Iowa City Congregation Studies Hunger from all Angles
Yesterday, the Congregational United Church of Christ in Iowa City, IA launched a seven-part educational series on hunger that is free and open to their community. While seven sessions seems like a long series, each addresses a different aspect of hunger – from how to access healthy and sustainably produced food to the local face of hunger – and provides attendees with a full picture of the complex and interrelated causes and effects of hunger and food insecurity in our nation and around the world. I spoke with Donna Hirst, the chair of the mission board of the Congregational United Church of Christ, about the series and what she’s seeing on the ground in Iowa City.
Jeannie Choi: What was the inspiration for your church’s seven-part series on hunger issues?
Donna Hirst: The mission board of our church has four responsibilities: finances, advocacy, education, and direct service. In the past we have often done a major speaker series; for example, one year we had five or six speakers on health care reform.
It was unanimous that this year we do a series on hunger, and it was also the first year that we attempted a seven-part series, which is pretty ambitious for our church group. But I am just delighted that it’s falling together so well. We had our first event Sunday and we saw a film called “Silent Killer: The Unfinished Campaign Against Hunger.” We had about 40 people, which is great considering it’s an interim, and none of the students are in town. (Iowa City is home to the University of Iowa.) I was really pleased with the turnout and we’ve got now six more sessions.
I was most interested in the session with a local farmer. Tell me a little bit about this session.
Dana Foster is a farmer for Scattergood Friends, which provides food for school kids and teaches kids about farming and sustainable farming practices. And so she’s not only a very committed farmer in that sense -- raising food for the school -- but she’s also a farmer teaching about the land and growing.
What signs of hunger or food insecurity do you see in your community?
We have a very large crisis center and food pantry and have served not just the Iowa City area, but Johnson County with organized food distribution programs. It seems like for the last 10 years, every year there’s more and more people in need of food assistance, and they get lots of extra food at Thanksgiving and then they’re out of food by the first of December! And then they get extra food at Christmas, but sustaining that over the course of the year is really challenging, and this is in a community that’s relatively stable economically.
What is your goal with this series? What do you hope participants will take away?
The focus of this seven-part series is education, but by the time we get to the last session on Feb. 19, we will have eight people who are going to talk about their local agencies, what they do to alleviate hunger in the region, and how they utilize volunteers. When the series is over, our congregation is going to have another session where we sign people up to volunteer. Our hope is that people would really want to continue volunteering and that they would work that into their regular schedule.
Why is fighting hunger important for you, personally?
I think that I grow spiritually when I can connect with people of all types, all situations, all ages, and that connectedness fills up my soul. I need these connections to be complete and healthy.
It’s very painful to have an interaction with someone who you can tell is suffering for whatever reason, but some kinds of suffering an individual can’t do too much to alleviate. When somebody you know has just had a divorce, you can be moral support, but you can’t change their situation. But if someone doesn’t have enough food, you can give them food, and I think that’s part of why I really want to be very active in our church mission program. The hunger series is just an excellent example of working toward that.
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