HUNGER IN THE LAND OF PLENTY:
Rotary Panel Discussion Offers Solutions
By Jeanne McKnight
Food insecurity and what can be done about it took the main stage at the September 17 program that took place at The Fifth Avenue Theatre (thank you to Bernie Griffin for hosting us!) Lunches were provided by the unique foodservice and chef training program, Fare Start, and—thanks again to Bernie and members of the talented cast of “A Chorus Line,” Seattle #4 Rotarians were treated to a wonderful first course of two numbers from that musical (currently playing at The Fifth Avenue Theater).
Bell-ringer Steve Crandall opened the meeting with a brief introduction to the company he started “back in the day” of VCRs and videotape to the business he has built since. Doug Tollerud and Burr Stewart led the assembled in a rousing version of “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” followed by an invocation from Bill Center.
In introducing the main course, President Tom Betts harkened back to his first meeting with Shelley Rotondo in the 1980s, a meeting that he recalled as changing his life. “What can I do to help?” he recalls asking Shelley, after hearing about the need for solutions—a need that is still with us today. President Tom then took action, getting involved with Share Our Strength, a program founded in 1984.
While Seattle has become a food mecca, with food thought-leaders such as Tom Douglas opening up new eateries, it is also a place where people still go hungry every day. The main program, moderated by Tom Douglas, made it abundantly clear that the high cost of living and abundance of low-wage jobs have turned our region into a place of “the working hungry.”
Here are a few sobering facts about hunger in our state:
- Some 15 percent of all Washington State households—about one in seven—don’t know where or how they will get their next meal;
- Of this same group—also referred to as “the food insecure”—roughly one-third can be lumped into a category called the “working hungry”: that is, they have incomes that exceed the qualifications for food stamps and other such programs (although that number jumps to 44 percent in Western Washington because of the higher cost of living);
- Children—whose developing brains and bodies need good nutrition—are hit very hard. More than one out of every five children in Washington State is hungry or at risk of hunger.
Tom Douglas, one of the early supporters of Share Our Strength, asked each of the four panelists—leaders in the regional fight to keep food on family tables—a range of questions aimed at giving us a snapshot of the organizations that exist to help the hungry, what they do, and whom they serve.
Panelists included Shelley Rotondo, VP of Service for Seattle Rotary and Executive Director of Northwest Harvest; David Bobanick, Executive Director of Rotary First Harvest; Helen McGovern-Pilant, Executive Director of the Emergency Food Network; and Linda Nageotte, President and CEO of Food Lifeline.
A few highlights: Who are the hungry people? Can we end hunger? What needs to be done?
Shelley Rotondo: “You’re going to see yourself walking through that door” [at Northwest Harvest.] In the Pacific Northwest, ”70 percent of food bank patrons have a job,” and some have two jobs. These people constitute “the working hungry.”
Linda Nageotte: “Hunger is a symptom and it’s a symptom of poverty.” The way to end hunger, she said, is “building the will to end it.”
Helen McGovern-Pilant: We need to think in terms of nutrition, and start asking people the question, “When was the last time you had a healthy meal?”
David Bobanick: We need to build the collective will to end hunger; and we also need to do a better job addressing food waste. A startling statistic: “Forty percent of food grown in the United States goes to waste.”
Solutions discussed ranged from ensuring livable wages, becoming more efficient in harvesting/gleaning and distributing the healthy food grown in this state (“the key is distribution”), forming strong partnerships, and running each respective organization like a business, with efficiencies and lean overhead. To quote Shelley Rotondo on this subject: “We’re called nonprofits but we’re businesses” that are run efficiently. For example, she said, Northwest Harvest has just a 3-6 percent overhead.
The final question from Tom Douglas: Is there a value in teaching people how to fish rather than giving them a fish?
To a person, every panelist agreed that creating a world of food security will take collaboration, partnerships, creative thinking—such as the farm that the Emergency Food Network has established with labor provided by women from the prison at Purdy. It will take thinking about focusing on producing and gathering nutritious food and educating people about food nutrition and preparation.
Food for thought, from David Bobanick, as the close of a thought-provoking program. Yes, he said, it is very important to teach people how to fish, but don’t lose sight of the fact that “these people are fishing as hard as they can, every day” … and, sadly, the nets often come up empty.
Kudos to the panel, to Tom Douglas as a thoughtful, solution-seeking moderator, and to Bernie Griffin for helping to arrange such a beautiful venue. From the first act to the last, it was a very enlightening program.