A Hunger for Change

Sandra Santana
Gemma Halfi, associate director of equity and inclusion at Emma Willard School, is using the new academic year to turn our attention towards the discriminatory systems and policies that perpetuate food inequities in the United States and helping the school community think about making tangible, lasting changes in this city. 
Through carefully curated service learning projects and impactful community engagement opportunities (CEOs), Ms. Halfi is introducing our internal community to the multitude of issues surrounding access to food by focusing on the needs present right here in the City of Troy. 

For Ms. Halfi, the focus on Troy was a no-brainer. She shared, “Food access and food insecurity is such a salient issue everywhere in the United States and around the world, but specifically in our city. We're nestled in this really beautiful neighborhood where there are communities struggling with food security just down the street from us.”

Food insecurity is a deeply complex issue that is silently waging war against communities across the globe. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, more than 34 million people, 9 million of them children, in the United States alone are deemed food insecure. Defined as a lack of consistent access to enough food for every person in a household to live an active, healthy life (Feeding America), food insecurity can be a temporary situation or can last a long time. Exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a sharp increase in food insecurity among families with children and marginalized communities, who already faced hunger at much higher rates before the pandemic.

It is important to understand that every community in the country is home to families who face hunger. Surprisingly, rural and farm communities—the very places where crops are grown to feed the world—face higher hunger rates than that of urban areas. Map the Meal Gap, a report conducted by Feeding America, revealed 11% of rural households were food insecure in 2021. Currently, 63% of all counties in the United States are rural. In examining US counties with high rates of food insecurity, the study also found that 87% were rural.

No matter which landscape we choose to investigate, the facts show that many families in America struggle to meet their basic needs, increasing their risk of food insecurity. Low-income families in particular are affected by multiple, overlapping issues like lack of affordable housing, social isolation, economic/social disadvantage resulting from structural racism, chronic or acute health problems, high medical costs, and low wages. Many households that experience these hardships surprisingly do not qualify for federal nutrition programs such as SNAP and WIC, and rely on their local food banks and other sustenance programs for extra support.

Thanks to Ms. Halfi, Emma Willard students have the opportunity to head into our own backyard to acknowledge the needs of our community and offer a hand towards helping our very own neighbors. CEOs take weekend activities by storm, boasting a completely full volunteer list and waitlist each week for engagement opportunities. By volunteering for CEOs, students are able to explore many aspects of food access through various organizations. 

“We go to the food pantry where food items are distributed to community members on a weekly basis, but every few weeks we go to the food bank, which is a giant warehouse where huge bulk donations get sent from large corporations and grocery chains to then get distributed to places like the food pantry. It's really neat for the students to be able to see the different stages of how food gets distributed. On a more intimate level, we also work with local shelters like Joseph's House, where we are preparing a meal to be served at the shelter. They're seeing all the different angles of what it takes to keep a community that's struggling with food access afloat.”

“Going on Saturday mornings with a lot of students to work at local food pantries is a really eye-opening experience,” she continues. “Literally we get in the van, and we drive about two minutes, and then we're at the food pantry where they are seeing many community members come through to pick up groceries to supplement what they are able to provide for their families. Sometimes the jobs they [the students] do at the food pantry can feel mundane or insignificant, but I always try to engage the students in conversation about why this particular job is important to this organization and this community. And they get it. It's really great that they understand without volunteers like them, the organizations would not be able to serve the communities, and they wouldn't be able to create more distribution of the donations that the food pantry gets.”

In addition to the CEO opportunities, the 11th grade READY program is being used as a platform to further support this mission. In collaboration with Director of READY Programs Evangeline Delgado, Ms. Halfi has restructured the program curriculum to include a focus on food access in the United States and around the world. Students are having conversations and “thinking about how food insecurity impacts our immediate community—what kind of policies are in place that are either perpetuating this inequity or are trying to rectify it?” Ms. Halfi’s programming message is simple: to achieve a hunger-free America, we must address the root causes of hunger: structural and systemic inequities.

The ongoing fight against food insecurities is not one that can be won alone, but requires all hands on deck. Community engagement opportunities and service learning are two of the strongest avenues to explore when asking ourselves how the Emma Willard School community can truly stand up for our neighbors. Ms. Halfi defined both in her own words:    

“To me, community engagement is the big, broad umbrella of how we as individuals, and an institution, take responsibility for caring for our community. Underneath that, there are many different ways to engage with our community. There's social impact programming where it's not just about going out and working with nonprofits, it's also about learning how policy is made and how the historical context of different sociopolitical systems have been in place creating inequities. It's about learning how to use your voice to create change within a community. Then there's this idea of service learning within educational institutions, where teachers have the opportunity to connect their own curricular content to the needs of the community: that to me is the pinnacle of what education is about. Service learning is the best of both worlds. You're creating more lasting learning because the students understand that there is a purpose behind it, and you're also helping to create the slightest change in the world. Even if it's impacting one person in the community, that's still moving the needle to help create change.”

To access local food insecurity data in the United States, explore Map the Meal Gap. Select your state, county or district from the interactive map to learn more about food insecurity in your community and the food banks that serve them. 
Students volunteering at the local food pantry as part of CEO weekend activities!

Students volunteering at the local food pantry as part of CEO weekend activities!

Our CEOs address many issues in our community. Ms. Halfi is pictured here with students taking part in the Poestenkill Bends Cleanup!

Our CEOs address many issues in our community. Ms. Halfi is pictured here with students taking part in the Poestenkill Bends Cleanup!

CEO: Ms. Halfi and students volunteering at the Race for Autism 5K last fall!

CEO: Ms. Halfi and students volunteering at the Race for Autism 5K last fall!