Centering the Human Experience: Creating a Storytelling Program in Cortland County, New York

Elaine ZhangEmerson, Field

Above: Elaine Zhang, 28th Class Emerson Fellow.

As a California native, I have witnessed devastating droughts that lasted for years and raging wildfires that have increased in severity and frequency–scenes that are manifestations of climate change. In California there is not enough rainwater to grow crops, whereas in New York State, unprecedented levels of precipitation in the summer growing season have contributed to the proliferation of fungal diseases in vegetable crops like tomatoes. People who are unhoused can be seen seeking shelter in tents and under bridges on the West Coast, but the cold climate of the East Coast means unhoused folks seek shelter indoors and in less visible places that offer more protection from the elements. Since beginning my field site placement at Seven Valleys Health Coalition (SVHC) in rural Cortland County, New York, I have learned that when it comes to accessing emergency food systems, urban and rural areas both face unique challenges.

It is apparent that climate change, the housing crisis, and food insecurity are manifested in different ways throughout the country, but the drivers of these issues are the same across America. As an Emerson Hunger Fellow, I am addressing the root causes of hunger and poverty through community-based work at my field placement with SVHC and policy-focused work in Washington, D.C.

SVHC is a nonprofit organization that focuses on social determinants of health in order to advance the well-being of the Cortland community. In addition to programs that focus on community health education and subsidized transportation, SVHC addresses food systems needs in Cortland County by delivering vegetables to participants in the Fruit and Vegetable Prescription Program, coordinating the Seven Valleys Food Rescue, and facilitating the Cortland Food Project, the food policy council in Cortland County.

The Hunger Coalition is a subcommittee of the Cortland Food Project that brings the community together around issues of hunger. The main project for my placement was to help the Hunger Coalition create a storytelling program that elevates the voices of people who have lived or living experience of food insecurity.

“Storytelling” in its most rudimentary form involves conveying experiences in a manner that will resonate with other people. In the nonprofit and emergency food system world, storytelling can be achieved through a variety of approaches. One approach is to simply ask that people who are interested in sharing their experiences fill out a web form and consent to have their stories shared with stakeholders and/or the public via social media. Another approach involves public speaking training over the course of a few months, allowing participants to advocate for themselves and their communities with elected officials and other people in positions of power. Organizations have also engaged with people through establishing community forums, running focus groups, and collecting written and photographic content for published storybooks. Storytelling is powerful because it is centered on the human experience, whereas data (like county food insecurity rates) is less likely to evoke empathy.

When I started at SVHC, my work plan seemed pretty simple: I just needed to do some readings and interview organizations who have implemented successful storytelling programs, come up with some goals for the program, use those goals to shape the format and logistics of SVHC’s storytelling program, and then collect and share stories. As someone who has not lived in Cortland for an extensive period of time, I quickly learned that I could not and should not single-handedly decide the goals and design for a storytelling program without incorporating in the planning process the voices of Courtland County residents who have experienced food insecurity.

This meant SVHC had to take a step back to create a more inclusive planning process in order to align our good intentions with our intended impact. I have had one-on-one conversations with Cortland County residents to solicit their feedback on various storytelling program models and what they feel a local storytelling program could look like. These conversations will inform the goals of the storytelling program and help shape the program itself. Possible goals include uplifting the voices of community members with lived or living experiences of food insecurity, humanizing the experience of food insecurity, and creating more effective policies and programs to reduce food insecurity in Cortland County.

In the process of developing a storytelling program, I have come to understand that community involvement is imperative for the sustained success of an initiative. In addition to sharing power with people with lived experience of hunger, the storytelling program requires support from community stakeholders and leaders. In a rural county with fewer than 50,000 residents, I have relied heavily on networks like the Hunger Coalition to build my knowledge and outreach to community members. To prioritize authentic community engagement, it is also necessary for organizations to be flexible and open to self-evaluation in order to adopt best practices to inform their programming. SVHC’s willingness to adjust the timeline and approach for the creation of a storytelling program creates an opportunity to center the needs of people with lived experience of food insecurity.

I am excited to incorporate inclusive storytelling practices and document the process and outcomes in a Hunger Free Community Report at the culmination of my field placement. I feel empowered to be a future leader in the anti-poverty and anti-hunger movement thanks to SVHC and the Congressional Hunger Center’s continued guidance, which has led to personal and professional growth throughout the fellowship. I am hopeful that the storytelling program I am working on now with SVHC will lead to a better understanding of food insecurity and create a more just and equitable food system.

About the Authors

Zhang headshot

Elaine Zhang

Emerson Fellow

Elaine’s love language is food, but also food and language, as separate topics, are both of great importance to her; everyone eats and everyone communicates with others, but there are often barriers to both of these universals. Elaine explored these topics at UCLA while majoring in Linguistics and Asian Languages and Cultures and minoring in Food Studies and Environmental Systems and Society, graduating magna cum laude in 2020. Her interest in food security deepened as a result of working with the community gardens on campus, serving as a Teaching Assistant for an undergraduate course on urban agriculture, volunteering as a Master Gardener of Los Angeles County, and improving models of sustainable food systems as a Food Security Intern at the Center for Sustainable Development in The Bahamas. After returning to her hometown of Stockton, California, Elaine started a nonprofit organization that creates opportunities for folks to go beyond their good intentions and create meaningful change in their communities.

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