From Hungry Kid to Culinary Master

RomanColeyDavisChefToque

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

TwEAT Your Breakfast. Create awareness.

brig

It’s back-to-school time! Heading back to the classroom provides a routine for students and their parents, but it also marks the start of a busier schedule. Gone are the carefree days of summer—it’s back to homework and school events, early mornings and late evenings.

While early mornings can be especially hectic, many of us realize the importance of fueling up with breakfast each day before heading out the door. Whether we choose to eat breakfast is up to us.

But many children don’t have a choice.

In a recent national survey from Share Our Strength, more than 1,000 K-8 public school teachers expressed increasing concern about hunger in their classrooms. Seventy-three percent said they teach students who come to school hungry because there isn’t enough food at home.

A teacher from Florida who took the survey pulled one of her students aside when she noticed his continuous lack of focus in class.

“He began to cry and told me he couldn’t help it, he was just so hungry. It turns out the only meal he ate every day was his free lunch at school. His family couldn’t afford breakfast or dinner.”

In the 2010-2011 school year, more than 20 million students nationwide ate a free or reduced-price lunch at school, according to Share Our Strength.  But less than half of those students, 9.8 million, had a free or reduced-price breakfast.  In Texas, only 59.7 percent of students who ate lunch also had breakfast at school.

What accounts for the difference? There are many reasons, but research shows that one of the greatest barriers to School Breakfast participation is the stigma attached to the program. Eating breakfast at school is seen as something only the students in poverty do.

This is why alternative models to the traditional school breakfast program are so important, including the Universal Breakfast Program, Breakfast in the Classroom, and Grab n’ Go Breakfast.  And these programs are proving to be a success.  In the 2012-2013, the number of students eating school breakfast daily jumped to 13.5 percent nationwide.

But it’s still not enough. There are still millions of children in Texas and across the nation who are not starting their day with the needed nutrients. They are going throughout the school day lacking the energy and focus to tackle their studies, and it’s hurting their academic achievement—the stepping stone, in many cases, to a better future.

Help us bring awareness to the importance of breakfast by participating in our TwEAT Your Breakfast Photo Contest from September 11 to October 11. We want to see what you’re fueling up with in the mornings! Maybe it’s a yogurt parfait on-the-go, a breakfast burrito at your favorite food truck, a leftover slice of cold pizza, or a gourmet meal. Whatever’s on your plate, snap a photo and tweet it to us! (#tweatyourbreakfast @Texas_Hunger)

The contest runs for four weeks, and you can enter as many times as you want.  Four photos will be recognized each Friday (starting September 20) on our social media outlets, and of those, three photos will be specially recognized on our blog (with a mini-feature on each of our winners) at the end of the contest. But more importantly, you’ll be helping bring awareness to the importance of making breakfast accessible to all students.

Stay tuned! Along with the photo contest, we’ll be sharing breakfast facts on our social media outlets throughout the month, and posting blogs about access to breakfast for children each week.

Entering the contest is easy, and you can check out the full contest terms and conditions below. What will you TwEAT for breakfast?

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

How to enter:

1.   Use Twitter to share a photo of what you’re having for breakfast. (Let creativity rule!)

2.   Tag your post with the hashtag #tweatyourbreakfast and tweet to @Texas_Hunger.

3.   Follow the Texas Hunger Initiative on Twitter (@Texas_Hunger).

Entries will be judged on creativity by the Texas Hunger Initiative’s communications team.  Four photos will be highlighted on our social media outlets each Friday. Of those photos highlighted, three will be chosen for special recognition on our blog at the end of the contest period.

TwEAT Your Breakfast Photo Contest Terms and Conditions

By entering the TwEAT Your Breakfast Photo Contest, participants agree to the Terms and Conditions listed below.

1.     The contest is open to any individual 13 years of age or older at the time of entry.

2.     The contest begins on September 11, 2013, and ends on October 11, 2013.

3.     Contestants may submit any number of photos, so long as each is different in nature and of their own composition.

4.     Entries must be viewable to the public and tagged with the contest hashtag (#tweatyourbreakfast). They must also be tweeted to (@Texas_Hunger).

5.     Contestants must be Texas Hunger Initiative Twitter (@Texas_Hunger) followers.

6.     Each week, four photos will be chosen to be highlighted on the Texas Hunger Initiative’s social media outlets. After the contest ends, three photos will be chosen, which will be featured on the Texas Hunger Initiative’s WordPress blog.

7.     The owners of the three photos chosen will be contacted via Twitter for a brief interview to accompany their winning photo on the blog.

8.     Winners agree to have his/her entry featured on http://www.texashunger.org and THI’s other social media outlets (including but not limited to Twitter, Facebook & our WordPress blog) and used for either educational or promotional purposes in the future.

9.     Contest is not sponsored or associated with Twitter. Contestants agree to all Twitter terms of service.

 

 

 

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

253572_541081119268750_1037426611_n

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

7298386718_211869dce0_z

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

7369279712_643c6d1714_z

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

Another Reason To Hate Monday

We’ve all had awful cafeteria experiences during our childhood. Irving ISD located outside of Dallas, Texas, is changing this less-than-stellar reputation by revamping how they serve food to their students. More importantly, they address the growing issue of children coming to school hungry and recognize that a hungry child cannot learn.

March 4-8 was National School Breakfast Week. Of the more than 2.3 million Texas students who received a free or reduced-price lunch at school in 2011-2012, only 59.7% participated in the school breakfast program. Why is this gap occurring? Breakfast has proven to be incredibly beneficial in the classroom. It increases classroom participation and test scores and decreases the number of school nurse visits and tardiness, to name a few positives.

The day for the cafeteria staff at Irving ISD begins before many of us get out of bed. One particular morning, the Texas Hunger Initiative (THI) was observing a kindergarten class, and the whole process was incredibly seamless. Michael Rosenberger, director of Food and Nutrition for Irving ISD, informed us that this is possible due to the incredible logistical work that the entire staff puts into the program. The lens from which they craft their Breakfast in the Classroom program is designed to benefit the students the best way they can in order to promote a “community of learners.”

20121212_070440

Amy Griesemer, a Cafeteria Supervisor for Irving ISD showed us a behind the scenes look into their school cafeteria where we were able to sample some lunch menu items. The salads were recently revamped to be as fresh and look as appealing as possible. As a result, they have seen an increase in children eating salads by over 400%. The kitchen was redesigned so that the students could see the food being prepared, making the process more interactive and educational. The food was nothing like I had ever eaten in a school cafeteria; it was tasty, balanced and healthy.

School cafeteria guidelines have changed to include new nutritional requirements. Students are now required to consume higher quantities of fruits and vegetables in their diet. However, many school administrators feel that although schools should do their best to make fresh fruits and vegetables available, offering food students don’t want to eat results in more food thrown away. THI believes the solution requires a two-fold approach. The choices students make at home ultimately influence the choices they make in the cafeteria. On our visit we were pleased to see that a vast majority of the kids were eating all of the food on their plate. Another issue is that some schools simply don’t have the capacity to store additional fruits and vegetables in their cafeteria. Schools that were built decades ago have limited freezer and refrigeration space and little room for expansion.

Texas has one of the highest child poverty rates in the nation, one in four children in Texas are going hungry each day. Unfortunately for some, school is the only guaranteed meal these children receive during the week. In the Dallas ISD area, children were coming to school literally starving after weekends. On Monday mornings they would eat as much as they could…so much they would throw up. “Throw-up Mondays” became a term tossed around the school’s administration.

We can’t go on like this. The first step in solving a problem is recognizing that there is one. Irving ISD didn’t need to reinvent the wheel; instead, they used resources already in place to help solve a growing problem. We can learn from their example and by doing so help to reduce the number of hungry kids we have in our school district.

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

Resources
Texas School Breakfast Report Card 2012
Texas Hunger Initiative