With a homicide rate higher than that of Chicago, New Orleans ranks among the most violent cities in the United States. It’s a city with centuries of racialized inequality and exploitation that, like the river currents that led to its founding, threaten to drown residents in their consequences. A little over half of New Orleanians live below the poverty line, struggling to get by. Almost a quarter of city residents experience chronic food insecurity—a policy euphemism for occasional starvation—meaning there are 87,360 folks unsure they’ll be able to survive in a city famous for its food culture.
As a historian of slavery, emancipation, and labor in Louisiana, I understand the extent to which these problems are interrelated—how poverty begets poverty; how suffering generates violence. There’s even a wealth of cognitive science behind the idea that exposure to poverty and violence alters the way our brains function and process information. These stresses make it more likely, for a variety of reasons, that we’ll fall victim to the poverty and violence if we’re exposed to either. They also make it clear why violence and poverty in New Orleans, with its historical commitment to racial exploitation and terror, are often most pronounced in majority African American communities.
To explore solutions to these chronic problems, I spoke to Lindsay Hendrix who works for Second Harvest, the largest food bank in south Louisiana. As we sat down over coffee, she handed me a fact sheet on the SNAP program—often termed food stamps—in Louisiana. Fighting hunger, she told me, is not just a matter of sending canned goods during local food drives. It is a public policy concern. She reminded me that “food stamps” are related to scores of other issues like public transit and the minimum wage. Most of us who work with these issues regularly likely accept that corporations abuse “food stamps” and other benefits and allow them to offer employees artificially low wages.
Fortunately, Hendrix and other anti-hunger advocates are doing something about it. Our conversation follows below, which I’ve edited lightly for length and clarity.
I think the term “food insecurity” strikes many of us as vague or confusing. What is it and how does it concern us?
It’s a scary-sounding term. It means anyone who can’t get enough to eat. And I guess that’s a scary thing, really. Any person experiencing strong food limitations in any given month is food insecure. It’s often hard to tell who doesn’t have enough to eat. Sometimes these are people who have trouble getting around, like elderly and disabled folks. In Louisiana, for example, one in five elderly persons regularly experience food insecurity.
That’s right! It’s a major problem, and one that we spend relatively little time discussing as a community.
That’s so true. At least locally, we hear much more about taxes and crime than hunger. Why is that?
That’s a tricky question. I think for starters, we like to think of poor people as somehow at fault or “undeserving.” It’s easier to believe that than to accept that chronic hunger is a systemic issue in our country. In terms of older people, we tend to think of them as having social security, savings, maybe a pension. Unfortunately, these often fall short of their needs. Sometimes this shortfall is caused by an illness or accident. Maybe their medication prices increased. Or maybe they can’t drive anymore and have trouble getting to the store. The truth is, hungry people don’t choose to be hungry. Something has gone wrong for them that makes it hard to put food on the table.
So what does your organization do to help?
I work for Second Harvest Food Bank, which serves south Louisiana. We work to help ensure that folks who may not have enough to eat get the food they need. It’s not always easy because the system we work in pieces together a number of different programs. For example, we know that kids who get free and reduced lunch at schools are at risk of being hungry. Part of responding to that means putting food pantries inside of schools for both children and their families to access. This led to our School Pantry Program, where we are able to provide both fresh and shelf-stable food to students and their families when they need it.
We also work with other parts of the country that might be dealing with food shortages or disasters like those impacted by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma.
As an organization whose mission is to impact the community, we believe that part of our work involves influencing public policy. Sometimes this means talking to lawmakers about people’s food needs and sharing the stories of folks who struggle to get enough to eat. It also means raising awareness about how larger forces like oil and gas prices can cause people to lose their jobs and become food insecure.
That’s so important. As a historian of race, I often hear folks saying the this or that prominent figure was a product of their times. It’s probably more accurate, though, to say that we are products of our communities. But it sounds like you’re actually working to transform communities.
Identifying and addressing community-wide problems is a huge part of what we do. One way we try to make a difference on that front is by coordinating care. When we have a mobile food pantry, for example, we also try to help folks access healthcare, workforce development opportunities, and nutrition education. Many of the people we help live in communities where these resources are scant or totally absent. Making them available empowers people.
What can we do to help?
The best way to help, if you can, is to donate money to Second Harvest. Donating food is great too, but what most people don’t realize is that we can do much more with your dollar in the store than you can. Although we live in a country where hunger is a major problem, we can make a major difference in these people’s lives.
Originally from San Antonio, Texas, Lindsay Hendrix began her career in the non-profit sector after graduating from Abilene Christian University in May 2009 with a Bachelor’s degree in History and a minor in Business Administration. After graduation, Lindsay began working as the Grants and Research Manager for Big Brothers Big Sisters of South Texas. In 2010, Lindsay moved to New Orleans and worked as a contracted Archivist and Records Manager for the United States Army Corps of Engineers. With a strong desire to move back into non-profit work, Lindsay accepted her current position as the Grant Writer for Second Harvest Food Bank in July 2015. With Second Harvest, she is responsible for managing the organization’s vast grant portfolio, which includes approximately 100-150 grant proposal and report submissions per year. In a volunteer capacity, Lindsay currently serves on the Board of Directors and Kitchen Leadership team for the Crescent City Cafe, and as the Youth Development and Education Liaison for the Emerging Philanthropists of New Orleans’ 2017 class.
William Horne is a PhD candidate at The George Washington University researching the relationship of race to labor, freedom, and capitalism in post-Civil War Louisiana. His dissertation, “Carceral State: Baton Rouge and its Plantation Environs Across Emancipation,” examines the ways in which white supremacy and capitalism each depended on restricting black freedom in the aftermath of slavery. He can be contacted here and followed on Twitter at @wihorne.
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