My name is Lynne McMullen and I recently began a new job developing SNAP outreach efforts to help Minnesota nonprofits combat hunger among senior citizens. The facts about hunger in Minnesota are staggering. In my first two months working on SNAP outreach, I learned that more than 600,000 Minnesotans are struggling to put healthy food on their tables each day. That’s almost as many people as live in the Twin Cities.
I learn more about the factors contributing to hunger every day, but this number never ceases to catch me off guard. Each time I walk, cycle or drive out of downtown Saint Paul in rush hour, I catch myself wondering: “How is it that many of us never suspect our neighbors, friends, or relatives are skipping meals?”
Just as hungry Minnesotans are often unidentified in our communities, they are frequently unaware of the public assistance programs designed to prevent them from making tough decisions such as the harmful choice between medicine and groceries. For example, only half of Minnesota seniors who are eligible for SNAP are enrolled in the program. Some days, the size of this problem is discouraging. But the response is large- and it is growing quickly.
Last month, I had the privilege of attending the 2013 Minnesota Food Access Summit in Duluth with my coworkers and a few AARP volunteers. 480 individuals attended this event, circulating through workshops and networking sessions. I was awed by size and vibrancy of Minnesota’s anti-hunger community. Public health workers, food shelf volunteers and representatives from a broad range of nonprofits brainstormed ideas to coordinate our efforts. In one breakout session, I listened as a farmers’ market volunteer connected with her local meal delivery service and a county outreach worker to develop a partnership. Everywhere I went people were connecting to work efficiently across professions.
Even 480 of the most effective workers can feel like a small force against a problem touching 600,000 lives. Returning to our respective offices, food shelves and garden plots makes it easy to become overwhelmed. That’s one reason many of the people I met spoke animatedly about recruiting volunteers and raising awareness in their communities.
I witnessed this growth in Duluth before the conference ended. One morning, I overheard the cashier at a bakery asking someone about her nametag. This woman quickly summarized the conference and the young man remarked: “Wow, I had no idea hunger was a big deal here.” This brief discussion reminded me that effectively tackling hunger is not limited to recruiting volunteers and connecting people with resources. It’s also about the two minute conversations that prompt people to learn more. In fact, talking about the work that is being done to address hunger in everyday settings is one of the best ways to create an environment where it’s normal to make sure our grandparents, coworkers and neighbors can afford to maintain balanced diets.
Lynne McMullen is an AmeriCorps VISTA member with the National Anti-Hunger and Opportunity Corps, a project of New York City Coalition Against Hunger serving with the AARP Foundation at AARP Minnesota. Over the next year, she will be developing SNAP outreach efforts to help Minnesota nonprofits combat hunger among senior citizens and blogging about her experience.