Addressing Latino food insecurity together

Zuani Villareal, Senior Director of Communications
October 6, 2023
by Zuani M. Villarreal

For the past 20 years, I’ve focused my career on helping people gain access to food, programs and resources that will help enrich their lives. One thing I’ve learned is that people may not always ask for help. Sometimes, help has to present itself in the form of trusting relationships. That’s why my new position at Feeding America demonstrates yet another step forward in the organization’s mission to keep people at the center of all we do while addressing racial and geographic disparities. We know that 34 million people in the United States are food insecure, but Latinos experience hunger 2.5 times more than non-Hispanic white communities. We know that there are real barriers in place that prevent people, and Latino people in particular, from accessing the food they need. The people who are closest to the problem often have the best ideas for solutions and we, as an organization, trust them to lead us.

During this Hispanic Heritage Month, it seems fitting to announce my new role as the new senior director of community engagement at Feeding America where I'll focus on building lasting relationships with Latino-serving organizations. I now work to forge partnerships and collaborations with influential organizations and leaders in the Latino community, helping to create alliances with these community-based organizations and Feeding America. Those Latino-led organizations already working in the movement to end hunger will be my first points of contact. In the last quarter, we’re proud to announce that 80 percent of grants went to food banks helping to close the disparity gap in food access.

What’s new is that Feeding America is not just investing dollars, but people resources. The new Communications and Community Engagement team guided by the voices of the people we serve and aims to build, nurture, and connect communities.

This work will build upon the foundation Feeding America has already set working with communities of color. Desde mi Huerto, a Puerto Rico-based organic seed bank, is one of the many Food Security Equity Impact Fund grantees working at the local level to expand access to organically grown local food. In addition to the Feeding America network food banks and partner agencies that have been blazing the trail in distributing culturally preferred foods to neighbors in need and offering translation services using innovative technologies to help new migrants feel welcomed (looking at you Westchester Food Pantry in Illinois!) This is part of my daily mission to help elevate the work of the network and find new pathways of opportunity.

Latinos are a powerful force in this country. We are the largest racial or ethnic minority group and the second-largest voting bloc in the U.S. If we were our own country, we would generate the fifth-largest GDP in the world. Yet, we are vastly underrepresented across many tables. To address food insecurity disparities by race and place, Latinos need to be at the table. We can’t realize our aspirational goal of lowering the food insecurity rate to 5 percent from its current high of 10.2 percent without a targeted approach. Fully acknowledging how racial prejudice, language barriers, lack of transportation, and even climate change prevent Latinos, and others, from accessing fresh food locally.

I think of Jovita Morales, a neighbor-advocate I met at Feeding America’s inaugural Elevating Voices Power Summit in July. Jovita, an Indigenous Mazahua immigrant from Mexico, worked as a key organizer to get the “Driver’s License for All” bill passed in Minnesota. This new law allows undocumented immigrants to apply for a driver’s license starting this October. Because of her work, and the work of many others, proof of immigration status is no longer required. For many in our community, that reduces the stress of not just getting documented, but opens the door to increased access to jobs, resources and of course, food. I want to work with more people like Jovita because ending hunger also means solving local barriers.

My work will help to funnel change directly where it’s needed. This is systems work, and it isn’t something I, or Feeding America, do alone. We must build a big tent. My mission will be to reach out to Latino organizations already making strides on the ground and let them know Feeding America wants to partner with them. Whether we provide financial support for local initiatives that reduce food insecurity or provide advocacy training to help catalyze policy changes that benefit neighbors in need, Feeding America wants to help strengthen communities.
I want those community-based organizations to know that we have a common goal. While they might focus on job training, or English as a second language programs, for example, we can still find a path to work collaboratively and layer services. We want the Latino community to see us as allies. That’s my goal.

As the daughter of Mexican immigrants, growing up in Brownsville, Texas, along the Mexico border, food was central to any family gathering, especially every Sunday at my grandmother’s house. Everyone deserves food regardless of where they come from – no one is more or less deserving. In this new role, I’ll join my esteemed colleague Mark Ford, who leads Feeding America’s work with Native and Tribal communities. Native Americans experience food insecurity at a disproportionately high rate.

Feeding America has also created a new role to lead engagement with Black community organizations. David Street was newly hired to lead that equally important work. This three-pronged approach is an example of how Feeding America is investing in long-term solutions that will shorten the lines at food banks and help everyone gain access to the food and resources they say they need to not just live but thrive.

Dolores Huerta, the iconic labor leader and civil rights activist, once said, “Every moment is an organizing opportunity, every person a potential activist, every minute a chance to change the world.” 

Feeding America is a network of 200 food banks operating in every state in this country, including Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia. If we can catalyze advocates and organizers at the state, county, and city levels with each doing its version of work that solves the urgent issue of hunger in America, the potential to end hunger is limitless.

As Hispanic Heritage Month comes to a close, I reflect on the immense work that has come before and the opportunities that lie ahead. Let's seize this moment...juntos.