GML Scholar Reflection: Theology, Food Justice, and Public Policy in DC
by Emily Ortiz Escobar (MSW '24)
This past January, I participated in a course called The Intersection of Theology, Food Justice, and Public Policy taught by Dr. Jeremy Everett, Executive Director of the Baylor Collaborative on Hunger and Poverty (BCHP). When I shared the name of this course with colleagues, they commented on the odd combination of Theology, Food Justice, and Public Policy, but as a Christian Social Work student, I was eager to see how scalable and sustainable change can take place at a systemic level, and how the drive towards that change is supported by Scripture and the life of Jesus.
Everyone has experienced hunger, that empty, pit feeling in their stomach after several hours of not having food. But some experience this feeling every day, with larger consequences in their functioning, cognition, and overall health. God knows, cares, and is already working to eradicate poverty and food insecurity, but he has also given his people the responsibility of caring for our brothers and sisters in dire conditions. This care can take the form of giving food to a hungry family, or systemic level change, like we saw as our class traveled to Washington, D.C.
Adam Phillips, senior political appointee serving in global partnerships at USAID, mentioned USAID’s use of inclusive development to shift power dynamics, amplifying local voices in co-designing programs and understanding community need. Similarly, Cindy Long, Administrator of USDA Food and Nutrition Service, believes that sharing power also means actively engaging in helping others develop (i.e. introducing producers and consumers locally so that they can build more robust relationships). She emphasized, “We advocate for people, not programs.” I believe that way of thinking is key; it goes back to the createdness of people.
Most of the experts we met were very keen to emphasize the importance of data in guiding their decision-making process for their programs and impact. I specifically liked how Laura Carroll, White House Policy Advisor for Rural, Agriculture, and Nutrition, and Will McIntee, White House Senior Advisor for Public Engagement, highlighted the iterative process of innovation, trying out the pilots and then researching to confirm the efficacy of those programs.
In the book "The End of Hunger" (Eaton & Falsani, 2020), a course text, Tony Hall, a three-time nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize, former Congressman and United Nations Ambassador for Food and Agriculture, and a leading advocate for hunger relief programs and improving international human rights conditions, shared with us advice he received from Mother Theresa, “You do the thing that is in front of you.” Meaning that despite not being able to tackle every issue affecting the least of these, we are still called to be responsible stewards of our time, power, money, and resources in combatting the hunger and poverty in front of us. For Congressman Hall that meant legislation, speeches, etc., leveraging his power and position to find ways to make change.
When I think on Guatemala, and what lies in front of me as I return home next month, I think on the many families in rural areas with housing issues, caretaking pressures and responsibilities, transportation limitations, and lack of access to appropriate health care, among other symptoms of poverty. And although I cannot change their situation fully, I can elevate their voices, as Mr. Phillips from USAID and Ms. Long from USDA do; I can use data to help create hunger relief initiatives and programming (as I will be doing next year with BCHP, piloting Guatemala Sin Hambre) as encouraged by Ms. Carroll and Mr. McIntee at the White House, and I can leverage my power and position as a Baylor graduate to make change, like Mr. Hall. And, in faith, I know these interventions on behalf of the poor and hungry are a means of worshiping the Lord.
“For I was hungry, and you gave me food, I was thirsty, and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” Matthew 25:35