June 23, 2022

More than 50 years have passed since the United States convened the White House conference that helped elevate hunger as a national priority and sparked major improvements and expansions to the federal nutrition programs.

This September, the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health will take place with the goal of ending hunger and reducing diet-related diseases and disparities in the U.S. by 2030.

FRAC, along with other anti-hunger organizations underscored five priorities for the conference.  

To ensure these priorities are put into the forefront during the conference, FRAC nominated several people to speak about  their lived experiences with hunger during a series of virtual, regional listening sessions  hosted by the White House. They shared their stories and recommendations during these sessions.

In a blog series, we will share the remarks of a few of the advocates who spoke during these sessions.

Diane Sullivan, Co-Founder, Equitable Spaces

Diane combines her lived experience with her many years in direct service and policy work to ensure that those with lived expertise feel a true sense of belonging and are meaningfully engaged in policy and research design, implementation, and review. A mother of six and grandmother of four, Sullivan and her children have experienced poverty, hunger, and homelessness. Her advocacy journey began when she accepted a position as an eviction prevention specialist while she and her family were experiencing homelessness in her home state of Massachusetts in 2001. Sullivan is the co-founder of Equitable Spaces, which seeks to create opportunities for community members with these lived and living experiences to incorporate their perspectives, knowledge, and expertise into the co-design of the policies and programs that directly impact their lives. She spoke at a Northeast/Mid-Atlantic listening session.

Here are her remarks:

“I am Diane Sullivan, a mother and grandmother, living in Medford, Massachusetts. Alongside my dear friend and colleague, Jimmieka Mills, I am co-founder of Equitable Spaces, where our mission is to create a platform for community members with lived experience. At Equitable Spaces, we provide technical support and training to local, state, and national groups, and government agencies that seek to engage—and learn from—those directly impacted by the policies and advocacy strategies aimed at addressing root causes.

After more than 20 years of approaching policy work through the lens of my lived experience, I’ve learned that to call out inequitable policy is to challenge a culture that has granted unashamed permission to individuals—and groups of individuals mostly comprised of well-intended white people who’ve never experienced hunger.

Historically, those with lived experience have been invited into these spaces only after the agenda has been set and where our narrative conveniently suits it. We’re asked to put our trauma on display to be poked, prodded, and occasionally applauded—to ultimately defend priorities we didn’t help to define. It’s not unlike engaging in food policy discussions without inviting the farmers and ranchers who actually grow our food to the table.

However, this White House Conference represents an opportunity for us to move away from the transactions of service delivery, data extraction, and story-banking into the momentous, just, and sustainable policy solutions driven by community members, guided by their lived expertise.

I encourage you all to ask yourself a few questions:

  • Were the policy ideas you’ll share developed in true partnership with community members with lived experience?
  • If you did engage community members to inform your priorities, did you take the time to develop trusting relationships; did you resist the temptation to push your agenda; and show up to listen and learn?
  • Did you intentionally set out to negate power dynamics and re-traumatization?
  • Did you lean into lived expertise to design the space and pose the questions you asked?
  • Did you compensate community members for their contributions and plan to credit them for their contributions?
  • Did you invite community members with lived expertise to join us here today and support them in overcoming barriers to participation, like offering compensation for their time?

If the answer is “no” to any of these questions, then what you share here today is only half-baked. It is necessary for us to reach beyond the limitations of our good intent and better connect with our impact, particularly on those with lived experience.

As Massachusetts Congressman Jim McGovern, who was instrumental in breathing life into this conference, often reminds us, “hunger is a political condition.”

Hunger has persisted not for:

  • lack of food: Our farmers and ranchers produce—and we waste—abundantly.
  • lack of knowledge: We know that SNAP, WIC, TEFAP, national school meals, the commodities program, and more, work.
  • lack of resources: Federal spending on food and nutrition assistance programs in fiscal year 2020 reached more than $122 billion.
  • Lack of infrastructure: Although the pandemic and the current war in Ukraine, and its impact on the supply chain, continue to show its vulnerabilities.

But for lack of political will.

Last week, while attending a meeting of my local Food Security Taskforce, we heard from Cierra Martin, a recent graduate from MIT’s Integrated Design & Management program, who presented on her thesis research looking at the role participatory design can play in making our food systems more resilient and equitable.

This quote she shared has stayed with me since, “Too many actors benefit from the current system, creating a lack of will for political change.” Now, ask yourself: Despite your good intentions, are you one of these actors, for whom the performative is an acceptable approach to advocacy?

If your intention for this conference is to ultimately design policy that will restrict access and choice to low-income consumers, may you be met with overwhelming resistance. I’ve been a SNAP churner for the past three decades of my life, time well spent within my community of friends and loved ones, many of whom know the trauma of not knowing where their family’s next meal might come from.

Never once, in 30 years, have I ever thought, nor has anyone ever said to me, “You know what, Diane … if I could just get the government to control what I eat, that would solve the problem.” Rather, it’s a living wage; it’s access to affordable food, housing, transportation, energy costs, child and health care, and more.

Yet, some of you here today, I know for a fact, want to “feed us”—like we feed our pets. Let this not be that conference. Addressing hunger and nutrition-related diseases are, indeed, essential to the health and security of our nation. To be successful, we must honor and respect autonomy. We are more than just datasets. We are whole and worthy human beings.

At Equitable Spaces, we see those with lived experiences. We hear you. We honor and value you.

You, too, belong here, and in every space where solutions to hunger are being identified, discussed, and debated. You are a key, informed stakeholder who’s been intentionally locked out of the rooms where decisions are being made on your behalf. And yet, despite every obstacle along your path, you found your way here today. For so long, experiencing hunger has been associated with personal failure, weaponizing shame to silence our voices. Let history 50 years from now, tell the story about the time we stepped into our power. We are not broken. These unjust, unsustainable, and inequitable systems are broken. So, let’s get to work!”