Above: Akeisha Latch with About Fresh colleagues and a harvest of greens in Boston, Massachusetts, January 2023.
“Everybody’s got a right to live”- a bolded message that I came across one afternoon while working in the MLK Jr. Memorial Library in Washington, D.C. The history behind this message dates to 1968 when the Poor People’s Campaign, also called the Poor People’s March, took place. The Poor People’s Campaign marked an important transition in U.S. history, drawing attention to economic inequalities and finding sustainable solutions to addressing poverty, hunger, and ending housing discrimination throughout the United States.
The words couldn’t be any truer, yet does not appear to be the case given the existing inequities and disproportionate impact across different programs, systems, and structures. In this current year where bills are being reviewed, there is a pressing need to figure out how we can “fix” them, how to restore benefit access and even more so, how to use the power of convening to end hunger. Likewise, being in the 29th class of Bill Emerson National Hunger Fellows during this time magnifies the reason I find anti-hunger and anti-poverty work to be so important.
I’ve grown up in a household that utilized and received support from food pantries and federal nutrition programs like WIC and SNAP for many years. Still being recipients of SNAP today, I’ve come across various barriers to access over time. Though I knew the events that were taking place weren’t fair or right, I didn’t know how to approach the injustice. I did, however, believe that other families could have been experiencing similar issues. Due to this I wanted to get more involved and develop the tools to make change, building off my values and belief that access to food is a basic human right, and therefore no one should go without it. One of the first ways I became involved was during my time as an undergraduate, volunteering at my university’s food pantry while also being a frequent user of its services. From this experience I held a much deeper understanding of what hunger looks like, feels like, and how it affects groups differently.
The work to launch food programs in the neediest or most food insecure counties began with the Poor People’s Campaign and continues even today. Take for example my field site placement, About Fresh (AF), which is a Boston-based nonprofit, whose mission is to get healthy foods to the households that need it most through their food prescription program, Fresh Connect, and their mobile market program, Fresh Truck, that serves 21 communities across the city of Boston. Before being placed in Boston I held a very minimal understanding of the city and though I held a connection to the state through my university, I was not alert to the epidemic of hunger and food insecurity in Massachusetts.
At AF, my work focused on the recruitment, retention, and training of volunteers under the Fresh Truck program. Through being connected to volunteers I was able to better understand their experiences, needs in their roles, and then produce tools for an environment of mutual service and working in fellowship with one another. Down the road, my work expanded to also support the Community Engagement Program (CEP), comprised of community members or representatives who accessed and benefitted from the mobile market(s) and devoted their time toward the mission of making communities more food secure.
Being involved in this work positioned me to not only be immersed in the culture of Boston but also center my work in those with lived experience and expertise of poverty and hunger whether I was on the truck and out in the community or just speaking to community members over the phone. Evidently, these communities that we were serving were communities of color and the same was true for the community members who were in the CEP role. This reality pushed me to be that much more intentional in operating in a space of shared power.
Building relationships with these different individuals and communities informed my work and understanding of co-creation, gaps that were present, and the fact that though people face similar issues, not all experiences are going to be the same. Admittedly, there were multiples times where my projects were stagnant and/or the outcomes were not as expected. Similarly, in anti-hunger and anti-poverty work we face similar obstacles because we lack the necessary tools, approach and/or haven’t examined how we tend to operate through influences of historical and systemic oppression. This reality held a broader implication for my field work at AF, acknowledging Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) and how their communities have long been the drivers when it comes to implementation.
My policy site placement at the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP) has taught me this very thing as I’ve come to analyze policies in more depth. Since joining CLASP, my projects have consisted of supporting community-driven policy and practice peer groups and the implementation of racially equitable and sustainable policies. Working towards implementing racially equitable and sustainable policies, as I’ve come to learn, requires one to know the historical origins and development of racism surrounding public health and federally funded benefits programs. To do this work successfully, working with those with lived experience and expertise of hunger and poverty is a must, being that it’s often left out of either the design or implementation of policies and programs.
Often we talk about those impacted without talking to those impacted. I am thankful to be working alongside Teon Hayes, my policy site supervisor, and a Policy Analyst at CLASP on the Income and Work Supports Team. Being able to relate to food insecurity in some way for herself, she has pushed me to think about what having personal agency looks like, what it means, and reveal where it is absent in programs like SNAP where individuals don’t have the right to buy the foods that they want, like a hot meal. In the words of Dr. King, “We have an ultimate goal of freedom, independence, self-determination, whatever we want to call it.” So, for me, when we talk about basic human rights and developing strong enough policies that have adequate access, we have to be sure to enforce personal agency so that there is freedom in the choices we can make.
Each day presents itself with a new challenge, but even more so there is evidence that the work we are doing is not in vain. The experiences that I have had thus far in the fellowship have empowered me in my professional career as well as in my personal life. As I look forward to completing the fellowship, I hope to carry much of the advice that was once given to me, remembering that there are times where I will get it wrong, but it will be okay. Also remembering to just be myself because we never know how many lives we are positively affecting through just doing so. Wherever my path leads to after the fellowship and the work that many people before and after me will do, I want it to continue dismantling the myths for those experiencing poverty and hunger and change what’s happening now for the better by moving into repairing and restoring.