Mia Hubbard on Coming Out Hungry Podcast – Holes In Food Assistance: Gaps In the Safety Net for LGBTQ People Living With Hunger

May 21, 2021

Barbie Izquierdo is a courageous mother who uses her story to raise awareness and help make substantial legislative changes regarding food insecurity and poverty. Born and raised in North Philadelphia, her family experienced food insecurity firsthand which ignited her desparation for change and passion to take ation! As a result, Barbie has been a community activist and advocate for the past 13 years attempting to end the cycle. As featured in the documentary, “A Place at the Table,” Barbie is a nationally recognized keynote speaker and expert on hunger and poverty, who uses her lived experience and advocacy skills to serve as a catalyst for equity through policy change.

Emilio Tavarez is a Dominican immigrant, a social worker, and an award-winning policy advocate fighting to end hunger in the United States of America. Since arriving in NYC as a ten-year-old undocumented immigrant, Emilio worked hard to earn his psychology and social work degrees through CUNY while developing a deep passion and conviction to fight systems, and symptoms, of oppression. His areas of expertise include policy analysis and development, group facilitation, and workforce development, all of which he developed while working at prominent NYC agencies in like The LGBT Center, Part of the Solution (POTS), and the Public Advocate’s Office. Throughout his career he has developed cultural competence for working with a wide variety of marginalized communities: LGBTQ+ people, immigrant families, senior citizens, people formerly incarcerated, and individuals facing mental illness, substance abuse, and intimate partner violence. Emilio was featured by the Hunter College Food Policy Center in their publication, 40 Under 40: The Rising Stars in NYC Food Policy (Class of 2020), and currently serves as the Director of Advocacy, Policy, and Research at Hunger Free America.

Mia Hubbard is the vice president of programs at MAZON. She provides leadership and direction for MAZON’s advocacy, grantmaking, and strategic program efforts to reduce and eliminate hunger and expand low-income communities’ access to healthy food in the United States and Israel. Since Mia joined the organization in 1993, MAZON has established itself as a leading advocate, funder and capacity builder in the field of hunger as well as a critical source of expertise, leadership and inspiration for advocacy and public policy solutions to hunger. Mia has served on several boards of directors, including most recently as the international program committee chair for an international association of food and nutrition programs serving people living with HIV/AIDS. Mia holds an M.A. in International Relations and Public Policy from the Graduate School of International Relations and Pacific Studies at UC San Diego and a B.A. in International Relations from Stanford University.

Hello and welcome to another CLEAR Finance Chat—a podcast by the Center for LGBTQ Economic Advancement & Research about financial wellbeing for the LGBTQ community and advancing economic justice for LGBTQ people and other marginalized communities. I’m your host Spencer Watson.

In this episode, we are continuing our discussion with anti-hunger advocates from around the country to uncover the holes in the food assistance safety net that exist for LGBTQ people who are experiencing food insecurity—including difficulties navigating public assistance programs, the chilling effect that proselytizing at religiously-affiliated food assistance programs has for food-seekers, and challenges in working with nonprofits to engage with the actual lived-experiences of food-insecure folks in order to advocate for needed changes.

In our last episode, we discussed with our experts what food insecurity looks like, and how systemic barriers drive higher rates of poverty and food insecurity for low-income communities—particularly Black, Brown, and indigenous communities, as well as immigrants, women, and LGBTQ people. You may want to go back and listen to that episode first, if you have not already done so, to get the big picture of how hunger reaches into homes in many communities in the U.S.

Let’s take a second to re-introduce the voices of the anti-hunger experts that we’ll be hearing from in our discussion over the next hour.

This is Mia:

My name is Mia Hubbard, I use she/her pronouns, and I am the Vice President of Programs at MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger

This is Emilio:

My name is Emilio Tavarez, I use he and him, and I am the Director of Advocacy and Policy for Hunger-Free America.

And this is Barbie:

My name is Barbie Izquierdo, I use she/her pronouns, and I am the Community Empowerment Manager at Hunger Free America

There are numerous obstacles that those living with food insecurity face when they seek help from government and nonprofit programs to get enough food for themselves and their families, and in working with those organizations to make the policy and program changes that would help them do so. LGBTQ folks experience some of the same challenges as other groups in getting access to food assistance, but also encounter some unique barriers as well.

In the United States, government food assistance programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as “food stamps”), the Women, Infants, & Children Program (WIC), and free and reduced school lunch programs are our nation’s most effective tools in the fight against hunger for adults and for children.

Emilio, at Hunger Free America, focuses his advocacy efforts on helping improve the ability for households experiencing food insecurity to access these government food assistance programs. Here’s how he describes their work in helping ensure everyone who is eligible for help can get it, and why SNAP in particular has been such an important and impactful program in helping adults and families get access to the food they need to live.

Hunger Free America is a national nonprofit that does both advocacy and direct services, so we provide benefits enrollment services for SNAP and WIC in New York City, but we also manage the USDA Hunger Hotline which operates 7 AM to 10 PM Eastern time. So anyone who is hungry and needs food assistance can call 1-866-3-HUNGRY or text 97779 to be connected with the closest food resource to their location. It’s also available in Spanish. And so my role is really directing our advocacy initiatives which focus around making these initiatives more effective. The emergency food system fills an immediate need right? Like you need a meal right now. But for every meal that a food pantry or soup kitchen provides snap provides about nine meals, to give you perspective. And then it gives people more choice too. So I think that max benefits—thanks to the Biden administration there was an increase in the snap maximum allotment so the maximum right now is like to $206 I think, so $200 per month for a single person. And it’s money that they can purchase whatever types of food they want, like if they have a health condition they can by whatever is appropriate for their diet, or if it’s more culturally relevant food. If you go to a food pantry or soup kitchen you’re kind of picking food that strangers made for you, there is no real choice of what you are getting, you just get what you get. And then often times people are commuting so they also have to carry the goods to their home, often low income people don’t have storage to keep groceries, or to cook groceries. You know there are homeless shelters that don’t have cooking facilities. So SNAP is really the thing that can help someone make that work.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports that about 92 percent of SNAP benefits go to households with incomes at or below the poverty line, and that in 2016 SNAP kept 7.3 million people out of poverty and lifted 1.9 million children above half of the poverty line. During the pandemic, hunger and food insecurity has surged—driven along by increased unemployment, poverty, and barriers to physically accessing community spaces and services. So, too has the number of folks on SNAP. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that over twenty-one and a half million American households received food assistance from SNAP in February 2021—which is a sixteen and a half percent increase from February 2020.

But, as we explored briefly in our last episode, there is certain red-tape and bureaucracy entailed in enrolling and maintaining eligibility for SNAP, which presents significant obstacles to benefits enrollment for a lot of vulnerable populations experiencing hunger, LGBTQ people included. Here’s how Barbie described some of the problems:

Just the paperwork. The process of having to go into the office and apply. Or you can do the application. Let’s say you do the application online. You will see at the end of your application that you have 30 days to submit your paperwork. You submit your paperwork and let’s say that the County Assistance Office says they never received it. Let’s throw in there right now that there is corona, so anything going by mail is going to be delayed. Let’s count in there the people who don’t have access to internet that would have to go into an office. Also add in the fact that most offices might be either closed or have a certain capacity of how many people they can see and or have in the office at the same time. Let’s also talk about the people that go into the office to drop off their paperwork because they don’t want to go with the mail route because it may be unsafe. There’s things like “Oh we still didn’t receive your paperwork” So now you know that even if you want to drop off paperwork at the county assistance office, you have to get there, you have to sit down and wait your turn, you have to turn in your paperwork and ask for a receipt. And again that’s waiting. And while you’re waiting you’re waiting for everyone who already has an appointment, you’re waiting for the people who have emergency situations to go first, because all you’re doing is dropping off paperwork. But you can’t afford to not get that receipt because if you told them that you supplied the necessary documentation but you don’t have proof and the county assistance lost it or never received it that’s your fault. The burden is on you.

As Barbie describes, the process of working with government offices to ensure that cases are properly filed and considered can require considerable time and energy, particularly if applications and paperwork must be delivered as a physical copy to the office in charge of benefits enrollment. But the last year of sheltering in place has highlighted that online tools can help us accomplish many of the things we used to do in person. Emilio describes how some states, like New York, have moved their application processes online so that folks do not have to struggle with the problems that Barbie mentions. But, he notes, even after fixing the steps folks need to take in order to file their application for benefits, that there still are some lingering problems for folks in their ability to qualify.

Even before the pandemic there was a lot of hunger already. In New York there is a persistent hunger issue. So COVID just made a lot of these things worse. And we suddenly saw a lot of the digital services that we were asking for as viable. In New York you can apply for the supplemental nutrition assistance program which is what used to be called food stamps. You can apply online you can submit your documents through a mobile app–you just take pictures of your documents and submit those. You can call for an interview, you can do your interview over the phone. And similar flexibilities have been implemented with the Women, Infants, and Children program (WIC). WIC has different eligibility then SNAP, you know SNAP is mostly concerned with income, household size, immigration status, expenses, whereas WIC is more concerned with are their children in the home. You know if you have a child you are eligible for WIC probably if they are under five years old, or if you are pregnant then you are eligible for WIC, and WIC is another nutrition assistance program that will increase your purchasing power for formula and that kind of thing. But it comes with different challenges, so there are health screenings that are required that would usually be in-person. So that is something that has been a little bit more—there has been more flexibility around that so we have seen participation—well we have heard reports from our clients that that makes it easier for them but I think that in general numbers are trending down. So there is kind of conflicting information about what exactly is causing those trends, but we do know that if these benefits were easier to access more people would be on them. There are issues also with renewing benefits. So once you get on the program you have to confirm every six months or every year that you are still poor enough—we are still having the “Are you worthy?” conversation, like “Are you poor enough to get assistance?” So we really want to move away from that. We are advocating for universal school meals. We’ve noticed through the pandemic that that’s actually—and a recent report actually came out school is actually the pipeline for food that is the most nutritious, school meals are the most nutritious food that children are getting through the pandemic. And so that is supporting what we are saying that we need more people to be accessing these services.

As Emilio mentions—and as we touched on in our last episode—income threshholds, savings thresholds, work requirements, and expense limits are part of the structural barriers that can prevent folks from qualifying for food assistance under SNAP.

SNAP eligibility requirements are mostly set by federal policies, though states have flexibility to set some requirements. To qualify, a households monthly gross income must be at or below 130% of the federal poverty level—which was a little over $16,500 for a single adult and $28,200 for a family of three in 2020—and their net monthly income after certain essential expenses are deducted must be less than the poverty line—which was about $12,750 for a single adult in 2020, and about $21,700 for a family of three. Also, a household cannot have more than $2,250 in savings or assets. Unemployed adults are limited to only three months of benefits, unless they are working at least 20 hours per week or participating in a workfare or job training program.

These strict limits on who is eligible for SNAP can exclude people who are experiencing food insecurity from qualifying for the help they need, or can cut the bootstraps individuals who are still in need of food assistance when they get a better job or if they scrape together a meager savings or emergency fund.

Barbie shares how these arbitrary limits on income, expenses, and savings don’t quite seem to add up for people who are applying for SNAP.

Why are we not looking at the net income because that’s exactly how much people have to work with. How are you basing what someone qualifies for with an amount that they never see. How can you tell someone “I’m sorry you can’t qualify for this because you make this much money” when that family is in tears telling you “No, I don’t. I don’t.” Or, “Please include this expense so that you can see how much it doesn’t balance out.” And I know that this is all legislature and policy and very high up in government things that need to change and its Federal. But if we can get the conversation started to let people know. Because people wouldn’t know that you can only get—well I mean, from the last time that I qualified—I don’t want to say anything that wouldn’t be true today. When I was doing applications for people over the phone, because I actually also worked as a food stamp hotline counselor and people would tell me “I’m a family of six. My husband and I have a phone. My teenager has a phone.”
“Oh I’m sorry, its $47 dollars.”
“No I just told you our bill is $150.”
“No I’m sorry we can only give you credit for $47.” It just doesn’t make sense.

In addition to these common issues that all people who are applying for food assistance face, LGBTQ people also have some additional obstacles in their path in working through processes that were not designed with LGBTQ identities and lifestyles in mind. This can require LGBTQ people to conform their application paperwork, and themselves, to heteronormative assumptions about gender, monogamous marriage, and family structures in order to qualify for the benefits they need—in addition to potentially dealing with harassment or insensitive treatment by the very caseworkers and officials who are supposed to be assisting them in their time of need.

Emilio, in his time as a caseworker, worked with a number of LGBTQ clients in their process to qualify for public benefits, including SNAP. This is how he described the struggles that some of his LGBTQ clients faced:

I do remember I actually had a client that I saw both pre-and post transition. So I think I started working with them when they were male-presenting and identified as male and all their documents were in order and everything. But a year or so later I saw them and they had different hair and different mannerisms. And subsequently I met them again, and they were back to being more masc presenting. So I actually asked them—at that point I had worked with this client for several years, and so then I was able to just broach that conversation. I was always open with my identity I even had a—I was known for having a rainbow flag over my desk, because I felt like that was the easiest nonverbal way to make a safe space. It was shared office space, but it’s kind of a signal right? You see that and it kind of tells you what the atmosphere is. So often times people would ask me things and want to share their life about the scene, or how they get by, and I would be able to empathize and understand where they were coming from. But this particular client struck me, because I was curious why they had made the leap to transition but then kind of regressed, so they kind of went back to a masc presentation. And so what they said that was that their home life was not conducive to their transition, so they had made the decision to de-transition essentially out of survival I suppose, to keep the peace and again to navigate these systems. They were like, “I’ll just deal with that later.” And that’s often what people have to do, they have to postpone some needs for others. If you can’t put food on the table right now you aren’t necessarily so worried about getting surgery or hormones next month. So those are some of the challenges I’ve seen. And that’s just one story of many, that was not the only trans client that I had worked with and part of what I had talked to our managed team about was kind of establishing procedure to be intentional about how we deal with those situations. In our system, their constraints with the systems, but I would put their correct pronoun but maybe add a note so my colleagues wouldn’t be surprised by their presentation, or would at least be sensitive to it. So those were the kinds of things that I would try to do. But generally it was a conflict over documentation. That’s typically what happened. Are you married? Can you prove that you’re married? Do you have a civil union? Or if you are going by some name but your paystub says something else, reconciling all those things can be a bit of a challenge. So that’s why we need good caseworkers, I’m not saying we don’t need caseworkers, I’m a social worker, a proud social worker. I just think we need to keep up with the needs of our clients.

Although Emilio tried to help clients as best he could by creating a safe space for them to be open who they were, and by helping colleagues understand how to more competently serve their transgender and LGBQ clients one major obstacle remained beyond his control—the applications and systems themselves that still required uniformity in clients’ documentation and their conformity with heteronormative principles of gender-identity and family structure.

So when I used to do casework, I would try to change the systems that I could to reflect what the clients were telling me, right? Put the right gender and everything like that. But there was a limit to that: once it was time to actually submit an application I have to go with the system that exists. So as much as I want to honor what the persons reality, if we want to get the material benefit there are compromises that need to be made—but it’s not without a toll, right? So I think that’s the kind of thing that we are trying to overcome, particularly with online applications. To move into solutions a little bit, if these are the barriers: having negative experiences with caseworkers not being able to go to a physical office to submit an application, or not being able to submit the right documents for whatever reason. Our solution so far is to try to move these applications online so that people can be their own caseworkers, we think that people should just submit one application and get as many benefits as they are eligible for—whether that’s healthcare benefits, tax benefits, child care benefits, or other nutrition benefits. We want that process to be as easy as possible, because people have to be so vulnerable when they are applying. They have to be very honest and vulnerable about their finances, about their relationships with other people—with family members or romantic partners. I had a lot of cases, also, where it would be a couple that had been together forever but had never gotten married. And so if they wanted to apply for shelter together, then they needed to make things “official.” And so I wish people did not have to make those types of decisions out of necessity, but that’s kind of what we’re trying to tackle.

In addition to government food-asssistance, food banks, pantries, and meal programs in local communities provide a critical source of food for those who are experiencing hunger and food insecurity. Feeding America, the nation’s largest nonprofit that collects and distributes food to hunger-relief charities connects over 200 food banks and 60,000 food pantries in all 50 states, Washington D.C, and Puerto Rico. Last year, the Feeding America network distributed more than 3.6 billion meals to people in need.

Although charitable food assistance can be a lifeline for folks, difficulties in getting access to those programs can also present obstacles for low-income people who are living with hunger. As Emilio mentioned earlier, there can be challenges in traveling to the location where the food is, bringing it back home, and in storing or preparing the basic foodstuffs that food banks and pantries provide. But in addition to these physical obstacles, there can also be invisible barriers that keep hungry people from getting the food they need from these charities.

Here’s what Mia, from MAZON, had to say about how some community food programs can deter those experiencing food insecurity, including LGBTQ folks, from getting help:

Well, I think oftentimes charitable food programs are gatekeepers for food in our communities and many of these are religious-based programs and given the insidious history of homophobia that has been directed at the LGBTQ community from some religious sectors you know asking for help from these organizations can be a barrier. So I think that’s one aspect.

The challenges that religiously affiliated charities can create for LGBTQ folks, people of minority faiths, or those who are not religious in getting access to enough food is an issue that MAZON takes seriously in its advocacy. In our last episode, Mia shared with us some of MAZON’s work to shine a light on food insecurity among LGBTQ elders in a report they collaborated on with the Williams Institute at UCLA that was released in June of last, titled “We’re Still Hungry”: Lived Experiences with Food Insecurity and Food Programs Among LGBTQ People. The study examined the prevalence of—and experiences with—food insecurity among low-income LGBTQ folks, including LGBTQ elders. That study found that 84% of respondents said that they could not afford to eat balanced meals, and 71% experienced hunger but did not have enough money to buy food. Over half were on food stamps—but even so 65% had obtained food at a charitable food provider.

In addition to revealing higher rates of food insecurity among LGBTQ people, that report also highlighted some of the challenges they face in getting food from religious charities that provide food. The report also included stories from low-income LGBTQ folks, and Mia read one of those stories fo us:

This is a White Hispanic-identified bisexual cisgender woman—older woman—and she says, “I’m okay…” I will preface this by saying that this is this an example of an experience with a religious food provider and some of the challenges that folks face. So she says, “I’m okay. I don’t care who—what religion. I’ll go if—we’re able to eat. … Over here on 33rd Street, you have to say prayer before you go, before they’ll give out food, you know? Same thing on Sunday, well, all of ‘em are like that—‘cause they’re all—they’re all, church-based places. … I’m OK with it now but, a few months back, it was like, ‘No, I’m not—I’m not gonna go pray,’ you know? Why do we have to pray or why do have—or why do we have to, talk about God just to get food?” So I think it illustrates that challenge and the concerns about accessing these services at religiously affiliate food programs.

Here’s how Mia describes the issues that requiring folks to pray, or participate in religious services, before they get the food they need to survive creates for low-income people—particularly those who do not subscribe to the (typically Christian) faith they are being required to pay homage to:

I think proselytizing can have a chilling effect that prevents people from seeking food assistance. So a person that belongs to a minority faith or is nonreligious or an LGBTQ individual that may forgo desperately needed services if their initial contact with the provider is a church, adorned with Christian iconography and there is a church service or religious programming that is associated with it. So I think it’s an important consideration because faith-based institutions operate 62% of the pantries and meal programs that are a part of the Feeding America food bank network, which is our country’s network of food banks and pantries, and a lot of these programs receive federal, state, and local funding so they do have to be careful about blurring the lines between church and state. I don’t want to sound like I’m demonizing faith-based charitable programs, they provide critical services in our community, and as I mentioned they provide an important gap-serving role. But in many instances a hungry person receiving a food box at a church may not necessarily know that the food in that box is supported with federal tax dollars. And we’ll talk a little bit more about our lawsuit that addresses this issue but as I mentioned our Williams Institute study really backs up this issue. The study found that most clients spoke of positive experiences at faith-based providers, but a substantial percentage 14% did not. So in the face of that potential rejection or judgment many people decided to forgo food and you hate to hear people having to choose between going hungry or engaging in some kind of religious activity that they might objective. Certainly at a time when our country is reeling from a pandemic and all the economic crises that are associated with it you hate to hear that people are not able to access the services they need.

The line between church and state is time-honored in the United States as a basic building block of our secular society. It enables people of all different faiths and backgrounds to participate in, and benefit from, the social benefits and public goods that our government provides. But as LGBTQ people know all-too-well, some religious groups have worked aggressively in recent years to dismantle the separation between church and state. The previous Presidential administration, under Trump, tacitly supported these efforts and made numerous attempts to blur the line between church and state, including in food assistance programs receiving federal dollars. MAZON partnered with SAGE and other nonprofits to fight back with a lawsuit, which Mia described for us:

Well frankly, throughout the Trump administration we have seen attacks on the safety net and attempts at weakening programs like SNAP and so MAZON and other advocates, we been playing defense for four years, trying to prevent harmful changes to these programs that would slash benefits and make it harder for people to receive them. So, this lawsuit is in response to a string of problematic rule changes that we saw in the previous administration. In January, literally on the way out the door, the Trump administration issued this rule that rescinded Obama era religious freedom requirements for charities that provide food using federal dollars. So the rule was very simple, it was just that those charities had to let folks know—anyone who was a client receiving services needed to know that they did not need to participate in a religious event or activity to get food, because the funding for the food came from taxpayers. And there was an additional piece to the rule that those providers were also required to offer referral to an alternative if there was an alternative food program in the community. So the Trump administration took all the notification and referral requirements away. And so, literally on the last day of the Trump administration, we filed a lawsuit along with as you mentioned a coalition of like-minded organizations, and sued the Trump administration departments of Health and Human Services, Department of Agriculture, housing and urban development, Veterans Affairs, to reverse the rollback of this important protection. And as a Jewish organization, as an organization that is concerned about already vulnerable populations, we really saw this change as basically forcing religious minorities and folks who maybe are not religious or the LGBTQ community to basically give up their freedoms and rights in order to get food. And it was just one more barrier for folks who were trying to seek assistance. So we filed our lawsuit, it is currently, the lawsuit is currently stayed which means that there is a halt in the proceedings for a temporary. While the administration determines whether or not they want to defend the regulation. And our hope is that they will not defend it, but that they will rescind it. And there are some signs that that may be exactly what happens. The Biden administration has already issued some executive orders that require agencies to ensure that LGBTQ rights are being respected, and that LGBTQ folks have access to government services, so very much in line with our position in the lawsuit. We certainly are prepared to litigate if necessary, but we are hoping we won’t have to go there so stay tuned.

Spencer: And just for for those of us listening home is this rule change that the Trump administration tried to make, is that in effect now?

No. It is not in effect now with our lawsuit in place so it is being held in a pause at this moment but will be determined by what happens with the lawsuit.

The challenges that food-insecure people and vulnerable populations face in accessing food assistance are not impossible for governments or nonprofits to understand, and are within their power to fix. But doing so entails building a real-world picture of the problems that folks experience, and implementing practical solutions to remove obstacles for food-insecure people. But unfortunately, there is often a disconnect and lack of understanding between advocates and the very people who they are advocating for, which Barbie, from Hunger Free America described this way:

And I think that the importance of bringing lived expertise into this work is showing people that that when you are on a job there is a difference between what you get on paper and what you learn while you are there. There is a difference between the duties that you are actually performing and what you think you were going to do when you started working there. So when we talk about food insecurity there is the policy side that talks about what programs we need, how much funding we need, what funding is getting allocated to what program. We talk about what are the guidelines that are going to be needed. But we don’t really talk about who is being affected by these decisions or how they’re being affected by these decisions. In the film there was a moment where Dr. Mariana Chilton talked about how when… No Child Left Behind started there was such motivation that “No one’s going to be left behind. Everybody is going to be okay.” but what really happened behind the scenes was that the money was taken from the SNAP program to fund no Child left behind–so you’re taking a program that is supposed to feed families, and you took money away from that to feed kids. And what Marianna said was that it was like taking some mashed potatoes and you were moving it from one side of the plate to the other side of the plate and saying now we fed you. And that’s not how it works. And it takes more than the people making the decisions to know exactly who they are affecting and how they are affecting them. There are plenty of families, especially now during Corona, that before the American rescue plan came that had lost benefits and had no way of making up for it. And people think that everything is okay and we are receiving help, but they are not accounting for loss of wages. And so I think it’s important to have people with lived experience in the framework of these structures and in figuring out what systems work and how they don’t work, because if you get on a roller coaster right? You are not going to know what it’s like on that roller coaster unless you are sitting there, you can hear the screams, you can see the joy, you can hear someone after they get off the ride like “Oh that was great!” But you would never know the fear that they felt as they were going up and down, because they are not going to tell you that. And if we don’t have the voices of the people who are experiencing hunger to say that this is what works, and this is what doesn’t work, then you are faced with spending money that might end up being spent for no reason. Realistically, what you end up with is a disconnect between things like health and food insecurity because there is a disconnect between obesity and food insecurity. And we need all of these avenues, we need insight from all of these avenues to come together to be able to fix a solution, because if we do not the solution that you provide is only going to fix your problem. It’s not going to fix it globally, it’s not going to fix it nationally because your lens is different than the worldview lens.

Listening to and learning from the stories of food insecure people who are willing to open up about the challenges they have faced—when they choose to share their experiences with nonprofits, policymakers, and their community—is essential in creating a clear picture of what hunger . And although food assistance nonprofits and advocates do frequently collect and share the stories of those living with hunger, all too often they do so to promote themselves and their own image, and not to truly center and address the concerns of those doing the vulnerable work of sharing deeply personal experiences.

Here’s how Emilio described some of the lack of sensitivity that folks who share their stories encounter:

Often, when advocates and the media want to talk to people impacted by the issue it often feels like a very transactional interaction. You know, “Come to this media opportunity and tell your story for a couple of minutes and then go back to your situation. Thanks for coming, goodbye”

Barbie, who’s advocacy around food insecurity is rooted in her own lived-experience with hunger—which she has shared with people around the country, and which was featured in the documentary A Place at the Table—told us how important she felt it has been for her to use her platform and her story to call for needed action. But, she also discussed how her openness and vulnerability in sharing her experience did not automatically have the impact or create the change that she, herself, needed:

I couldn’t just live my life knowing that this film gave me the opportunity to make people know who I am. I couldn’t not use that as a platform to try to change things for society. Because I’ve never done this for anything other than making change, because you’re not going to make money doing this, you’re not going to gain relationships with celebrities or anything. It doesn’t really happen like that. And what actually happens in that situations is that, unfortunately you find yourself in a room with people and everyone knows your name. And at times you’ll hear celebrities going back and forth with each other: “Oh Barbie, no that’s my friend. Oh yeah no, I worked with her. She’s great.” But then what you don’t see is that after those interactions with those celebrities, I’m home with that same refrigerator that is empty, with those same pizzeria menus that are feeding me, that your life hasn’t changed but your life was okay. My life hasn’t changed, I mean it changed with saying that I can now say this person said that I was great, but that’s it.

At times, Barbie also felt used by organizations and advocates seeking to use her story for their own gain—and that those advocates did not do the work to actually understand her experience and treat her and her story with the sensitivity and respect that they deserved. She explained how being trauma-informed, and approaching stories from the standpoint of relationship-building would lead to more productive advocacy for the organizations seeking to uplift lived-experience in the conversation about hunger in the United States.

I think that the most important thing for people to know first is that our trauma is not your burden. So knowing that we are traumatized by our experiences and acknowledging that is the first step. But also by giving us the opportunity to give us to speak don’t expect that you are supposed to fix our problem. We know what we are getting into when we are sharing our story so it is just being mindful and treating people with dignity and respect knowing that it is a growing process, and it is a growing pain, but that doesn’t mean we can’t get through it. But that level of respect and understanding and empathy and compassion and relationship building has to be there. The problem is that a lot of times with people sharing their experiences with food insecurity is that there are a lot of story banks out there. So what will happen is that people are looking for someone to talk about food insecurity, let’s use September for the perfect– September and November– September is food action month or food action month or hunger awareness month, and November of course is Thanksgiving so around those times you’ll find people who want to volunteer, you’ll find organizations looking for stories, they’ll give you that story and then you never hear from that organization again. The problem with that is that that is traumatizing. Because it is saying that for whatever form of compensation, if there is compensation, that you now about this story from me and nothing else comes from that. And the reason that we can’t do that with people with lived experience is that this is not something that we chose, this is not away or quality of life that we chose, so us sharing our experiences is literally our day-to-day. If an organization takes our story and we never hear from them ever again it doesn’t make them any different than the experiences that we have every day, like when we go to the welfare office and we explain to them how we don’t have enough or we might be facing eviction or our electricity might be turned off and they say “We can’t help you,” or they listen and it’s just that. It’s no different because, it’s not having a follow-up with someone who is doing this work makes you feel insignificant. It makes you feel like people will never know you for who you are, and solely care about hearing a sad story. And a lot of what I have struggled with is that exactly that, I’ve been doing this for 13 years and I can go back and read the stories about me where people felt it necessary to include in my description that I was “bony.” And I can still look back now and say “Why? Why was that okay?” I didn’t have a relationship with the person who wrote that, and then there was no follow-up, and so it’s not like I can go back and say, “Hey you called me ‘bony’ 13 years ago can you please go change that?” But had I had that relationship with them I could have went back and said “Hey, listen, I have struggled with eating disorders because I didn’t have enough food to eat. I am also a mother, and so I want to be mindful of how I am portrayed and what my children can read out there about me—and  I don’t think it is encouraging for them to see that their mothers work for working against food insecurity should be in the same sentence as someone being ‘bony.’ What is the relevance of that?”

In light of her own experiences sharing her own story, Barbie shared the following tips for anti-hunger organizations and advocates in creating more fruitful relationships with those they are advocating for:

I think that it is very important to be trauma-informed, and if an organization does not feel comfortable with a certain level of transparency in a story or whatever the case may be that they should feel free to to express that, but to also understand that we come in and we are very guarded and we are very scared because our experience is all we know. So if we can center engaging people with lived experience around relationship building then we will be able to treat people with dignity and respect. So what that means is, if you are looking for somebody with lived experience and you don’t have someone in your organization that has already experienced food insecurity then look for the experts– the Barbies of the world that are already doing this, the advocates, the grassroots organizations, that may have that one-on-one experience: the food bank employees that are directly handing the meals to people. Have them be the liaison in that conversation and not just think that just because you want to help someone, or give them a platform of sharing their story, that that is being helpful and that is all. The help has to come with support. The help has to come with resources. If you are speaking to someone who has lived experience and they are talking to you about their family and food insecurity, but happened to mention that they have an eviction notice, then on the side have someone reach out to them that can give them resources on homelessness prevention, or if there is any emergency utility assistance programs. Don’t just say “Oh, that’s unfortunate, I’m so sorry I that you’re going through that,” but “Oh. I’m sorry, I’m not sure how I can help you, but there is this organization that may have resources that can help you.” Or if you “Go to this website. Maybe…” Offers some sort of support along with the giving them the platform to speak, because they have to go hand-in-hand. Absolutely have to go hand-in-hand. People with lived expertise that are doing this work, we all speak to each other in one way or another. Even if we don’t know each other personally we might see each other at a conference and say hey I heard you speak, or hey I heard about you, and then start talking: “Oh like I saw you speak at this organization, what was your experience like, because they reached out to me?” And so it is also important to acknowledge that as organizations that you may have something to lose as well. If we are mistreated and we tell others that we were mistreated, or that they are not culturally sensitive, or whatever the case may be, that it can hinder your reputation in our world, so make us feel comfortable and make us feel safe most importantly. Because the aspect of relationship building may also bring people to you, it may also increase your network.

That’s it for this episode of CLEAR Finance Chat.  Thanks for listening. Next time, we will continue talking with Emilio, Barbie, and Mia about big-picture solutions and actions that governments, communities, and individuals can undertake to fight hunger in the United States—including the federal HOPE Act and local Food Action Boards. I hope you will join us.

If you or someone you know are experiencing hunger help is available. Some resources you can include:

  1. The Anti-Hunger Hotline at: 1-866-3-HUNGRY or text 9777 to be connected to the closest food resource to you
  2. You can find the closest food bank or food pantry to you online at: findfood.hungerfreeamerica.org
  3. You can also a nationwide directory of food banks online at: feedingamerica.org

If you are interested in taking action to end hunger in your community or around the country, you can learn more about ways to get involved online at hungerfreeamerica.org and at mazon.org (that is M-A-Z-O-N-.org)

Special thanks to our guests this week, Emilio Tavarez and Barbie Izquierdo from Hunger-Free America, and Mia Hubbard from MAZON.