Transcript: Closing the Racial Hunger Divide with Sherri Green and Allison O’Toole

Listen to this episode on Apple Podcasts.

Listen to this episode on Spotify.

Ami McReynolds | Chief Equity and Programs Officer, Feeding America: On May 25, 2020, George Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer kneeling on his neck for more than eight minutes. His murder sparked outrage and forced our nation to confront, once again, the deep systemic inequities faced by people of color. Perhaps no community was impacted more greatly by this tragedy than South Minneapolis, where George’s murder took place. While the community is still reeling with trauma, it has also strengthened its commitment to fighting racial inequality. 

Welcome to Elevating Voices, Ending Hunger. I’m Ami McReynolds, your host and the chief equity and programs officer at Feeding America. Elevating Voices, Ending Hunger is a series of conversations with everyday leaders who are disrupting the systems of inequity that drive food insecurity across the country. In today’s episode, we’re focusing on two organizations doing work to address the racial hunger divide. I’d like to welcome two people close to the community. Allison O’Toole, CEO of Second Harvest Heartland, and Sherri Green, family resources manager at Sabathani Community Center, located just blocks from where George Floyd was killed. Thank you both, Allison, Sherri, for joining today.

Allison O’Toole | CEO, Second Harvest Heartland: Thanks for having us, Ami.

Sherri Green | Family Resources Manager, Sabathani Community Center: Yes, you’re very welcome. Thanks for having us.

Ami McReynolds: Sherri, I’d love to start off with you. Can you tell me a little bit about the South Minneapolis community? What do you love about it?

Sherri Green: Well, first off, I love it because I am born and raised in South Minneapolis. It’s a community that is rich in culture. It’s just somewhere that I’ve always loved being, loving the lakes. I grew up around the lakes. I just love the atmosphere, the culture, the nature, all of those things in South Minneapolis.

Ami McReynolds: And Allison, tell me a little bit—I know before we had a chance to talk, but I’d love to share with our listeners the relationship that you have with Sherri and your partnership with Sabathani. 

Allison O’Toole: Yeah, I am so happy to, and I echo what Sherri said. South Minneapolis is home for me. For all of the same, you know, many of the same reasons that Sherri just mentioned, but I grew up here. My grandpa and dad had a business, a family drug store, right around the corner from Sabathani. And so this community has my heart, has my attention right now, too. But you know, we enjoy at Second Harvest Heartland a wonderful relationship with Sabathani and all they do there. 

But the fun part about this partnership is that Sherri’s dad and my dad were friends a long time ago. And I think Sherri and I—I know there’s a picture of us when we’re little, I don’t know where it is, but there has to be.

Ami McReynolds: I hope so!

Allison O’Toole: We should do a younger picture now of us, but the Greens and the O’Tooles have known each other. I, in fact, just talked to my mom about it, too. She remembers your family, Sherri, and all your family has done for this community.

You know, our role in the community is not only to be good citizens and engaged citizens, but we ran a family drug store where we helped people be well and help people connect. We had a soda fountain and I bet there’s a picture of Sherri and I at the soda fountain at some point

Sherri Green: Probably! Probably.

Allison O’Toole: But our families have been connected and it is just so fun, but really my honor, to be able to join forces with Sherri now again, later in life, around ending hunger together.

Ami McReynolds: Well, Sherri, you know, last year was just such an incredibly difficult year for so many people. Not only did we have a pandemic to contend with, but George Floyd was murdered just blocks from Sabathani and it cast a spotlight on your community. How have the events over this past year impacted your community and your work at Sabathani?

Sherri Green: Well, it’s impacted the community in a big way. You know, there’s always something happening every day. There’s a tone and tenor of impatience, I would say, a tone and tenor of, you know, there’s always a powder keg-type feeling that’s around here. And very little patience for what has happened prior to George Floyd. There’s very little patience of tolerating injustice, tolerating disrespect. 

You know, it’s been happening before, but now George Floyd has cast a light or cast a bright light on it. And I want to say that it’s not a horrible thing because as a person of color, I’ve known it’s happening. But who knew that something right up the street from George Floyd would turn this country on its head, because it has.

So the long and short of it is for me, I’m feeling the angst and feeling the impatience and the injustice in what is not going to be tolerated anymore. Has that had an effect on Sabathani? Yes. In a way. So I have to look as a manager. I have to look at the tone and tenor of how we, how people show up at work and how we treat our clients. I have to watch all of that now. I was watching it before, but it’s just heightened now. So I don’t think that it’s a—it’s just a new way of where we’re going to be living or where we’re living now and going forward. I’m okay with it, but is it stressful at times? Yes. Is it stressful at times? Absolutely. But I have to be in there and do the work because if the work doesn’t happen, then nothing’s going to change.

Ami McReynolds: And Allison, I’m curious, how have the events that have unfolded in Minneapolis really changed your partnership with Sabathani, if at all, and how has it perhaps evolved some of the work that you’re doing together?

Allison O’Toole: Our partnership with Sabathani has always been strong. So I just want to put that there. In some ways the events of the last year and a half have made it even stronger, you know, because our focus is different now. You know, I’m a white female leader. And from my perspective, the racial injustice, systemic racism has been there for decades. I’m telling you things you know, but that powder keg feeling that we have here, a lot of us are feeling it. 

And you know, when I think about what’s next, there’s discomfort across the community, impatience. We, and I, recognize that as a leader. And I think what we’ve done with our partnerships—I’m just talking about just the human part of it—is we’re staying in close touch with partners who are in areas that have been impacted by all the uprising after George Floyd’s murder. We’re paying attention to a lot of partners always, but there were corridors in this city that were literally on fire.

And so I think just in terms of partnership and being colleagues and humans, we’re staying close. But when I think about the work that we do together, Sherri and her team at Sabathani are helping us as we tackle what we call the hunger divide. And that is the fact that the pandemic has again revealed that our Black, Latino, Asian, Indigenous populations are at least twice as likely to experience food insecurity than their white counterparts. There are loads of stats around this. You both know them, but you know, our opportunity at Second Harvest Heartland is to not only do the work as leaders in the hunger-relief network ourselves, but also to think about where we’re investing our resources. 

Are we reaching populations who need help the most, who have been chronically underserved? We’re sharpening our lens or you know, sharpening our pencils to make sure that we’re partnering in different ways, sourcing different things. We’ve just recently doubled the variety of culturally specific food. So we are there to help people with food that is appealing and that they know and love. So it’s an every facet, those are a couple examples. But you know, we count on Sherri to help us figure those things out. If there’s one thing we’ve learned in the last 18 months, it’s that we need to all join together to move forward. And Sherri’s been a huge part of that.

Ami McReynolds: Thank you, Allison. I think, you know, staying in close touch, right? We sometimes talk about stats and data, but what I heard you just say, right, care for people, right? The relationship, the partnership, how do you stay in close touch? Sherri, you talked about how are you caring for your staff in this moment as well, so that they can care for the community.

Sherri Green: Yeah, it’s critical. Stats and data can maybe tell you a story about what’s needed in your organization. But it’s just a small part. It’s really just a small part. It’s being here, feeling what they’re feeling, feeling what the community is feeling, and then partnering with people like Allison and other organizations that do the work to heal our community. Because that’s what’s needed.

Ami McReynolds: You know, Allison, you brought up the hunger divide and you actually racialized the hunger divide. We hear about policing in communities; we hear about over-policing in communities. You talked about the impatience in tolerating injustice that’s happening in communities. Some of these issues feel so big. So I’m curious to hear from both of you, how do you see issues of race and justice connecting to the work to ensure that families have access to food? How are they connected in your mind? And if you have any specific examples of how that’s showing up in your work, I’d love to hear from you.

Allison O’Toole: I think they are inextricably connected. But I—communities thrive when they’re treated fairly and equitably. When you have a roof over your head, when you’re fed and have access to nutritious food, it’s all together. When I think about the huge issues around systemic racism, but in this community, police violence and that whole conversation, we’re keeping our eye on helping families stay well and fed and supported, and especially the communities that have been chronically underserved. We can do better to reach those communities. We can do better to reach those communities with really strong partnerships with Sherri and Sabathani and loads of other partners. So I think it’s shifting the way we think about you know, how we engage with communities and how we partner to reach communities. I’ll give you a couple of specific examples.

One I’ve told you about, sourcing culturally specific food. We’re also, we have an initiative called Minnesota Central Kitchen that is providing community-connected prepared meals. And here’s what I mean. I mean meals that are made from ingredients that people know and love and made in the communities that need them most. So our goal is to make meals within three miles of distribution site. And yeah, we’ve gotten, we’ve sharpened our pencil on this. We can do this. 

And when people have the security of a meal on their table, food in their cupboards, access to SNAP or other federal nutrition programs, it helps stabilize a home. And that is our goal, but all of these things are totally connected. And what we can do is invest resources, and I will tell you, significant resources, to tackle the racial hunger divide, and we’re going to do it.

Sherri Green: Yeah, I echo what Allison is speaking of. For an organization such as Sabathani, we need partners like Allison, like organizations like Allison’s and Second Harvest, to ensure that we can provide those things. To provide the food, the culturally specific food. We need food like that because that’s what our communities are looking for. At Sabathani, it’s okay to have things that are pre-made, but our clients like vegetables; our clients like things they can cook with. Our clients prefer all of that. They don’t necessarily want something that they can go home and put in a microwave. They want those culturally specific, good food that they can cook for their families and feed their families. 

Because Sabathani, you know, my role is to make sure I can provide those things. Second Harvest has been doing that since I’ve been here. You know, I’ve only been in this position for a couple of years. Second Harvest, and the food group, those have been my two places, but you know, that variety of food where people can take that home and cook is what my community is looking for. So I have to provide that for them.

Allison O’Toole: And one other really important thing that we’re doing, that I’m doing—as a white female leader, I am not going to always get this right. But people like Sherri give me the confidence to keep going, but it is to have the conversation, to keep talking about this. So it is front and center. And I, you know, I feel that way as a lifelong South Minneapolis resident, as a lifelong Minnesotan. We have, we can do better. We have the resources to do to better. We have to, if we’re going to keep moving forward as a community. And part of that is having the conversation and not being afraid to have it, help convene it, share the microphone with other people, and not be afraid to make a mistake. 

And that’s why I just say it all the time. I might not always get my words right. But I am in this. And people like Sherri help me keep going. And part of it is, you know, not only tactically what we’re doing at the food bank, but it is also stepping out and making room for this conversation. 

Sherri Green: And it’s uncomfortable, you know, the conversations are uncomfortable. So people in Allison’s role as the CEO of Second Harvest—to her, for her to step up and have those conversations is essential to how I show up for my organization.

Ami McReynolds: You know, I was in a conversation yesterday and we were talking about equity and how it’s important—you know, one of the panelists had mentioned how it’s important that people of color get an opportunity to share the mic, right. That there’s voice that is made available, that that folks can listen to and be heard and amplified. And it’s important for allyship as well in this work. 

So I’m curious, sort of on both sides of the microphone here, you know, Allison, what are some of the challenges, maybe, that you have experienced, right, as you make this commitment? I mean, certainly to sit in the discomfort of the conversations, to think about the significant investments that you’ve shared that Second Harvest has made in order to continue to move down this path. I’m just curious, you know, sometimes we always talk about like, oh, here are the great things that are happening. What are some of the challenges that people run into and should expect to run into in this, in this work?

Allison O’Toole: So I will tell you, Ami, all of the challenges, all of the discomfort is worth it in my mind. And so that mindset helps me. And as a leader, I’ve had to figure out how I recharge after these conversations because they are difficult. At Second Harvest Heartland, we’re on the journey with—our diversity, equity and inclusion journey—with our team and getting our team there. That means we’re having a lot of uncomfortable and hard conversations. And at the end of the day, everyone’s committed. 

And so you have that, you have that North Star, but it is rocky to get there sometimes. And as leaders, we have to be okay with that. There are, you know, the critics always. We are serving a big part of this state, and that is our mission to serve a big part of this state that is diverse in every way—rural, largely white, urban communities, all of that. And so you always have critics, and I think having really strong partners around you that you trust like Sherri and others, and a really strong team with you and a supportive board that is aligned with this, that helps break down those barriers. But at the end of the day, Ami, it is about knowing that this is the right thing to do, and just keeping my own eye on that ball and not giving up.

Ami McReynolds: Appreciate you articulating the importance of that, right. Staying steadfast, Sherri, I’m curious from your perspective, right. Sabathani, South Minneapolis have probably had quite a bit of spotlight, right. And interest from a lot of partners in wanting to work with you. There are probably some things that you’re sharing that you’ve been sharing for years coming from the community about what’s needed. What is it like from your perspective in this conversation?

Sherri Green: Actually, I get excited that people are so willing to have the conversation because it’s due time, it’s time. 

Ami McReynolds: Past time, right?

Sherri Green: It’s a way past time. I’m grateful that people like Allison and others are willing to be uncomfortable in these conversations because it’s going to be. So for me at Sabathani, I just have to encourage it, continue to encourage the conversation, continue to push the envelope in terms of, you know, every now and again, if somebody says they want to work with us, well why is that? I’m not afraid to ask the reasons why, and not be it because you feel guilty about something, but what are we trying to learn here? And I’m not saying that I would push anyone away from what they want to do for Sabathani, but encouraging and continuing to have that conversation is in the forefront of the conversations that I have with anybody that wants to work with Sabathani.

Ami McReynolds: As you, Allison have talked about the vision and share, you’ve talked about how, how you can partner more together. You know, I’m thinking about 10 years from now, right. 2031. And I’m curious to hear from each of you, what, what do you hope for, what do you want to see happen? What do the community members that you work with and partner with and serve want for South Minneapolis? What does it look like 10 years from now? What’s different?

Sherri Green: I want to see that gap closed. I think the work that we’re doing now, going forward, will start to close that gap. I’d like to be sitting in my rocking chair on my porch 10 years from now saying, you know what? We did some good work. And I see the results of the good work that we’ve been doing through conversations and through—I want to see that racial divide gap close. That’s what I, that’s the hope. But we have to struggle through all of this to get to where we need to be in 10 years and, you know, knocking on wood, I’m hoping that it’s going, this world is going to look different. It’s going to look more equal. There’ll be more equity in all races, but especially closing that gap of the racial divide.

Ami McReynolds: Yeah. Allison?

Allison O’Toole: Yeah, I, the gap closed, if we have not made progress on that Sherri, we’re going to have to get out of our rocking chairs. We’re going to have to stay out of our rocking chairs. You know, the gap closed, but really, I think, continued conversation. Conversation that becomes more comfortable over time. So we continue to take this head on. Systemic racism continues to be at the top of our list. You know, there is always the risk after, you know, trials of police officers or convictions, even, that we go back to whatever was normal. There is no normal anymore and we have to keep going. So really I hope it’s a more comfortable conversation. 

And when I—I’ve been saying this a lot in the last 18 months, you know, I think for this community, when we look back in 10 years, when kids, grandkids, nieces, nephews like I have, neighbor kids ask us, you know, especially residents of South Minneapolis, what we did when the world fell apart, I want us to have a good answer. And I know Sherri and I are on our way to that good answer. We’ve done a lot in the last year and a half, but I want this community to be proud of what we’ve accomplished and to continue the conversation.

Ami McReynolds: The legacy that we leave behind. Absolutely. We’re building it today. We’re building it today. Wow. Well, Allison, Sherri, I deeply appreciate you all just taking a few moments out of your day, just to, to share a bit from a personal perspective of what life is like in Minneapolis and South Minneapolis in particular, and how the past 18 months have continued to deepen, strengthen and evolve your partnerships with one another. We appreciate the work that Second Harvest Heartland is doing, and that Sabathani is doing in the community. And I deeply thank you all for joining me today.

Allison O’Toole: I’m grateful for the opportunity, Ami, thank you. And thank you, Sherri. It is always a delight to team up.

Sherri Green: Yes, absolutely. And keep up that good work and keep up the discussions and the conversations. And Ami, thank you for doing this. It’s important to keep these conversations in the forefront of what we need to do to make change. 

Ami McReynolds: Thank you so much for listening to this episode of Elevating Voices, Ending Hunger. September is Hunger Action Month. Families and individuals in South Minneapolis and all across the country face impossible choices between food and other critical needs like medicine, child care or utilities. Join us this Hunger Action Month to get involved in the work Feeding America is doing to address equity and food insecurity, visit

Don’t forget to share this show with others and be sure to subscribe so that you can get new episodes as soon as they are available. I’m Ami McReynolds, and I look forward to continuing our equity journey together in the next episode.