By Thomas Blount
If I had to name just one thing I’ve learned during my time as an intern with the Food Research & Action Center (FRAC), it’s that hunger isn’t always visible and it affects people whom you may not expect.
Since beginning my internship with the communications department in January 2017, I have learned a lot about the role media relations, public policy and advocacy play in increasing awareness about the issue of hunger and the solutions that exist to end it. Yes, hunger in this country is solvable, so there should be no excuses. Take the federally funded nutrition programs, for instance. These include school meals, afterschool and summer meals, child care meals, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps). All of these programs help ensure people – including children, seniors, people with disabilities, veterans, and others – get the nutrition they need for their health and well-being.
One of my biggest “a-ha” moments of my internship happened at the FRAC annual benefit dinner, where I heard Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA), and senior television executive Sherry Brennan talk about their personal struggles with hunger, and how SNAP helped them stay afloat during difficult times. I would have never guessed that these highly successful women ever struggled with hunger, and its root cause, poverty. It got me thinking, who else has struggled and if it weren’t for SNAP and other assistance would they be where they are now? Soon after, I learned that some of my colleagues, and even celebrities, have benefited from SNAP or other federal nutrition programs at some point in their lives.
All of these stories illustrate that, while often hidden, hunger is very much a reality, and that no corner of the country is immune to it. Right here in Fairfax County, one of the wealthiest counties in the nation where the average household income is over $100,000, more than 47,000 people rely on SNAP to make ends meet and put food on the table for themselves and their families.
In our school system, over 20 percent of Fairfax County students receive free or reduced-price meals during the school year. For too many youth, however, summer is a time of hunger. Families often struggle to fill the nutrition gap created when their children no longer have access to school meals. The county does a good job of opening up community centers and schools as meal sites to low-income students during the summer months (free of charge) but that doesn’t mean every hungry child is getting the nutrition they need. In Virginia, out of the 408,566 students who received free or reduced-price lunch during the 2015-2016 school year, only 16 percent continued to receive the same meals during the summer.
As part of my internship, I also have had the opportunity to be involved in coordinated media advocacy efforts surrounding school meals. For example, I worked on the recent push to end school lunch shaming practices, such as stamping a child’s hand with the words ‘I need lunch money,’ when they have unpaid school meal debts. As a result of sustained advocacy and media outreach, online momentum, and the expertise of FRAC staff and its state partners, legislation across the country is being introduced to end this practice. For instance, New Mexico’s landmark anti-lunch shaming legislation passed in March of this year, and has inspired similar bills in other states, such as California, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Texas.
I also have had the opportunity to be part of some fantastic events. At the 2017 National Anti-Hunger Policy Conference, co-hosted by FRAC and Feeding America, I interacted with some of the more than 1,300 anti-hunger advocates from all over the country. From participating in dialogues on racial justice and food insecurity to getting tips from experts on messaging to Members of Congress, the conference highlighted for me the important role of anti-hunger and anti-poverty advocates in ensuring that the strong federal nutrition programs need to be made even stronger to ensure the most vulnerable among us have the tools they need for their health and also to help lift them out of poverty.
The biggest takeaway has been the inspiration that comes from working with people who are incredibly knowledgeable and passionate about what they do. The commitment of FRAC staff to the organization’s mission inspires me to pursue a career that will allow me to contribute to society in a similarly honest and impactful way.
To learn more about anti-hunger policy, or how to help, please visit www.frac.org and click on the Legislative Action Center.
Thomas Blount is a Falls Church native. He joined FRAC in January as a communications intern.