October 16th was a banner day for hunger-relief in the heartland. While lots of states have wonderful hunger summits, what makes Iowa’s distinct is that it is held in conjunction with the World Food Prize, an international recognition of individuals who have improved the quality, quantity, or availability of food in the world. The Prize is the legacy of Dr. Norman Borlaug, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for his work in global agriculture, one of two Iowans memorialized in the U.S. Capitol’s Statuary Hall.
The global reach of the World Food Prize makes the Iowa Hunger Summit an international event. As such, the highlight of the day was a panel comprised of the five most recent U.S. Secretaries of Agriculture. It was fascinating to hear such knowledgeable experts discuss hunger on a national scale. Here are a few key takeaways from their panel discussion:
- Hunger, mental health, substance abuse and homelessness are all related issues that cannot be addressed in isolation.
- State and local workforce development departments need to work with human services. One knows where the jobs are, the other who needs them.
- Food waste is an enormous problem across the US food system.
- Our healthcare needs to transition from focusing on illness to striving for wellness.
I would be remiss not to include an incident that set the Summit abuzz. There was a demonstration that interrupted the Secretaries of Agriculture. As soon as the Secretaries were introduced, perhaps a dozen people jumped to their feet, unfurled a banner in front of the stage, and started chanting about GMOs. No one yelled them down, and there were no physical confrontations. Everyone sat quietly. After a few minutes, one of the secretaries stood, tapped one of the protesters on the shoulder, politely suggesting that they had made their point and it was time for them to go. And they did!
With all the challenges the network of food banks has been facing lately, including disaster response, it was an encouragement to be part of such a positive event. The Secretaries of Agriculture made clear that our collective work is at the forefront of what this country needs. It reminded me of what a privilege and responsibility it is to be a food banker.