Jonathan J. Halperin
Jonathan J. Halperin
Designing Our Future
Strategy. Partnership. Communication.

On Hunger and Respect in America

As Representative Jim McGovern said from the floor of the House of Representatives a few days before president Obama’s State of the Union last evening, “Hunger is a political condition.”  (Transcript)

50,000,000 Americans are not on SNAP (formerly food stamps) because of a lack of food in America. Nor do they suffer the indignities of this program – which often last a lifetime – as a means of defrauding the government of what is on average a meager $4 per day.

With the head of the state office that issues food stamps in Colorado in the audience, with representatives of the Governor’s office present, and with Representative Dominick Moreno at her side, Leslie Nichols spoke eloquently through tears as she recounted her experience growing-up with an empty refrigerator and wondering where she would find her next meal. A teacher in Collbran, CO, Leslie now delivers food to hungry families. Her poignant and powerful relationship with Rosie, a fifth grade student of hers, is movingly portrayed in A Place at the Table -- which opens in theatres nationwide on March 1.

I had the honor last evening in Denver to introduce the film and moderate a panel with Leslie, film director Kristi Jacobson, State Representative Dominick Moreno, and Kathy Underhill from Hunger Free Colorado. Threaded throughout this conversation last evening were issues of core American values: dignity, respect, community, and trust.

In every community in this nation, we have neighbors who are hungry. And this is not the kind of hunger we all experience for having missed a meal. This is a grindingly chronic hunger that goes on day after day after day. And yet the vast majority of people receiving federal support to purchase food receive this aid for ten months or less. They do not abuse the system; they are not moochers but people who have hit a tough stretch. The majority of this 50,000,000 are employed either part- or full-time. And one of out every four children in America today is on food stamps.

We have allowed the tragedy of hunger to exist in this country – it has become the new normal – by branding the hungry as somehow less worthy, less American, and deserving of less respect than other ‘real’ Americans. But this is about to change.

In a collaboration between Participant Media, The Marcus Foundation, The Ford Foundation and major national anti-hunger organizations, successful Americans who were once on food stamps or SNAP are speaking-out about the value of the program and the dignity of the hungry. Bill Ritter, the former Governor of Colorado has had the courage to tell his story. So has Moby, the renowned electronic musician. And TV film star Debi Mazar. And Patty Murray, the four-term Senator from Washington State.

The “political condition” of hunger as Representative McGovern so precisely described it, is changing. And while change can sometimes seem agonizingly slow, when it gains critical mass – like a wave – its power should not be underestimated. Imagine 50,000,000 hungry Americans rejecting the social stigma that has silenced them and finding their political voice. Stay tuned.

When I began to unhook from SustainAbility in 2008, after 20+ years, to co-found Volans, Jonathan was working with the US end of SustainAbility — and sent the London end of the Volans team a large cardboard box of multi-colored felt rocks, which initially I couldn't make head nor tail of. I thought he was mad, or overly American.

But I have to say that, over time, those felt rocks have become a central feature of the Volans culture, thrown by team members at other team members (or guests) on the slightest provocation. That aside, he's a consummate professional, creative collaborator, skilled communicator, and keen intellect—and I am delighted both to have had Jonathan as a colleague and to now count him as a friend.

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