Setting a Foundation for Advocacy in Communities
Panelists speak about hunger at the Oregon Faith Roundtable Against Hunger "Hungry for Change" event. Panelists, from right to left: Robin Stephenson (standing), Bread for the World; Patty Whitney-Wise, Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon; Philip Kennedy-Wong, Oregon Food Bank; and Howard Kenyon, Northeast Emergency Food Program.
By Robin Stephenson
On a recent frosty, fog-filled day in Portland, some 65 Oregonians spent the morning learning about hunger in their state, with a focus on moving from awareness to action.
Through the local anti-hunger coalition Oregon Faith Roundtable Against Hunger (OFRAH), of which Bread for the World is a member, Bread staff and the regional Bread Team partnered with Catholic Charities and other Portland-area advocacy and service groups to put on the event "Hungry for Change." The OFRAH program examined the state of hunger in Oregon and highlighted legislative opportunities at both the state and federal level. Advocate voices are critically needed, especially in the coming year as fiscal belt-tightening will likely target programs for poor and hungry people.
In our work in the Portland area, we have benefited greatly by working in partnership. Although policy priorities of different organizations and groups may differ, the common thread of ending hunger creates fertile partnerships where coalitions can bring groups together to focus local energy and grow advocacy. Many of our Bread members are associated with multiple local anti-hunger groups and our working together, with a shared agenda, helps those members focus their advocacy. To our legislative delegations, partnered groups look big, and therefore may be perceived to have a stronger voice. And as each group has a special niche and particular talent, working together can often create a more complex and nuanced picture of hunger in a region.
One of the highlights of the day was a panel that painted a picture of hunger in Oregon that went beyond simple statistics, and showed how often the same issues require advocacy at both the state and federal level.
As a regional organizer for Bread for the World, I talked about critical federally-funded programs that keep people afloat as they struggle through tough economic times—programs that can be a crucial hand up for many escaping poverty. The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) has long been a priority for Bread for the World and is an example of policy that pulls people out of poverty, especially children. Although the EITC was recently extended as part of the “fiscal cliff” bill, it faces several obstacles in the coming year. Our goal is to make this refundable credit permanent.
Patti Whitney-Wise, executive director at Partners for a Hunger Free Oregon, talked about how Oregon’s working poor and near-poor families pay some of the nation’s highest state income taxes. Whitney-Wise explained that the state EITC helps families bridge the gap by supplementing very low wages and allowing them to afford life’s basic necessities, including food and housing.
Oregon Food Bank’s state policy expert, Phillip Kennedy-Wong, discussed the increasing need in the state and pointed out that state and regional food bank networks have distributed over 1 million emergency boxes in the past year. He also said that cuts to The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) have depleted some of their resources.
But the panelist that made the stark reality of hunger most real was Howard Kenyon, program manager of the Northeast Emergency Food Program. They have felt the pinch of the reduction in U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) commodities, but Howard also sees the effect of hunger on the faces that utilize the pantry daily. He made sure that everyone understood that poor people were not lazy when they often had to wait several hours for a food box in their overcrowded facility. He told stories of people he knew who struggled to find work and make it from month to month with meager resources.
The day also included breakout sessions on advocacy, story-telling, and in-depth federal policy. Each session gave participants a variety of ways to get involved and act toward change.
There is strength in numbers, and when our politicians and media have been silent on the needs of low-income Americans, we must come together and be loud enough for them to hear us amid all the competing voices.
If you would like to organize an event like this or join a local coalition but don’t know where to start, contact your regional organizer for ideas.
[Read the Catholic Sentinel article on the "Hungry for Change" event here.]
Robin Stephenson is Bread for the World's national social media lead/senior regional organizer, western hub.
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