Mia Hubbard on the Coming Out Hungry: Food Insecurity & the LGBTQ Community Podcast

May 3, 2021

In this CLEAR Finance Chat, they sit down with special guests Barbie Izquierdo, Emilio Tavarez, and MAZON’s Vice President of Programs, Mia Hubbard, to demystify and destigmatize what it means to be food insecure in the United States. In the first episode about food insecurity in the LGBTQ community, “Coming Out Hungry,” they discuss what food insecurity looks like, the inequalities in our food system for low-income and marginalized communities, and how hunger and food insecurity disproportionately affects LGBTQ communities.

Full podcast transcript:

Hello and welcome to the CLEAR Finance Chat—a podcast about financial wellbeing for the LGBTQ community and advancing economic justice for LGBTQ people and other marginalized communities.

I am your host, Spencer Watson. In our next several episodes, we are talking about how hunger and food insecurity affects LGBTQ people, the inequalities in our food system for low-income (and particularly Black and Brown) communities, the barriers for LGBTQ people in getting food assistance, and the local and national policy actions we can take to fight hunger in the United States.

In the next hour, we are demystifying and destigmatizing what it means to be hungry in the U.S. today by hearing the on-the-ground facts about food insecurity from anti-hunger advocates, and by making space in today’s discussion to hear actual lived experience of what it means to be food insecure.

Stick around for plenty of food-for-thought today in this episode of CLEAR Finance Chat: “Coming Out Hungry.”

First, let us take some time to introduce the experts we’ll be hearing from in this episode.

This is Mia Hubbard:

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, I help direct our strategic programs and our policy advocacy which is focused on ensuring that traditionally excluded populations have access to the resources they need to eat healthy and nutritious food.

And this is Emilio Tavarez:

My name is Emilio Tavarez, I use he and him, and I am the Director of Advocacy and Policy for Hunger-Free America. I have a background in social work and psychology and have done about five years or more in direct services helping people enroll in benefits like SNAP, WIC, and other things. And so my role is really directing our advocacy initiatives that focus around making these initiatives more effective.

And this is Barbie Izquierdo:

My name is Barbie Izquierdo, I use she/her pronouns, and I am the Community Empowerment Manager at Hunger Free America. What my role is is to appeal to people on a national level, specifically people with lived experience.

Something I learned from our guests was that even though food insecurity is widespread in the United States, that it is frequently hidden, invisible in the public eye. You might not know, just by looking at someone, they are struggling to put food on their table. And someone living with food insecurity might be afraid to come out and tell you—because of the stigma and shame associated with being hungry.

But even before the pandemic in 2019 one-in-ten U.S. households lived with food insecurity according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture—which is about 35 million people, including 10 million children.[1]

Feeding America—the country’s largest hunger-relief organization–reports that during the pandemic the number of food insecure people nationwide has grown to 42 million (or one-in-eight people), which includes 13 million children—or about one-in-six.[2]

But what does being “food insecure” actually mean, and what does it look like? Here’s some of what Mia, at MAZON, had to say:

The term food insecurity—it’s a technical term, right? It is defined by the USDA the Department of Agriculture as a lack of consistent access to enough food for an active healthy life. In terms of what it looks like, if someone is food insecure they don’t hve the resources to make choices about what kind of food they want to eat. They have to reduce the quality, the variety, and the desirability of the diet that they have to stretch their food budget through the month. Its parents skipping meals to allow their kids to eat. It is not knowing where your next meal is coming from. I think you hear in this term food insecurity that we’re really speaking to that feeling of being unsure. It is a struggle and the way that people manage it is really something invisible to most of us—it’s invisible to the media, its invisible to policymakers—and so that’s why we do the work that we do.

So, the phrase has a technical definition, but the words don’t have any emotional resonance. They don’t seem adequately describe the actual feelings that people experience when they are food insecure.

Emilio, from Hunger Free America, shared these insights:

I think food insecure is such a weird term, right? What we’re really talking about is hunger, and hunger is really caused by poverty, and really people think about people who have been in poverty their whole life or grew up in poverty and there’s the cultural poverty myth—because its really a myth. What we find based on research is that people move in and out of periods of instability that they may not know where their next meal is coming from. What we’ve noticed is that the first people to deny that there is hunger and poverty are hungry and poor people—nobody wants to admit that they’re going through those situations so it’s really hard to measure and to address that. That’s partly why we want broader eligibility and easier access to some of these programs because then people will really see it as a service that they are entitled to and deserve because they need assistance and not feel they’re putting someone out or feeling like they are taking assistance from someone who needs it more.I think everybody who needs assistance should get it.

We can all relate to what it means to be hungry, and many more people in the United States struggle with affording enough healthy nutritious food than want to admit it.

Which is why it is so important for us to listen to and learn from the voices of people who have lived experiences with hunger when they share their stories. Barbie, at Hunger Free America, informs her community organizing with her own personal journey with food insecurity, and she shares her experience publicly to make change and to inspire others to share their own stories:

I didn’t know what food insecurity was, I just knew hunger. And a few years ago, well not a few years ago—many years ago—in my advocacy we learned that America doesn’t really want to use the word “hunger” anymore so switched it to “food insecurity” and gave it a proper definition. So by definition food insecurity is when someone doesn’t know where their next meal is coming from. That can be something as big as you know that you make $300 a month and you know that you have three children and from the jump at the beginning of the month that those $300 are not going to be enough to reach the end of the month and to feed your family. Food insecure also means that if you are a child and you are going to school and your source of breakfast and lunch—if you weren’t in school you wouldn’t be able to have it at home, that is being food insecure. Even in adults and students if you are in class or at work and you’re trying to concentrate and you can’t because all you’re thinking about is “I want to go to lunch” but you’re not sure as to how you’re going to get it or trying to think about “Well how much money do I dedicate to getting my lunch” while you’re trying to focus at work—that is a symptom of food insecurity. And people don’t really correlate the two because they usually think food insecurity means just out-blown hunger. And it can be—it is way less—it is closer to home than most people think.

So my experience with food insecurity—I was born in North Philly in an impoverished neighborhood and I never had breakfast at home. My mom cooked once a day, so that meant that when I came home at 3 o’clock from school that was dinner. So anything else that… there was nothing else. My mom purposely sent me to school early so I could receive breakfast at school. And to share a personal—a little personal information on how even those things have a way of creating these generational traditions: I still struggle with making my children breakfast in the morning. And it is not that I don’t want to do it, it is that is was not how I was raised. At times, absolutely, to me breakfast is a luxury. And I know that people say breakfast is the most important meal of the day but if I have to choose “Am I going to feed my kid in the morning or am I going to make sure by the end of the night that they are fed?” I am going to choose making dinner over making breakfast.

And it was hard trying to raise my children on food stamps and try to have—trying to raise my children on food stamps and have a good job are like things that live on opposite spectrums. The SNAP program is something that is very necessary, and I don’t know where I would have been without it. But some of the struggles that people who are food insecure face include having to choose if accepting a job that might pay you a little bit more. I was featured in a film called “A Place at the Table” and in the film you see that I had gone a really long time—I had lost my job because of the Recession—it was about a year, I was looking for a job, I finally got one. And when I got the job, I lost my food stamps and my childcare benefits because I was making more than $13.00 an hour at that job. And it was like I went from a position of being able to pay my rent and having enough food—well just enough food to remind me that I was poor—but I went from that to not only not having any food to also not having any childcare and trying to figure out how am I going to pay for both of those things with the money that I am making. It just did not add up. It did not make sense. And those struggles really motivated me to speak up. It really took me being fed up to get past the embarrassment and the shame to say that “Something is not working, and I want to work hard, and I want to earn my living. But I cannot do it on my own.” Because, if you look at me you know just by the way I look that I’m not going to be able to get into certain positions. And factor in that I’m a lesbian. Factor in that I’m a woman. Factor in that I’m a person of color. Factor in that I’m the daughter of an immigrant. I have all these things already working against me and yet and still I’m not only trying to better myself but bring up my community at the same time. It was definitely challenging. So saying all that to say that my fight with food insecurity and advocating to end hunger all stemmed from desperation, and feeling like I need to get out of this situation but I don’t know how and I know there are millions of people who feel like me. So what is my role? What can I do to sort of make sure that in someway, somehow, people don’t face the same challenges I do?

Although food insecurity reaches into nearly all communities, it affects communities in different ways and for different reasons. Hunger disproportionately effects marginalized communities—especially Black and Brown people, indigenous people, immigrants, women, and LGBTQ people. But the root causes and drivers of food insecurity for these communities can differ.

Here’s what Mia had to say when I asked her to describe some of the systemic barriers for vulnerable communities in the food system:

That is—that is a really big question. And it depends, frankly, on the population. So, I mentioned at the beginning that we do a lot of work on food security and food sovereignty in Native communities. So one of the big structural barriers is the ongoing effects of colonization. So I really think it depends on the population.

In this moment, it is important to highlight structural racism and barriers it created. Those are woven into our food system and they are embedded in our food programs. Black and other communities of color have always been disproportionately impacted by food insecurity and poverty, and we know that communities of color face structural barriers to accessing healthy food because they live in communities that lack access to healthy and nutritious food. We have all heard this term “food desert” right? And it gets used to describe communities that lack access to grocery stores. But I think a more accurate term is probably “food swamps” or “food apartheid” right? Because it is not there is not food available, it is these are communities that are over-saturated with food that is high in fat and sugar and salt that is sold at cheap prices by corner stores and fast-food restaurants. These are communities that have a food retail environment that is not random, it is not accidental, it is due to the legacy of segregation and redlining. And that is one way that we see structural racism playing out in our food systems.

We can also look at government food programs, which are race-neutral on their face but when you look at what makes them difficult to access, many of the policy barriers are rooted in racist notions about the people who use them. For example, SNAP has work requirements for those who are aged 18-49. They’re expected to work 20 hours a week—and if they do not they can only get SNAP assistance for 3 months out of a 36-month period. So, policy rules like work requirements are rooted in the perceived notion of moral failings and poor personal shortcomings out of the people that use these programs, and those can have some racialized undertones. So, I think it is this concept that “Certain people are unwilling to work, or need to be coerced to work,” and it hearkens back to those false narratives about welfare queens that still get thrown around to this day. And we need to destigmatize poor people of color and all people who use these programs. And so, it is another way you see racial bias and the demonization of poor people built into these programs. And so MAZON is committed to not only reforming these kinds of policies but reframing the debate and the narrative around hunger and poverty toward an issue—toward the issue of rights and dignity. So no one is treated as “other,” so no one is outside the circle of concern, and we do not have policies that create categories of people who are deserving and undeserving of assistance.

Unfortunately, the very system we use to provide food assistance to hungry people in this country can also be the very barrier that prevents people from being able to put enough food on their table. The red tape involved in applying for public benefits, and the arbitrary and unrealistic federal government guidelines for income and expenses that applicants must meet to qualify for food assistance in the United States can deter folks from getting the help they need.

This is some of what Barbie had to say about the barriers for low-income communities that inhibit their ability to obtain food assistance:

One of the biggest things that I have an issue with—that I know is not something that can change tomorrow, and it will take a lot of work—but one of the most troubling things and traumatizing things for me was when I would go to the county assistance office and I would show them my paycheck and then they would go through the income guidelines and I wouldn’t qualify. And I would be in tears and I would be explaining to them, “This is my experience this is what I’m going through.” And their only response to me would be: “Well we have to go by gross income and not net income—and so we understand you’re not bringing this much home but that’s the only thing we can count.” Or you know, “We understand you have a $150 phone bill because you have to pay for a phone for more than one person, but unfortunately we can only give you a $47 allotment as a credit of what you pay for your phone bill.” Let us be realistic. If we want to help society, then let us take the expenses that people have realistically, which means yes their rent, yes their utilities—but what about the families that have a car payment? What about the families that have life insurance they have to pay? What about rental insurance or the actual expenses that families have? Why can’t we take that under account? How can you tell someone “I’m sorry you cannot qualify for this because you make this much money,” while that family is in tears telling you “No I don’t. I don’t?” Or, “please include this expense so you can see how much it doesn’t balance out.” And I know this is all legislature and policy and very high up in government things that have to change.”

As with other marginalized groups, LGBTQ people—as a population—are more vulnerable to food insecurity in no small part because of the greater poverty and economic insecurity in our community that results from historic and persisting discrimination and stigma that appears throughout LGBTQ people’s lives.

Emilio observes how early in life poverty, experiences with homelessness, and lack of competency among case work professionals contribute to greater food insecurity within the LGBTQ community:

I think there are higher rates of homelessness and poverty among our population because we run the risk of being kicked out of our homes when we come out, right? We are rejected by our families and that is not something that really happens to any other group of people where you are just abandoned by your family. And not only that but it makes it challenging to explain your situation to these systems that were not designed to be inclusive. So, for example, “What is a household?” For the purposes of SNAP if you prepare meals together you should apply together because you are working together. But in the case of what I just mentioned about couch-surfing, do you apply together? Do you apply separately? What documentation do you present to make sure the case is presented in the right way? And then for our population, again, I think that the challenge is the caseworker. Because I can make the program as an advocate—I can push for the program to be better overall. But if the person that is supposed to help you—if your caseworker is insensitive, triggers you, misgenders you, then you are not going to want to work with them. We have reports of negative experiences from clients that then makes them not think that it’s worth it, “I’m not going to go through all of those hassles.” The hassle-to-payoff ratio is really where people come from, and I think that some of the structural barriers is that case workers at social service departments need trauma-informed care. There is a lot of trauma that happens in our community just in the number of ways from what I mentioned with being kicked out to HIV stigma as well and other intersecting issues about presentation. So, like, do you present visually the way your documents are saying. Or if the name you are saying does not match the name said on your ID, how do we resolve that?

Of course, discrimination in wider economy also contributes to greater poverty and hunger for LGBTQ adults as well, as Mia explains:

Your audience will certainly know that many people in the LGBTQ community face employment discrimination. And as a result, this leaves folks more at risk of poverty and food insecurity. And the numbers really bear that out. 27% of all LGBTQ people rely on snap. That is double the rate of non-LGBTQ people. And our focus is on seniors: LGBTQ seniors are 60% more likely to experience food insecurity than non-LGBTQ peers. So, I think that the effects of employment discrimination, certainly for seniors, over a lifetime can be a serious factor for additional vulnerability to hunger.

Barbie describes the barriers that exist for LGBTQ people in the food-assistance system through the lens of her own experience. She explains them this way:

I can only wear my truth, right? So my truth is, because I’m a femme, people wouldn’t know that I’m a lesbian. And would go into a space and not necessarily be treated differently because it is me and my children. But when you do not look like me, when you dress differently than me, or for the trans community. We know already that they are already being treated in an undignified manner–we know that they are already—we know that there are and were people in power who were trying to take rights away from Americans regardless of their sexual orientation or sexual preference. Now what you do not get to see is that in these spaces people are discriminated against as well. Food insecurity should not be a space where we are further disconnecting people. It’s hard enough to be a part of the LGBT community and people looking at you like you are different or having to feel like we have to earn our same rights that everyone else has. But to know that there can be a family that is food insecure that may consist of two lesbians or two men and that they are going to be looked upon differently—or they are not even acknowledged as a family—to be able to receive this benefit, is something that makes me really really sad. And I know that it may not be my personal experience because most people do not know that about me, and that is why I wanted to take the opportunity to come onto the podcast and let people know that when I am out there representing people that are food insecure, I’m also representing the LGBTQ+ family. It is who I am. And if I’m fighting for the rights of people who are food insecure I’m also fighting for your right.

The burdens of poverty and hunger weigh particularly heavy on folks in the LGBTQ community who are highly visible—including transgender and gender nonconforming people—and those who are also members of other marginalized communities, who are subject to intersecting and overlapping systems of oppression in our society—including queer people of color, and women. Here’s Emilio again:

In my view, and I am just speaking for myself, Black trans women are the most vulnerable population that we have when we are talking about marginalized communities. And in intersectionality that is the most difficult position to be in. And so, when I think about policy development and policy advocacy, I always think about how it could benefit them. And so, I do think there is a lot of work that we need to do to change these programs so they are more receptive to Black trans women in particular, but just people in need overall. One of our mottos at Hunger-Free is “Ending hunger lifts all boats.” And so, if we end hunger, everybody benefits. And so I hope that everybody takes that and does what they can to support that mission.

Additionally, there are members of the LGBTQ community who are at greater risk of food insecurity because of the ways that poverty affects queer people during different stages of their life course. This is particularly true for LGBTQ elders and for LGBTQ people who are parents.

MAZON’s anti-hunger programs includes advocacy work, specifically, for LGBTQ elders experiencing food insecurity. This is some of what Mia had to say about how the organization started advocating for LGBTQ elders, and some of what they have learned in their work along the way:

We began hearing from our partners that were hearing low-income seniors that one of the overlooked populations was LGBTQ older adults. And we have studies that hunger disproportionately affects seniors and the LGBTQ community. But hunger among LGBTQ seniors remained hidden and underexamined, and so we decided that more consideration of this population was needed—realizing that different populations experience aging differently, will experience food insecurity differently, and will encounter different kinds of barriers to access to assistance. And so, from our work on seniors we assumed that low-income LGBTQ older adults would have the same barriers that all seniors have to accessing a program like SNAP which is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program—it’s the program formerly known as “food stamps.” Seniors have trouble accessing that program because of the red tape associated with the bureaucracy of applying to government programs, and issues around stigma and pride: Not really seeing themselves as needing help, or thinking others need help more. And then just misinformation about eligibility or where to apply. We knew that LGBT older adults would face those barriers. But we have come to learn that this population has its own unique challenges to addressing hunger. And so MAZON is really trying to lift up this issue of hunger among LGBTQ older adults and educate policymakers about the unique needs and unique barriers they face, and advocate policy solutions to those barriers.

Older LGBT adults often experience isolation. They are disconnected from services, and they have limited support networks. So that is because they are twice as likely to be single, less as likely to have adult children or other family members they can rely on for support. And all these disparities are even higher for older LGBT people of color, those aged 80 and above, bisexual older people, and transgender older people. And so, while older LGBTQ people are a resilient population, they have some unique challenges that can combine to leave them more vulnerable to food insecurity and to receive help.

So early on in our work, it became very clear there was a dearth of data on LGBT older adults and hunger. And we know as advocates that you need that data to convince folks to make changes right? And so, the needs of older LGBT people will remain invisible and under-addressed truly over the long term until the federal government enhances its efforts to collect, analyze, and report LGBTQ-inclusive data. It is the only way we can really convince and help policymakers understand the disparities these populations face and then help to design targeted and effective policies and programs and so the lack of data for this population is a stumbling block for our advocacy.

We had the privilege of partnering with the Williams Institute which is a think tank at the UCLA Law School—they conduct research on sexual orientation and gender identity, law, and public policy. We had been exploring ways we could work with them. They had done some research in 2014 on food insecurity and SNAP participation in the LGBTQ community writ large but had never looked at hunger among LGBT older adults. We came to them with this idea of looking at this issue and we worked with them to incorporate it into this existing qualitative study they were doing on hunger and poverty in Los Angeles and in Kern County in California, so an urban county and a rural county, to get a sense of how this issue of LGBTQ poverty differs by place. We provided funding which enabled them to expand their research to include older adults, and to really look at—qualitatively—what is the experience in terms of accessing the charitable food system. And the report came out last year in 2020. It is called “We’re Still Hungry: Lived Experiences with Food Insecurity and Food Programs Among LGBTQ People.” And it revealed that there are some persistent challenges and barriers to accessing charitable food programs, and really brought to light some of the stories of people who are struggling—because they feel shame in asking for help, they fear rejection, and judgment, and discrimination from service providers, there were also comments about being concerned about the nutritional quality of the food that they received, and just challenges in using emergency food programs because of a lack of transportation or housing and being able to have a place to store food, or not being able to bring much home because they ride the bus back and forth. It was really our first foray into research on this topic and it came at a really important time. Obviously, during a pandemic, you don’t want anyone to be turned away from essential services they need.

Being a parent also affects people’s experiences with poverty and food insecurity—and being a parent disproportionately affects LGBTQ people. Although LGBTQ people are less likely to have children than non-LGBTQ people are, many LGBTQ people do have children. Nearly three-in-ten LGBTQ people in the United States have children already.[3] And Family Equality reports at least 45% percent of LGBTQ people 18 to 35 were planning to become parents for the first time, or add another child to their family, in 2019.

But LGBTQ parents and their children are also more likely to struggle with poverty than non-LGBTQ families. Twenty-four percent children being raised by same-sex couples live in poverty—nearly one in four—compared to only 14% of children living with differently-sexed couples. One-in-three (33%) LGBTQ parents raising children are food insecure, compared with one-in-four (24%) of non-LGBTQ parents.

Here’s how Barbie describes some of challenges of being a mother while struggling with food insecurity:

Food insecurity as a mother is absolutely one of the most devastating things that I have been through. I have had personal experiences with other things in life that are more like “This happened to me.” But when it comes to food insecurity, it is a living experience. You live it every day. No matter how hard you try, it may get a little better on this day or this week, but you know it is coming. Every month, you know it is coming. So you feel like a bad parent, you feel like a bad mom. Especially in my culture, in Hispanic culture, you are supposed to be super-mom. You are supposed to be able to work 9-5 if you have to come home, cook a complete meal, clean the whole house by yourself, sit down and do homework with the kids, and still sort of try to work on a business or your own dreams and aspirations at the same time. So its very very very hard. But none of that compares to the strength I needed to have to tell my kids “Go to sleep, it’s bedtime. It’s time for bed,” knowing they didn’t eat anything. And them asking questions like: “Mom, it’s early. The sun is still out. Why do we have to go to sleep?” And for me to just, “No, you have to go to sleep, you have to go to bed now.” Because I just did not have the heart to tell my kids, “I don’t have food for you guys.” And having to live with that on a monthly basis, on a daily basis, on a weekly basis, of like, “I’m going to have to tell them that again today.” This is probably the first time I’ve been able to say that without crying. Because, again, it builds these generational traditions, of like, now if I cook my kids ask permission before they eat again. Or if they eat and they see I have not eaten yet, they won’t touch the pot. And sometimes I have to tell them, “You don’t have to ask permission. You can go get seconds, it is okay.” And its an impact and a consequence that I did not even expect: That I’ve created this mindfulness in my children that was unintentional. So what that led me to do was something I call “read eating.” When I was so hungry and I knew for a fact that I did not have anything, or that I didn’t have enough. Like they showed in the film one day, I was feeding my children Chef Boyardee, and I was in the other room eating a sandwich—no mayonnaise just bread, and lunchmeat, and cheese—that what you guys didn’t see was after that moment, I had this pile of pizzeria menus. And what I would do would is I would sit away from the kids and just look through the menu, look at the pictures, read what is on there, and think about what I would eat. “I wish I had a cheese-steak right now. No, a pizza. If I had pizza what would I get on it? Pepperoni, some cheese, I’ll put some garlic on there, maybe some parsley.” And I would do that. “Okay maybe not a pizza, maybe a cheeseburger.” Until I would get tired. And it was like feeding my brain these words instead of feeding my body the food. And it got me through it. But those very intimate details are things that I have mentioned before but I don’t talk about as often because there is still some shame behind that. Because then you have to address things like eating disorders, and how food insecurity may contribute to that. Because at the time of course I did not think that was an eating disorder—I just thought I was surviving. But to this day when I can tell that I might not have enough, it might not be a pizzeria menu, it might be work: “Well let me just work instead of eating. Let me just dedicate my time to something that is going to help other people in this situation.” And not that ego is something to talk about, but it is definitely an ego crusher to know that you cannot provide what you are supposed to be able to provide. And it is not like you cannot provide a PlayStation or can’t provide a Tesla, these incredibly expensive things, it is the things you need to survive on a daily basis, and not being able to provide that. And having these two little kids look at you, knowing that no one else is going to provide that for them. And sitting with those things at the end of the night when they cannot see you and really trying to figure out a way out. Those are things that I still deal with today.

Even years later, Barbie continues to heal from the trauma she experienced while living with food insecurity. Barbie shares her experiences with others to educate communities and decision-makers about the actual lived experiences of people who are food insecure and put the day-to-day reality of living with hunger front-and-center in solutions to address hunger.

Here’s how Barbie explains why she does the work to share her personal story as an advocate:

I tell my story because—for mainly two big reasons. The first is that I know what it is like to be food insecure and I know what it does to you. I know what it does to you as a person. I know what it does to you as a mother. And I think so many people can relate to being food insecure, but because the conversation is so focused around stigma that people do not talk about it. So I do not want people to feel what I felt. And my second motivation was a very early on realizing that there is a difference between complaining and taking action. And a lot of people who use governmental programs or governmental assistance are looked at as people who are ungrateful and just complain. So, I had to find a way, after being denied at the welfare office so many times, I had to find a way to go there and present myself as a person who was smart or worthy while still saying “I still need help.” So, I needed to take my complaining and put it in the right room. And I think that because I did that, I was given a platform that not many people have. And because I have that platform, I have an obligation to my people. And my people include my children, my people include my culture, my people include anyone who has experienced what I have experienced—I feel like I’m a representation of them. In the hood, we have this thing that if one of us makes it we all make it. And so, if I can make it to share your message I’m going to do it in any way that I can.

As we know in the LGBTQ community: coming out and sharing our personal truth is a powerful way to combat the shame and the myths that society tells us about issues that are invisible in the public view—to restore the humanity to those who are denied human dignity in our society, and create change.

And, as we have heard, hunger is an issue that is often invisible, and those living with hunger are all-too-often stigmatized and shamed. The stories of folks like Barbie who do the work of coming out as hungry can be powerful reminders to everyone that hunger affects people we know in our communities—friends and family members—and that we have a responsibility to do more for them to end hunger.

Here is some of what Mia had to say about our collective and personal responsibility to this issue:

Our society, we need to end the stigma that is associated with experiencing hunger. I think that the reality is that the shame of hunger—it should not be borne by the people who experience hunger, but rather by all of us who allow hunger to continue when we live in a country that has more than enough food and resources to feed everyone. I think we have a lot more work to do to really prioritize a more justice-centered approach to addressing these issues and ensuring we have a compassionate safety net that supports people without judgment and provides pathways for opportunity and success.

As with other fights for social dignity and economic equity, the process of ending hunger and the shame and stigma associated with it will be a long and hard road.

At present those living with (and those who have lived with) hunger will still have to continue to cope with, and heal from, the trauma their experiences the feelings of shame that often accompany them. But that difficult work is not something that folks experiencing food insecurity need to struggle with all by themselves.

Here’s what Barbie has to say about the ways she thinks about her past of feelings shame, that still linger today, and the strategies she has used ground herself along her journey:

I cannot tell anyone how not to feel shameful when I still feel shame myself. But I think that the importance of building community so you can live with your experiences and still know that you’re valid, that they’re valid, and you can move past those barriers is what is most important. Having people that relate to my experience has definitely helped me be as strong as I am today. It sometimes feels like a sorority or a sisterhood—you know it is funny, I mean it is not funny—but oftentimes my peers and I have found ourselves calling each other our sisters in struggle, because that is what we feel like, you know? I cannot tell anyone how to get over the shame, but what I would say is that what pushed me to the point to be able to go reach out for assistance for the first time was knowing that I couldn’t change my situation on my own. And that in itself is very hard to acknowledge. So once you sit with that, and know that you have only been afforded certain resources and you don’t blame yourself for that, then you can move towards trying to actually find ways to maneuver through all of these systems safely and in a good mental space. You have to give up—you, unfortunately, do have to give up some sense of pride. And I do not think that that’s a bad thing. I think that me acknowledging that I have needed help in the past and that I still need help at times today, that it keeps me humble in knowing that I am human. And that I can be perfectly fine one day, and the next day that might not be the case.

And I think the coronavirus has definitely made those types of conversations easier because COVID doesn’t discriminate. And when I have spent so many years saying “Hunger doesn’t discriminate” people really still couldn’t relate to that because they feel like: “Well if you’re a billionaire or a millionaire you don’t have to really have to worry about food.” But when you think about Corona and how anyone could get sick, and it is not something you can necessarily see. You cannot necessarily see hunger because it looks different for everyone—but you know that it can affect you. And with this pandemic, the accessibility to food has been something that affects everyone. Even if it means that you still have food in your neighborhood but now you may have to wait before you go into your grocery store or your supermarket because there’s too many people there.

On two separate occasions, while lobbying in Washington D.C., there were two different state representatives that pulled me aside in private and said “I can never let my peers know” but one of them was actually on food stamps as a part of their adult life raising their children, and the other it was how their mother utilized the program in their upbringing. And so even in Washington, there are congressmen and congresswomen who are afraid just to say “This is my story too.” And it is because they do not feel safe, and they do not feel comfortable in those circles sharing that part of their story. So saying that to say that if you think you are the only one, there are people up there in that White House, who work there, or up on Capitol Hill, that work there, that this is also their experience. And they are still feeling that shame. So, if we can close the gap of making food insecurity feel like it only affects poor people then we will be able to move towards actually eradicating hunger.

And that work must be done by to all of us. We cannot expect the work of ending the shameful condition of hunger in this country to be borne only those who have lived through it. And one of the ways we can work toward a future where everyone has enough food is by ending the stigma against people who live with hunger, empowering them to come out and share their stories, and by having open and honest conversations about the reality of hunger in our communities.

And we will close off today’s episode with this last recommendation for listeners from Barbie:

Because this is such a touchy subject there can be people that are experiencing food insecurity around you that you would not know unless they tell you. So be open to the sign:  Pay attention to the person who was just always talking about how they want to go to lunch. Pay attention to the person who you can tell their stomach hurts. Or pay attention to the kid who wants to eat a little bit of your lunch or is trying to take your lunch money, because people do not necessarily think about these things and why they’re doing them. And sometimes, its just because they are hungry.

Thanks for listening. Next time, we will continue talking with Emilio, Barbie, and Mia to learn more about barriers for LGBTQ folks seeking food assistance from government programs and at nonprofits—including a lawsuit filed by MAZON, SAGE, and other advocates against the Trump Administration to keep nonprofits receiving public money from requiring food-seekers to pray before they get food. We hope you will join us.