“You Can’t Tell What You Don’t Know”: An Interview with Witnesses to Hunger

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Earlier this fall, our Executive Director, Steve Werlin, had the pleasure of sitting down with Kim Hart, Susan Harris, and Wanda Perez from the New Haven Chapter of Witnesses to Hunger.  Witnesses to Hunger is an advocacy group made up of those who have experienced or are currently experiencing food insecurity.

 

Steve: What is Witnesses to Hunger?

Susan: It’s a grassroots organization whose interest is in food insecurity.  That’s the simple explanation.  But as Kim [Hart] describes it: We’re tired of being tired.

Kim:  We exist because the lawmakers and policymakers need the experts to tell them what is and is not working.  They need our expert opinion [as people who have experienced food insecurity].  They sit up there in Hartford, on Church Street, and in DC, making decisions that affect me and my life without even asking me.  I say, “No way, buddy!”  They need us, whether know it or not.

Wanda:  I like to be able to speak for those who are too embarrassed to speak up.  I want to be the advocate for the generation coming up.

Steve: How many people do you have altogether?

Kim: We have about 25 members who come to the monthly meetings.

Steve: What do you think brings people to your meetings?

Kim:  Being hungry.

Susan: And hungry for change.

Wanda: For me, it was Kim.  Kim is a good advocate and teacher.  We need leaders who can show us the way to change.

Steve: Witnesses to Hunger is a national organization, but how long has the New Haven Chapter been around?

Susan:  Since January.

Kim:  We tried to start it up in September (of 2017).  At that first meeting, only one person showed up.   It was so discouraging.  So I went to people, looked them in the eye, and told them we’ll have childcare, transportation, and free dinner!  People told me they’d be there, and then no one!  So discouraging!

Steve: Wow, so then how do you get from there to four months later with 25 people strong?

Kim: How’d it finally happen?  Because of the Food Access Working Group [FAWG, a sub-committee of New Haven’s Food Policy Council made up of representatives from a variety of agencies in New Haven, including DESK].  Because of Billy Bromage [Chair of FAWG].  Because of Susan Nappi [Senior Community Impact Director at the United Way].  They saw the vision and they talked me into trying again.  So we blasted it out through social media, through the United Way’s email list, and we got the word out with help.  I needed a team.  Having a team made all the difference.

Steve: Had you done anything like this before, Kim?

Kim:  Never.  Never.  And I didn’t even know that this was called “organizing”!  People refer to me as an organizer.  I say, “I’m no organizer!” And they say, “You are, too!”  So I organize!  I bring people together.  I help set the agenda.  And, well, I gotta be charismatic! [Editor’s note: Kim is quite charismatic.]  But I also have to be empathetic.

Steve: Do you think it’s possible to be empathetic without bringing your own experiences?

Kim:  No, not at all.  For me, it goes hand in hand.

Susan:  You can’t tell what you don’t know.  And that’s why we go and talk to the politicians and tell them what’s needed.  Like this whole 20 hours per week to keep your benefits [i.e., the proposed work requirement changes to SNAP benefits included in the now-defeated version of the Farm Bill].  Ideas like that affect a lot of people, and it just causes problems elsewhere.  If people can’t get help from SNAP, they’ll turn to some other means, some other avenue.  You know?

Steve: Susan, how’d you get involved?

Susan: Through Kim.  But I liked the message, so I stayed.

Wanda:  Same with me!  Kim told me about it, and it was something I wanted to do.  To get out and help others with the same issues I’m dealing with.

Steve: So what keeps you coming back, Wanda?

Wanda:  I like meeting new people, and knowing that I’m not alone in going through these problems—whether it’s hunger, or housing, or just not having enough money.   I’m not alone.  It also helps me get good information to share.

Susan: This summer, for example, we went to the Mobile Food Pantries and helped the United Way to collect information.  But we also helped share information.

Wanda:  We helped out at various mobile pantries, and many times we found that people were reluctant to say who they were, where they came from, because they thought they wouldn’t get food.  So we explained.  We told them it doesn’t matter which neighborhood, which country, wherever you come from: you’re gonna get food!  Nobody’s leaving here without food!  It doesn’t matter.  Hearing it from us made a difference.  We got them the right information.

Kim:  But really, the point of Witnesses is to bring stories.  Data is great.  It helps.  But data and stories need to go hand in hand.  We need stories along with data to be more effective at changing policy and changing laws.  Like this work requirement: People need to know from voices in my community why that doesn’t work for most people.  If I’ve got a felony, I can’t get a job, and so now I’m being criminalized for being poor!  We are tired of being criminalized!  We have to change the face of hunger.  And that’s what Witnesses is all about.  I mean, look at me.  I’m well-dressed.  I’m educated.  I’m a great mom.

Susan: And a good Christian!

Kim: [Laughs] You said it, not me!  But yes, here I am.  I’m not what people picture when they think “hungry.”  But you better believe I’m hitting up that pantry on Saturday.  Because I have to!  So let’s change that face.  Let’s make it more personable.  People need to know that this is what the face of hunger is all about now.

Steve: Do you think there will always be a need for Witnesses?

Susan:  Yep.  With the way the politics are going, we’re going to need more and more help.  We’re not going in the right direction.  But it’s not just that.  We’ll always need Witnesses to help with the stigma.  For example, did you know that only 22 percent of eligible children took advantage of the Summer Meals program last year?

Steve: Why is that, do you think?

Kim:  For my son, it’s embarrassing. 

Wanda:  Right.  For children, it’s tough.

Susan:  Neighbors shame each other when they see each other’s kids going out to the food truck.

Kim:  And I get it.  I remember feeling that way, too.  But I got over it.  My mama used to say, “If you’re going to be embarrassed or ashamed, be embarrassed or ashamed with a full belly.”  So things got hard for me, and I got hungrier and hungrier, and I eventually just swallowed my pride.  But my son is sixteen and he just will not do that.

Steve:  So then how do we get good, nutritious food to everyone and get over the stigma?

Wanda:  First, you gotta educate.  We got to teach kids that it’s OK to be in need.

Susan:  Right.  And use the farmers’ markets.  You can get double your SNAP benefits at the farmers’ markets!  Fresh produce, fresh fruits!  Double what you spend!

Wanda: And use the community gardens!  They’re there for everyone.

Kim:  And just get involved!  If you’re hungry for change, and you want to educate legislators, the press, and the public, come join us!

 

If you’re interested in learning how you can get involved with Witnesses to Hunger, call Kim Hart at (203) 540-1628 or email her at [email protected].  Or just show up at the next meeting: Saturday, January 19, 12:00-2:00 pm at the Wilson Library, Lower Level (childcare, transportation, and lunch provided).  And in the meantime, check out Witnesses to Hunger New Haven on Facebook (@WitnessestoHungerNH).