Special Blog Post By: Zia MacWilliams, Manager of Federal Children’s Nutrition Programs

In February, Second Harvest supported my Community Engagement and Policy (CEP) team’s attendance at the National Anti-Hunger Policy Conference, co-sponsored by Feeding America and the Food Research and Action Center, in Washington, D.C. I felt lucky to attend the three-day conference with two members of my team and Second Harvest’s Executive Director, Leslie Bacho.

I had not visited D.C. in almost ten years, as a once ingenuous Congressional Intern set on changing the world. Immediately I was taken aback by how imposing the city is, with power seemingly seeping out of the neoclassical buildings and talks of politics ubiquitous. I felt small and irrelevant under the towering Lincoln Memorial and Washington monument, like one person standing in the shadows of the elite who could not possibly elicit change. I wondered how we as a food bank would ever succeed to end hunger and shine a light on the needs of our communities to those in political power.

My dubious mood shifted dramatically as I entered the conference auditorium. Over twelve hundred advocates for greater food security and self-sufficiency in our nation gathered as one cohesive voice. Representation from California was robust, with regional discussions passionately opposing Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) block granting, work requirements, and increased restrictions for immigrant access to nutrition programs. Conference groups problem solved on not only reaching, but also providing tools help our diverse client base and communities empower themselves, as well as strategies to take action and leverage existing programs.

Powerful speakers were also present. Charles M. Blow, op-ed columnist for The New York Times, spoke of his personal experience as a black man in America, and how the current political climate and a history of discriminatory public policy, is directly linked to systemic inequality and the racial divide prevailing today. Blow stressed the requisite of addressing root causes of poverty, including the issues of wage inequality, discriminatory housing policies, and the corruption of our criminal justice system, in order to end hunger in the U.S.

I am no stranger to poverty and food insecurity, as a former CalFresh recipient (formerly known as food stamps) when I was a graduate student at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies (MIIS). As a student in California, I struggled to pay sky rocketing rent, work part-time, go to school, and have money to purchase food. Many of the stories about the rising phenomenon of “college hunger” described at the conference resonated with me personally, as someone formerly from rural West Virginia and a current witness of the extreme hunger and poverty in Silicon Valley. As a former manager of one of Second Harvest’s partner pantries, I remember being shocked to see one of my former MIIS classmates, with an almost $70,000 education, waiting in line for food.

Undoubtedly, the most disappointing plenary speaker was Brandon Lipps, Acting Deputy Under Secretary, Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services; Administrator, Food and Nutrition Service, USDA. Mr. Lipps encouraged anti-hunger advocates to explore the “Harvest Box” concept, an idea many view as regressive, inefficient, and designed to strip dignity from those most in need of a hand up. Belief among conference attendees was a “red herring” or rather a way to distract the conversation from the Trump administration’s fiscal year 2019 budget proposal, which proposes program cuts, including an almost 30% cut to SNAP, a program overhaul, and additional work requirements for recipients. The collective conference voice rose to a loud series of boos at the plan, as well as his obvious disconnect from the population. Addressing the crowd later, Rep. Jim McGovern of Massachusetts, remarked that the Harvest Box plan was the “stupidest idea I think I’ve ever heard.”

Rep. Jim McGovern also stated: “We have to stop being so nice,” a sentiment the CEP Team took to Capitol Hill when advocating to our congressional representatives. I was proud to be among such strong female leaders of the Second Harvest as we discussed our communities’ needs with staff of Senator Dianne Feinstein, Senator Kamala Harris, and Congressman Ro Khanna, as well as Congressman Jimmy Panetta, Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren and Congresswoman Anna Eshoo. Congresswoman Eshoo was almost drawn to tears as she described her longtime support for those that are hungry in 18th and 14th congressional districts.

Leaving D.C., the buildings no longer looked impenetrable, but rather permeable. I felt resolve in the understanding that behind those walls exist people no greater than you or I, despite what some would like us to believe or perceive. Real power exists within the communities we represent, and the people who speak for those who do not have their voices yet. The biggest fallacy, I believe, is to fall into the trap of thinking that you are not able to create change. With the power of community, no wall, building or policy can stop us.

***Inspired by Zia’s words? Visit our Hunger Action Center to find out how you can get involved.