In my previous column from April 9th, we introduced food insecurity as a real problem in our state. Food insecurity impacts 1 in 5 people in Georgia. Likely impacting someone you know, and someone your children calls a friend. This problem is not generally attributed to lack of food, rather it is a problem of access and awareness. According to various studies by the USDA:
- 500,000+ people are living in food desert areas in the metro area;
- 28% are children who may only receive one full meal a day at school;
- 1 out of 2 families experiencing poverty, live more than a mile from fresh food;
- 8 out of 10 of these same families often must choose paying rent over healthy food.
Hunger, homelessness, and gaps in education are the three problems that Action Ministries has focused on for nearly 6 decades, and I am proud to say that we are moving the needle with the help of 1000s of partners and volunteers. Over 130,000 people each year come to us in crisis, often facing seemingly impossible odds and they rarely appear with a clear shopping list of needs. Most simply do not know what to do next, so our work begins with treating the “symptoms” of poverty before we can understand what is really going on in their lives. Our diverse group of partners often have the relationship and access at the community level and represent faith congregations, businesses, community coalitions, and many smaller charitable organizations who may simply do one thing really well. Collaboration and partnership are key drivers in this work, and help us to arrive at the underlying causes of poverty!
Working together with communities to identify larger systemic and structural solutions is important work, and needs the time and investment to change the trajectory of despair facing large segments of our population. Concurrently the work must address immediate needs where it is, understanding that the choices that we would make for our family may not work. The path that seems logical to us looking in from the outside may be unknown territory for someone dealing with crisis. Well intended projects that begin in a conference room with a 2×2 decision matrix, ranking possible outcomes to find the most cost-efficient solutions, and then designing systems of care that address root causes are important…yes, we should do these things. Mapping out a solution for a family or community can be a very rewarding experience, but we must also be careful to check our assumptions and recalibrate the lens in which we view the problem through the eyes of the poor. What is “familiar to us, is very personal to them,” as a friend of mine once described when talking about hospitality to the stranger.
Let us be careful not to view their problems as puzzles to be solved, or people to be fixed. Efficiency and expediency are our goals, but it is not about us. Pause and remember…they are people, they are our neighbors, and they have the same hopes and dreams as many of us do. True sustainable improvement happens when we begin to “walk with our neighbors” toward solutions that they can ultimately make their own. Starting from this point of reference, how then can we effectively address food insecurity at the community level? I believe in beginning with three steps, and then letting the final solution develop organically.
- Access…before anything else can happen, we must “end their hunger.” By providing access to food; whether through a local food pantry, mobile feeding programs, or partnership with programs that provide services other than food; we must create an access point that provides immediate assistance.
- Engagement…beyond the act of giving food, we begin to engage our consumers with conversations that build trust. One way of doing this is simply “showing up” again, and again. At Action Ministries, one of our most successful hunger programs works with children to deliver meals to their community or their school every week of the year. We get to know their families and teachers, and relationships are formed.
- Empowerment…in our childhood hunger programs, caring volunteers introduce kids to books and games that lead to other opportunities. A sandwich, becomes story time, leading to mom enrolling in a class with other moms, who ultimately join the PTA, and maybe begin navigating previously hidden pathways to a better life for her family.
This final step often becomes something more. It becomes an opportunity for the person being served to begin to serve others. Guests in our community kitchens may become volunteers, groups form to go shopping together, men get together to play basketball, moms elect each other to run PTAs, community gardens are planted, and a sense of place leads to shared accountability.
None of this happens overnight, and rarely to plan, but it does happen. It begins when you find an organization to get involved with, and then challenge your congregation or office pool to join you. Meeting people where they are, as other people, who want a better life for their family too. Sometimes it takes time, and often the relationships face challenges, but the work continues none-the-less. Consider being that starting point by leading a food drive at work, or your place of worship. The solution begins with each of us!