The Humble Work of Listening
What difficult choices are families in Winston-Salem having to make?
People are clustered in small groups around large tables, shoulders and heads pitched forward, thoughtfully listening. Food Bankers, students, non profit workers, foundation directors, and neighbors from the Boston Thurmon and Cleveland Avenue neighborhoods are deep in conversation about this question, sharing data, recounting observations and telling stories from their own lives.
This is one of many community conversations over the last year led by Second Harvest, the lead convener for Collaborating for Clients or C4C, and other leadership partners as we work to understand how food insecurity specifically–and poverty more generally– impacts these neighborhoods. While food insecurity seems to know no boundaries throughout the 18 counties in which we work, we know that it is important to work on a neighborhood level and work to deeply understand the experiences of those who live there — and, most importantly, let them guide our work.
Food Bankers are used to our trucks moving in and out of our loading docks, moving an incredible 36 tons of food hundreds of miles everyday in a massive, daily hunger relief effort. So, while we are no stranger to hard work, organizing on this smaller, more intimate level is, admittedly, new. This work is deliberate, ponderous, careful and slow.
“We are working at the pace of community,” Nikki McCormick, Second Harvest’s Director of Agency Relations, is apt to say.
However, this immersive experience of in-depth asking and listening complimented by an exhaustive analysis and review of collected data, facilitated by Forsyth Futures, will allow Second Harvest and our partners respond to food insecurity and poverty in increasingly grounded, relevant and innovative ways.
Winston-Salem Poverty Thought Force Findings
The recently released findings of the Winston-Salem Poverty Thought Force reinforces what Second Harvest Food Bank’s on-the-ground partner agencies are experiencing and communicating to us. Further, the findings complement what is being revealed in our Collaborating for Clients work in Forsyth County: areas of concentrated poverty in our city create a myriad of barriers for residents, stifle opportunity, and restrict the potential of both individuals and communities.
These areas of concentrated poverty are not small areas nor are they anomalies; instead they make up large swaths of our community. The US Census 2015 data indicates that nearly 25% of Winston-Salem’s population lives in poverty, and that the poverty rate for children is over 38%. Winston-Salem ranks worst in the state’s 5 major cities in these categories.
The Poverty Thought Force brings further attention to the persistence of poverty in our city and its findings and voice are relevant to Second Harvest’s C4C work. It is critical to our neighbors that we lift these concerns and listen to their needs: low income families want the dignity of being able to provide for themselves and yet struggle under the burdens of poverty to meet their most basic needs, including providing adequate food for their tables. It is also critical work for all of us, regardless of where we live — because we want to live in this community in dignity together.
Hunger is a Symptom
We know that hunger is not an isolated problem but the symptom of a much larger issue of poverty. We know that hunger is interwoven with other challenges.
We know that more than half of the households being served by our on-the-ground, non-profit partners providing food assistance have at least one employed adult. Thus, we know that food insecurity is linked with the struggle for adequate employment and fair wages.
We know that 68% of households seeking food assistance from our Forsyth County network have had to choose between purchasing food or medicine in the last year, thus we know that food insecurity is linked with health issues and access to healthcare.
We know that more than half of people who rent in Forsyth County are rent-burdened, thus we know that housing costs are consuming disproportionate amounts of residents’ incomes, compromising the amount and quality of the food they can put on the table.
The Poverty Thought Force and C4C are crowd-sourcing knowledge, crossing silos, and making these connections. As residents of Boston Thurmond and Cleveland avenue have articulated, and the Poverty Thought Force report has reinforced, access to healthy food is a recurring theme when discussing issues related to concentrated poverty.
The Poverty Thought Force rightfully concludes that healthy food is essential to increasing social mobility. Without healthy fuel for our bodies, children and adults alike cannot focus on the other areas of concern lifted by the report: education, job training, workforce development, health, wellness, etc.
Access to healthy food is the underpinning of the work we need to do as a community. Putting food on the tables of families in Boston Thurmond and Cleveland Avenue and everywhere is a necessary first step, so that we can roll up our sleeves and do other, necessary work to lift these communities.
Hungry communities simply can not thrive.