Seeking a common perspective: Food insecurity conference brings partners together to face challenges
By Eileen Persike
RHINELANDER – Teamwork, partnerships, connections, perspective. Those are just some of the recurring themes presented at the first Northwoods Food Insecurity Conference held in Rhinelander on Thursday, May 4.
Feed Our Rural Kids (FORK) organized the event in effort to connect people who care about rural hunger, and work toward a consistent understanding of food insecurity across the Northwoods.
“Everybody has a different view, everybody has a different perspective, and until we all see the challenges of the problem in the same way we aren’t going to be able to effectively and efficiently put a dent in it,” said FORK President Perry Pokrandt. “The organizations in our area all work very hard, but they are predominantly in their own silos, and until we can be connected, I think we’re all going to be tilting toward the same windmill, versus doing it more together. We’re always going to be separate, but more together.”
In a recorded welcome message, Wisconsin Senator Tammy Baldwin said work continues until no child goes hungry.
“In Washington, I’m working to tackle this issue from all angles,” Baldwin said. “Lowering families’ costs, supporting nutritional supplemental programs and ensuring our food banks have the resources they need.”
The event’s keynote speaker was Patti Habeck, President and CEO of Feeding America Eastern Wisconsin, which serves over 65% of the state, including Rhinelander. She said she is always looking for new ideas and new ways to think about providing food to people who need it.
“This is not about the entity of what is a food bank,” Habeck said. “I don’t believe the food bank is a thing. I believe it is the network, and what it is, is a collective voice, a partnership with 400 pantries that we work with across Eastern Wisconsin. It’s about us having a common voice.”
The food bank network cannot work without everyone being in partnership, she added.
“We’re never going to find the answer about how to better serve neighbors in need in our rural communities if we don’t do it in rooms like this,” said Habeck.
As the leader of Feeding America in the eastern part of the state, Habeck said she advocates at the state and national levels for more food assistance to come into communities.
“I don’t just mean governments in that space,” she said. “I’m saying we are advocating with corporations, with companies, with large philanthropy entities, with individual donors, and we’re using the collective voice of all our neighbors in need, of our pantry system and the food bank system to advocate that we get more dollars, more support so that we can do more for our neighbors.”
For Pokrandt, part of doing more involves opening eyes.
“People don’t want to think that right down the street, in the house with the two cars and whatnot, that life is tough,” said Pokrandt. “The reality is food insecurity comes out of the blue; life comes at us out of the blue. So these are your neighbors, your friends, and for many, it’s their family.”
Going forward, Habeck said, advocates will be looking closer at collective challenges and how to find solutions; how to connect with people who might have some answers that are yet to be discovered.