Diane Riley spends her days advocating for hungry people, recognizing that she could be in their place were she born 25 years later.
"I grew up in a very blue-collar home, and I know that today we would be one of the people going to food pantries," said Riley, advocacy director for the Community FoodBank in Hillside, New Jersey, and a deacon in the Episcopal Diocese of Newark. "We were able to make ends meet, own a small home. We never went hungry. We had health care. That would not be the case today."
Riley and others involved with hunger advocacy and feeding programs describe growing numbers of people – with and without jobs – seeking help from food pantries and meal programs as the economy continues to struggle.
The United States Census Bureau recently reported that the country’s poverty rate rose to 15.1 percent while the median household income declined in 2010. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, 17.2 million American households had trouble providing enough food and 40.3 million people received benefits through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly called Food Stamps) in fiscal year 2010. The National School Lunch Program fed an average of 31.6 million school children daily, and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children served an average 9.2 million participants each month.
At the same time, food-assistance programs here and abroad are vulnerable to funding cuts as Congress and individual states struggle to rein in deficits. Episcopalians throughout the church are working to prevent such cuts and to advocate for policies to reduce hunger. Some are stepping up those efforts in this harvest season in response not only to current events, such as the Congressional "super committee" preparing a debt-reduction proposal, but also to dates throughout September and October designated by faith and secular organizations to raise hunger awareness and activism. These include observations of September as Feeding America’s Hunger Action Month, of World Food Day and Bread for the World Sunday on Oct. 16 and of Food Day on Oct. 24.
"We're looking at a very difficult budget situation right now on all sides," said Alex Baumgarten, director of government relations and international policy analyst for the Episcopal Church’s Office of Government Relations based in Washington, D.C. On the international front, as Congress prepares its fiscal year 2012 budget and looks for cost reductions as called for in the recent deal raising the national debt ceiling, "we're expecting a round of movements to cut the poverty-focused foreign aid programs that specifically respond to hunger around the world."
The office has begun issuing Episcopal Public Policy Network alerts urging church members to contact members of Congress about maintaining funding and is looking to engage bishops and others around the church, who often have relationships with their government representatives, to do the same, he said. "At a time when we’re looking at really a historic famine in the Horn of Africa, especially right now is not the time to be cutting the key accounts that respond to that kind of need."
Anticipating proposed cuts in domestic hunger programs, "we are looking at a campaign to target members of what they're calling the 'super committee' … as well as members of the leadership who will have a say in how the money is ultimately spent," Baumgarten said.
"There's a renewed urgency for faith communities to be as loud as they've ever been on these issues," he said. "We are very much the constituency of the voiceless, both at home and around the world."
"Members of Congress often consider this funding to be an easy target because they look around and they say it doesn't really have a constituency in the United States," he explained. The goal is to get people of faith around the country to contact Congress members and show that 'there are millions of Americans who care very deeply about this funding."
Ultimately, what drives most Congress members’ votes, he said, "is what their constituents are telling them is important to them. And so, for all that I would say that our efforts in Washington our vital, our efforts through bishops and through prominent grassroots leaders are vital, the single-most valuable thing that we can do is speak from our local congregations and from our local diocese to our elected officials in our communities."
One of the Episcopal Church's partners in this effort is Bread for the World, a nonprofit ecumenical Christian organization that partners with about 70 denominations and other church organizations to advocate for policies to end hunger in the United States and globally.
"Bread doesn’t do direct service. We just pull together a very large tent to be a collective Christian voice to convince Congress that ending hunger is a priority," said Carter Echols, Bread's director of church relations.
Bread for the World and the Office for Government Relations co-chair a religious working group on foreign assistance, and the Episcopal Church has endorsed various Bread initiatives, said Echols, who attends the Episcopal Church of the Epiphany in Washington, D.C. "I'm proud as an Episcopalian that it's enough of a priority that as much energy goes into it and that there are all kinds of ways that we work in partnership with the Episcopal Church."
Concerning foreign assistance, she said, "We and the Washington office of the Episcopal Church and many others have been working hard to say: It's not just how many dollars that we spend trying to alleviate hunger and poverty overseas. It's how we spend the dollars, and pushing for principles like greater transparency of how the dollars are spent [and for] country-led development, so that the recipient countries have a say in what the priorities are."
Domestically, she said, "right now there's a huge ecumenical effort to create a circle of protection of programs in the context of the current Congress, to say, 'Yes, we need to deal with our deficit, but we should not be balancing the budget on the back of poor people. … We have programs that successfully help people not fall into hunger and help people out of poverty, and let’s not be cutting those.'"
Bread offers educational resources to congregations about the biblical basis for hunger advocacy and ways to get involved, including observing Bread for the World Sunday on Oct. 16, which is World Food Day. Bread perhaps is best known for its letter-writing campaigns to Congress.
"They are written by churches across the country that wouldn't agree on anything except hunger," Echols said. "It only takes about five letters to a Congressional office to get that office to take a piece of legislation seriously."
About 300 Episcopal churches have been active with Bread during the last five years, writing letters, providing financial support or both. One is Emmanuel Parish in Rapid City, South Dakota, which supports Bread financially and annually participates in the organization's letter-writing campaign.
The church generally schedules letter writing for a May Sunday near Rogation Sunday, "which is an old feast in the church calendar that happens in the springtime particularly around the time that crops are being planted," said the Rev. Seymour Flinn, a retired priest in the congregation who coordinates the campaign. "That also seems to be a good time when the legislation that is being pursued by Bread for the World is being … introduced."
The church supplies educational information from Bread explaining the campaign's emphasis, and members then write simple letters to each of the area's three representatives and place them in a basket, where it is included in the offering during worship, he said. The church mails the letters the next day, and "we almost always get a response from our Congresspersons."
"I think part of the purpose of doing it is to encourage people to see the connection between their faith and their political action, particularly when it relates to issues of hunger and poverty," Flinn said. "There are strong Christian mandates for reaching out to those that are struggling to live."
As Episcopal Church economic and environmental affairs officer, Mike Schut provides education about connections between economics and ecology, including how that relates to food systems and moving toward sustainability. Last year, he worked with the Rev. Christopher Johnson, who oversees the Jubilee Ministry network, to offer health and nutrition grants to churches "that were addressing food deserts and access to good food in communities that often don’t have access to that good food," such as by planting community gardens, he said.
"My work tends to focus a bit more on education, making these connections and then saying: These are ways you could get involved in these various issues in your own life and your congregation's life," he said. "Internationally, some of our advocacy work around climate change connects to hunger. As rainfall patterns change and droughts and floods become more exaggerated, farmers are experiencing impacts on their ability to grow food, and that’s a common story in many parts of the Anglican Communion."
"When we advocate for climate change and energy policy, we as a church and with our ecumenical partners always also lobby and emphasize the importance of having adaptation monies set aside or that we provide funds for those experiencing the most immediate effects of climate change." That might mean supporting agricultural programs addressing "some of the impacts that climate change might have on a local farm community's ability to support itself," he said.
He also promotes actions around occasions like Food Day on Oct. 24, providing a link on the office website and promoting it through various e-mail lists, he said. Calling it an "Earth Day for food," the Center for Science in the Public Interest plans Food Day "to promote and celebrate healthy, sustainable, just and affordable food systems in America."
Getting the word out
Communication plays a key role in the battle against hunger, whether alerting people to contact their Congress members or informing them about events such as Food Day or connecting hungry people to support services.
In the Diocese of Maine, transitional Deacon Heather Blais is helping develop a web resource providing information about poverty-related services – particularly focusing on hunger and homelessness – for people in need as well as ways for people to get involved. The effort was inspired by conversation around General Convention 2009 Resolution A155 addressing domestic poverty.
"There are a lot of resources out there. We just don’t know about all of them," she said. "And some of them, if you knew about them, would be very easy to do in your own community."
"We want people to know what’s going on. We want to encourage and empower people to get involved and to be aware of what the needs are in Maine and in their local community."
In Arkansas where she directs the No Kid Hungry Campaign, Episcopal Deacon Joyce Hardy communicates hunger-related information to other deacons across the church as part of her membership on the Domestic Poverty Task Force of the Association for Episcopal Deacons. She alerts them to the need to contact legislators, particularly on the federal level, about hunger issues plus provides information about best practices in combating hunger. "We're really fortunate to be one of the states that Share Our Strength is really investing a lot of technical support and other resources [in], so I want to share that information."
The No Kid Hungry Campaign is a program of the national nonprofit Share Our Strength that aims to end childhood hunger in America by 2015. The Arkansas campaign is one part of the feeding, education and advocacy efforts of the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance. “Part of it is actually feeding people, but a lot of [it is] awareness and new programs and making affordable nutritious food more accessible,” said Hardy, Province 7 clergy representative to the Episcopal Church's Executive Council.
"The two primary goals for the first year were to increase net participation [in nutrition programs] and to increase the number of kids that are fed in the summer," she said. This involved outreach, from setting up a website and hotline to training people to go into food pantries to sign up people for benefits to offering six-week cooking classes to show people how to prepare a week's worth of meals using SNAP benefits.
Hardy makes sure to get the word out to Episcopal churches and other members of the Arkansas Interfaith Alliance. September has featured a variety of “hunger action” activities, including a breakfast and an AARP-sponsored Drive to End Hunger.
"We're working beyond just childhood hunger. We're trying to make sure seniors are fed, and so many of the seniors are raising their grandkids," she said, adding they also hope to get seniors to volunteer.
Hardy sees her work as part of her calling to move people into mission. "A lot of what I try to do as a deacon, what I was feeling called to do, is getting people out of the church."
Most other deacons in the Episcopal Church are involved with hunger issues as well, she said, noting her emphasis is on "trying to do more with changing policy and not just handing out food."
In New Jersey, Deacon Riley does advocacy and education for the Community FoodBank, which is part of the national network of Feeding America food banks marking September as Hunger Action Month. The food bank supports local food pantries, including ones at Episcopal churches, plus runs programs providing school supplies and other aid to children, training people for jobs in the food-service industry and distributing boxes of food to senior-housing residents.
Riley sends out Internet alerts and organizes efforts to contact Congress about hunger-related legislation. This month, for example, she's encouraging people at food banks and elsewhere to decorate paper plates to be sent to Congress urging the preservation of funding for food programs. She also works with Bread for the World and recently made a Congressional visit with someone from the Diocese of New Jersey. "The more we can do that together, the better," she said.
Previously, Riley served as outreach and education coordinator for Apostles' House in Newark. While there, thanks to a Feed the Solution grant from Trinity Wall Street in New York, Riley led hunger-awareness programs at churches throughout Northern New Jersey.
The need for food aid, she said, is growing. In recent years, the food bank has increased annual distribution from 21 million pounds to 38 million pounds of food in New Jersey. At the same time, food prices have risen, increasing the food bank’s costs.
Even during better economic times, "we didn’t reduce hunger," she said. Since she began doing hunger-advocacy work five or six years ago, "the root causes are the same and disturbing," she said. "The middle class is getting squeezed. There is less money coming in overall in a family … The economic crisis, as you can imagine, has exacerbated that problem."
"Most people do not like to take handouts. They do not like to go to food pantries," she noted. "I don't think people have a lot of exaggerated goals here. I think they would like to be able to not stress about where their next meal is coming from. They’d like to be able to work. … We should be maintaining a strong workforce and a strong future for our children. How are they going to learn if they're hungry? That's not going to work."