her remarks and listen to Jen perform.

Keynote Address by Jen Chapin
Feeding America Western Region Food Bank Conference, October 2011

I am honored and humbled to be here with you who serve on the front lines. Already I’ve heard about many amazing programs and innovations that you all have initiated in the face of mounting challenges. I have much to learn. What can I possibly offer to this gathering? I was advised by my friend and fellow WhyHunger Board member Jan Poppendieck to be myself. So here goes.

I grew up with hunger. Not that I was ever deprived of nutritious food, or lived in a family that was “food insecure,” as the euphemism goes. No, rather I was raised as the child of two hunger-fighting activists in a home where the issue was never far from our minds. My mother Sandy Chapin is an educator, activist, and poet, who while raising 5 children, has always been involved in one community effort or another for the arts, civil rights, peace and justice. My father Harry was a performing songwriter who used his public profile and indomitable energy to raise awareness, money and political will for a variety of progressive causes. They were united in the belief that individuals and small committed groups of people can make an impact in improving their communities, and both saw hunger as the fundamental issue of our time.

In the 70s, I was a little girl, and we were all learning. My dad dove into books by the experts, coming to understand that (as our mentor Frances Moore Lappé wrote): hunger was not caused by a scarcity of food but rather by a scarcity of democracy. Harry effectively lobbied for the creation of a Commission on World Hunger under President Carter and, with that group of legislators and citizens, learned more—and started pressing for action. In 1975, after a series of in-depth conversations with his friend Bill Ayres, they started WHY (World Hunger Year). My mother was a guiding force, constantly asked the probing questions of what does and does not make sense in this world, and pointing toward innovative solutions. My older sister Jaime spent her 16th summer working in a hospital for malnourished kids in Haiti, and studied issues of Latin American poverty and development in college. My older brother Jono studied alternative energy and toured the east coast on his bike, stopping to work at organic farms from Maine to Georgia.

My dad died in 1981, but by the time I was in high school, hunger-fighting heroes like Frankie Lappé and Larry Brown were as well known to me as pop stars, benefits were as regular as soccer games, and questioning the utility of trade vs. aid or domestic farm subsidies were part of my adolescent wonderings.

Hunger was one thing – though intellectually understood, it was still an abstraction, even as conditions in America brought it increasingly closer to home. Food was another. After-school friends would complain about the lack of sweet and salty snack options in our fridge, but we had plenty. Yet real food was also abstract in its way. My dad was in and out at all hours and ate accordingly. He would spout statistics about nutrition, pesticides, and industrial agriculture, make quips about the high plastic content of junk food, and then wolf down a greasy sandwich or sugared snack cake. For my mom, with 5 kids, two constantly-ringing phone lines and multiple manic schedules, food was definitely more about necessity than carefully-selected ingredients, gourmet cooking or settled family time. She would affectionately quote her own father saying, of his own lack of interest in food: “I eat to live, I don’t live to eat.” She took this as her own mantra, paying homage to Calvinist roots and the tacit warning that too much attention to food would be a decadent waste of time and effort. So while in the world we paid attention to how food acted as the commodity of life, death and justice, at home we treated it with that uniquely American mix of ambivalence, guilt, convenience and often, wastefulness.

>> Keeping reading: download Jen’s full remarks here. (PDF)

Listen to the songs Jen performed:

Feed Your Baby Music Video 
Passive People live from TEDxManhattan 2014
Let it Show Music Video


Updated 8/2014