Above: Rep. Mickey Leland and Rep. Bill Emerson share a collegial moment during a hearing. 📸: Marty LaVor
For our 30th Anniversary year, we’re looking back at important people and events from our past three decades, and the legacy we carry forward as we continue our work of growing leaders and cultivating change. Today’s history lesson actually precedes our founding by nearly a decade, going back to the year 1984.
In the mid-1980s, U.S. food insecurity was on the rise, spurred by budget cuts and restrictions to social welfare programs. Starting in 1983, famine struck Ethiopia, killing up to a million people in one of the worst humanitarian crises of the second half of the 20th century. At the same time, public awareness of food insecurity was increasing dramatically. Widely-viewed televised reports of the famine, pop culture events such as the Live Aid concerts, “We Are the World,” and Hands Across America, and the proliferation of community-based, volunteer-run hunger relief organizations and food banks reached a mass audience. Across the country, millions of people who had not previously engaged with the issue were inspired to get involved.
Against this backdrop, the 98th Congress established the House Select Committee on Hunger in February, 1984 to conduct a continuing, comprehensive study of hunger and malnutrition. The committee, led by Rep. Mickey Leland of Texas and Rep. Bill Emerson of Missouri (and following Leland’s untimely death in 1989, Rep. Tony Hall of Ohio), did not have legislative jurisdiction and could not report measures to the House. Instead, it used its convening power to shine a spotlight on the issue of hunger in the U.S. and globally.
At a hearing in Greenwood, Mississippi, Rep. Leland laid out the charge before the Committee, setting the stage for fruitful bipartisan collaboration: “We must set ourselves to eliminate hunger and life-threatening poverty. It should not be our purpose to engage in sterile debates, but rather to move forward with the aim of producing results. Lower infant mortality, reduced incidence of low birth weight, a healthy, well-nourished, productive population, these are our goals. We need to find practical, realistic ways to attain these goals. It is my hope that working together, today and from now on, we can take a step forward in this endeavor.”
The committee also held remote hearings to gather first-hand reports from users of hunger relief programs, seeking ways for local and federal responses to coordinate for practical solutions. “If these programs are not working, we need to know,” remarked Rep. Emerson at the opening of one such hearing in San Francisco in July 1984. “If the benefits are not adequate, we need to know. If housing is substandard, we need to know. If medical assistance is not sufficient, we need to know. However, you need to know that solutions do not all rest with the federal government—many issues must be resolved at the state and local level.” The interplay between community-led work and federal and international policy responses is a cornerstone of our Hunger Fellowship programs to this day.
In April 1992, Rep. Hall chaired a hearing provocatively titled “Hunger in America: Who Cares?” In opening remarks, he noted that 93% of voters recognized hunger as a serious problem, and 67% would be willing to pay $100 more in taxes to end food insecurity. And yet, he observed, a coordinated national anti-hunger advocacy movement had yet to gain traction. It’s not hard to draw a straight line from Rep. Hall’s statement at this hearing to the founding of the Congressional Hunger Center one year later, with its mission of developing a movement of leaders to build the political will to end hunger in the U.S. and globally. Which is where we’ll pick up in our next installment…