Not everyone may agree, but some of us believe the government has a role to play in feeding the hungry, housing the homeless and addressing other pressing health and human service problems. In order to fulfill that role, government decision-makers need to know what those needs are.
An amazingly effective but simple way exists for your food pantry to communicate information about community needs to the officials who need to know about these needs. It doesn’t involve lobbying or anything else that anyone should find objectionable. All it requires is a little extra copying, addressing a few envelopes and applying some postage stamps.
What you want to duplicate are seven extra copies of your pantry’s monthly activity report. Most food pantries I am familiar with compile a report on how many families they have served, how many people were in those households, why they were in need and how much help was provided. Don’t include clients’ names. Just provide a tally of need and of help provided.
Make seven extra copies of that report each month and mail a copy to each of the following people:
■ The President of the United States
■ Your two U.S. senators
■ Your area’s member of the U.S. House of Representatives
■ Your state’s governor
■ Your state senator
■ Your state representative.
You can raise awareness
What good will this do? More than you would ever believe! Before I got involved in running food programs I was a lobbyist. I worked with the Illinois General Assembly for six years on poverty law issues for Illinois’ Legal Aid Programs. During those years we experimented with a variety of approaches to try to influence the legislative process. From these efforts I learned three very valuable lessons:
■ In general, elected officials are abysmally ignorant about the poverty situation in the geographic area they represent and grossly underestimate the magnitude, seriousness, and consequences of the situation.
■ In general, elected officials want to do a good job for the people they were elected to serve.
■ As a general rule, elected officials’ brains are hardwired to interpret any communication from any source on any topic as a plea, demand, or request for action on that issue. It doesn’t matter if the communication asked for or demanded anything or not. The fact that it references an issue that the official could logically be expected to care about, know about and do something about is sufficient to flip all the right switches in their brain to call them to action.
Everyone has probably seen movies or heard stories about legislators or other officials getting giant bags of mail, such as the judge in “The Miracle on 34th Street.” It does happen, but not as often as you might think. And when it does happen, it is usually so obvious that it’s a campaign orchestrated by some special interest group that the effort has no impact. More often, officials get relatively modest amounts of mail, and a lot of that is so scattered all over the landscape topically that there is no rhyme or reason to it: A fifth grader wants a law naming some obscure beetle the state bug, somebody is worried because they heard on talk radio that Russia faked the fall of communism to throw us off guard, somebody else wants to replace interstate highways with bike paths.
But suppose one day out of the clear blue an official starts regularly hearing from dozens of churches and other respected community organizations about thousands of people in his or her district who don’t have enough to eat. Suppose he or she hears from the Methodists, the Catholics, the Presbyterians, the Lutherans, the Baptists, the Seventh Day Adventists, big churches, little churches, churches of all races, city churches, suburban churches and rural churches, “Hunger! Hunger! Hunger!” What do you suppose he or she is going to do? Ignore it? Not likely!
They are going to take a very big interest in the subject of hunger and will begin exploring and supporting opportunities to help address the problem. For example, every year most of America’s major anti-hunger advocacy organizations unify around a single omnibus package of legislation they want to get the Congress to approve and the President to sign. Those groups often send out legislative alerts noting which legislators will co-sponsor their package and urge people to get their area’s legislators to join that list.
Recently, this package had 21 co-sponsors in the House of Representatives. Three of the 21 were the three relatively conservative gentlemen who represent the part of western Michigan my food bank serves. And why are they so interested in reducing hunger? Because every month they are hearing from the people like you and me that hunger is a very significant problem.
We want to feed the needy but we want social justice as well. We want schools to equip children with the skills it takes to succeed in the work- place. We want there to be jobs for people who want to work. We want people to have equal opportunities without regard to race or other irrelevant characteristics. We want jobs to pay wages that families can live on. We want a viable safety net out there to catch those of us who might ever stumble and fall.
So while we feed those who come to us for that, let us also speak out for justice and for a day when perhaps no one will be in such need.
You can add your voice to that most necessary chorus by simply making extra copies of your monthly reports and mailing them to the officials noted above. It isn’t lobbying. It cannot possibly get you or your organization into any sort of trouble with the government. All you are doing is shining a light on an issue that otherwise lives in the shadows and is easily ignored. By shining that light you will once again—as with every chapter in this guidebook—have multiplied the impact of your anti-hunger efforts to many times the power and impact they have ever had before. And it is precisely that gentle multiplication of impact that will make ending hunger in America something we will be able to proudly tell our grandchildren about. How will we do it? By simply doing a lot of good things even better.
Ending hunger in America is within reach. But knowing how to end it and getting communities and anti-hunger organizations to switch from their old traditional practices to these new methods has proven far more difficult than I ever could or would have imagined possible. Ultimately I believe that that is how and why the Waste Not Want Not Project recommendations will ultimately prevail. Americans like to succeed in what they do.