Still in the fight against poverty, hunger, powerlessness

Tony Hall is a familiar figure in this part of Ohio — a longtime Dayton congressman (from 1979 to 2002), he became nationally known as an advocate for fighting hunger, traveling to more than 100 countries to study the problem, and embarking on a 22-day fast to protest Congress’ closing of the Select Committee on Hunger, which he chaired. Hall later became the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Agencies for Food and Agriculture, based in Rome, and later took the helm at the Alliance to End Hunger ( He returned to the area a few weeks ago to speak about his time in the Peace Corps at an event organized by the Dayton International Peace Museum. Before that event, we met at the museum to catch up on his work and passions. — Ron Rollins

Q: A lot of our readers are familiar with your career until recently, mostly likely, but talk about your work now.

A: I have a new title — executive director emeritus of the Alliance to End Hunger, a non-profit organization based in Washington, D.C. Our mission is to end domestic and international hunger by the year 2030.

Q: How long has this been the case?

A: I was executive director for four years, and I've been emeritus for about six months. It just means I'm getting older. Basically, I didn't want to run the organization anymore, but still wanted to help with the work and mission. I help with our members, do a lot of speaking on the issue of hunger, both in the country and overseas, meet with members of Congress, decision-makers, that kind of stuff. I travel a bit, and I'm working on some international projects in Africa.

Q: How are domestic and international hunger different?

A: Well, we do have hunger in America, without a doubt. We have approximately 48 million hungry people here. It's not the kind of hunger that you have in many places overseas — people in America aren't dropping over dead. But in many cases there are people who, three or four days of every month, they're going to bed hungry. We have many people are malnourished — especially men, women, children, seniors. A lot of them are working poor people, who have jobs that just don't pay enough — and once they pay their rent, utility bills, daycare, pharmacy bills and the like, they run out money in the last days of the month. So they go to food banks and soup kitchens to make up the difference. A good portion of our schoolchildren in this country are getting free school lunches because they need it. We have too many hungry people in this country.

Q: Contrast that to other nations.

A: Overseas, it's much worse. On a daily basis, 25,000 people will die around the world of hunger and hunger-related diseases. Almost a billion people in the world are malnourished. A lot of children are stunted in their growth because they lack proper nutrition. So, domestic and international hunger are different, but nevertheless they do go together, and we have to work on both of them.

Q: How does that happen, in terms of policy and the work of your organization?

A: We spend a lot of time educating — trying to teach what the problem is, and the extent of it, and ways to address it. A lot of our decision-makers aren't really aware of the issue, and aren't focusing on it. There aren't a lot of people in Washington coming in to talk to decision-makers there about poor people and what they need. There aren't a lot of lobbyists talking on behalf of the poor. We try — I try — to be the voice of the voiceless, because the poor really have no voice. I spend a lot of time talking, looking for people among our decision-makers who are interested in this issue, or who can be interested in it, and who want to make a difference.

Q: What is the reception you get?

A: You know, it's good — but it is an uphill battle, and it can be extremely frustrating. It takes a while to educate somebody. I find that the best way is to take them to where the problem can be seen, and show them. You have to see it and feel it. Taste it and smell it. And when they do that, they become different people. It's like with Peace Corps volunteers, which I learned when I was one — to understand people you have to live among them and speak their language, learn how they live their lives. And then you'll be changed. You'll be a different person. That's true of so many things.

Q: Do you find that this is a partisan issue?

A: No, not at all. In fact, it's very bipartisan.

Q: I guess that surprises me, given some of the rhetoric we hear about income inequality, wages and other economic issues.

A: Yeah. I mean, I would say that the Democrats have already generally taken on this issue for many years. A lot of people would say that the Republicans couldn't care less about the issue, but in fact it would not be true. I find that many Democrats merely give lip service to the issue. And beyond that, this issue really belongs to and in some way involves everyone — governments, churches, synagogues, non-profit organizations, schools. It's a moral issue; we simply should not have the numbers of hungry people here and around the world that we have.

Q: In your discussions with leaders, do you frame it as a moral issue?

A: Yes. And it's also a faith issue. If you are a person of faith, you may find it interesting that there are 2,500 verses in the Bible that deal with hunger, in one form or another — feeding and caring for orphans, widows, the hungry, dealing with the poor. It's the second most-frequent theme in the scriptures.

Q: I didn’t know that.

A: Most people don't. Also, the third thing is that hunger is a security issue — and we should really understand this in the United States. If you don't feed people, then the enemy will. And they'll provide not only food but schooling, and tie it all together with the blame on us. A lot of recruiting of terrorists happens this way in some parts of the world where we have an interest. When people are hungry, they get mad, and they're ripe to be recruited. So hunger is a moral issue, a spiritual issue and a security issue.

Q: Which of those three ways of framing the issue resonates most with the people you talk to?

A: The one that pulls in elected officials is security. They understand that, and it's probably the biggest issue people in Congress are dealing with today. But the second part is faith. When I tell people of faith how big the issue is in the scriptures, they're flabbergasted. I've done a study of it — you can't pick up the Bible without finding some verse that deals with it. And people of faith, that really speaks to them. The moral issue is important to me, personally, but when you try to compete with all the other issues in Congress, that one can get shoved aside.

Q: Congress is a different place from when you were there. Do you ever miss it?

A: No. I find that the trust factor is not there anymore. They just don't trust one another. That's changed everything.

Q: How do you think it’s happened?

A: I think two things have contributed to it. One, they don't know each other, and have not built relationships. When I was in Congress, we used to build relationships. We knew each other, Republicans and Democrats alike. When the debate was over, we always knew it wasn't personal. We traveled together, had dinner together, played cards at each others' houses, our wives all knew each other. We had fun, we were friends. Today, Congress members live mostly in their home districts; they go up to Washington on Monday night, Tuesday morning, and go back home on Thursday night, on average, so they don't know their colleagues very well. They're not building relationships, building trust. You've got to build that trust.

The No. 2 thing that is really hurting our country is the amount of money these senators, governors and Congress members have to raise, just to keep their jobs. It’s absolutely terrible. It’s almost a form of legal corruption, and it’s plain out of hand. It’s hurting our democracy. It’s hurting us very badly.

Q: Explain.

A: They tell me that a congressman or woman who's facing a tough campaign has to spend an average of 2 1/2 hours a day raising money — just to pay for the campaign. Every day of the year. I'm told that over and over. Now, if you have to spend that much time on the phone to raise funds, you should be spending the time doing your job. Not raising money.

Q: Raising money becomes your job.

A: Right. We need public campaign financing, and we need to take the special interests out of politics. And only the voters can demand that. Those two things — lack of trust, and the need for money — are killing our democracy. And they have to change.

Q: So, talk a bit more about your earlier point that nobody lobbies on behalf of the poor.

A: They are, as I said, the voiceless part of our society. Think about the problem this way: Probably before this Congress is over, there will be about 20,000 issues, bills, amendments and new ideas introduced over the next two years. Now, each member of Congress is supposed to know what's in those bills, and you and I know that they don't. Maybe they can keep up with what's in 200, 300 of them. They have to spend a lot of time reading, understanding, listening to their aides about what's coming along — and a lot of those bills are supported and pushed by special-interest groups, who are often shouting the loudest for attention, or who are backing the congressman's campaign. Poor people, on the other hand, have no money, no campaign PACs, no clout. There are very few people in Congress who have experience being poor. The voice of the poor is just crowded out and not heard. They are the voiceless. That's what happens.

That’s why these initiatives for peace and hunger issues are so important. Reconciliations, building relationships, looking for peace heroes, making a difference in life other than through violence — these kinds of issues are so important. They’re what the Dayton International Peace Museum here is all about, it’s what the Peace Corps is all about. Unfortunately, these issues don’t tend to get a lot of play and publicity. It’s good news, and people usually want to read about violence, war and the garbage of the world. But they need to know who the peacemakers are — who the people are who are stepping out of their comfort zone for the good of others. Peace Corps volunteers, you’ll never see their names in the papers — but they’ve all done amazing things for their country. They’re amazing people.

Q: You can relate that from your own experience in the Peace Corps.

A: I can. I came from Dayton, Ohio, and not from a poor family. And I'm stationed in Thailand — which, in the 1960s, was a third-world country. I was up-country, living among the poor. It was a real culture shock. Plus, as Americans we're kind of into ourselves — when you're overseas, you have to get away from yourself. You have a job to do and it teaches you something about yourself, about life. It really changed me, and it's when my maturing process began. Later, when I was in Congress, I ended up on the Foreign Affairs Committee, and I evaluated a lot of the legislation that came past and through me based on that experience in the Peace Corps. I had learned what it was like to look at the United States, and our efforts to try to bring progress to Thailand and other countries, through the eyes of the people there. It changed my perspective. I think the Peace Corps did more for me than I did for them.

Q: Finish that thought — from your travels, how do you think the United States is regarded elsewhere in the world?

A: You know, surprisingly we are regarded very well. Just look at all the people who want to come to America to live. You do read about people who think Americans are arrogant, and there is a lot of jealousy from the fact that we're such a powerful nation. That's true. But the fact is that people around the world do like and respect us. They may not like some of our policies, but they like us as Americans. And they appreciate us — they appreciate things like the Peace Corps and the people from our country who give so much of themselves. They really do.

Q: Do you see that continuing?

A: I hope so. I think we have to be very careful. I'm a firm believer in a very strong defense, but I also think that going to war should always be the very last option. We should always do all we can to avoid conflict; we should negotiate and build relationships. I don't think we spend a lot of time on relationships — often, I think we go into a country or a situation thinking that we know we have the answer, but we don't bother to learn the language, learn the culture, or build trust. You need to build trust. If you don't, things can fall apart pretty quickly.

Q: You said earlier that your organization has 2030 as the goal date for ending hunger. How do you see that happening?

A: The United States has to play a big part. But everyone has to come into the room — the role of ending hunger doesn't just belong to the government. Everyone — businesses, corporations, churches, religious groups, universities — all need to talk together and work together. That's what the alliance tries to do, across the board. We know what to do. We don't have to invent anything new. We need new leadership. We haven't developed the political will to end hunger. We need for somebody at the top — a president, a high-ranking official — to say that before my time is over, we will end hunger in America. It can be done.

Q: Do you think that date is realistic?

A: Yes, I do. I know we can solve hunger in America. Overseas, it will take real political will. It will here, too, but it really will overseas.

Q: What other nations are helping us in this?

A: Many European nations, most Western nations, are very involved. Australia and Brazil are very involved. There's been tremendous improvement in India and China, where have the biggest populations in the world. The question just comes down to, is it an issue that is important, a priority for our leaders?

Q: Do you see any progress?

A: Oh, yes. There are many good things happening in the world today. The Millennium Development goals set by the UN about 10 years ago have done a lot of good. Poverty is actually being cut in half. The thing I said about 25,000 people dying every day? Thirty-five years ago, I would say that number was 42,000 dying each day. So it's coming down. A lot of the programs we're putting together are working.

Q: What sort of programs?

A: School feeding programs. Micro-credit programs, especially for women, where they can start their own businesses. Immunization programs. Clean water and sanitation projects. Better agricultural projects — simple things like better seeds, fertilizers, the exchange of information between agricultural experts.

Q: As you said, no need to invent something new.

A: Another very simple thing is teaching mothers to read and write. We find that if we can do that, the population growth goes down and the gross national product goes up. Mothers get educated and realize they don't have to have so many children. They own businesses, have money in their pocket for health care, and can do the things they want to do. Women are the key, especially in the poorest of nations. When you design programs to help women and empower them and get them on their own feet, it really really works. It's interesting.

Q: How does climate change factor into your work and food issues?

A: Well, it's very important. If you look at sub-Saharan Africa, desert is claiming more and more of the land, for example. A big part of what we do in Africa — our government, the UN, NGOs — is try to use agricultural techniques to reclaim the land. Reforestation is important.

Q: So, you’re here at the Peace Museum, where they celebrate the idea of “Peace Heroes.” How does it feel to be one?

A: Oh, my — I don't consider myself a peace hero. I think it's a term that's proper for other people, but not for me. I do think it's important to recognize and honor people who step out of their comfort zone to do something special for others.

Q: Then, what can people do as individuals to help with hunger?

A: I'll tell you what Mother Theresa told me: Do the thing that is right in front of you. She told me that when I was with her in Calcutta. She took me downtown to the most densely populated area, people living in such poverty, practically on top of each other, and I said to her, "Where do I even start?" I used to have the same feeling as a congressman, where to even get started to work on the problem. And she didn't say anything at first — she went to this guy lying on the street, took him home, cleaned him up and helped him. She touched and loved everybody. She whispered to me, "Not everyone comes to Calcutta, like you. Do the thing in front of you." So you ask, what is the thing that is in front of you? Some people volunteer at the Peace Museum. Some volunteer at food banks, soup kitchens. If you look at your next-door neighbor, sometimes you will somebody who is hurting — maybe a child, and nobody is paying attention to him or her. Do what is in front of you. If everyone did that, we'd all have a much better life.

Q: Final thoughts?

A: I'm reminded a lot of a great quote by Edmund Burke, "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing." A lot of people in the world are watchers. They watch. It's time to stop watching. It's time to do. Do the thing that's in front of you. If we did that, I think half of the stuff we do in government, we wouldn't need.

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