Living a Lifestyle of Service: 14 Ways You Can Fight Hunger in 2014

Martin Luther King Jr.

Last Monday, Jan. 20, the nation observed Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. For some, it was a day off from work or school. But for others, it was a chance to give back to their communities, as part of the MLK Day of Service. Volunteer organizations, churches, universities and other groups gathered to work on projects both large and small. Some of THI’s AmeriCorps VISTAs participated in activities around the state, from pulling weeds and painting piers, to clearing lots and harvesting crops.

Since 1994, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day has been the only federal holiday observed as a national day of service, referred to as “a day on, not a day off.”

Dr. King believed in a country where everyone could experience freedom and justice, and he sought this goal through nonviolence. He once said, “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is: ‘What are you doing for others?’” In that spirit of service, MLK Day has become a way to honor his memory while also strengthening communities.

But what if we took it a step further? What if, rather than just participating in a day of service, we participated in a lifestyle of service?

What if “what are you doing for others?” became a question we asked ourselves each morning—something we strived to answer each day?

Often there’s something holding us back from incorporating service into our daily lives. We wonder how much we have to give—how much money we have to donate, or how much time we’ll need to volunteer. We wonder if our individual efforts will really make much of a difference. We think that the small acts of service won’t make a dent in the fight against huge issues like poverty and hunger.

But if we shifted our focus from ourselves to others, we would find that those small efforts could collectively lead to a significant impact.

14 Ways You Can Fight Hunger in 2014

Here are 14 doable ways you can get involved in the fight against hunger in 2014. Whether you have an afternoon, an hour, or just a few minutes, there’s something you can do to make a difference.

1.  Educate yourself on how hunger impacts the United States. There are many great resources out there to help you learn more.  See how hunger affects your area by using Feeding America’s Map the Meal Gap. Another interesting interactive map from the New York Times illustrates poverty numbers based on census data. Here are two books that do a good job illustrating hunger and poverty in the United States: “All You Can Eat: How Hungry is America?” by Joel Berg, and “The Working Poor: Invisible in America” by David K. Shipler. Prefer to watch a documentary? We recommend “A Place at the Table.”

2. Share what you’ve learned with your family,  coworkers and community. Use one of the books listed above, or another book focused on poverty and hunger, for your book club. Have friends over for a movie night and watch “A Place at the Table.” Collaborate with other organizations and groups to host a speaker to talk more about hunger in the community. Submit an appearance request form if you would like someone from our organization to speak at your event.

3. Join a hunger coalition in your area. These groups bring together people from all walks of life whom are committed to reducing hunger in their communities. They collaborate with local pantries and food banks, businesses, congregations, food producers, anti-hunger organizations and more to provide food security. Here are the links for some of these organizations in:  DallasLubbock, San Antonio, San Angelo, and Waco.

4.  Host a food drive for your local food bank or food pantry. Before you begin, be sure to contact your local food bank or pantry to see what is needed most. And while donations are important, funds go a long way as well. They can be used to purchase fresh produce, milk, eggs, and other perishable items. You can also start a food drive virtually, through this tool from Feeding America.

5. Volunteer at a homeless shelter, food bank or pantry. Organizations like these provide relief to individuals and families struggling to put meals on the table. These organizations rely on volunteers to help them provide food to the community. There are opportunities for individuals and groups. You could give an hour or two once a week, or plan an afternoon service activity for a group. Find an organization in your area and search their website to find ways you can help.

6. Help with a Cooking Matters class. This program, organized by Share Our Strength teaches individuals and families how to prepare healthy meals on a budget. There are opportunities for cooking and nutrition instructors, and also for those willing to grocery shop and manage classrooms. Visit Cooking Matters to learn more and find classes in your area.

7. Volunteer with an urban (or rural) gardening organization. These organizations partner with various organizations in the community to plant gardens to strengthen the local food system, improve access to nutritious food and empower individuals to grow food. Some of these organizations help start gardens in local schools, educating children about healthy eating and providing them with produce to take home to their families.

8. Find volunteer opportunities that match your skills and interests, including tasks that can be completed virtually. Two great sites to start your search are hungervolunter.org and volunteermatch.org. You could translate promotional material into Spanish, help an organization maintain its website or design a flyer for an upcoming event. There are opportunities for many skill sets and ways to get involved without ever leaving your home.

9. Sign up for training to be a Navigator for the Community Partner Program. The Health and Human Services Commission’s Community Partner Program recruits nonprofits, congregations, and other organizations to be sites where food-insecure families can learn what federal  assistance they may be eligible to receive. Volunteers can go through a training session to become a Navigator and walk individuals through the paperwork. Contact one of our regional offices to learn more about the Community Partner Program in your area or visit www. texascommunitypartnerprogram.com.

10. Advocate for a hunger-free community. Become more aware of legislation around hunger and educate others. The Hunger Warriors served as  advocates against childhood hunger. This third-grade class, led by their teacher Rachael Brunson, learned about the issue, created various projects, and ended their semester of service learning by rallying at the Capitol.  If you are a teacher, principal or administrator, service-learning projects can be a great way to advocate for this important issue. Learn best practice tips from this guide, published by Youth Service America and the Sodexo Foundation. Another way to advocate is to take the No Kid Hungry pledge to show your support in the fight against childhood hunger.

11. Donate funds to an organization working to end hunger. It doesn’t have to be a large amount of money—small amounts can make a difference. If your budget is a concern, consider one of these ideas: Request for your birthday that friends and family give to the organization of your choice. Forgo eating out or your daily caffeine fix and donate what you would normally spend. Or choose to donate a small amount each month for a year.

12. Share your story. Have you experienced hunger at some point in your life? Personal stories are a powerful way to show the affects of hunger, and they also can help inspire action. We are actively searching for stories and would love to talk with you. You can also write a guest blog post, and we can work with you through the editing process. Contact us at txhungerinitiative@gmail.com for more information.

13. Connect with anti-hunger organizations through social media. Social media can be a great way to stay informed about the issue and learn about ways to get involved, and discover conferences, webinars and other trainings. Find out about easy ways you can show support, like Dine Out for No Kid Hungry, where a portion of sales at certain restaurants go toward fighting childhood hunger. You can also interact with organizations on social media by liking, commenting and sharing. It can go a long way in spreading the word. Some good organizations to follow include: No Kid Hungry, Feeding America, the Food Research and Action Center, and Bread for the World.

14. Serve a year-long or summer term as an AmeriCorps VISTA.  If you really want to immerse yourself in the fight against food insecurity, AmeriCorps VISTA positions may be a perfect fit for you. You’ll be doing valuable work  for an organization while gaining useful skills. You will earn a monthly stipend, and are eligible to receive an education award (for loans/college tuition) or a cash stipend at the end of your term. We offer VISTA positions each year. Check out our website to learn more about year-long and summer VISTA positions.

This list is by no means exhaustive, but we hope it inspires you to think of ways you can get involved and make 2014 your first year of service on behalf of the hungry in our nation. May we all work toward living a life of service.

Post by: Ashley Yeaman, Social Media & Communications Coordinator, The Texas Hunger Initiative

Hunger Games: When the Odds Are Not in Your Favor

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The Thanksgiving holiday weekend is focused on spending time with family and friends—over the dinner table, racing through the mall for the best deals, or, as recent numbers reveal, at the box office. This year was Thanksgiving’s biggest weekend to date, with Liongate’s The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, taking the top prize. The film brought in $110.2 million from Wednesday to Saturday. (forbes.com)

Catching Fire picks up where the Hunger Games left off.  Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark have emerged victorious from the Hunger Games, marking the first time two individuals have left the game arena with their lives. They begin their tour of the Capitol and the 12 districts of Panem, a country formed in the ruins of what was once North America.

As the tour continues, resistance begins to form among the Districts against the controlling Capitol, and Katniss emerges as a symbol of defiance against the current system.

Before Katniss volunteered to compete in the Hunger Games, she struggled to provide for her mother and sister in District 12. She spent her days hunting and gathering, and haggling for items the family needs. But despite her best efforts, there were nights when she and her family would go to bed unable to ignore the hollow ache of hunger. There is a clear divide between the wealthy Capitol and the struggling poor in the outlying districts.

To add to their plight, the Capitol hosts the Hunger Games each year, requiring a male and female from each district, age 12-18, to participate in a fight to the death on national television. “May the odds be ever in your favor,” is echoed again and again—it’s the ultimate statement of irony. Seemingly, the selection and rules are fair; everyone has a chance for their name to be drawn, and each district is represented. But the game itself is grossly unjust.

America is certainly no Panem, but there is a different type of “hunger games” taking place in this country. More than 50 million Americans—one in every six people in this nation— are food insecure, struggling to put meals on the table. Many are working jobs at minimum wage. They take odd jobs for extra cash. But there’s still not enough money to cover basic needs.. Tough decisions have to be made, such as paying for electricity one month or paying for food. Governmental assistance and charities help cover some of the gaps. But as families and individuals start to get back on their feet, the aid is often taken away prematurely, and the struggles return.

Poverty is a vicious cycle. Too often food insecure families are doing everything right, but despite their best efforts they cannot break free. (See A Place at the Table for some poignant examples).  It’s a concept that goes directly against the fabled American Dream: if you work hard enough, you can support yourself, your family, and have everything you want.

Supposedly, the odds are in everyone’s favor to achieve the American Dream. It’s about pulling yourself up by your bootstraps in tough times, working diligently to achieve your goals. Put in enough work, and your dreams can be reached.  Things won’t be handed to you on a silver platter. You have to earn it.

It’s these ideals that cause many Americans to associate poverty with laziness. But what if, despite your best efforts, the odds simply aren’t in your favor to achieve success? What if the rules are fair, but the game itself isn’t?

I had a chance to explore some of these questions when I played a game of Monopoly as part of an exercise with some co-workers. The rules were the same as the classic game, but one small change made all the difference in the odds of winning.

Playing a game you cannot win

Shamethia Webb, the Waco Regional Director for the Texas Hunger Initiative, brought out the Monopoly board after reading about the game experiment in a journal article from Multicultural Education.

“Originally, the activity was imagined as a cultural competence lesson, a way to help teachers think and talk about race and privilege,” Webb said.  “It was also meant to interrogate one’s understanding of meritocracy and the long held belief that anyone can triumph over poverty by merely “pulling themselves up by their bootstraps.”

Webb thought the activity would be good for her staff as they work toward “creating solutions to hunger and poverty.”

The rules were the same as in the original Monopoly game, with each player receiving the same amount of money. But the players began the game at different, staggered times. Webb served as the banker and observer.

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I started first, along with another player. I had my choice of playing pieces, and on each turn, I was able to purchase properties. After a few rounds, I was able to put houses on many of those properties. But as the two of us played back and forth, I couldn’t help but feel bad for the others on the sidelines watching, unable to take part.

After about 20 minutes, the third player jumped into the game. She bought a few properties, but her opportunities were more limited because a majority of the spaces had been purchased. She often had to stop and pay one of us rent—fun for us, because it brought us closer to winning, but not so fun for her. She soon lost the bulk of her paper money, and it was clear she was becoming frustrated.

Another 15 minutes in and the final player began. By this time, practically every spot was taken. Most had houses, and a few had hotels on them. The player lacked motivation and soon lost most of her money. She eventually landed in the jail space, but at least she didn’t have to pay rent, incurring debt from the bank.

I didn’t win the game, but my co-worker who also started in the first round did. The group that begins the game first always produces the winner, according to the article. The other groups never really have a chance.

“It’s interesting to witness how helpless some of the players feel, how hopeless,” Webb observed. “They are less motivated than their peers who began the game before they did and who were able to accumulate an enviable amount of capital and money.”

Relating games to reality

In our capitalist culture, success is measured in terms of how much stuff we accumulate over a lifetime, and how our position in society rises. It’s why the capitalist model of the Monopoly game works so well to illustrate, not so much how poverty works, but how poverty feels.

“I think the game reminds us how difficult it can be for an individual or a family to overcome cumulative disadvantages like financial poverty,” Webb reflected. “We can play the game and perhaps understand why some people would opt to ‘go to jail’ or quit the game altogether rather than continue to compete in a game they know they will lose.”

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The reality is, while the American dream in theory is equal, disadvantages can keep individuals and families from rising up out of poverty and achieving success, even if they work hard.  And while assistance helps, it isn’t necessarily the ultimate answer to poverty.

“I hope the game highlights the fact that social equity requires more than just access to capital or an invitation to a starting line,” Webb suggested. “It requires a restructuring, an undoing.”

It will take time to eradicate hunger and poverty in our nation. But seeking to understand the complex challenges of poverty is the first step.

Can anyone be a winner in our society’s version of the game of life? Maybe it’s time to take a step back and evaluate the game, so that everyone has a chance to win. May we all work toward making the odds in everyone’s favor.

Post and photos by:  Ashley Yeaman, Social Media & Communications Coordinator, The Texas Hunger Initiative

From the Conference Table Back Out to Our Communities

Melissa interacting with peopleTogether at the Table: Hunger Summit at Baylor University brought together anti-hunger advocates from across Texas and around the country on October 24-25, providing an opportunity to pause to assess the current state of hunger in our nation and to share and explore ways we can end it. Summit speakers and participants reflected on the successes that have been made toward ending hunger, while also looking ahead to the work that still needs to be done. It was a time to recharge and refocus on one unifying goal: to eradicate hunger in our nation in our day and time.

Among the many nuggets of expertise shared by the Summit’s esteemed presenters, a few shared themes continued surface throughout our time together, and we wanted to share of few of those here with our readers in hopes that you remain encouraged in your work to fight food insecurity in your schools, neighborhoods, cities and communities.

Hunger is a solvable problem—if we work together.

Sometimes we need to be reminded that the task before us can actually be accomplished.

“We do not have to live with hunger in this nation.” Joel Berg, executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger, said. Berg encouraged Summit participants to view hunger as a solvable problem when working together. Hunger can be wiped out if the government and organizations on the ground truly work together to tackle the issue, he emphasized.

The need to continue building anti-hunger collaboration across sectors was a sentiment reflected throughout the Summit.

“With all of us being partners, how can we fail?” Audrey Rowe, administrator of the Food and Nutrition Service of the USDA, rallied Summit participants.

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Of course, progress takes time, and the work is challenging. We, as part of the anti-hunger community, must focus not on how our organizations differ but on the shared vision to end food insecurity in our nation. We must keep our attention trained on the people we are seeking to serve and support.

Hunger is a symptom of a greater problem—poverty.

Participants at the Summit were left inspired and informed, but also with a charge to look at hunger as part of the larger issue of poverty in America. Many of those considered food insecure are doing all they can to better their financial situation. But often, the desire to be self-sufficient is not enough when complications outside of their control come their way. Many are struggling to take any jobs they can, often with little pay, just to make ends meet. But these “non-standard work hours and low pay are a recipe for food insecurity,” Dr. Mariana Chilton, director of the Center for Hunger-Free Communities and associate professor at Drexel University’s School of Public Health, said.

Individuals who are financially insecure know they need education to improve their lives, but the cost of that education would plunge them into greater debt. Although they may not wish to, many rely on government benefits, such as SNAP, WIC, and cash welfare out of necessity.

Many want to break the cycle of poverty. They want off of SNAP benefits. They want off of welfare, off of housing subsidies. They want a better, more self-sufficient life for themselves and their kids. However, there are complications to breaking the cycle of poverty. Often, when families work to earn more, they lose benefits that they still need in order to get back on their feet.

“What happens when families are doing what they’re supposed to do—earn more money to get off the system? Prompted families earn a little bit more, and they lose their SNAP benefits, their children are actually more likely to be in poor health and experience hunger. It’s kind of counterintuitive,” Dr. Chilton said.

“It’s time to shift the discussion surrounding hunger in this nation,” Audrey Rowe added. “The conversation shouldn’t be about SNAP. It should be about minimum wage and poverty.”

The power of personal stories: changing the “narrative of hunger”

At the heart of the issue and the statistics surrounding hunger are real people and real families. It’s the stories of their struggles that paint the most accurate, raw picture of hunger in America. These stories have power to create change. Celia Cole, CEO of the Texas Food Bank Network, said during her breakout session that TFBN would be implementing a story bank in the coming months and years. Dr. Chilton told us of the women of Witnesses to Hunger, who tell their stories directly to the media and legislators.

“When the women get together, they are a force—a force to be reckoned with. They are pure power. They are greater than the sum of their parts,” Dr. Chilton said.

Dr. Mariana Chilton

But the anti-hunger community needs to do more than listen and broadcast these stories. Those experiencing hunger likewise need a place at the table. We need to engage and partner with them.

“We need to change the narrative of hunger,” Kathy Underhill, executive director of Hunger Free Colorado, said.”

To change the narrative, it’s going to take innovative strategies and risks. We must be willing to innovate and put ideas into action. “I think you get to decide what Texas will look like,” Underhill said.

It’s time to change the story of hunger and poverty in our state and in our nation, but we must work together to transform the narrative.

Trading knowledge leads to best practices (and more success) in fighting hunger.

To best serve those in need, we must discover the strategies and practices that have been proven to work well. Our hope is that the Summit continues to serve as a think-tank atmosphere for the anti-hunger community, bringing together individuals, nonprofits, corporations and government offices that are all tackling the issue of hunger in different ways and from different angles.

This year, the Summit offered eight different tracks on a variety of topics, including public policy, research & data, childhood hunger, health & nutrition, and more. Participants had a chance to explore the issue of hunger and how to address it from an assortment of professional perspectives.

“There was incredible energy in those rooms,” Keven Vicknair, vice president of Strategic Thought at CitySquare, said. “At least for us, it was a catalyst event that could lead to many new ventures.”

Thank you to all of the dedicated anti-hunger and anti-poverty advocates who attended and/or presented at this year’s Together at the Table: Hunger Summit. We, at the Texas Hunger Initiative, are encouraged by your commitment to a common goal for the common good. Here’s to making huge strides of progress together in the coming year!

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Written by: Ashley Yeaman & Christina Farjardo, Communications Coordinator and Communications Intern, Texas Hunger Initiative

Photos by: Baylor University Copyright © 2013 (Melissa Rogers and Audrey Rowe) & Christina Fajardo, Communications Intern, Texas Hunger Iniaitive (Dr. Mariana Chilton)

Hunger in the Classroom

kids eating in classroom

A third grader sits at his classroom desk, tears streaming down his face. He isn’t paying attention to the lesson. “What’s wrong?” his teacher asks with concern. “My stomach hurts,” he replies.

The same scenario plays out the next morning, and the morning after that. His teacher, Shelly Lyles, begins to put the pieces together. “Did you eat today?” she asks.

“Well, no…” he says.

Hunger is a “huge distraction” in the classroom

Lyles has taught third grade at Fairfield Elementary School in Fairfield, Texas, for nine years. She still remembers that little boy distinctly, even though it has been years since he was in her class.

“He would never say, ‘I’m hungry.’ He’d say, ‘My stomach hurts.’ It was heartbreaking,” she said.

When it comes to childhood hunger, teachers and school administrators are on the front lines. Sometimes, the hunger is easy to spot, but often, it is difficult to see. It takes perceptive teachers. Of course, academic struggles can often be a red flag for hunger in the classroom.

“When children are hungry, they really can’t think of anything else. They can’t focus. They can’t pay attention. It just really affects their learning,” Lyles said. “They don’t have the best learning environment when they’re hungry.”

Research backs these observations. Children experiencing hunger are more likely to be hyperactive, absent and tardy, in addition to having behavioral and attention problems, compared with other children.[1] They have lower math scores, and are more likely to have to repeat a grade.[2] And these struggles continue from elementary school into junior high and high school. Teens experiencing hunger are more likely to be suspended from school and have difficulties working with other students. [3]

Jon Coker has been in education for eleven years. He taught for nine years before transitioning into an administrative role. This is his second year as assistant principal at Connally Junior High School, located in central McLennan County.

“I’ve taught in large, urban schools, small, rural schools, and suburban schools, and [hunger] is all the same.” Coker said.  “When they’re hungry, they’re distracted in the classroom, and they’re not ready to work. It’s a huge distraction.”

Hunger in the classroom isn’t a new problem in our country. But in a land of abundance, childhood hunger is unacceptable.

Identifying and confronting hunger in schools

Judy Weeden’s career in education spans more than three decades, as both a teacher and an administrator. In the last three years prior to retiring, she served as a principal. Thirty-two of her years in education were spent at China Spring Elementary School, in China Spring, Texas.

Weeden said that sometimes, especially in her early years in China Spring, she “just wasn’t as aware of how many kids didn’t have food as [she] should have been.”  Later in her career, she noticed that many kids weren’t having lunch.

“I remember at least one occasion, where a child was crying in the cafeteria. I went up to him, and I asked what was wrong. He said he was hungry, and I asked if he had a lunch today. He opened his lunch box and there was nothing in his lunch—nothing. He just took his lunch kit so people wouldn’t know he didn’t have a lunch.”

“I was just so upset. I asked him, ‘Will you eat a lunch if I get if for you?,’ and he said ‘yes.’ So I went up to the cafeteria lady and said, ‘Just charge it to my account.’ I just wanted to make sure this child had a lunch.”

Weeden provided lunches to kids on several occasions, making sure not to make a big deal of it. “It wasn’t very often, but it did happen enough that I knew there were some kids that didn’t have enough.”

Lyles also worked to close the gap when she noticed children in her class who were hungry, particularly the little boy who frequently complained of “stomach aches.”

“I would bring snacks, something like peanut butter crackers or a banana or a pop tart—just a little something to hold him over,” Lyles said.

Lyles said the boy would often hoard what he was given and also steal food from other students.

“If he went to the bathroom, he would get into other people’s lockers and steal their food. It’s hard, because they have to be punished when they do that, but it’s understandable when they’re hungry.”

Weeden suggests that behavioral issues and academic struggles have many causes, and often it’s not easy to pinpoint hunger as the source.

“Frankly, it’s a difficult problem. Sometimes kids just aren’t paying attention simply because they’d rather not be there—they’re tired. Sometimes they just didn’t take the time to eat early in the morning. It’s difficult to know where to draw the line. So you kind of have to dig deeper. It’s just not obvious,” she said.

In many cases, it takes becoming more aware of what’s going on in kids’ lives outside of school to get to the heart of the issue.

Fighting hunger through innovative programs

Free and reduced price breakfasts and lunches have helped tackle hunger and the negative side effects that go with it, but barriers still exist, and among them is the stigma of being “the poor kid.”

Programs like Universal School Breakfast and Breakfast in the Classroom, among others, reduce the stigma while increasing breakfast participation rates.

This year, Connally Junior High is offering Universal School Breakfast to its students for the first time. “Everyone gets [breakfast] now. There is still some stigma with lunch, because it’s obvious who has to pay versus who just goes through the line,” Coker said. “But the Universal program has done some to help alleviate that [at breakfast].”

Coker shared that he has also noticed a difference in punctuality and attendance.

“Before the program was implemented [students who struggle to afford meals at school] knew they couldn’t buy breakfast, so they were just straggling in. But now that they can get a breakfast here, I see more kids coming to school on time, either riding the bus or their parents dropping them off,” Coker said.

“Not having breakfast gets the day started off on the wrong foot. Getting to sit down and eat is a switch,” Coker said. “It signals ‘okay, we’re fixing to start school.’ It becomes a routine, and junior high kids really thrive on routine.”

Giving hungry children a chance to thrive

Eating can really make a difference in children’s performance at school, improving their academic performance, attendance, and behavior. These are the facts that are currently cited in studies and articles. Beyond just these numbers, it can also help a kid have a chance at a happier childhood.

Once the boy with “stomach aches” had his needs met with school meals and other outside assistance, he “became a regular kid,” Lyles said.

“When the fear of not having food was taken care of, his focus was then on school work. He made friends. Before, all he wanted to do was get something to eat. He wasn’t able to focus. He wasn’t able to carry on a conversation,” Lyles recalled. “But once that was taken care of and his physical needs were met, then he was able to move on to developing social relationships and to be able to do his work.”

Teachers and administrators don’t want their students to just survive but to thrive. Their job is to help students reach their fullest potential, and hunger stands in the way of that goal.

“Even if you weren’t concerned about how well they performed in school, you have to be compassionate about the fact that they were hungry,” Weeden said. “You want them to be taken care of like your own kids. They are your kids when you have them in your classroom.”

We at the Texas Hunger Initiative are thankful for the many caring teachers, like Jon Coker, Shelly Lyles and Judy Weeden, who have and continue to creatively confront and overcome hunger in the classroom.

For more information on what schools in your area can do to combat hunger in the classroom, take a look at pages six and seven of the Texas School Breakfast Guide.

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Written by: Ashley Yeaman, Social Media & Communications Coordinator, The Texas Hunger Initiative

Photo by: Lance Cheung, USDA

[1] Murphy JM, Wehler CA, Pagano ME, Little M, Kleinman RF, Jellinek MS. “Relationship Between Hunger and Psychosocial Functioning in Low-Income American Children.” Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry 1998; 37: 163-170

[2] Alaimo K, Olson CM, Frongillo EA Jr. “Food Insufficiency and American School-Aged Children’s Cognitive, Academic and Psychosocial Development.” Pediatrics 2001; 108(1):44-53.

[3] Alaimo K, “Food Insufficiency.” 46. (See Footnote Above)

Purple Ties at Breakfast

Something interesting took place in Texas this past 83rd Legislative Session. Freshmen lawmakers started a tradition known as “Purple Thursdays,” wearing purple ties as a symbol of bipartisanship. Color choice for a necktie might seem like an insignificant subtlety, but the message was incredibly powerful. The ties were a symbol and reminder of their determination to work together — something that Washington has failed to accomplish. It didn’t take long before it wasn’t just the freshmen donning purple, and others were joining in.

I saw firsthand the goal of purple ties come to fruition when the governor signed Senate Bill 376. According to the Food Research Action Center (FRAC), one in four households with children are considered food insecure in the nation. This holds true in Texas, which has one of the highest child poverty rates (27.4%) in the country. Food insecurity is the term used to describe a situation where one or more individuals in a household do not know when or where their next meal will come from at one or more points during the year.

Senate Bill 376 would ensure that schools with 80 percent or more students eligible for a free or reduced-price meal must offer free breakfast to all students. Since the School Breakfast Program is federally funded, it won’t cost school districts or the state any additional money. The children from families with incomes at or below 130 percent of the federal poverty level are eligible for free meals, and those from families with incomes between 130 percent and 185 percent of the poverty level[1] are charged no more than 30 cents per meal. Simply put, this means that hungry children in Texas have access to the fuel they need to start a successful school day.

When we let children go hungry in the morning, we aren’t empowering them to reach their full potential. Evidence suggests that children without breakfast show a lack of participation in school, behavioral problems and decreased academic performance. Eating a healthy breakfast can lead to a more nutritionally complete diet, higher in nutrients, vitamins and minerals. Additionally it can improve concentration and performance in the classroom. Individuals that regularly eat breakfast have more strength and endurance to engage in physical activity and lower cholesterol levels.

This summer I traveled down to Austin to see firsthand how the political process in Texas works. Jeremy Everett, director of the Texas Hunger Initiative, and Anne Olson, formerly a public policy specialist at the Christian Life Commission, testified in favor of S.B. 376. Committee members from both parties listened intently as Jeremy and Anne presented their testimonies and proposed that the bill wasn’t about partisanship, but about hungry children in our communities. It was stories like those of a fourth grade student who took extra food from the cafeteria home so his brothers would have something to eat over the weekend that moved members of the committee. Although statistics and numbers are essential for effective public policy, sometimes it takes the true story of a hungry child to put things in perspective.

I began to realize that our presence at the hearing made all the difference; we were a part of the conversation. Jason Sabo a non-profit lobbyist in Texas, is quoted with saying, “If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.” And he’s right. By not showing up to support the ideas you believe in, you’ve given a reason to be ignored.

Think about the purple ties and the breakfast bill the next time you are feeling cynical about government, especially during the current shutdown. Skepticism is warranted, but there is no place for cynicism in bettering our state and country. With our world getting smaller and inequality at an all time high, we can no longer turn a blind eye to these issues. We need to keep thinking outside the box; the act could be as simple as wearing a purple tie.

The Texas Hunger Initiative is a nonpartisan organization housed within Baylor University’s School of Social Work. Our model for ending hunger in the state is research oriented and requires a level of creative cooperation and collaboration that transcends partisanship. Raising healthy children whose basic needs are met and laying a foundation on which they can build successful lives is society’s most important responsibility.

The Texas Hunger Initiative has launched a social media campaign to boost awareness regarding the importance of reducing the stigma around free and reduce priced meals in schools, particularly breakfast. By snapping a picture of your breakfast and tagging @Texas_Hunger using the hashtag #tweatyourbreakfast on Facebook or Twitter you can contribute to this effort. For more information, visit our blog.

Written by: Tariq Thowfeek, Public Affairs & Communications Specialist, Texas Hunger Initiative

Photo courtesy of: The Texas Tribune


[1] The 2013 poverty level, set by the U.S Department of Health and Human Services is $23,550 for a four-person household.

From Hungry Kid to Culinary Master

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Chef Roman Coley Davis

When we think of hunger, images of developing nations often come to mind—high numbers of deaths from starvation and children with distended bellies. But hunger is also rampant in America. It’s just harder to see, an invisible epidemic. It manifests itself in many ways: the child whose focus wavers in class because he hasn’t eaten all day, or the family who doesn’t know where their next meal will come from, torn between buying groceries or paying the rent. Your friends, your coworkers and strangers you pass on the street could be experiencing hunger. But you wouldn’t know it just by appearances.

Roman Coley Davis grew up struggling with hunger in rural Georgia, but you would never know it if you saw him today. At 27, he’s a former combat veteran and graduate of Le Cordon Bleu, with a degree in classical French culinary arts. He has worked in one of Georgia’s most celebrated fine dining establishments, Bacchanalia, as a chef lead, and he has served as a consultant for numerous restaurants. Today, Roman is a national chef advocate for Share Our Strength’s No Kid Hungry campaign, participating in the Great American Bake Sale, Taste of the Nation events in multiple cities, Dine Outs and more. He is also a certified culinarian by the American Culinary Foundation.

But even with a sparkling culinary resume, Roman was quiet about his personal experience of struggling with hunger for years, he said, “too embarrassed to breathe a word of it to anybody.”  While studying at Le Cordon Bleu in 2010, one of his chef instructors, Lori Flynn, encouraged him to apply for a Cutting Edge Scholarship to attend the Conference of Leaders. The event is hosted by Share Our Strength in Washington, D.C., and brings together leaders from the anti-hunger field, including corporate leaders, political leaders, chefs, local and national activists and more.

Roman won a scholarship and attended with Flynn, not knowing what to expect. During a plenary session, the speaker began talking about summer meals and summer feeding sites. They spoke about how cafeteria ladies, bus drivers and community leaders were taking meals to isolated local communities that were food deserts. They distributed these meals to make up for the lack of free breakfast and lunch received during the school year. It was a happy success story, but it triggered memories for Roman, and something in him broke.

“I just broke down in tears. I’m in the middle of this session, sitting in the front row, front and center, wearing a starched white chef coat, and cameras are all around us. And I just broke down,” Roman said. “And that was when I first told my story.”

Roman’s story began in Douglas, Ga., where he lived with his mother, father and younger brother, Dusty, until he was in the first grade. His parents’ relationship ended in divorce, and the family of four became a family of three, with Roman’s mother struggling to make ends meet. Without a place to go after the divorce, the family moved in with Roman’s grandmother in Denton, Ga. His grandmother survived off of a meager pension from her late husband, who had served in the Navy during the Korean War.

Roman’s mother worked as much as she could at her job at Elixir Industries, a steel manufacturing plant in Douglas. “Any hours she could get she would work—overtime, nights, weekends, anything. But she realized rather quickly that it wasn’t enough. We had lost everything [in the divorce]. We had moved counties. We had to change schools. And the money disappeared rather quickly, having to recuperate quickly, and support two children, clothing them, and the task of feeding us,” Roman said.  They relied on federal food programs, including WIC and SNAP (then food stamps). But often, it wouldn’t be enough.

Roman with his young brother, Dusty, and mother, Regina.

Roman with his young brother, Dusty, and mother, Regina.

Roman’s mother worked at her full-time job while also taking classes at the local community college. She also worked odd jobs trying to make ends meet, like picking peanuts from the vine for a local farmer, making a dollar or two a bushel.

Her children learned to be resourceful as well as they grew up, planting a garden to supplement what they purchased with food stamps. They would also hunt deer and hogs, and they raised chickens.

In the summer, they relied on a nearby summer feeding site to supplement the free breakfast and lunch they would receive at school, which helped some.

For the school year, Roman’s mom counted on knowing that her two boys were getting breakfast and lunch at school. They qualified for free meals because they were below the poverty line. But frequently, they weren’t receiving them, for the same reason many kids go without those meals today: the stigma of being poor.

“I was too embarrassed to walk past all the kids who had their fast food meals or breakfast from home to be the poor kid that went to the cafeteria to eat the free breakfast. I would be starving, but lunch would roll around, and it was the same song. Lunch would be even more crowded than breakfast, and I would often skip the meal rather than have to wait in line and be the poor kid who didn’t have to pay. Our days began at 6:00 a.m. and ended when we got home around 4:30 p.m.,” Roman said. “I would not have eaten a single bite of food unless it was something that a teacher had provided to the class. This went on from second grade through my high school years.”

While the hunger didn’t keep him from doing well in school, it did make focusing during class difficult. “There were times when my stomach would just be growling so much,” Roman said. “That’s all you could focus on. It would drown out the voice of the teacher almost. It was so overwhelming, a gnawing sensation—distraction doesn’t do it justice.”

Roman kept this feeling a secret from almost everyone. His friends and classmates sat next to him each day, not realizing he was hungry. “Obviously I wasn’t dressed in designer clothes, the best of the best, like a lot of the popular kids were. I’ve got a crazy sense of humor though, and that took me a long way. But humor doesn’t cover up hunger, and a smile can only hide hunger for so long,” Roman said.

In high school, Roman found he could confide in his French teacher. “When he realized how dire the situation was, my teacher would bring an extra sandwich from home [for me].” Knowing that Roman would not have financial support from his family, his teacher encouraged him to look into the military. In 2004, he shipped out to basic training.

Roman during a tour of duty in Afghanistan.

Roman during a tour of duty in Afghanistan.

Roman served all over the world—Ireland, Germany, Turkey—but Afghanistan was his major combat deployment. He served as a counter-intelligence agent, specializing in foreign languages. He planned on getting a French degree when his term was up and becoming a French professor. But everything changed when he sustained injuries and contracted a food-borne illness while on duty. He was shipped back to the United States for treatment and began a long road to recovery.  He was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and a traumatic brain injury from the multiple blasts he was involved in. “I had to relearn how to talk, a lot of my motor skills, being able to walk and grab things. I had trouble knowing where I was. I even had trouble remembering how to get dressed.”

While overcoming these challenges, Roman’s injuries required him to be honorably discharged, and after his recovery, he couldn’t see himself sitting in a traditional classroom at a university. So he found a new mission to pursue: culinary school. He was accepted, and soon discovered his talent and passion for cooking. He was taught under Chef Lori Flynn, who connected him with No Kid Hungry. “They heard my story, and I was approached and asked if I’d be willing share it. And I did. We published a series of articles online about the struggles I’d faced and how my life came full-circle, and how I traded my military beret for my chef’s toque.”

Today, Roman commits all of his time to the No Kid Hungry campaign. “I’ve been blessed with talents in the kitchen and with a voice that can be heard and that people pay attention to, and it took me awhile to realize it and recognize it, but I’ve been given the blessing of a story, a testimonial if you will. Maybe I can be the change I wish to see in the world, and maybe it happens just one person at a time. I think that’s farther reaching than any million dollar [event] or fundraising dinner. It’s the ability to really connect.”

Roman during his audition for Hell's Kitchen, at an open casting session in Dallas, Tx.

Roman during his audition for Hell’s Kitchen, at an open casting session in Dallas, Texas.

Exciting things are in store for Roman. He was recently contacted by a casting associate from “Hell’s Kitchen,” a popular reality TV show that puts chefs to the test in weekly competitions. It hasn’t been revealed whether or not he will be in the cast for the upcoming season. But if he is chosen, Roman is well aware of the potential awareness it could bring to No Kid Hungry and hunger in America.

“I think that our problem [in solving hunger] is awareness and access to these kids. If I can take what was a negative and trying period of time in my family’s life, and share that story to where it benefits others—if one kid is fed throughout his or her experience in school, and able to get a fresh start each day with a full stomach, throughout the summers and the academic semesters, and make their way through high school and college—if one kid is affected by me being able to share my story, then that’s worth it all.”

We highlight Roman’s story as part of our four-week breakfast awareness campaign, TwEAT Your Breakfast. Every child deserves access to a nutritious start to the day. Though many schools are implementing innovative programs, barriers still exist. Raise awareness and #tweatyourbreakfast to @Texas_Hunger through Oct. 11. (See this blog for more information.)

Written by: Ashley Yeaman, Social Media & Communications Coordinator, The Texas Hunger Initiative

Photos courtesy of: Roman Coley Davis

Making food a human right

From A Place at the Table: Barbie Izquierdo and her children prepare a meal together in their family home.

From A Place at the Table: Barbie Izquierdo and her children prepare a meal together in their family home.

Nearly all of the 178 seats in the screening room at Baylor’s Mayborn Museum Complex were filled on the afternoon of June 10th as community leaders and interested citizens gathered to watch A Place at the Table, a new documentary film directed by Kristi Jacobson and Lori Silverbush—makers of Food, Inc.  It examines the problem of food insecurity in the United States, and the inherent paradox that 50 million Americans regularly go hungry even though the U.S. produces and imports more than enough food to prevent hunger.  The event also featured a panel discussion with Cheryl Pooler, a social worker and homeless liaison for Waco ISD, Dr. Gaynor Yancey, professor at the Baylor School of Social Work, and Matt Hess, executive director of World Hunger Relief, Inc.  Shamethia Webb, the regional director for the Texas Hunger Initiative – Waco office, moderated.

A Place at the Table shows the daily lives of families suffering from hunger.  Barbie lives in Philadelphia with two young children, one of whom suffers from developmental difficulties due to malnutrition. She struggles to provide enough for them to eat on her part-time pay and has been forced to put off attending college because she cannot manage without this meager wage.  In Collbran, Colorado, fifth-grader Rosie lives in a three-generation home where she and her siblings sleep on the floor of a combination pantry/laundry room and depend on her teacher and the local church to provide her family with enough to eat.  In rural Mississippi, Tremonica, age eight, is obese because her mother only has access to low-quality processed food, as the nearest market selling fresh produce is over 60 miles away.

Interspersed within the stories was a narrative just as outrageous as the hunger these people were experiencing—that of a catastrophically broken food economy.  As noted in the film, the expansion of federal nutrition and anti-poverty programs in the mid-1970s nearly succeeded in eliminating domestic food insecurity.  By 1980, however, changes in agricultural policy—specifically changes in farm subsidy payments—created a radical shift in the flow of tax benefits to farms.  The government began diverting billions of dollars in crop subsidies to companies that grew ingredients for processed foods, which in turn resulted in a steep decline in prices for these nutritionally inferior yet readily available products.  In the meantime, the loss of subsidies for growers of less-profitable fruits and vegetables caused prices to increase.  The trend continues in the Farm Bill currently being debated in Congress, with a majority of subsidies going to corporate producers of feed crops and processed food ingredients like high-fructose corn syrup, wheat, and sugar.

At the same time that food policy was changing, Congress began large cuts to the social safety net.  Millions of households were dropped from government assistance and had to struggle even harder to avoid going hungry while the national attitude towards the poor became increasingly hostile and the stigma of being on government assistance grew increasingly negative.

Indeed, it seems that the greatest barrier to re-examining and re-implementing anti-poverty and anti-hunger policies is the assumption that poverty is necessarily a result of moral failure.  Whenever the issue of expanding the social safety net is brought up, two rebuttals are often employed: cost* and the anxiety that someone might get assistance that we don’t think they deserve.

The myth that people can comfortably sponge off of public assistance was given a stark debunking in the film: the average SNAP benefit is around $4.25 per person per day.  Rep. Jim McGovern of Massachusetts shared his story of taking the SNAP Challenge—an initiative begun by the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) that asks elected officials to live on the average allotment families receive in SNAP benefits; in just one week he found himself struggling to function on the pittance of calories that $4.25 per day can buy.  Add to this the stress of having school-age children and working physically demanding jobs, and you have a recipe for malnutrition and failing health.  And yes, these people are working: according to a USDA report, in 2009 85% of food-insecure households had a working adult (this does not account for households where all members are retired or disabled).

But can’t private charity solve the problem?  A Place at the Table shows how unrealistic this expectation is.  While community groups and religious centers have an important role to play, they lack the resources and infrastructure to meet widespread need.  Since 1980, the U.S. has gone from having 400 food pantries to 40,000 yet this expansion has failed to slow the growth of food insecurity.  These organizations often struggle to maintain resources and volunteers sufficient to combat hunger in their communities.  The film introduces us to a pastor in Collbran, Colorado who drives out of town twice a week to get four pallets of groceries from the food bank (as much as his trailer will carry), which is given to needy families in the area, and it still isn’t enough.  Local charitable action is essential, but charitable institutions will be fully able to meet the high level of need when in collaboration with generously-funded federal nutrition programs.

So why does a nation as wealthy as ours, that produces as much food as we do, continue to put forward policies that subvert programs like SNAP that are known to be effective?  The problem is two-fold: ideology and empathy.  We are in love with the myth of the self-made man or woman.  We praise those who succeed in spite of circumstance, and when we find such a person we take him or her as a rule rather than an exception.  In truth, such people are exceptions.  But this devotion to a meritocratic ideal is a defense mechanism used to protect us from the unpleasant truth: “There but for the grace of God, go I.”  We assume our own innocence and refuse our neighbors the same courtesy.  We use phantoms like the “welfare queen”—an archetype without a name or a face—to avoid being affected by the reality of human suffering.  We want to believe the worst about the poor and the hungry because the only thing that stands between them and us is luck; the world does not automatically reward hard work and responsibility like a cosmic vending machine.  We are afraid to acknowledge that but for a minor change in circumstance, we could be the person working endlessly to provide for our families and have nothing to show for it but an empty larder and a bare table.

This is why events like this screening are so important: they force us to put a face to the symbols, to stop talking about abstract ideas and instead talk about people with names and families and stories.  And they let us know that we have the power to change how our food industry works.  About a hundred and fifty people in Waco allowed themselves to be affected by the stories of Barbie, Rosie, Tremonica, and others.  Policy-makers like Jim McGovern and all those who have taken the SNAP Challenge allowed themselves to be affected.  And they will take those stories with them into their neighborhoods and workplaces and the chambers of Congress, more aware than ever that, as CBS correspondent Charles Kuralt said in the 1968 documentary Hunger in America that once spurred us to put an end to food insecurity, “The most basic human need must become a human right.”

* The cost argument fails, as SNAP has been shown to be an economic stimulus.  An independent study by Moody’s Analytics found that every dollar of SNAP benefits spent generates $1.73 in GDP growth.

Written by: Chris Rhoton, Child Hunger Program Specialist, Texas Hunger Initiative

Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

An Exciting Week for THI: Legislation Moves Forward, Kids’ Voices are Heard

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Children from Elsa England Elementary in Round Rock and Travis Heights Elementary in Austin were able to meet Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr. shortly after the Breakfast Bill passed the Texas House of Representatives.

It has been an exciting week for the Texas Hunger Initiative. Last Thursday, Senate Bill 376, the “Breakfast Bill,” passed the Texas House of Representatives and now moves forward to the governor’s office. And yesterday, House Bill 749 passed through the Senate Committee on Government Organization with a unanimous vote. In this bill, it is proposed that the Texas Hunger Initiative and the Texas Department of Agriculture would work together on a five-year plan to increase participation in summer food programs.

It really is history in the making.  These two bills have the potential to feed hundreds of thousands of hungry children throughout the state.

Children from Elsa England Elementary in Round Rock and Travis Heights Elementary in Austin witnessed history unfold last week with the announcement of SB 376 passing the House, as they stood on the steps of the State Capitol for their Rally Against Childhood Hunger.

Funded by the Sodexo grant, Elsa England Elementary third-graders have been tackling childhood hunger all year, raising funds, giving presentations to younger students, and even writing persuasive letters to President Obama.

For their teacher and primary organizer of the project, Rachael Brunson, childhood hunger is an issue that hits close to home.

“There were many, many days when I did not have enough to eat,” Brunson said in an interview with TV station KXAN in Austin. “When you don’t have enough to eat, you find it hard to concentrate on anything except where you’re going to get your next meal.”

Childhood hunger is a huge problem in Texas today, affecting one in four Texas children, according to a study from Feeding America.

Ricky, a student at Travis Heights Elementary, brings a face to these statistics.

“I myself have suffered from hunger,” he said during the rally, standing on top of a crate to reach the microphone. “It affected my grades and I went all the time not knowing where my next meal would come from. I don’t want any other kids to suffer like I did.”

Because of stories like Ricky’s, childhood hunger became the issue the students rallied around.  Elsa England students partnered with students from Travis Heights Elementary to prepare for their rally at the Capitol, months before the event. They rehearsed chants, brainstormed T-shirt designs, and created colorful posters and banners.

Students came to the Capitol ready for their rally, armed with chants like “Kids should never be famished!” and posters urging the public to “Get involved now!”

Speakers included Jeremy Everett, director of the Texas Hunger Initiative, Joanna Linden, CDO of Capitol Area Food Bank, and Dr. Jesús H. Chávez, superintendent of Round Rock ISD.

Linden said her work puts her directly in the front lines of hungry children, and shows her how crucial the issue is in Texas.

“I get to see many different faces of hunger every single day, and as a mom of two daughters of my own, the thing that disturbs me the most is the face of a hungry child. Two out of every five of our clients are kids,” Linden said. “Food is the fuel for children to learn and develop every single day. Hunger limits a child’s potential and their opportunity to grow.”

Linden was inspired by the enthusiasm of the students, teachers and all involved in the rally.

“They inspire the work that we do to make sure that kids are fed. Through partnerships, through people getting together, we truly are able to make a difference,” Linden said.

After the Breakfast Bill passed, Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr. spoke to the students on how crucial the legislation will be for children across Texas.

“Studies over and over again have indicated to us that if a child eats a nutritious meal, then he or she will learn more, and that’s what we want,” Lucio, Jr. said. “You will be our leaders of tomorrow, and we want you to be healthy. We want a healthy workforce, healthy families, and we want all of you to lead us in the right direction—our state, our country, our world.”

Round Rock Superintendent Chávez hopes the rally, and the hunger project, will have long-term impact on students.

“It shows them the difference that they individually can make, and the power of a group and working together,” he said.

For Daniel, a student at Elsa England Elementary, the project and rally have made him more aware of issues affecting children in his community and around the world.

“I’ve loved everything we’ve done. I knew it would make me a better person, because it’s a big problem that I’m solving,” he said.

Daniel has plans to work in a career where he can continue the fight against hunger when he grows up, in a “place where there’s a lot of hungry kids.”

But let’s hope he doesn’t have to do so. Let’s hope that our work, the work of similar organizations, and Texas legislation can wipe hunger off the map, so students like Daniel can live in a state where childhood hunger doesn’t exist.

Written by: Ashley Yeaman, Social Media & Communications Coordinator, Texas Hunger Initiative

Photo by: Charis Dietz, Director of Communications, Texas Hunger Initiative

The Christian Church’s role in fighting hunger and poverty: Jim Wallis speaks at Baylor

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Which issues should the Christian church be focused on today? What questions should modern Christians be asking? Currently, abortion and homosexuality have been at the forefront of theological discussion and media attention. While these issues are important, in can be argued something crucial is being left off the agenda. How should the Church approach social justice issues, including poverty, hunger and immigration in America? Why aren’t these issues a regular part of Christian discussion? Jim Wallis, CEO of Sojourners and a spiritual advisor to President Barack Obama, recently spoke at Baylor University on Christianity’s role in dealing with social justice issues.

Wallis spoke at Baylor’s chapel service on Monday, April 22. Afterward, he led a discussion over lunch with students who will be attending the upcoming Baylor mission trip to Washington D.C. This trip will focus on hunger in America.

Wallis suggests that many are disenchanted by the direction the Church is headed.

“What’s the fastest growing religious affiliation in the country? ‘None of the above’ [i.e. the choice on a survey form]. What’s interesting is most of the none of the above’s believe in God. They don’t like what they see about religion,” Wallis said.

Wallis felt much the same way during the Civil Rights Movement when he was 14 years old. Having been a part of the evangelical church his entire life in Detroit, he started asking questions about what he was seeing around him. “Why do we live the way we do in one neighborhood,” he would ask, “when life seems different just a few miles—a few blocks—down the road?”

“I heard there were black churches. We never visited them or had a black preacher come talk to us. And I heard these stories about people who were hungry, unemployed, in jail,” Wallis said. “I [was] watching my city being torn apart by racial segregation, tension, anger, hatred, violence. It was coming apart.”

His pastor’s response did little to bring resolution: “Jim, something you have to understand: Christianity has nothing to do with racism. That’s political, and our faith is personal.”

“That’s when I left my church, dead in my heart,” Wallis said. “Here was a thing that was pricking my heart hard. What’s happening to my city? This was ripping my heart apart and then they said your faith has nothing to do with that.  So as a young person, I said, ‘Well, I want nothing to do with the faith.’ ”

Wallis joined the Civil Rights Movement shortly thereafter and, with time, he rediscovered his faith. “I realize now that my church and many other white churches missed the most important moral issue of my time growing up: race in America, the Civil Rights Movement. They missed it. They just entirely missed it. That’s why people check none of the above,” Wallis said.

Will the modern Church miss the social justice issues that are affecting our society today?

Wallis argues, based on what is presented in the Bible, that these issues should be just as much a theological concern as they are a political concern. Wallis referred to Matthew 25: 35-40, which reads:

“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me. Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’”

“How we treat [people in need] is how we treat Christ,” Wallis said. “And that’s converting [Christians]. It’s changing our minds and our hearts . . . . This is changing churches, and you know what? I think this could change Washington D.C., which is amazing to say, because this town doesn’t change for anything.”

God, Wallis said, has called Christians to be defenders of the poor, the hungry, and others in need, and that is why social justice should be a central issue in Christian churches today.

“It’s going to take going deeper into these issues and not getting caught up in the political right and left,” Wallis said.

Once the Church becomes unified around these issues and brings them to the forefront of discussion, real change could take place in America.

Wallis left the group with a challenge.

“I always say, Here’s how you recognize a member of Congress: they’re the ones walking around with their fingers in the air. And they lick their finger to see which way the wind’s blowing. You don’t change a nation by changing what that one, wet-finger politician [believes]. You change a nation only when you change the wind.”

Let us be that wind of change.

Written by: Ashley Yeaman, Communications Coordinator, Texas Hunger Initiative

Photo by: Melissa Roy, Creative Commons

All eyes on Texas

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Recently a dream was realized for Texas Hunger Initiative’s founder and director, Jeremy Everett, as new employees came together at the central Office in Waco for an orientation to prepare them to tackle hunger at the local level. What was once a one-man organization has grown to close to 100 employees positioned across the state.

It is an unprecedented expansion spanning from Amarillo in the north to McAllen in the south, with a total of 12 regional offices. In fewer than five years since its founding as a grassroots movement, The Texas Hunger Initiative has extended its reach into cities state wide, working not only for communities in need, but directly alongside of them. It is an innovative strategy, connecting people at the local, state and national levels in order to get food on the tables of those who need it most.

Each of the regional offices will operate a food planning association in their community, bringing community leaders, food bank and food pantry representatives and—perhaps most importantly—those living in hunger together to access local food systems. They identify the resources available to them and the gaps that are keeping all community members from being food secure. While the size of the task at hand may seem daunting, each regional office, led by a regional director, has a team of staff members to help them face the challenge. Child hunger outreach specialists target hungry children through programs such as school breakfasts and summer meals. AmeriCorps VISTAs (Volunteers in Service to America) work to establish relationships and bring the community to the table to discuss the issues at hand, as well as establish partnerships. Others lead different sectors of food outreach, from healthy meals to senior adult campaigns.

THI’s orientation brought these teams together in person for the first time—a diverse group with a broad range of experience and areas of expertise, including a former food bank director, a public policy advocate, a public relations professional and even a mathematician. A common cause had united a room full of people who otherwise may have never met. There was excitement for the task ahead, and some nervousness, understandably. This was a big move—many were relocating to different cities.

It is a big move for THI, as well, with great potential impact. Duke Storen, Director of Partner Impact at Share Our Strength, spoke at the orientation, saying that “all eyes are on Texas,” and the work being done here to end hunger. The models and strategies put in place here, if shown to be successful, could one day be replicated throughout the United States.

In the first full group session at THI’s orientation, Everett discussed the civil rights movement, and how those from that time are defined by what they did or did not do to help. Today, he says, that defining moment is poverty and hunger. The direction THI and Texas takes could define future approaches in other states to ending hunger and poverty. It’s with a great sense of responsibility that we acknowledge: all eyes are on us.

Written by: Ashley Yeaman, Communications Coordinator, Texas Hunger Initiative

Photo by: Stuart Seeger, Creative Commons