Barbie Izquierdo on Feeding America’s first summit for and by people with lived experience of food insecurity

Barbie Izquierdo at the summit.
July 26, 2023
by Barbie Izquierdo

From across the country, almost 100 of our neighbors, or people with firsthand experience of food insecurity, came to the first-ever Elevating Voices: Power Summit in Washington, DC, in July 2023. Co-organized by Feeding America and a neighbors’ committee, the Power Summit was a convening by and for people with lived experience of food insecurity to hear from, learn from and forge community with each other as they advocate for a stronger tomorrow. 

Barbie Izquierdo, Feeding America’s director of neighbor community engagement, was part of the team that helped bring the Power Summit together. As someone with lived experience of food insecurity, she now also sits on the President’s Council on Sports, Fitness, and Nutrition. Here she shares key takeaways from the summit and how we all can help ensure that our neighbors, or people with firsthand experience of food insecurity, are always at the center of the country’s movement to end hunger. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.  

The Elevating Voices: Power Summit brought together almost 100 neighbors from across the country with firsthand experience of food insecurity to share their stories and exchange strategies and best practices for addressing hunger and related issues in their communities. 
Why is it important to have events, like the summit, for and by people with lived experience? 
Everyone who was there had something to say. They had something to share, and whether they got the opportunity to share in a big crowd or among each other, the summit was monumental. I'm forever changed by seeing all of the passion and expertise of the people at the summit.

As someone with lived experience, I was invited as just a guest at conferences I have attended in the past. Everything about this summit felt like home, even though there were so many people from across the country whose homes look very different from mine. The passion, the empathy, the compassion—we know that all those things will be there from neighbors. We've seen it, we've felt it. But we've never really had a chance to share the different levels of expertise with each other.

What insights shared during the event are still resonating with you? 

Some of the things that still resonate with me are the impactful statements made during some of the sessions, whether from one of the panelists or the people sitting in the audience. I can't forget comments made by Ed Perez, a neighbor advocate working with immigrant communities in Florida, about helping mothers and saving lives and how he's worked with people who have attempted to take their life. Usually, those topics that are serious are not what you hear about when you go to these sorts of events. They’re important to mention because 1) it's the truth, and 2) it's the reality of the people we are serving and we can't truly help them if we're not listening to the good, the bad and the ugly. These things stick out to me the most because the event wasn't just a power summit: It was an opportunity to bring people together and to figure out how they can help each other despite the differences in their communities. 

I am both honored and privileged to be in this position and to be doing this work. People who are experiencing food insecurity don't usually get the opportunity to say what they want unapologetically while also getting the opportunity to talk to decision-makers. It's usually “either/or”; you can say something, but it must be scripted or approved. The fact that we provided a space for people to be themselves while still expressing their concerns to decision-makers was amazing and will stick with me for the rest of my life.

Speaking of decision-makers, several from the federal level were in the room at the summit, including U.S. Rep. Marcus Molinaro, U.S. Department of Agriculture Deputy Undersecretary Stacy Dean, and Senior White House Policy Advisors Harrison Hines and Will McIntee. In conversation with them, summit attendees had the opportunity to discuss what individuals and families facing hunger in the U.S. need right now to thrive—including the passage of a strong, bipartisan farm bill. 
Why was it important to invite decision-makers to the event and have them engage with neighbors? 

It was important to have decision-makers at the table because, too many times, neighbors are tokenized and don't know what is going to be done with their words, with their life stories. It was very important to provide a space where neighbors could tell their own stories and know their impact on decision-makers; we know that many of the neighbors there don't get the opportunity to do that. Some of them may not even know the right decision-maker to engage. We created the opportunity with the summit to help neighbors understand what their advocacy “why” is, how to create an ask—all while still also having a session on the benefits cliff, which is a problem that neighbors are facing while doing all of these other things. 

The discussions with decision-makers showed them that many stereotypes and perceptions neighbors face aren’t true. They also showed that neighbors are interested in being engaged in their community and have an interest in having more conversations with the decision-makers. It isn't often that neighbors feel like their voices matter. What better room to have their voices heard than one with decision-makers? There was so much excitement around holding them accountable and much praise for them even coming and being in conversation. 
I'm happy they showed up. I'm happy they listened—and I know these engagements won't be perfect. The first step was getting the decision-makers into the room. The second step is getting them to listen, and the third is to educate them. They must take neighbor stories and let them guide how to best make decisions for our communities and how to do their jobs better. I appreciate the decision-makers for being there, for listening to the people affected by their decisions, and for understanding how to effectively engage with neighbors so that society can be better. 

The summit is only one part of Feeding America’s Elevating Voices platform—an ongoing initiative to engage with and amplify the experiences and expertise of neighbors with lived experience of food insecurity. The organization recognizes that the only way to end hunger is to listen and center the individuals who have felt its impact. To that end, we co-created the summit with neighbors and will release, later in September, our second annual Elevating Voices insights report—a representative snapshot of the experiences, concerns and ideas of people in the U.S. with lived experience of food insecurity. 
Overall, why is it critical for people with lived experience of food insecurity to be at the center of the nation’s movement to end hunger? 

No one knows the problem of hunger better than the people facing it. And although neighbors may not have all the solutions, the impact that neighbors have on decision-makers, the impact that they have on people listening to their stories, and the impact that they have on this work are crucial to ending food insecurity. Too often, we have seen these little quick fixes that may help at the moment, but ultimately, we're still working toward the larger picture and being able to help everyone. Centering neighbors throughout that process will help policymakers make the best decisions. 
As a community of neighbors and as a person with lived experience, it's so uplifting to find other people who are passionate about the things you are passionate about. I know that these circles often consist of trauma bonding, but what I saw at the summit and seen throughout this work is so much more than a trauma bond. The work may start from that, but you see a community of amazing advocates coming together to lead the movement and be leaders in their communities. These individuals are recruiting other leaders and paving the way for people to show up and not be afraid. This work takes a lot of vulnerability, and that isn't easy. And if we want to come up with the right solutions, we need to turn to the people facing the problem. 
If someone wants to find the cure for cancer, they will talk to people experiencing it. They have to understand the symptoms, side effects and psychological warfare people go through. And I feel like it's the same with food insecurity. You have to understand the impact it's having on families, children and people's lives—and you also need feedback from the community to ensure we are creating partnerships between neighbors and government officials to make the best decisions. 
Please tell us more about your anti-hunger advocacy journey. How did you come to this work? 
I came to this work as a young mother who had participated in various programs and utilized several resources within my community to improve my social determinants of health, but somehow, I always needed help. I noticed that it wasn't because of a lack of drive or will to work hard, but more so because people who come from where I came from or who look like me don’t get the opportunities to be heard.  
I had the opportunity to tell my story on a huge platform, the documentary “A Place at the Table,” and it changed my life. My desire to be involved in this work has stemmed from the fear of my kids going through or understanding the pain that I went through as a mom and not being able to provide for them in the ways that I wanted to. 
Very early on, I also realized that complaining wasn't enough. By sharing my story, I learned how to take things defined as complaints and turn them into policy asks. I learned about advocacy and how I can use my voice to bring hope and change the circumstances I was in.  

When you publicly talk about your circumstances, you must admit to yourself that you're going through it. You must first say it out loud, which is difficult. But I hope that in this work, we can become a more unified nation regardless of political beliefs. I think that the most important thing is that no one goes hungry. 
In some cases, throughout the United States, hunger may result from scarcity. In some places, it may be a result of accessibility or affordability. Regardless, we know how to fix these problems. We can ensure that we have the right government support, that we're funding programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (also known as SNAP or EBT), and that the farm bill has the best interests of neighbors at heart.  
How can people learn more about Feeding America’s efforts to engage and center neighbors in our work? And how can people join the movement to end hunger in the U.S.? 
First and foremost, you can read the inaugural Elevating Voices insights report, which includes the perspectives and policy recommendations of 36,000 neighbors across the country. Additionally, you can join our mailing list to learn more about opportunities to take action, including sending a message to our lawmakers to pass a strong farm bill to support people facing hunger.