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How This Former ‘Food Elitist’ Is Helping to Fight Hunger

Start a conversation about Feeding America with Clancy Harrison and you’ll soon come away with a better understanding of what it means to be hungry in the United States.

As a registered dietitian, TEDx speaker and food justice advocate, Harrison challenges the way hunger—or, more to the point, food insecurity—is approached in the U.S. She didn’t always have these insights, and as a health care provider and public health educator, she says she initially struggled to connect with her clients.

“I learned very fast that the real face of hunger is invisible and predominantly among the working class,” Harrison says. “Hunger is found in every rural town, big city, and state. Hunger hides behind the door of nice homes. I knew my professional and personal mission needed to shift because hunger in the U.S. is a hidden health care crisis.”

Harrison is also president of the West Side Food Pantry and the founder of two grass-root anti-hunger programs, Children Feeding Children and FARMU. She has also served as a food service director for Aramark. She currently teaches at Pennsylvania State University and is the chair for the Political Action Committee of the Pennsylvania Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Harrison is also an ambassador for the National Dairy Council.

Tell us about when and why you became interested in addressing hunger.
I am a recovering food elitist. For many years of my professional career, I made catastrophic assumptions. I thought anyone at any time could jump into a car and go to their favorite grocery store. I believed most people could buy high-fiber foods, wholesome dairy foods like milk, yogurt or cheese, lean meats and fresh produce.

Unknowingly, I promoted an ideology fit for less than 1 percent of the world population. The truth about hunger first hit me over the head when I became president of a large food pantry, the Al Beech West Side Food Pantry, in 2013.

You describe yourself as a “food justice advocate.” What does that mean?
To be a food justice advocate is to play a major role in dignifying food assistance programs so more people will have access to healthy food. I call it food dignity.

Food dignity fosters a sense of pride in oneself during a hardship. It has the power to eradicate the internal and external shame a person experiences while buying formula with WIC (Women, Infant & Children) dollars or groceries with SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, a.k.a. food stamps) benefits. Food dignity reduces the stress and fears a parent with food insecurity experiences because they have access to a steady supply of healthy food.

What is the biggest misconception people have about food and nutrition security and the prevalence of hunger in the U.S.?
Food security is having access to a steady supply of healthy food to meet the needs for an active and healthy lifestyle. In general, that is pretty hard for everyone regardless of socioeconomic status!

The definition of food insecurity is the opposite. It occurs when someone doesn’t have access to a steady supply of nourishing food. There are many reasons for food insecurity. Here are just a few of them:

  • It is common to see an elderly person who worked their entire life struggle with food access because of a lack of transportation, mental health diagnosis, disability diagnosis or lack of income.
  • Nearly half of college students must make the difficult choice between buying food and paying tuition.
  • Some veterans may have a difficult time gaining employment because of a disability or post-traumatic stress disorder.
  • Natural disasters such as flooding, tornadoes and hurricanes cause temporary and long-term hardships.

After I explain the real face of food insecurity in the U.S., most people can identify their own struggle because it is common in our country.

One in six children in the U.S. faces hunger. What puts so many children and families at risk?
It is estimated nearly two-thirds of Americans will experience at least one year of poverty (i.e., fall below the 20th percentile of income distribution) at some point between the ages of 25 and 60.

Childhood food insecurity is common. Many educators, principals and school nurses observe food insecurity daily in their schools. Teachers often bring bananas or granola bars to feed some of their students. They understand a child’s behavior with food insecurity significantly changes when they are provided food.

Imagine how you felt the last time you experienced hunger pains. Did you have a headache, nausea or did you become aggravated, impatient, and intolerable? Now imagine you are a hungry child, sitting in spelling class. Can you concentrate on the lesson or even pass the spelling test?

What can communities do to help alleviate hunger and improve health?
Our nation has resources to solve the hunger crisis, prevent chronic disease and actively transform health in a way that hasn’t been done. We have effective food assistance programs and a network of leaders who are eager to contribute to this work. However, these tools and resources do not work unless they are connected.

It is time for leaders in health care, nonprofit and corporate America to unite and make food access a No. 1 priority. Most health care professionals, public health educators and corporate wellness programs promote the consumption of fresh produce to prevent and manage chronic disease without asking their clients or patients about food access. A person cannot eat broccoli unless they have access to it.

Health care providers, employers and nonprofit leaders can provide people the following:

  • Food assistance applications (hard copies, links, and phone numbers) along with the eligibility requirements for SNAP, WIC, School Meal Programs, Summer Meal Sites;
  • Technical help with the food assistance applications;
  • A list of local food resources, such as food pantries and soup kitchens;
  • If the organization is a nonprofit, they can become a member agency of their local Feeding America food bank and establish healthy food stands on site for the people they serve.

How can communities work to ensure perishable, nutritious foods like milk, fruits and veggies can get to people in need?
The biggest barriers to getting perishable foods to people who need it most is transportation and refrigeration. I am excited to see the Feeding America network is working hard to increase funding for refrigeration units at food banks and food pantries.

How important is milk in a food pantry?
The most-requested item at our food pantry is milk. At the West Side Food Pantry we serve perishable food such as dairy, meat, poultry, eggs and fresh produce two times a week because we have refrigeration. Our local Feeding America food bank, the Weinberg Food Bank, provides refrigeration grants and the best price for milk, allowing us to serve milk and other dairy products twice a week.

Unfortunately, this is not the case for many food pantries who do not have the ability to store perishable food. And unfortunately, people served by food banks receive the equivalent of less than one gallon of milk per person per year.

People who live with food insecurity are missing the critical nutrients milk provides. Milk has eight grams of protein per serving and is the best food source for calcium, vitamin D and potassium. Milk is a perfect food to help America’s food programs get nutrition to people who need it most: our children and elderly.

To help increase milk distribution to the people who need it the most, The Great American Milk Drive< and Feeding America have delivered more than 16 million servings of milk to food banks across the country since 2014.

If there’s one thing you want people to understand about hunger, what would it be?
Each day I work hard to remind myself I cannot judge a person’s decision because I don’t know the choices available to them. I like to think of myself as an expert in food and nutrition. However, I will never be the expert of someone’s circumstances or their life. I feel somewhere along the way we lost this.

Five Common Food Assistance Resources

  1. Food Banks of Feeding America:The Feeding American Network consists of 200 food banks with 60,000 food pantries and meal programs.
  2. Breakfast After the Bell:Breakfast After the Bell offers breakfast for everyone in effective ways.
  3. Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP):SNAP is the largest food assistance program in the United States. It offers nutrition assistance to millions of eligible, low-income individuals and families and provides economic benefits to communities.
  4. Women Infant & Children (WIC):WIC invites all caregivers to apply. The program offers healthy food choices, community referrals, nutrition education and breastfeeding support.
  5. The Summer Food Service Program (SFSP): Summer meal sites ensures low-income children continue to receive nutritious meals when school is not in session. Help us ensure any child 18 years old and younger does not go hungry this summer.

Over the last five years, the dairy community has donated more than 31 million servings of milk to children and families in need through The Great American Milk Drive and is committed to providing 50 million servings of milk to children and families in need by 2020. You can take action against hunger and help increase access to nutrient-rich foods by donating milk at www.giveagallon.com. Even a small donation can make a big impact – for as little as $5, food banks can deliver fresh gallons of milk to children and families who need it most right in their community.