Three questions with … Tony Hall, hunger warrior

‘One morning I saw 25 children die from hunger’

In the fight against hunger, Tony Hall’s moral authority is regarded by many as close to absolute.

The former Dayton congressman and U.S. ambassador has talked the talk, and more importantly, walked the walk. He walked a refugee camp in Ethiopia one day in 1984 and watched dozens of children die before noon. That experience, he said, changed him forever.

Hall, 73, served in the House from 1979 to 2002. After he left Congress, he was as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Agencies for Food and Agriculture until 2006.

Longtime Hall watchers didn’t miss that, along the way, fighting hunger became a chief concern. The Democrat had served as chairman of the House Select Committee on Hunger for four years. When the committee was abolished in 1993, Hall fasted for 22 days in protest.

It was a statement that won national attention.

Now executive director emeritus of the Washington, D.C.-based Alliance to End Hunger, Hall saw a recent Dayton Daily News story that reported research that found Dayton to be the “fourth hungriest” city in America, in terms of food hardship. Hall asked a friend to look into the finding — and what he learned alarmed him.

He came to Dayton last week to announce he will open an office to help unite and support efforts to make food more available.

Backed by longtime friend and former chief of staff Rick Carne — today managing partner for consulting firm Strategic Health Care — Hall is taking the first steps, looking for space and hiring staff.

Readers have asked how they may contact the new office. Hall and Carne ask for patience as they build from the ground up.

I recently spoke with Hall over the phone. This is edited and condensed.

Q: We’re hearing from readers who want to help out. Is there a first step they might take?

Hall: “We don’t have an office and a phone number yet. I’m saying we should have that within two or three weeks, with a location. We should all of that, but we don’t have that yet. We’re trying to finalize that.

“We want to be sure that we’re going with the right people. We’re looking at a different choices. We’re trying to decide where we’re going to land. We haven’t decided yet. But we should know in about two or three weeks. …

“We have to raise some money. We’re talking to a foundation. We feel pretty good that we’re going to get some help.”

Q: Dayton has food pantries and agencies already dedicated to fight hunger. What should people expect? You’re not promising miracles. How will your effort be different?

Hall: “This is a long-term project. It took us a long time to get here, and it will take us a long time to get out. We have a lot of work to do, and we’re going to be methodical, and we’re just going to try to fill in the gaps where the gaps are and work will all the good programs that are already here.

Residents “seem to be very excited. Some of my old friends and people I haven’t seen and talked to in a long time have emailed me and texted me. It’s kind of neat. I think they think I’m moving back to the city for good. And I have said, I haven’t decided whether I’m moving back, but I am coming back, for darn sure.”

Q: This cause seems to have animated you your whole career. Why? What inspired you?

Hall: “I think my heart was touched probably when I was in the Peace Corps many years ago. I was in the country of Thailand, in the late 60s, and I lived among the poor. I had never experienced poverty, never had seen it until that time. And I think living in it, and living in a different culture, speaking a different language — pretty much living like they did — kind of woke me up. It kind of matured me right away.

“That was the first thing. I developed a heart for it. And a little of an understanding.

“And then I think the thing that really stunned me was another time. In 1984, when I was in Ethiopia — and one morning I saw 25 children die from hunger. As I was walking among these people who had been escaping from a civil war which turned into a famine, the mothers were looking up to me as they were trying to take care of their children. I guess they thought I was a doctor, and they were handing me their children, thinking I could bring them back to life.

“And they were dead. And it just stunned me. I was overwhelmed by it.”

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