Food Security: The start of my advocacy journey

By: Jacqui Cotton

Growing up, I remember feeling particularly sensitive about hunger. I was unsettled and saddened to think about other people going hungry at night, potentially right within my community. I was fortunate to grow up in a comfortable suburb in Monmouth County, New Jersey where most of my friends and neighbors enjoyed middle or upper-middle class lifestyles and where poverty and hunger were relatively invisible to the unknowing eye. Still, I was always sickened by the thought of other people’s hungry stomachs. I felt a duty to donate to each community food drive, and I would volunteer with school clubs that supported the local food bank.

As I progressed through my education, I found the field of public health which combined my dual interests in health and social issues. I started thinking more about the penetrating social issues that were at the core of human experiences such as health and hunger—how could I do more to tackle these social ills that would have more impact than simply donating a can of corn?

When I arrived at Mailman, I was still unsure about my direction in public health. During the Core we touched upon a milieu of public health issues and needs, each tugging at my heart-strings and making my question my personal mission and career path. I found myself living in a new environment, where hunger and homelessness is tragically rampant on our streets and subways, and where the inequities of our society are glaringly obvious. While our coursework did not touch upon hunger, food access, and its impact on health as much as I would have welcomed, I found myself motivated by the environment around me and by my FPOP colleagues with similar interests in the far reaching effects of food on population health. I had solidified my passion and field of interest—the intersection between health and food (in)security.

During the spring semester, determined to learn more about anti-hunger advocacy and the way health issues are navigated through our leaders and policymakers, I worked at the Food Bank for New York City as the Government Relations intern. The Food Bank for New York City is the largest Feeding America organization in the country, working with 1,000 charities and schools across the five boroughs. One in five New Yorkers depends on the Food Bank for food and other resources such as benefits access, tax assistance, nutrition education, and financial empowerment. In addition to serving 1.4 million New Yorkers each year, the organization does extensive advocacy work in the anti-hunger and anti-poverty sector—this is where I wanted to get my feet wet.

Through my day-to-day work and interactions with other members of the Research and External Affairs team, I learned about the intersection of legislation, advocacy, and the anti-hunger agenda. I researched relevant policies on nutrition and food assistance programs, such Child Nutrition Reauthorization and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as Food Stamps). I prepared relevant and timely policy-related documents such as legislative testimony, policy briefs, research backgrounds, and letters to elected officials. I had several opportunities to attend events such as press conferences, city council hearings, and lobbying days, where I saw firsthand how pressure can be applied strategically to advance agendas through policy and legislation. I attended Albany Advocacy Day at the state capital, and advocated alongside community members and other stakeholders in small meetings with state senators and assembly members. These experiences also helped me become more familiar with emergency food program funding and operations at the city, state, and federal level.

After a successful and interesting semester, I was excited to be offered an extension and a position change for the summer. I began serving as the “Hunger Cliff Fellow,” working between several departments including Research & External Relations and Communication & Marketing. My major project has been working on the re-launch of an online advocacy and information platform to be shared with other anti-hunger partners and policymakers across the country. The goal of the site is to raise awareness and stimulate conversation around SNAP in order to strengthen and protect the program from future cuts. As I dove deeper into research and advocacy around SNAP, I learned about the intricacies and challenges of navigating politically fraught topics like food stamps, or hunger and poverty relief and reform more generally.

During my summer work, I also became more involved in another citywide coalition led by the Community Food Advocates—the Lunch 4 Learning campaign, which focuses on universalizing free school meals in NYC schools. It was exciting and rewarding to work with other leaders from different policy circles including the anti-hunger community, school food, and children’s health and education. I learned a lot about their grassroots advocacy work, campaign strategies, and communications and outreach, particularly at the city level, by attending these meetings.

While I don’t consider myself an advocacy expert by any means, I have learned a great deal while working at the Food Bank and among fellow anti-hunger advocates. I’ve had to think critically about how to best package certain health and social messages to push forward our policy priorities. I was able to work with a lot of big data that had been collected by the Food Bank and partners such as the USDA and Food Research and Action Center, as well as experiment with storytelling in order to create more compelling messages for our advocacy campaigns. I was introduced to many national and local social policies and learned a lot through independent research and discussions with my senior team members. I saw the intersection of food policies and food programs and also witnessed many of the Food Bank’s innovation programs to combat hunger and poverty at a more systemic level (e.g. financial empowerment and tax services). This work involves a lot of systems thinking, not just related to the food distribution cycle, but also to the deeper social issues and policies from which hunger stems.

The part that drives me the most within this field is the fact that hunger is a solvable problem. It is large and daunting, yes—but ultimately it is a condition that can be eliminated through sweeping social reform and innovation. My passion is not merely hunger relief through emergency food programs—I dream of a sustainable, long-term solution for a well-nourished society that doesn’t have to worry where their next meal is coming from, but this cannot be achieved without persistent advocacy. I view food security as preventative healthcare, and with poverty being a leading social determinant of health, I think anti-hunger work is inextricably tied to public health. As I continue to advance the Hunger Cliff project, I look forward to learning more about health advocacy this semester to enhance and inform my work at the intersection of health and hunger.

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