Spotlight Exclusives

A Cross-Country Tour Marks 20 Years of Activism

Joel Berg Joel Berg, posted on

For Joel Berg, CEO of Hunger Free America, June 16 marks 20 years in his post. To mark that milestone, he’s headed out on a cross-country car tour to visit local chapters and make the case that while the pandemic is thankfully easing, the hunger crisis in America remains a looming danger. A specific message Berg is pushing is that while the response of the charitable sector during the COVID crisis has been laudable, private anti-hunger dollars are dwarfed by the importance of the federal safety net, and key pieces of that system are being debated on Capitol Hill, including new proposals from the Biden administration to add additional resources to anti-hunger programs. Spotlight caught up with Berg somewhere in western Massachusetts; the conversation has been lightly edited for length and content. 

So where are you now and where are you headed?

I’m doing an event in Hadley, Mass, with (Rep.) Jim McGovern (D-MA), out in western Massachusetts. I started on Tuesday (June 1) and did events in the Bronx and Albany, NY (with Rep. Paul Tonko) and then in Burlington and White River Junction, Vermont (with Rep. Peter Welch). The trip is not all consecutive – there’s a New England swing, up through Boston and then to Maine and then I’m coming back and doing events in Connecticut. I’m then doing some one-off events in New Jersey and New York City and then starting in early July I’m going for something like five weeks to the mid-Atlantic states, then the Southeast, then Texas,  Southwest and then up through California to Oregon and Washington, then back through Boise, Salt Lake City, Kansas City, St. Louis, Chicago, Detroit, Columbus (OH) Pittsburgh and then home.

And what’s your vehicle of choice?

Right now, I’m driving the family Honda with my partner along to take photographs, as she’s a professional photographer. I’m going to do this for the New England and New Jersey stops, but for the other stops, over five weeks, I don’t think this car can handle it as it’s 30 years old. So, we’ll probably rent something, though it’s not cheap; if Hertz or Avis are reading Spotlight and want to sponsor the tour, let us know!

How did this idea come about?

Two things. I really like visiting the sites as much as humanely possible, meeting with colleagues and speaking to people with lived experience around the country. I was not able to do very much of that last summer – I was able to do one very brief trip to New York and Pittsburgh and Columbus, but very carefully watching the COVID statistics. For sure, I don’t want to get COVID-19, but I’m even more concerned about possibly passing it on. As you know, low-income people often have compromised immune systems.  They’re more likely to get COVID and pass on COVID and so I’ve been very cautious about doing any significant traveling but I think the time is right now. We’ve been looking for an opportunity to get back out there and this is my 20th year with the organization; June 16, but who’s counting? I really wanted to do something to mark that and send the message that I really shouldn’t have to have this job, as this problem shouldn’t exist.

I’ve also been concerned that the media coverage about hunger is starting to go away; it always spikes in the midst of a perceived crisis, as there was during the Reagan recession, the 2008 financial collapse, Superstorm Sandy in the northeast and Katrina in New Orleans. There was obviously a lot during the COVID pandemic, but a lot of that coverage has gone away and we’re very worried that the media, the donors and elected officials will say, ‘problem solved.’ In the president’s address to Congress, he talked about how hunger has gone down but in the last two months hunger has started to inch up again as some of the cash people got has been used to pay for basic living expenses. I really want to call attention to the fact that this is still a problem and to really thank charities around the country but highlight the vital role of the government safety net and how much that’s expanded.

I want people to understand that when there’s extra money on their card or they’re getting a card for the first time through the pandemic EBT program, it’s not an accident. It’s not just something like the weather, that’s cyclical. It’s because it’s public policy, that a president and congressional leaders made these decisions. I’m in Massachusetts now and according to the recent census data, 240,000 people in the state weren’t able to get the food they needed in just one week. In this state, 911,000 people are getting SNAP and that’s $154 million a month, which equals $1.8 billion a year in just Massachusetts, a not very big state. The pandemic EBT program will have given parents and kids over $500 million worth of food. So, as we go around the state, we’re stressing that even before the pandemic, safety net programs were 15 times the dollar amount of food distributed by charities in America. I’m trying to make the safety net visible and make people understand what this means for their state, for their communities. And I’m standing up with a lot of people from the charitable food sector who are reinforcing my message that they can’t solve the problem. I’m also trying to reinforce that this isn’t just about the south side of Chicago or the South Bronx, or Appalachia or the Mississippi Delta, the stereotypical poorest places in America. This is also suburban – as well as a rural and urban problem, it’s a problem in all 50 states.

There’s a lot of hunger and nutrition-focused legislation either moving or being considered. I just wanted to take your temperature and see how you feel about where the administration is heading on this topic.

Generally, I think they’re doing very well. Hunger Free America wrote a long memo to the transition team detailing what we think they should do on hunger and much of that they’re either doing or trying to get Congress to do. So, I give them very high marks for both effort and execution. The only thing where I don’t think they’ve gone quite far enough is on school meals. They called for expanding the community eligibility provision and while expanding it would be helpful, it still creates a ridiculously complicated formula for school districts to follow. For suburban or rural areas, community eligibility does not work that well at all. It works best in areas of concentrated poverty, concentrated hunger, but if you are hungry and you’re a kid, it really doesn’t matter to you whether you’re in an area where 30 percent of the kids are hungry as opposed to 60 percent of the kids being hungry. That’s why we’re really pushing for universal, free school meals and Sen. (Bernie) Sanders (I-VT) and congresswoman (Ilhan) Omar (D-MN) have a bill to do that. Why we’re micromanaging families on school meal eligibility based on small income differences is beyond me.

They’ve made a lot of progress on online SNAP delivery but I think they could do even more because large parts of the country aren’t getting SNAP and WIC online. We think SNAP and WIC should be integrated more in terms of the application process and the using process. That would be better for retailers and better for clients. And one unique idea we’re pushing along with some other organizations is to create pilot projects at the state and local level to do two things: help people apply for a wide variety of benefits through their smartphone and combine that with banking services and allow people to voluntary come up with action plans with a local nonprofit group. Let’s say someone wants to start owning a home instead of paying rent forever. The home costs $300,000 and they have to put down five percent, or 15 grand, and a local United Way might put down five, the government might put up five and the family would put up five. Those are the kind of projects that might be authorized and there’s a piece of legislation called the HOPE Act, sponsored by Sen. (Kirsten) Gillibrand (D-NY) and Rep.  Joe Morelle (D-NY), Rep. Adriano Espaillat (D-NY) and rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA) that  would accomplish this.

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