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Resource: Empowering Eaters Summit: Fireside chat with Luis Guardia, President, Food Research & Action Center

Keynote Fireside Chat with Luis Guardia, President, Food Research & Action Center moderated by Danielle Nierenberg, Food Tank. Presented at the Empowering Eaters: Access, Affordability, Healthy Choices, and Food is Medicine Summit in Support of a National Strategy on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health “The Health and Wellbeing of Future Generations in Policy.” Co-hosted by Duke University and Food Tank and held on March 3, 2024.

Transcript

Danielle Nierenberg

I get to sit here with one of my heroes. I’ve known Luis Guardia for a little bit now, and I’ve been a huge admirer of FRAC’s work and I’m so hoping that you can share with this audience what you do and why it’s so important. FRAC is the Food Research & Action Center.

Luis Guardia

Well, thank you so much, Dani. At FRAC, we start with the premise that we believe everybody in this country has the right and should have the resources to live to their highest potential. And that really starts with making sure that they have their basic human necessities taken care of, including food. And we believe food really is a basic human right. And if you have that, and if you have the way to provide for yourself for your family, you can leave to your highest potential. And at FRAC, what we do is we want to make sure that that’s made possible through the federal nutrition programs. And you heard a lot about that earlier: SNAP, WIC, school meals, and [inaudible 00:01:18] for the native community. And there are many others, but it takes groups like FRAC and lots of other people here who are here today and Food Tank as well to make sure that our policy makers do the right thing, that they protect these food programs, that they strengthen them, and that they make sure that they work for folks.

Danielle Nierenberg

Absolutely. Thank you for that. When I was listening to Congress Member Adams, she talked a little bit about the impossible decisions that families have to make right now. And so I’m wondering if you can talk about the state of hunger in the United States.

Luis Guardia

Yeah, absolutely. And a big shout out to Congresswoman Adams. I mean, she’s been really one of the big hunger heroes in our Congress, and everybody has been talking about the moment that we’re in. I think there are different things, different ways to look at that. One is the political moment that our country’s in. Also, one that we are kind of coming out of COVID, and we’re learning a lot of lessons. And unfortunately, on the hunger side, we’re seeing some hunger rates start to creep back up. This is happening for a couple of different reasons. We see, obviously, you talked about food prices earlier, and also, there was a reference made to how some of the pandemic-era benefits have been rolled back. I think the congresswoman had mentioned that. So one of the things that we’re concerned about is the rise in hunger rates, but also we do have solutions in place where there are policies that are making their way through the Congress that we need to make sure people in power know that we are supporting, and people know that this is an important way for us to address hunger in this country.

Danielle Nierenberg

Thank you for that, Luis. I am wondering if you can talk about some of the barriers folks are facing. So you mentioned the pandemic has definitely been a huge obstacle. People lost their jobs. Some of them couldn’t go back to making the same salaries they were before. Some people had to move. There are lots of things that prevent people from getting proper nutrition and having healthy diets. One of them we talked about before is sort of the home infrastructure, not having the skills, for example, or working kitchens. What are other obstacles, and how can we work to alleviate them?

Luis Guardia

Yeah, these programs, they’re great programs and they can be made even better by addressing some of the barriers that we know. And I think we owe a big shout-out to the Biden-Harris Administration for calling some of that stuff out in the national strategy to end hunger. We talked about school meals a little bit, but one of the things I wanted to make sure that folks knew about was at FRAC, we’re really proud to be working with a lot of other folks on a national coalition to make healthy school meals for all available to every school child in this country.

We saw the benefit of this during the pandemic when there were USDA waivers that allowed parents and kids to access school meals at no cost. And when those got rolled back, there was confusion and even a return of stigma that we saw before the pandemic. We heard just heartbreaking stories, and we’re worried that they might be coming back of children being denied food because they have outstanding school meal debt, that either they get their food taken away or instead of the food that they get in the line, they get a cheese sandwich or something like that. The cafeteria should not be a place where kids get stigmatized. It just shouldn’t. And we don’t means test other things in our public education system. We don’t means test if a child needs a computer or we don’t means test if a child needs a book, or we don’t means test if they need transportation to school.

And I think we’ve all heard, and we all know, that food and proper nutrition is fundamental. It’s absolutely necessary for kids to have a good education. Other barriers that we want to make sure that we address are how people are accessing the WIC program, that we’ve talked a little bit about today. Fantastic WIC program participation starts to fall off dramatically. We know half of the babies born in this country, half are touched and benefit from the WIC program. Then so what happens afterwards? So for example, right here in North Carolina, we are working with partners in Fayetteville, in the Fort Bragg community, to understand how can we make this program more accessible. And even programs like SNAP. SNAP is our country’s first line of defense against hunger. We’ve heard a lot about it, and we need to make sure that it is protected and strengthened and particularly in an upcoming foreign bill conversation.

But Dani, let’s be clear, it’s a hard program to access. They do not make it easy. There is a cumbersome application process. There are waiting periods, there are onerous requirements, but particularly for college students who have to work 80 hours a month and still do full-time schoolwork, we need to make sure that these programs are delivered in a way that people can access them; they can access them and access them with dignity as well. Because, as we’ve heard today, and I think everybody is kind of understanding that inextricable length between hunger and health, and we have these programs that have been proven time and time again to improve health outcomes in this country. And if we’re making it harder for folks to access them, it’s really kind of makes it quite difficult for folks to achieve the health outcomes and improve their livelihoods.

Danielle Nierenberg

Yeah, absolutely. So, Luis, you’ve said a bunch of things that blow my mind right now. One is that there is a term that is school lunch debt that just blows my mind that should never happen in the richest country in the world. The other is, we’ve heard this throughout the day that there are these continuous attacks on SNAP, but we know how effective it is and we know it’s often difficult for people to get, and people like me are always talking about how food is a non-partisan issue. It’s the only non-partisan issue we have left, but it’s pretty partisan right now because of things like SNAP. How do we get past that?

Luis Guardia

You’re right. We absolutely need to address it. I think one way that we all need to think about this is we need to meet people where they are in terms of where they’re coming from on this. I talked about, a little bit, of the sort of north star that drives us at FRAC, and that is a country where everybody can live to their highest potential and have the nutrition that they need in order to reach that potential. And that is something that really is just sort of so integral to our identity as Americans. It’s integral to who we are as a country and as someone whose parents were immigrants. That is very, very much part of what I heard growing up around the table, very much kind of within my DNA, and why I’m so passionate about this work.

I think the other thing we need to understand is not only are these programs like SNAP important for people to reach their own potential and improve their health, there are also incredible economic drivers. We know that for every $1 spent on SNAP benefits, local economies, and we’ve talked a lot about local economies, so we’re talking about farmers, talking about retailers, we’re talking about restaurants, other people who are in the system, and other people who are part of the food system. For every $1, local economies grow by a $1.50.

Danielle Nierenberg

That’s amazing.

Luis Guardia

So that’s actually one of the best ROIs in the fiscal budget. And so, when we talk about economic resiliency, when we talk about improving jobs, we know that… And Norbert talked about this a little bit earlier, about how important it is to address some of the root causes. Programs like SNAP have this sort of virtuous cycle benefit where they put food on the table, they grow local economies, and they produce jobs, which is ultimately is what we need for folks to get out of hunger. People need to make sure they have the economic resiliency that they should have to provide for themselves and their family in the way that’s most appropriate for them.

Danielle Nierenberg

And a living wage.

Luis Guardia

Yes.

Danielle Nierenberg

But I want to talk about how FRAC has been such a great convener, and we talk about the obstacles to filling out the SNAP paperwork, but there are lots of organizations, including FRAC, but many others that you work with that help folks do that, but they need funding to do that. And where do you see sort of the future of that? Where do you see, because more and more people, food prices are still very high? More and more people are hungry; we’re going back to the rates during the pandemic. Where does the funding for that come from, and how can we increase it?

Luis Guardia

So it comes from a variety of different sources. And one of the things that was called out also in the Biden-Harris plan to end hunger was the need for everybody to pitch in on this. So right now, some funding for that comes from the government in terms of what people call outreach programs to make sure that people who either want to access the program or don’t know about the program learn about it, and they have some assistance again because it is quite difficult. But that’s not the entirety. The government doesn’t fund the entirety of that.

In most states, it’s up to about half of the money for that. So a lot of that other money comes from philanthropy. And at the beginning of the pandemic, I remember making this case a lot because people would see cues of cars stretching for seven miles. I mean, I distinctly remember it was, I think it was a New York Times front cover above the fold, the San Antonio Food Bank, and that picture. And everyone’s like, “Oh my goodness, how do we get here? Let’s make sure we help this sector.” And that’s great. And the food banks do tremendous, tremendous work. But we know that for every SNAP meal or every meal that the food bank provides, SNAP provides nine.

So we’re talking almost about a tenfold level of increase. And I would make the case that sometimes someone filling out a SNAP application; it doesn’t make for great TV, but the big, dramatic panoramic drone shots of the seven miles, boy, that grabs people’s attention. So it’s really, really important that we raise the awareness of the work that a lot of these organizations are doing in local communities. Like the local anti-poverty groups or the local apple seeds. The food banks are doing this work as well. Food banks are now the largest provider of assistance of SNAP applications, but they’re not everywhere. So we need to make sure that these other groups receive attention that they receive funding because sometimes these less sexy ways of addressing hunger but that we know are super, super effective will get overlooked.

Danielle Nierenberg

It seems to me that storytelling has to be a huge part of this. And I know that you do that every day. Do you have any anecdotes or stories that you want to share with us that have come from FRAC’s work?

Luis Guardia

Yeah, a couple. I mean, I remember very early in the pandemic, we heard how… We sponsor a group, the group that does this work in the state of Maryland, they received-

Danielle Nierenberg

Where I live.

Luis Guardia

-Yeah. We received, gosh, it was almost, it was thousands of phone calls, and at the beginning of pandemic, it really kind of overwhelmed our team. One of the folks that called was somebody that’s like, “I don’t live near a food bank; it’s very hard for me to access these distribution centers, but they’re stores nearby that say they accept DBT. How do I get that?” And this is somebody who is a professional, but they hadn’t encountered the need for that. So we need to make sure that people understand that these programs are just, they’re an integral safety net to folks, and that they’re actually by design there for this specific purpose. When people do hit hard economic times, that’s when the program is supposed to step in. That’s why it’s called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. That’s where the acronym SNAP comes from.

But we’ve been talking a lot about the importance of good nutrition as well. And on a tour that I was doing out in California during the pandemic, I was fortunate to be able to visit the farmer’s market just right in the shadow of City Hall in San Francisco. And I was talking to a mom. She came in tow with her very young children and was so appreciative, but also mentioned the importance of having additional funding through GusNIP or other programs to buy fresh fruits and vegetables. And she would sell me; she’s like, “We don’t get to do this every day.” And so I guess it was a certain beginning of the month or something that she received this additional benefit, and she was able to bring back fresh peaches, fresh blueberries to her family.

And she was talking about how her children really, really loved it, but it was not something that was available to them with the regular resources that they have. So we see and hear these stories. We want to elevate these stories, including the positive ones and also the other ones to make sure that people understand how important and integral these programs are to making sure that kids and families have the resources that they need.

Danielle Nierenberg

Yeah, it’s been too easy to overlook the hungry in America. We cannot do that anymore. I’m wondering, and I’ve asked this question already today, but I feel like it bears worth repeating, and one thing I admire about you is that you work so close with policymakers. They all know you and know the organization. And so what is your advice on continuing to make sure that these issues are non-partisan, that Republicans and Democrats and everyone in between can really rally around them and understand that they will help their constituents, that people will vote on these issues.

Luis Guardia

People on Capitol Hill know FRAC pretty well, and they see us coming. They’re like, “Oh, here come people from FRAC again. They want more money for SNAP or more money for this.” So it is so important, and I’m so glad we’re here at Duke University and we’re talking to people from the business school. We’re talking to people from the healthcare system. We’re talking to people from the divinity school. We’re talking to people from the global food policy. I think that is reflective of really what’s needed. It requires an entire community to support this stuff because, again, if we all believe that food is a right and we all believe that people should have the nutrition that they need to lead, to get to the maximum potential that they have in this country, then that’s something that all these communities will want to support.

Not just the health community, not just the anti-poverty community or anti-hunger advocates like myself, but also the education community and also the military community. There are so many people who have a stake in this and making sure that we work together, that we coordinate, and have opportunities like this where you brought us together to hear from the different communities. So important because I think… I’ve been, not surprised, but I’m always inspired and encouraged when I hear people from all these different backgrounds talking about the importance of access to nutrition and access to food.

Danielle Nierenberg

And you’ve been such a big part of that silo-breaking. You continue to be my hero. Everyone should support FRAC. Please go to their website, make a donation. You can do it right now.