Hunger is a Racial Justice Issue: Why That Matters and What We Can Do About It
The second installment of the Conversations on Food Justice Series – a collaboration with Food & Society at the Aspen Institute and Share Our Strength – focused on hunger as a racial equity issue.
Maine Congresswoman Chellie Pingree moderated the event, which featured Dr. John B. King Jr., the president and CEO of the Education Trust and former secretary of education, and former Maryland Congresswoman Donna Edwards.
Here are five key takeaways from the conversation:
We Must Make Systemic Change to Solve Hunger
Both King and Congresswoman Edwards drew a direct line between slavery, Jim Crow and the disproportionate rates of hunger among people of color today. They argued that transformational change needs to happen at the government level, as they see many federal and programs as designed to actually keep people from accessing them through.
Congresswoman Edwards shared her experience being unable to receive help in a moment of economic hardship because she worked full time. Congresswoman Pingree talked about some states failing to effectively implement the Pandemic EBT Program – which offered temporary emergency nutritional funds loaded on EBT cards for children who normally receive free or reduced-price lunches in school.
They offered ideas for practical solutions like extra EBT assistance in the summer similar to Pandemic-EBT, universal school lunches for kids, and encouraging leaders to listen to families.
King noted that it’s going to take all of us to achieve lasting change. “We have to move from performative wokeness to policy wokeness,” he said, asking people to go beyond putting a Black Lives Matter sign on the yard and encouraging them to vote for equitable policies.
Stigmatization Causes Hunger
Former Congresswoman Edwards shared her own personal story about receiving food assistance in the past, and the shame that came with it. “I would come home from my job, take off my suit that I had to wear to work, put on jeans and a t-shirt and a baseball cap and go around to different food banks in order to avoid just being seen.”
The story highlighted how we need to move past demonizing people who need help. The ongoing pandemic has increased the number of people collecting meals at food distribution centers, and for many it is the first time doing it.
“Let’s change the narrative on how we think about them. Think of them, not as individuals who need help, because we’ve all needed help in one form or another,” Elliot Gaskins, a managing director at Share Our Strength concluded. “Let’s think of them as the resilient, determined and extraordinary individuals that they are.”
Healthy Food is Essential for Ending Hunger
Pingree noted that we must move past people just getting enough calories and, instead, think about the ability to access healthy food.
They explored the historical origins of unhealthy eating and its connection to slave diets and federal policymakers choosing not to focus on healthy foods. “The irony is we think that that’s somehow saving us money, but actually, if you look at the health consequences, it’s costing us money,” King argued.
But too many low-income families live in food deserts where there are simply no supermarkets with fresh produce and foods nearby, making healthy food all but impossible to find.
Hunger Doesn’t Stop in College
Congresswoman Edwards emphasized that many college students are not hungry because they are trying to save money for a concert. Many experience economic hardship,and of those that do, 20% are parents.”. With the cost of college increasing, and assistance like Pell grants covering only 28% of the overall costs, too many college students are turning to food banks or simply going hungry.
Calling for policies to protect these students, King noted the negative educational impacts, saying, “Think about how hard it is to be focused when you are desperately hungry. Or how much of your mental energy, if you’re a parent, is going into thinking about how I am going to get food for my kids?”
We Can’t Forget 2020
2020 has been a year that has exposed inequities and pushed us to have advance serious conversations about systemic racism and the steps to fight it. The speakers expressed that we cannot turn the page.
“My fear is that 2020 has been such a bad year that all of us want to put it in the rear view mirror, but we really can’t afford to do that when it comes to hunger,” said Congresswoman Edwards.
Please join us in the fight against systemic racism to ensure that all children and families have the food they need to thrive and the opportunity to pursue their aspirations.