Editor’s note: Bread for the World is working to ensure that ending hunger and poverty are top priorities for the next president and Congress by highlighting those issues during this election season.
This interview was conducted last month by Alison Grant, a freelance writer in Bay Village, Ohio. The interview has been condensed and edited.
Tony Hall, executive director emeritus of the Alliance to End Hunger, is turning renewed attention to his home town of Dayton to fight high rates of food hardship in the Miami Valley.
Hall, 73, served in the U.S. House from 1979 to 2002, where he chaired the House Select Committee on Hunger for four years. When the committee was dissolved by House leadership in 1993, he staged a 22-day fast to protest the decision. After he left Congress, Hall served as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Agencies for Food and Agriculture until 2006.
Q. Why did you make fighting hunger the central battle of your public career? What drew you to addressing the problem?
A. I think probably it is from when I was in the Peace Corps in my younger years, just living with people and seeing how they lived, and not growing up in it, growing up in Ohio in a fairly affluent family and not seeing poverty up close.
I was in Thailand, in a very rural area. I took a shower out of a bucket and lived under mosquito netting for two years, 1966-67. I kept that image, I kept that experience. I found myself in Congress and it evolved. I became chairman of the Select Committee on Hunger and then I began to really focus. I began to travel.
One of the first countries I went to was Ethiopia. I saw 25 children die one morning from hunger. It was so bad that as I walked among these people — there was a civil war going on at the same — the mothers began to hand me their dead children. They thought I was a doctor, thinking there was some way I could bring their children back.
I was stunned. I’d never seen death like that. I didn’t realize that people could die from hunger. And they do. There are still 21,000 people that die from hunger every day.
I decided flying back to the States, this was what I was going to be involved in, whether it was international hunger or domestic.
Q. Now you’re dedicating yourself to working on anti-hunger issues in Dayton. What was your feeling when you learned that your hometown ranks today as one of the hungriest places in the country?
A. Well, it saddens me because it’s my hometown. The biggest reason why it’s where it is today is we’ve lost so many jobs and very well-paying jobs. Dayton had more automobile workers than any city in the country except for Detroit at one time. As I remember, we had 12 automobile plants. Now we have one. We had a number of Fortune 500 companies. Now I don’t think we have any.
We just had a lot of businesses close. A lot of the companies went to Mexico, China. These jobs paid around $27, $28 an hour, even before benefits. So when you lose 40,000 of these jobs, you can imagine how it affects families, businesses, income taxes, infrastructure, the whole works.
Most of these people, they didn’t get these jobs back. There were no jobs like this left. Some of them got part-time jobs. You can’t make it, if you have a family, on $8, $9, $10 an hour. There’s no way. That’s why Dayton is one of the hungriest places in the country. That’s what’s happened.
Q. There’s been great loss of manufacturing in Youngstown and Cleveland and other areas, too. Was manufacturing a bigger share of the overall economy in Dayton, making the rate of hunger especially acute there?
A. I think it was a bigger share. And we didn’t sustain well the programs that we had in place. So what we do is we need to go back to square one. We have a great food bank there in Dayton, we have good food pantries. We need to go back and build upon those.
We need to have a lot more collaboration. We need to bring more people into the process. We need to wake up Dayton and Montgomery County, to the point where they need to realize — we have a problem. A lot of people don’t even realize it yet. So I’m spending a lot of time trying to say “Look, we’ve got a great city, we’ve got good people here, we need to work together, we need to all come into the room.”
This problem not only belongs to the government. It belongs to businesses. It belongs to nonprofits. It belongs to faith-based groups. It belongs to food banks and food pantries.
Q. By collaborating, what strength will that bring to the table, to get at this?
A. One of the problems that you see, not only in Dayton but you see it all over the world, is if you don’t collaborate, you’ve got all these silo entities doing their own thing. Maybe this church or this group is feeding 2,000 people or 10,000 people, where maybe they could be feeding 15,000 people. Maybe together, instead of doing a limited thing, we could be hunger free. I think some day Dayton could be a hunger-free community. Where we could say nobody is ever going to go to bed hungry ever again in Dayton, Ohio. We have that potential.
Q. If you were to describe in general this issue of food hardship for Ohio families, how would you characterize it?
A. I would describe it as women and children and senior citizens that go to bed hungry two or three days out of every month. And the reason that happens is that by the time they pay their rent, their utility bills, their daycare bills, their transportation, they run out of money. And if they have one problem during the month, maybe their child gets sick or they have a dental problem, if they’re making $10, $12 an hour, they’re not going to make it. And they’ll find themselves having to go to a food bank or soup kitchen. That’s hunger in Ohio.
Q. The number of people on Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) benefits has plummeted in Ohio with welfare reform. Is that playing into food insecurity?
A.Yes, We have to really educate our elected officials. When they pass legislation relative to the poor, they have to know how it’s going to affect them.
That welfare reform bill that was passed – initially, that got a lot of people off welfare, which everybody was happy about. But it hurt a lot of people in the long run. I voted against it. I felt it’s going to hurt a lot of people. And it did.
Poor people, hungry people, they are the voiceless. They don’t have campaign funds. They don’t get in to see congressmen and senators and governors. They don’t have a voice. There’s not many people who speak for the poor. They’re not particularly a strong voting bloc.
And congressmen, when they get up in the morning, and senators and governors, they’re not necessarily thinking of the poor. It’s a real problem.
Q. If you could say one thing to the presidential candidates today about hunger in America, what would you say? What would you tell them or ask them?
A. If you get elected president, what are you going to do about hunger in America, when we have 48 million people in America that are hungry? That would be my question.