April 20, 2017

From the Food Pantry to The Hill: Observations and Impressions

By Jonah Pitkowsky
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“How was your week?”

“School’s good?”

“I tried that soup last week, I think I’ll take it again!” 

These are all comments I hear every week at the food pantry where I volunteer near my home in suburban New Jersey. On one hand, it’s great that we have built camaraderie and trust with the participants, but on the other hand, it’s terrible that our country has come to the point where I see the same faces every week. These faces tell the stories of perseverance, exhaustion, and hope. Until my time on Capitol Hill, I didn’t know how or when a better time would finally come for them.

The food pantry is mostly stocked by donors, with help from a regional food bank. In a given week, we can make no promises to our participants as to what might be available or in what quantity. The cycle of donation and distribution works most of the time, but it is not a permanent solution for those who need help.

Many have tried to offer our pantry small-scale solutions, such as a larger space or more donations. But as I visited Capitol Hill with MAZON this past month, I learned about a more powerful approach to ending hunger: advocacy. Advocating with MAZON to support and strengthen the food safety net gave me the opportunity to think beyond immediate needs and focus on building the future. While we were privileged to meet with several congresspeople and their staff, two meetings stood out to me.

First, we met with a staff member from the office of Representative Josh Gottheimer (D-NJ). As a constituent of his district, I was excited for this meeting. In his first term, Rep. Gottheimer is already seeking to make a difference. At this meeting, our team expressed MAZON’s concerns about legislation regarding hunger in America, and we discussed action the Congressman can take. I was inspired by the staffer’s and the Congressman’s interest in the issue, and their willingness to help. They seemed genuinely concerned about the issues we were presenting, and we left feeling like our concerns would be addressed. We need this concern and eagerness to help from more people in positions of power.

The second meeting that stood out to me was with the chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, Representative Mike Conaway (R-TX). Representative Conaway and I disagree fundamentally on many issues, so I was interested to see how the meeting would play out. We discussed the issues, and he respectfully shared his opinions. He explained that in his view, if someone isn’t making enough money to support their family, they should move elsewhere to work and find success. While this idea might have rung true in his childhood, it troubled me, because it’s not that easy for every family to move away. If someone’s entire support system (school, family, etc.) is in one place, it’s not always feasible to leave it and move elsewhere.

Even though we disagreed, I was struck by Representative Conaway’s personable attitude and I began to appreciate the humanity of even the most powerful people in government. We found common ground in the hardships so many Americans face every day because of food insecurity.

Both of these meetings taught me two important things. First, continued advocacy work is unbelievably important and can surely make a difference. Second, by appealing to people’s understanding of hunger as a humanitarian issue, we can find common ground on the importance of making change. Hunger is a unique issue in that nobody believes it should exist. The political divide stems from disagreement about how it should be handled, and whether the government should prevent hunger.

Whether it’s an enlisted soldier who can’t promise his child breakfast tomorrow morning, or a single mother in Arkansas, or my friends at the food pantry, nobody deserves to be a victim of food insecurity.

I was inspired on my trip to Capitol Hill, and I hope that my advocacy brings the participants at the food pantry one step closer to having their hopes and dreams realized. 

Jonah Pitkowsky is a 10th grader who resides in northern New Jersey. He volunteers at a local food pantry, is passionate about the issue of hunger and is an aspiring anti-hunger activist.