A life’s work of guaranteeing people’s right to food

From left to right, Joyce Rothermel, Melissa Laughlin and Jennifer Lawer visiting the office of U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle (D-Pa.) during Lobby Day. Joseph Molieri/Bread for the World.

By Jennifer Gonzalez

Joyce Rothermel is no stranger to the issue of hunger.

She is co-founder and former CEO of the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank. She also help found Jubilee Kitchen, a soup kitchen in Pittsburgh’s Hill District.

So when she recently sat down with Rep. Mike Doyle (D-Pa.) during Bread’s Lobby Day – her third – she was both gracious and to the point. She wanted him to support increased funding for nutrition in global health programs. She also asked him to support a strong federal child nutrition program and the Global Food Security Act.

“I became a Bread member because I believe that good public policy is the best way to lessen and ultimately eliminate hunger at home and abroad,” Rothermel said. “Bread for the World concentrates on the improvement of U.S. public policy to do just that.”

Rothermel, 70, and others from southwest Pennsylvania also visited the offices of Sens. Bob Casey (D) and Patrick Toomey (R), and dropped off letters at the office of Rep. Keith Rothfus (R-12).  “Our Pennsylvania delegation is great in diversity, number, age, and race.  It makes me proud to be a Christian in Pennsylvania,” Rothermel said.

Rothermel grew up on a farm west of Canton, Ohio. She was the oldest of four children – and only six years old – when her mother died. While in junior high, her father remarried, and three more children were added to the family. After high school, she entered the Sisters of the Humility of Mary and later attended St. John’s College in Cleveland, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in education followed by a master’s degree in education from the University Dayton in Ohio.

Rothermel taught math and religion to Catholic junior high school students from 1967-77, before helping found the Jubilee Kitchen in 1979 and a year later co-founding the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank.

She served as the food bank’s executive director from 1987 until her retirement in 2011. She said she is most proud of the Southwestern Pennsylvania Food Security Partnership she was able to shepherd during her tenure.

“It is awesome to me to see how a community can respond so effectively together to address a community need,” she said.

Her passion for advocacy stems from her immersion in Catholic social teachings and her association with the Thomas Merton Center in Pittsburgh. She said Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement inspired her to make the guarantee of people’s right to food her life’s work. The missions of Jubilee Kitchen and the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank became very practical ways to pursue that focus, she said.

Rothermel said that at the core of the teachings “is respect for the dignity of each and every person and that the most basic way to show respect is to ensure that each and every person’s basic needs and basic rights are ensured.”

Her advocacy took further root at the Merton Center, which is focused on peace and social justice issues. Rothermel worked on staff from 1977-87 and is now a board member.  She said she and her husband, Michael Drohan, share their time and talent with the Merton Center because “it gives us a communal way to live out our values with fellow travelers who are also committing to building a more peaceful and just world.”

Jennifer Gonzalez is the associate online editor at Bread for the World.

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