In 2014, Cherie Jamason, CEO of the Food Bank of Northern Nevada, was appointed as one of nine members of the National Hunger Commission, charged by Congress with making recommendations for the improvement of the federal nutrition programs and engagement of public/private partnerships in solving hunger and food insecurity. The National Hunger commission report was released Monday, January 4, 2016. The following includes comments from Cherie about her experience on the Commission.
The National Hunger Report to Congress was finalized after 16 months of taking public and written testimony, presentations from experts far and wide, research requested by commissioners to better understand various issues, and lengthy and sometimes challenging discussions. To read the Commission report, please visit here.
It was a distinct honor to be selected for this work, and my foremost concern was that I represent our clients, our food bank network and the anti-hunger community well, to the best of my abilities. The nine commissioners included members of the academic community, former program administrators, and Dr. Deborah Frank, a well-respected, well-known pediatrician – people with a wide variety of perspective about hunger and food insecurity. Please read their bios if you have a moment. Each brought particular expertise to the table. To my surprise, I found myself the only Commission member who represented the actual “on the ground” work of the anti-hunger community, a humbling responsibility.
We spent a lot of time listening and learning. We saw and heard things in our travels to many communities which were very hard to hear, including viewing what might be considered third world conditions along the Texas border with Mexico. We traveled to eight states from Maine to California, New York to Texas, Illinois to New Mexico to more deeply understand how a variety of issues impact various regions of the country, local residents and the economies in which they live.
My colleagues and I reflected on what we saw and learned, and we sat together for a day after the conclusion of our travels, presenting to each other a statement of our personal philosophy and the issues most important to each of us – uninterrupted. We listened to each other, and asked questions for clarification, coming away with a sense of where we could begin to build consensus. I was more than a little astonished to find how much we agreed upon, sometimes for very different reasons, and began to have hope that we could create a report with sound recommendations which would receive bi-partisan support. As a lifelong registered Independent/non-partisan voter, it was gratifying (and a little startling) to see.
I requested and received thoughtful input from colleagues, clients and members of the advocacy community, who commented when the opportunity arose, some of whom actually testified in person. I am very grateful for their participation, which provided varying perspectives, grew understanding of our work, and helped my Commission colleagues realize that organizations involved in working to solve hunger are multi-dimensional, with a deep understanding of the issues and potential solutions.
The experience of serving on the Commission was remarkable and I learned a great deal, from my fellow commissioners, from the testimony we took, the listening sessions we conducted and the people with whom we spoke personally about their experiences with hunger and food insecurity. It made me realize that each of us often see only what is conveniently before us, and that it is very easy not to go looking further, when what may be revealed could call into question how thorough we have been in serving our communities. This more comprehensive reality may require more of us, or mean that we must change our perspective to incorporate uncomfortable truths.
I am grateful for the experience of serving on the National Hunger Commission. It has caused me to think differently about my work, while reinforcing my belief that solving hunger is less about food than it is about building communities across the nation that are invested in fostering opportunity and family stability. Food is clearly only part of the answer.
Please take the time to review the Commission report. I will be happy to answer any questions about the recommendations we have presented. You may also be interested in Feeding America’s released statement the report.
The report’s many positives include recommendations such as the following:
On January 4, two of my colleagues, Jeremy Everett (Director of the Texas Hunger Initiative) and Billy Shore (SOS) published this open letter to accompany the release of the report, which clearly outlines what the report DOES NOT state and expresses my own personal and professional position as well:
As two members of the National Commission on Hunger, one appointed by the Democratic leadership and one by the Republican leadership, we join our colleagues in their unanimous support for the Commission’s report released today, titled, “Freedom From Hunger: An Achievable Goal for the United States.” We believe that both the process and the final product represent a fresh and inspiring alternative to the paralysis that passes for policymaking in Washington DC today. With five commissioners appointed by the Republican leadership of Congress and five by the Democratic leadership, the likeliest outcome was acrimony and stalemate. We could have just all repeated our predictable lines, and finished with the same views with which we started.
But we decided from the outset that we would aim higher. That we would listen and learn from each other, and keep talking until we found common ground around which we could be unanimous. In the end we did. The report has many recommendations about which we are enthusiastic. We succeeded in getting both sides to hear each other and to get concrete things done.
One issue in particular has many passionate anti-hunger supporters concerned. It is the fear that the report includes words that are code for supporting block granting SNAP. It does not. In fact, we rejected any statement of support for block granting or changing the entitlement structure of SNAP or undermining national standards that protect the programs beneficiaries. Instead we insisted that any linkage of various social service funding streams, meet the test of “reducing hunger” not increasing it. The committee’s deliberations and exchanges between the commissioners also make clear that an overwhelming majority have no intention of conveying support for block grants in this report.
Another issue of concern has been whether the report recommends increased work requirements for SNAP recipients. It does not. Most working age, non-disabled SNAP recipients are either already working, or recently lost jobs but very much want work that provides family-supporting wages. Because many SNAP recipients want to work we recommend that the states do more to support job training and placement.
The culture of Washington today is “if they propose, I will oppose”. We chose a different path. In constructing a carefully balanced and nuanced set of recommendations we said “we will listen to your ideas if you listen to ours.” The result is a wealth of recommendations that affirm and strengthen federal food and nutrition assistance programs, and potentially extend their reach to millions more Americans in need including children, seniors, and veterans.
Other reforms beyond those described above make summer meals more accessible, assure that SNAP education dollars support state-of-the-art effective nutrition education, expand Medicare and Medicaid managed care plans to include meals for seniors, urge a pilot program to change the SNAP benefit calculation from the Thrifty Food Plan to the Low Cost Food Plan, and establish a new White House Leadership Council to ensure inter-agency coordination on a plan to end hunger.
To have unanimous bipartisan support for these proposals is an achievement of which we are proud. Having worked on hunger policy issues for much of our careers, we are confident that the report is more than just the best that could be expected politically. It is actually good in its own right. We know, and say in the report, that beyond the charge of this commission, there is still more work to be done.
We urge readers to assess the report’s various recommendations in the context of the entire report which sought to avoid extremes and to maintain political balance. We hope this report can serve as a catalyst for a larger conversation about what bipartisan approaches to ending hunger can achieve.
Billy Shore and Jeremy Everett
So, friends, donors and colleagues, your thoughts and questions are most welcome. Please share this report and message with your networks and circles of influence. For those of you who are active at the national level, you may not agree with everything in this report, but take what you like best and run with it. It is my sincere hope that everyone else will take this report to political and administrative leaders at the state level, and use it as a tool to make the kind of changes that will be much easier to make at the state level than it will be to get federal agencies and members of Congress to move forward. This is an opportunity to make change, whether of policy or attitude or just a change in thinking which will move the ball forward and create the opportunity to begin working on issues that can indeed solve hunger from a bi-partisan perspective, although perhaps not in our lifetimes. This is a good place from which to begin and a decent foundation on which to build.
Cherie Jamason, President and CEO of the Food Bank of Northern Nevada, joined the organization 27 years ago. Her leadership has taken a small grass-roots food assistance program serving Washoe County, to a nationally recognized anti-hunger organization, providing services throughout the state of Nevada and a portion of eastern California. Cherie has tirelessly served this cause locally and nationally on many fronts and describes her work as the “best life she could have chosen.”