Spotlight Exclusives

New Alliance to End Hunger President Eric Mitchell Faces Busy 2024

Eric Mitchell Eric Mitchell, posted on

The Alliance to End Hunger, a coalition of corporations, nonprofits, faith-based organizations, universities, foundations, international organizations and individuals that works to combat hunger in the U.S. and abroad, recently named long-time executive director Eric Mitchell as the organization’s president. Mitchell spoke with Spotlight recently about his new job and the busy agenda the Alliance faces in 2024 with rising famine conditions internationally and difficult negotiations in Congress to preserve anti-hunger programs at home. The transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Our readers obviously know about the Alliance, but why don’t you give a brief description and then we will talk a little bit about this new job.

At the Alliance, we are a coalition of over 100 national organizations and members. We are a very diverse coalition, and our membership includes corporations, nonprofits, faith-based institutions, universities, foundations, and even individuals who are committed to ending hunger and malnutrition in the U.S. and around the world. Our primary focus is moving policy that puts us closer to that goal and creating the public and political will to end hunger.

And you had been the executive director and now you are the president. How is this job different?

Well, as president, I’m really doing a lot of external things. Obviously, I’m still overseeing the operations of the organization but I’m also serving as the lead spokesperson. I’m representing the Alliance a lot in different meetings with other CEOs and other leaders of other national organizations and I also serve on a number of boards. So, in my capacity as president, it’s important to really be able to sit with other members of my cohort and really talk about how we are going to address these tough issues that we’re facing right now.

And why don’t you talk a little bit about your agenda for the year? You’ve got a heavy agenda right this moment on the Hill, so I guess we can start there. Nothing like starting the year with a bunch of stuff on your plate.

The last two weeks, it’s been a busy 2024 already! We focus on policy related to hunger and not just in the United States but around the world as well. The upcoming Farm Bill is a major priority for us. Within the domestic side, we want to make sure that we are maintaining strong domestic nutrition programs, particularly SNAP, and other programs that are authorized through the Farm Bill. We want to improve accessibility to these programs and make sure that families, no matter what their situation is, are able to put food on the table.

And some of the key issues that we’re looking at in this upcoming Farm Bill are big. Many people may not know, but there’s a federal ban on access to SNAP benefits for men and women who were formerly incarcerated for nonviolent offenses. And when you think about those who are most at risk of hunger, this is a population of our community that is always the most at risk of hunger because they are usually underemployed and/or low-wage workers. And so, what we want to ensure is that as they’re trying to get back on their feet and put food on the table, they’re not denied the same access to benefits that everyone else has.

We also want to ensure that our programs are done in a way that’s culturally appropriate. We’ve have a number of Jewish and Muslim organizations who are part of the Alliance, and we’re working to ensure that there’s improved access to Kosher and Halal meals. We’re also pushing for improved access for military families and veterans.

On the global side of things, we want to protect our global nutrition programs like Food for Peace and McGovern/Dole, as we are faced with a huge global food crisis around the world. There are more and more regions starting to be considered as having famine conditions; we’ve just learned that Gaza has been given that designation. We want to make sure those programs are strong but also that, with the limited dollars that they do have, they’re able to reach as many people as possible. In looking ahead, we also want to have those big conversations, such as talking about how climate and conflict are impacting food insecurity around the world, especially small-holder farmers in the global south. One of the things that we have been urging for our stakeholders and government leaders is to make sure that small-holder farmers have the resources they need to be able to withstand these tough challenges, whether it’s more resilient types of programming or more support of capacity building.

So yes, we’re facing a very busy 2024. We’ve been very involved in the talks in Congress on keeping the government open and also the talks about additional money to address food insecurity in Gaza, Ukraine, Sudan, Yemen, and others. We want to ensure that there’s funding to address food security in those regions, but we’re also pushing for funding to address severe childhood wasting and stunting.

To go a little deeper on a couple of those on the foreign side, is there food- and hunger-related money in this supplemental that is the subject of discussion right now?

Currently, what’s been proposed in the supplemental is $10 billion towards food security. So that’s the part of the supplemental that we want to make sure remains in the overall final package. And there’s still a lot of debate and policy discussions that members of Congress and administration are having right now, both directly related to food security, but then also on other issues, that’s impacting whether that bill passes.

There’s a potential tax bill that would revive the expanded Child Tax Credit. What’s the Alliance’s view on that?

We’ve been supportive of the Child Tax Credit. I do understand that this will probably be a slimmer version of what was done during the pandemic relief packages. But I do support the fact that these conversations are happening and as they’re looking at this larger tax package. We are working with all our partners to make sure that the Child Tax Credit is in fact expanded.

What’s your sense of potential additional funding for WIC—a program that to a certain degree is the victim of its own success There’s been a lot more need, but also over the last few years, more people are getting access to it, which is a great thing, but costs more money.

For those of you aren’t aware, we’re facing right now a billion-dollar shortfall in the WIC program and WIC is a fundamental, life-saving program. It’s not only dealing with nutrition, but it’s dealing with health, primary care opportunities and prenatal health. It is a program that helps mothers and children all the way up to age five to ensure that they have all the access to resources they need to be able to survive and thrive. And if this shortfall is not addressed, it could negatively impact up to 2 million beneficiaries.

Over the years we’ve been able to expand the program; for example, we were able to fund additional money that would give additional funding for the purchase of fruits and vegetables for a mom and their family. Being able to have access to fruits and vegetables helps to give that family more nutritious options. And as you mentioned, because of some of these expansions we’ve been able to do over the period of time, participation has increased, but that’s also due to some of the policy decisions that have been made. For example, the expiration of some of the SNAP expansions that we saw during COVID have caused families to turn to WIC to try to cover some of those needs.

My understanding is that conversations are happening right now as we speak to see how we can close that gap, but it’s going to be tough politically. You have one side that’s really opposed to any additional money for discretionary programs. But at the same time, WIC does have bipartisan support. And so, we just sent a letter signed by 65 organizations to the Appropriations committee in both the House and Senate urging policymakers to protect our nutrition programs during this budget cycle. At the end of the day, families will have to deal with whatever decisions are made here in Washington, D.C. It could be either be a positive impact or a negative impact.

And as you well know, WIC is a case where not only is there bipartisan support now, it’s a program that’s enjoyed really remarkable bipartisan support over the years.

The program actually started under the Nixon administration over 50 years ago. It’s continued to have bipartisan support because it benefits a very targeted population when kids are starting their most fundamental developmental stages. It’s a program that resonates with a lot of lot of people regardless of political stripe.

And back to the Farm Bill, we’re in an election year. What do you think the likelihood is that a Farm Bill gets done this year?

I mean, we have no choice. I’m not a betting man, but I know that there’s definitely interest on both sides of the aisle to get the Farm Bill done.

We talked to David Beckmann, your friend and former colleague, recently about his efforts to get presidential candidates to talk more about these issues. And I just wondered if the Alliance and your partners are looking at any efforts to get candidates, whether it’s at the presidential level or the House and Senate level, to talk more about hunger issues as the year goes on?

We are doing a series of campaigns and engagement opportunities where we’re wanting to lift up these issues around hunger and nutrition and just stay on everybody’s radar. I’ll say this—I’ve been doing this work for quite some time. And over the last four years, because of the impact that the pandemic had on so many Americans and seeing those pictures of long lines of people going to food banks, I think that more than ever we do recognize now that hunger has no preferred zip code or preferred racial demographic. Hunger doesn’t care if you live in the suburbs, or you live in urban communities. Hunger doesn’t care if you’re Republican or Democrat. This is top of mind for a lot of voters now.

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