VOICES: Turning federal anti-hunger policy into local action

It’s both a challenging and exciting time to be working on anti-hunger issues. I was proud to represent the Hall Hunger Initiative as the organization’s new Assistant Director at the recent 2023 Anti-Hunger Policy Conference in Washington, D.C. After spending the past ten years focused on urban agriculture and regenerative agriculture programs, I was eager to gain a new perspective on hunger. The Anti-Hunger Policy Conference, sponsored by the Food Research & Action Center and Feeding America, was just what I needed to frame federal policy into local action.

I was deeply moved by the lived experiences shared at the conference, and heartened by the strategies offered to get to the root cause of hunger. The conference leaders paired data-driven information with diverse human stories and even included a piece on communicating hunger through art. But I felt equally disappointed at the number of persistent barriers to accessing healthy food and the stigma that surrounds hunger.

For example, we recently saw legislators supporting tighter work requirements for programs like SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Programs) in the belief that these achieve meaningful jobs for adults. Data shows this is incorrect. Adding barriers only results in more red tape for already overstretched government employees, and more people — including children — going hungry. It does not help those unemployed secure good jobs any faster, and it’s one more hurdle for those who are working to create a better life.

That stigma is a huge barrier keeping many from taking advantage of opportunities for food. We know that children pass up the opportunity for free food at school because of lunch shaming, and older folks don’t want to be seen as needing help resulting in low rates of participation despite reports of hunger in older populations. We know that one in six people in our military struggle with hunger and the stigma of asking for help hits hard with them.

When we think about hunger, we may conjure a particular image in mind.

We have created storylines around hunger and who it affects. But if we look at both the data and the lived experiences around hunger, we see that it is in fact a widespread problem. A false narrative places blame on the individual and hides the flaws in the system. It avoids getting to the root of the problem: Economic injustice. The question isn’t who is deserving of food, but why the richest nation in the world continues to have tens of millions of its citizens go hungry?

Our elected officials have a responsibility to remove structural barriers so everyone can contribute to our society and strive for personal prosperity. However, we can’t leave the effort solely in the hands of our elected officials. Each of us has a role as well. It starts with rejecting the stereotypes associated with hunger. We can do this by listening to the stories of people with lived experiences and participating in difficult but necessary conversations around equity and inclusivity. And with that knowledge we can begin promoting fact over assumption.

For those in our community who have a choice of where to shop and what to support, it’s important to remember that there are direct ways to invest in equity here in the Miami Valley. Look for locally owned businesses that pay a living wage and support local growers like Gem City Market, West Social Tap & Table and 2nd Street Market. Consider purchasing a CSA share from a local farm or joining or donating to a community garden. Eat at restaurants that support local farmers and donate food, time or money to the effort to reduce hunger.

Representing the legacy of our organizational founder, Ambassador Tony Hall, I view my role at Hall Hunger Initiative as one to advocate for the removal of barriers in our community. My biggest take away from the anti-hunger conference is this simple message — hunger is a community challenge that can only be solved by a strong community response. We have a history of innovation here in the Miami Valley and I believe we can use that spirit to come together to end hunger.

Alex Klug is Assistant Director of the Hall Hunger Initiative, a non-profit founded by Ambassador Tony Hall and dedicated to working with community partners to build a just and sustainable food system.

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