Food is a Moral Right

Author: Jordan Vernoy - State Director of the Iowa Food Bank Association

A great lyricist, Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie, opens his Transatlanticism album with the line, “So, this is the New Year, and I don’t feel any different.” I understand this sentiment, but do not harbor the same feelings. I, and likely many others, see the celebration of a new year as a rejuvenation of hope. Some of our spark may have been lost in 2011. This New Year brings, if not a clean slate, a new one. The past is behind us, and we can dream of a better future. However, my lens is one of someone living in a three person household with two incomes, health benefits and even a little left over to save for retirement. I have the opportunity to imagine a bright future, because my past is pretty shiny as well. For the nearly 382,000 Iowans who struggle against hunger, Ben Gibbard’s lyric probably sounds about right. They lack the time to have beautiful dreams about their future, because they are forced to live in the present. The New Year is not going to magically put food on their table, provide them with low cost transportation, pay the heating bill or offer them a good paying job with benefits.  2012 has come, and they don’t feel any different.

I recently had the opportunity to speak at a Feeding America all staff meeting.  Feeding America is our national partner, an organization that connects over 250 food banks throughout the United States. I was asked to talk about the special things food banks in Iowa do during the holidays to support their member agencies and food insecure Iowans. As a part of that discussion I described the Northeast Iowa Food Bank’s (NEIFB) holiday food distributions, which I coordinated for two years while working at NEIFB. There is a lot that goes into the distribution, including procuring the food to provide to families, scheduling volunteers and, the hardest part, deciding who will receive the food. NEIFB simply cannot provide a holiday box to everyone they serve in a year, so processes are created to decide the recipients. The last year I coordinated the distribution we provided food to those clients who had received a crisis box in the three months prior to the distribution. Included were families who had never been to the food pantry before, had not been in the past six months, or had a major event happen in their lives that would create abnormal hardship. The clients were sent letters informing them of the date and time that they could receive their holiday distribution, and volunteers were coordinated for different shifts.

At this point in my speech to a staff of eager anti-hunger advocates, I went a direction that they did not expect.

During a break between shifts, a woman entered the food bank and asked if she could receive food. I asked her if she had received a letter, and after hearing an answer of, “No,” proceeded to tell her that this was a special distribution and she would need to return the next day to receive a normal distribution. The woman became irate, and began calling me every bad name you can think of in front of a group of volunteers, NEIFB staff and the NEIFB Executive Director.

Who should be frowned upon in this story? Me!

As we so often do, I had become so wrapped up in the policies and procedures that I ignored the purpose of my work: Feeding Hungry Iowans!  During the holiday season, this woman was not feeling comfort or joy. She was feeling the immeasurable stress of trying to put food on table for her family, and I shut another door in her face. Her reaction was completely warranted.

My mind quickly came to this conclusion, and I scrambled to put together a cart full of food to wheel out to her before she drove off.

This is another point where the story could read like a Hallmark movie where the woman breaks down in tears, apologizes for every name she called me and invites me to Christmas dinner. Again, reality is not the story that was expected.

As I got out to the woman’s car I apologized and offered her the cart of food. She said, “Oh, okay,” and popped the trunk. I loaded her trunk as she sat in the front seat with the engine running. As I shut the trunk door, she drove off.

I share this story to be honest with you about the fight against hunger. A great Iowan and Nobel Prize winner, Norman Borlaug, said “Food is the moral right of all who are born into this world.” When one is fighting for moral rights they are fighting for social justice. If we have learned anything from the Arab Spring and the ever increasing gap between the wealthy and poor, we have learned that fighting against social injustice is not pretty. We need everyone to stand with us in the fight against hunger in Iowa, but if you are signing up for tears of joy and hugs of thanksgiving you are in it for the wrong reasons and you may be sorely disappointed.  During the holiday season, a lot more consideration is given to the work of hunger advocates. Media attention is focused on the great work we do, and donations come in at drastically increased levels.  However, the real work happens the other ten months of the year when hunger is yet again forgotten, hungry Iowans are stuck feeling no different than they did last year, and we are hitting the pavement trying to keep pantry shelves from going bare. So you say, “Jordan, there has to be some incentive for you and the other amazing anti-hunger advocates to keep going.”  Yes, of course there are. The rewards I receive from this work are a faint hint of success each time IFBA helps one person, a new sense of hope each time it clicks for someone that hunger is an issue and they must take action, and lot of sleepless nights wondering how I can do more.

When you get right down to it, this work is about providing a voice to those who are unable to speak for themselves.  This blog is an honest perspective of what it looks like to be that voice. If you are ready to join the chorus, I would be proud to stand by your side as we fight for a hunger free Iowa/Nation/World.

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Posted on January 10, 2012, in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. Thank you for your insightful and inspiring commentary. I worry so often that in our zeal to “tell the story”, we tell stories where our organizations are heroes in helping “worthy” people because we’re afraid to offend anyone or make our supporters comfortable. The honesty in your telling was so much more powerful. I’m so glad you’re on our side!


  2. It is easy to get caught up in all the policies and regulations to keep an organization running smoothly. Those policies and regulations sometimes get substituted for the real mission of an organization and when that happens, we miss the mark and fail people who depend on us.
    Hi my name is Edgar and I have also encountered a huge need in the part of Iowa I’m from. I started a mobile food pantry called Community Basket that will revolve in ten towns (hence the word “mobile”) to better serve our community. Instead of people having to figure out how they will get to us, we are going to them with food every month. At the end of the day, it’s about the people who need the help and not about the organization we can create. If we stop thinking about ways to help people and more about how to keep order, we will fail.


  3. Great blog Jordan. Thoughtful and provocative, too. Just the kind I like!

    Can we put a link to it in our Cedar Valley Nonprofit Association newsletter?


  4. Very inspiring! Keep up all the good work you are doing my friend!


  5. Great job Jordan. Hope things are going well with the legislature.


  6. A great read amidst grad school textbooks and articles. I think I will bring this policy/procedure vs. moral imperative debate to a classroom discussion this semester. Something I struggle with often. Will report back!

    Keep making change a reality!


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