The following is an interview between Alexcia Jellum, New Media Producer with the Revolution Hunger Campaign, and Beth Schatz, incoming President of the Junior League of St. Paul. They spoke about hunger in Minnesota, what young people can do to fight hunger, and inspiration.
Why do you enjoy fighting hunger? How long have you been doing this?
The Junior League of Saint Paul (JLSP) has been working in our community for almost ten decades. This year we celebrate our 95th anniversary. I’ve been a member for seven years. I am proud to be part of a historic organization that has such a strong mission. We promote voluntarism, develop the potential of women as leaders and effect meaningful change through the creation and support of valuable programs.
I don’t know that I would say I “enjoy” fighting hunger. It’s more of a compulsion. Hunger is a constant reminder of how stratified Saint Paul remains even today. We’ve been fighting for equality for a long, long time. Yet, many families are still choosing between paying rent or eating. Hunger in Minnesota has doubled over the past five years. And, 40 percent of those people that are hungry are children. That’s not equality. As a mother, these statistics break my heart. There’s an African proverb that Hillary Clinton helped make famous: “it takes a village.” I truly believe that meeting children’s basic needs like shelter, food and safety are the responsibility of the entire community. Junior League is a group of like-minded women. And, Saint Paul is our village.
Why do you think teens should fight hunger?
Hunger is something that we can all relate to. We’ve all at one time or another felt that gnawing in our stomach. Maybe a little dizziness. Headaches. We can understand hunger. But, for most of us, it’s temporary. Teens can make a huge difference in the fight against hunger. It’s not expensive to provide a meal for a child. It just takes a little dedication and some energy. These are two qualities that teens possess in spades.
Have you seen creative ways to fight hunger?
There are many organizations that are doing wonderful, awesome work in the fight to end hunger. Our current initiative, Healthy Bodies, Healthy Brains is creative and builds on successful models. The goal is to impact children’s readiness to learn by addressing the issues of food insecurity and nutrition. One of our projects that support this initiative is Backpack Buddies at John A Johnson Elementary School on the east side of Saint Paul. The free and reduced-lunch rate at the school is almost 98%. These students depend on the school cafeteria for their primary source of food. Backpack Buddies provides nutritious meals and snacks to help bridge the gap from Friday to Monday morning. The backpacks are filled with child-friendly foods that require little to no preparation. The kids are responsible for returning the backpacks and they do this extremely well, which shows how much they appreciate the program. Next year we are adding another grade. Our goal is to provide over 10,000 meals to 100 children and their siblings through the course of the school year.
What’ the most rewarding part about fighting hunger?
My favorite part of this work is the kids. It’s pretty amazing to see how proud a six year old is when they are bringing food home every week and sharing with their brothers and sisters. They are contributing to the health of the family. I also like hearing from the kids what their favorite foods are in the backpack. Surprisingly, soy milk is a huge favorite. Who knew?
What is hard about fighting hunger?
Hunger is not OK. Hungry children are more likely to experience headaches, stomach aches, ear infections and colds. Hungry teens are twice as likely to suffer from depression and five times more likely to commit suicide. Hungry children are more likely to be anti-social or exhibit isolating behaviors. Hungry children tend to have lower math scores and are twice as likely to repeat a grade and three times as likely to be suspended from school. Hungry individuals report being in poor overall health relative to well-nourished individuals. Minnesota has one of the largest achievement gaps between white students and students of color in our nation. Food seems to be at the base of many of our problems as a community. Yet, people drop a can of beans in the food drive basket and think it’s enough. While it’s a good start, we all have to do more.
What is something you have seen come out of your work fighting hunger?
Happiness. When you feed a child they smile, they laugh, they play. I love being at events where we serve food to children and their families. There is nothing like sharing a meal to bring joy.
What would you say to someone who hopes to get into your type of work?
Like the ad says: Just do it! Find a place that is easy for you to get to and spend some time volunteering. It will lead to great things. Leadership develops over time. But, it doesn’t come from playing video games or watching TV. Get involved. It sounds basic but showing up is really the first step to getting involved.
What’s your driving force?
I have two amazing children. Not sure how it happened, but wow, are they special. They are my driving force and my motivation. Since the day my daughter was born, I have wanted to be a better woman, a better citizen, a better partner and the best mom possible. Motherhood really changed me. It has made me want to step up and give back. Being the mother of a daughter has made me really think about how we represent girls and women in our society. My husband and I work hard to raise her with the best self-image that we can foster. We try to give our son the tools he needs to be respectful of women and to be the man he wants to be, not what society tells him to be. I can’t change everything. But, I can be a part of an organization that works every day to develop the potential of women as leaders.
Do you have a favorite quote you want to leave us with?
My personal favorite is “don’t lean back, lean in.” It’s simple but powerful.