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Rural Child Hunger & Faith Community Engagement

Published: September 2020
Authors: Emma Lietz-Bilecky, Kelly Brownell

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This report focuses on rural child hunger and represents a joint effort of the World Food Policy Center at Duke University and Share Our Strength. The report combines a review of existing literature with key informant interviews to illustrate current practices and future opportunities for faith communities to address rural child hunger. We highlight notable community and faith-based responses to rural food insecurity. Such efforts seek to overcome challenges such as the stigma and low nutritional quality of food assistance as well as the bureaucratic and political barriers to program implementation. We also recommend ways to support, expand, and partner in community led work that addresses the underlying inequities perpetuating rural child hunger.

Rural child hunger is prevalent in the U.S., but it remains a challenge to identify and address across large and varied geographic areas. Fostering equitable partnerships with faith communities, religious organizations, and communities of shared belief and practice who are invested in rural areas can help address this complex problem and its root causes. Community-led, faith-based models can offer innovative solutions. Such models often attend to community needs more comprehensively than top-down organizational models or faith placed interventions.

Faith and Indigenous communities can be loci of social, ecological, and intergenerational relationships rooted in culture care and place-based knowledge. Food is often central to the identity of these communities, who engage in hunger-relief work using various cultural frames. Such communities provide charitable food assistance but may also seek to achieve food sovereignty, health equity, environmental justice, and ecological stewardship. A faith community’s hunger relief work can be an important stopgap solution to meet urgent needs. However, it may also reflect broader ethical or theological frameworks.

The Duke World Food Policy Center prepared this report in collaboration with Share Our Strength. A leading anti-hunger organization, Share Our Strength supports coordinated efforts to address food insecurity through federal nutrition assistance and public-private partnerships. This report identifies themes, barriers, and opportunities for addressing rural child hunger within faith-based organizations and communities.

It is vital that partners develop a shared understanding of the root causes of rural hunger and poverty, as framing shapes working models and applications in varying contexts (Jones et al. 2020). Mission alignment can help to create equitable partnerships that are community led and sustained. Charity-based approaches have dominated the hunger relief work of faith communities for several decades. This report highlights emerging models and communities integrating social justice frameworks with spiritual traditions to respond to inequities causing hunger in rural places. This report recommends asset based, contextualized approaches in partnership with rural stakeholders to achieve sustainable and equitable solutions to rural child hunger.


This research was guided by a central question: how are faith communities addressing hunger in rural areas, and rural child hunger in particular? We identified four overarching themes to describe faith-based approaches to addressing rural hunger.

  • THE MORAL DIMENSIONS OF HUNGER AND POVERTY: Faith and Indigenous communities see hunger as a witness to imbalance in the world: a deeper problem than a calorie deficit. When communities see hunger as a social, economic, and moral problem, they take systemic and collective approaches to its resolution.
  • MOVING FROM CHARITY TO JUSTICE: Many of the organizations and individuals we interviewed described their work as a movement from charity to justice. Justice focused solutions to rural child hunger address environmental justice, land justice, social justice and racial justice.
  • CONTEXT IS KEY: Building successful and equitable partnerships with rural faith communities requires paying attention to rural contexts along with their unique needs and concerns.
  • SCARCITY VS. ABUNDANCE: Discussions on rural hunger sometimes focus on what rural communities lack, for instance, equal access to healthy food through conventional food retailers. Many faith community leaders instead start with a community’s strengths, like dense social networks, strong local foodways, or food provisioning practices that support self reliance.


  • LISTEN: Understand and Share Moral Frameworks to Address Hunger and Poverty
  • SUPPORT: Move from Charity to Justice through Community-led Institutional Partnerships
  • ANALYZE: Partner in Community-led Contextual Analysis
  • LIFT UP: Practice Asset-Based Approaches and an Abundance Worldview

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E96: The Role & Promise of Rural Faith Communities in Solving Hunger
Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Food insecurity in children is a tragic issue around the world and in the US. In America, the issue is especially challenging in rural areas. Rural faith communities often play a central role in addressing rural child hunger, and the support needs and desires of these organizations are nuanced by their faith tradition. This is the subject of a report done jointly by the Duke World Food Policy Center and the No Kid Hungry program of Share Our Strength. It is entitled, Rural Child Hunger and Faith Community Engagement. Joining us today are three experts on this issue. Emma Lietz Bilecky, the chief author of this report, received her graduate training at Duke University and is now Research Fellow with Princeton Theological Seminary’s Farminary project. Norman Wirzba and Robb Webb are some of the nation’s leading thinkers on issues of food and faith. Norman Wirzba a faculty member of the Duke Divinity School and has written some of the most influential texts on food and faith, and Robb Webb is Director of the Rural Church Division of The Duke Endowment and Chair of the Rural Life Committee of the North Carolina Council of Churches.