The Magic Question

Eva Wingren on the phone

By Eva Wingren, Donor Relations Officer

If you’ve heard from me or one of our volunteers on the phone recently, we might have asked you a question. “What draws you to the issue of ending hunger?” No, this isn’t a pop quiz. We’re not collecting the data, though I am drawing on it for this post. I encourage my volunteer callers to ask because everyone has a reason for donating, even if they haven’t thought about it until I ask the question. And there is a lot of research to back up the idea that the stronger someone feels their “why,” the more likely they are to take further action. I call it my magic question. 

Hearing people’s answers is the highlight of my day. 

It reminds me that in addition to being donors, folks contribute to our work in so many other ways. Frequently, the people talk to volunteer at one of our partner pantries. Shout out to the donor who is also a pig farmer and feeds their pigs using food that doesn’t pass our quality inspection process for human consumption! Sometimes their passion for ending hunger was instilled by a parent. Sometimes they were encouraged to donate to us by their church or employer. Sometimes they want their money to go as far as possible in the local community. Sometimes they just love food. All are great answers! 

Occasionally I hear from someone that they are drawn to ending hunger because their family once used the food bank. I am extra grateful to those who reveal this part of their history to me because I’m sure they have been stigmatized in the past. But we want to be a system that is there for anyone when they need it, whether one time or multiple generations. We want people to feel like they can use the food bank before their finances get so tight so they can spend their money on other necessities. If we are doing our jobs right, more and more people will be able to say, “You helped me when I needed it. Now I’m in a position to help others.” 

In all of these conversations, what stands out is a faith in one simple idea: people need food, and they need it now. If I can help get it to them, it’s my duty to do so. Sometimes it is accompanied by anger or grief – why, in a society with so much wealth, have we not solved hunger? I can certainly relate to those feelings! 

Personally, I have a couple of why’s, each stronger depending on the day. If you were to ask me “what draws you to the issue of ending hunger,” I might talk about my grandpa and his food shelf (that’s Minnesotan for “food pantry”!). Grandpa is 93 and doesn’t remember me very well, so every time we talk, I tell him that I work at a food bank, and he says, “did you know I used to run a food shelf?” And then he tells me the same stories of how he was the food shelf’s first employee and built all the partnerships with the local grocery stores himself. How he coordinated with the Christmas tree sellers to donate their leftover trees a few days before Christmas. By Christmas Day, every one of them was in the home of someone that couldn’t afford a tree, decorated and with presents under it. It’s a good reminder of the value of concerning ourselves not just with calories and nutrients but with facilitating experiences that allow people to show their love to each other. 

I’ll be honest, I first judged him for all that running around. Why didn’t he just get his food from the food bank? It wasn’t until I had heard the story three times that I looked up the history of food banking and realized: there probably WAS no food bank. The first food bank was started in 1967, and Feeding America didn’t launch to coordinate a national network until 1976. 

I have another “why” too – hey, I spend a lot of time thinking about this, ok? At the beginning of my career, I spent five years advocating for more funding for affordable housing at the federal level. Housing funding peaked in the 1970s and has been disappearing ever since. Meanwhile, the Section 8 voucher program that pays private landlords a percentage of the average local rent has been taking up a bigger and bigger share of the federal housing budget due to regular rent increases over time. Only one in four people eligible for housing assistance based on income ever receive it. It’s very common for people experiencing a housing crisis and trying to navigate the system for the first time to be told they can put themselves on a seven-year waiting list. Seven years, when they likely need help in days or weeks. A few newer programs like Rapid Re-Housing can help people in some circumstances sooner, but mostly, you are on your own if you need housing. 

But somehow, food isn’t like that. Thanks to donors large and small, almost anyone in America who needs food can get it today. And keep getting it tomorrow, next week, next month, next year, and however long they need it. They can get it in the form of groceries if they can physically make it to a food pantry. They can often get food stamps that can be used at their local grocery store (click here for more information on Wisconsin’s FoodShare program). It’s something that people who work in housing can only dream of – it’s an imperfect system, and we’re always trying to make it better, but it WORKS. It works because many people, corporations, and sometimes local governments have collectively decided that we will not let people struggle with hunger. Even when stretched farther than it’s ever been during the pandemic, the food support system was up to the task. We distributed twice as much food as normal to combat the dramatic spike in food insecurity. If we can do it here, what else can we do? 

If you’ve read this far, you probably have your own story of what draws you to the issue of ending hunger. I encourage you to take a moment to think about it, maybe even journal about it! The more we know what’s driving us to take action, the more powerful our collective actions will be!