Solving hunger issues cannot be done from the top down, says David Lee, Program Development Specialist at Feeding America. We have to listen to those in need, he urges.
“We built this amazing structure for hunger relief largely without asking people who are hungry! We won’t be successful over the long haul without the voice of those people. We need to engage our clients, not just by giving them a box of food, but by empowering them, too,” says Lee, who is speaking at the April 26 Metropolitan Area Hunger Conference. “So the question is: how do we use these services we are offering people to empower them?”
The conference brings together those invested — either professionally or socially — in eradicating hunger.
Nancy E. Roman, the Capital Area Food Bank’s new President and CEO, will open the conference with welcoming remarks, “We understand that solving hunger is intimately related to so many important social developments. If you are hungry, you cannot learn. If you are hungry, your immune system does not develop fully. If you are hungry, you have trouble holding down a job.”
The keynote speaker, Enid Borden, is the Founder, President and CEO of the National Foundation to End Senior Hunger, formerly known as the Meals On Wheels Research Foundation.
Lee continues, “We have to remind people who have day-to-day interactions with the hungry that they have immense power. The person-to-person relationship is valuable, because it reminds those in need that society has not forgotten about them,” Lee stresses, noting that we have a special responsibility to children.
“At the conference, my goal is to remind people that child hunger is important. A child who is not eating is not learning, and is not healthy. Chronic health issues and underachievement in tomorrow’s generation are things we should all be concerned with. I will be sharing national opinions on that topic. There is a real disinvestment in our future going on here,” he notes, adding his aim is to present data in a clear and articulate way.
Another of the conference speakers, Darlene Jenkins, says she is eager to meet conference attendees who provide services, “because often, in a researcher role, I don’t hear enough from the trenches. I want to learn from others.”
Jenkins works with the homeless, and says those without shelter are inextricably linked to hunger. She adds her voice to the chorus saying we should do more listening.
“People who survive the street are very resilient. Instead of looking at their needs, let’s build on their assets – what is their story? Let’s bring them along as we try to eliminate both homelessness and hunger,” says the Director of Research for National Health Care for the Homeless Council.
Speakers at the conference, sponsored by the Capital Area Food Bank, are determined to take the conversation beyond where it is now.
Pierre Vigilance, Visiting Professor for Public Health Practice at George Washington University, says we still have a long way to go in solving food insecurity.
“People still don’t ‘get’ this issue — food security,” he says with resolve and not frustration. “People don’t understand that ‘limited access’ can mean either they have limited resources in being able to purchase healthy foods or limited access because of location – no nearby stores offer a decent variety of healthy food options,” Vigilance says.
Junk food is less expensive, and that’s what allows bad eating habits to form, Vigilance says from experience. At 5’9″, he used to weigh 250 lbs. before dropping down to his current 170 lbs.
“I used to have a problem with sodas. Back then, I didn’t know something a lot of people still don’t know: when food should be used as fuel, and when it should be used as fun. In general, we have too much fun with food. I know that sounds grouchy, but it’s true. We must respect food — get what we need and not more.”
Others at the hunger conference speak for those who might not be eating a lot of junk food, but desperately need healthy food. “There are 100,000 seniors in the DC area. Some are socially isolated, many are on a fixed income and use expensive medication, all while the cost of living is increasing,” says John Thompson, Executive Director of the District of Columbia Office on Aging.
“There are many misconceptions about seniors, the most common is that if they live in a nice home, they are not cash poor. But I know many who don’t have any liquid assets and need assistance, otherwise they will go hungry,” he shares.
Discussion among advocates, providers and academics at the conference aim to help bring necessary improvements to the system.
“The goal is to increase public awareness,” Thompson says. But also, to streamline resources by bringing together church, community and government services and matching resources to the needs of the senior community.”
Aaliyah Smith-Parker, program associate at DC Hunger Solutions, will be also be a featured speaker at the conference. She will be discussing public health issues of working poor families.
With backgrounds in research, policy and public service, speakers and attendees are working towards a common goal: trying to shrink the number of hungry in the DC metro area.
“I am continually trying to work myself out of a job,” Jenkins says.