Feeding America CEO Vicki Escarra

The president-CEO of Feeding America shares her concerns about the poverty crisis facing women and children in the U.S.

Vicki Escarra is president-CEO of Feeding America, the leading domestic hunger-relief charity, which works through a network of more than 200 food banks. She's made a priority of increasing the nutritional quality of food that's distributed through expanded produce and fresh-food initiatives. The Georgia native previously worked for Delta Airlines for more than 30 years in various roles and served on President Obama’s 2009-2010 Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships as a member of the Task Force on Economic Recovery and Domestic Poverty.


Tavis: My friend, Dr. Cornel West, who of course took the poverty tour with me earlier this summer during the month of August. Once again, thanks to the good folk at the Media Mobilizing Project for putting together these terrific pieces every night this week from our tour.

As I mentioned last night, one of the reasons we chose to work with Media Mobilizing is their mission to hire and train people who often come from poor and working class backgrounds, including the men and women who worked so very hard to bring you these wonderful highlights from our tour tonight and again, all this week.

For more tonight on this critical issue I’m pleased to be joined by Vicki B. Escarra. She is the president and CEO of the nonprofit group Feeding America. Vicki, an honor to have you on this program.

Vicki B. Escarra: Thank you, Tavis, good to be here.

Tavis: September, just a month ago, was the month during which these census numbers came out that so many folk have been talking about that puts the number at almost 50 million Americans now living in poverty, so those are official numbers.

They came out in September. September is also Hunger Awareness Month.

Escarra: Right.

Tavis: Give me the link between those two.

Escarra: So the link between poverty and hunger is like a few other things that are inextricably linked to poverty. We know that roughly 50 million people in our country are living in hunger, 16 million children. So the link is there.

We were stunned by the numbers. I would tell you that we also were a bit pleased, because it looks like the food insecurity numbers are holding their own, which means that the work that we’re doing and the work that our government is currently doing is really helping feed roughly 50 million people.

Tavis: “Holding their own.” How long can they hold on, and what kind of increased demand have you been getting?

Escarra: So in the last three years we’ve seen hunger increase by almost 50 percent in our network. We’ve seen it actually increase more than 50 percent with kids. Out of those numbers we’ve seen people that have never visited a food bank come to our network at an increase of 30 percent.

So you know the numbers are so big it’s kind of hard to really, I think, wrap your head around 50 million people, but the stories about the people are really what resonate with I think me and others that are in this work, and as we go through Americans we see these families and these elderly people and these children, and we hear the stories about them just struggling to get by day after day. It’s really stunning that it’s happening in our country.

Tavis: Why are women, to your earlier point, Vicki, why are women and children the group that we now know are falling fastest into this group of poor Americans?

Escarra: So we know that women are likely to lose their jobs first as you look across the working – the people that have been working that are out of work now, and we know that women disproportionately are living with children in their household, and so they are affected. People of color are affected far more greatly than people that are not.

Tavis: I’m not naïve in asking this question, but why is that the case? I’m asking that because there are some folk who don’t seem to understand that, get that, or don’t want to recognize that. People who think that the poor are themselves to blame for being in this situation, but you’re telling me now there’s a racial disparity component to this. Tell me more.

Escarra: So clearly, people that had been living in poverty before this latest recession have been, many of them, in poverty for some time. But what we are seeing is that as the layoffs have happened and as unemployment has continued to rise, that it is affecting women and people of color at a much higher rate, and they are living with kids.

Tavis: We’re already into and about to get more deeply, obviously, into this election season – that is to say, the race for the White House – and I can guarantee you that President Obama and Mr. Romney or Mr. Perry, whoever the Republican nominee, Ms. Bachmann, whoever it might be, Herman Cain, I don’t know, but I can guarantee you that there’s going to be a significant part of their campaign operation dedicated to getting the woman vote.

No one gets elected without going aggressively after the woman vote in America. If the woman vote is so important in America, why, then, do we allow this to happen to women and their babies?

Escarra: Well, it’s criminal that we allow, in this country of plenty, that we allow women and children to go without enough to eat, and we know, because we’ve done a lot of research, that every county in the United States is impacted.

We know through our research as well that women always will go without eating before they allow their children to go without eating. It reminds me of a story that I have told because it’s so relevant.

I was in Las Vegas, which was dramatically impacted by the recession, and I was in a principal’s office, because we do a lot of work with kids in schools, and the school had children that qualified for free and reduced breakfast and lunch at 92 percent.

This little boy walked in. His name was Max. He had his head down, which is typical of kids that live in poverty or in hunger, food insecure homes, and his name was Max, and the teacher, or the principal said, “Max, can I help you?” and he said, “Can I talk to you for a minute?” He had a box.

So she walked out and came back about five minutes later, and she said, “Max brought all of his toys to school today because he wants to sell his toys because his mother lost her job, and he was recognizing that she wasn’t eating.

So my question to people in our country is should eight-year-old kids be worrying about selling their toys so their families can have enough food? I don’t think so.

Tavis: Again, not asking this question out of naïveté, but since children don’t have a voice – I mean, there is Marian Wright Edelman of the Children’s Defense Fund, and there’s you and Feeding America, some of the other wonderful programs, but since kids don’t have the kind of voice that persons who are over 18 and can vote have, who’s on the front lines of the fight defending children, raising these kinds of issues in Washington?

Escarra: It has to be all of us. I think all of us have got to make it known to our elected officials, and we have been with our network in Washington, D.C., calling on first the Gang of Six, now the Committee of 12, and calling on the president to say this is unacceptable in our country, that we allow virtually 15 to 18 percent of our citizens to live in poverty, with no end in sight.

They don’t have an education or a good education, they don’t have good and decent food to eat, they don’t have good medical care. It’s all around the same group of people.

Tavis: So when you’re walking the halls of Congress or trying to get access to the White House, what kind of response are you getting when you’re raising this issue about women and children not having enough food to eat?

Escarra: It’s mixed.

Tavis: Right.

Escarra: It is mixed. We have some people that are really in our camp and fighting hard for us. But the majority are not concerned about it, and we need to get the majority of people in Congress concerned about this issue.

Tavis: Since you’ve mentioned the supercommittee, these 12 members of Congress who are now tasked with the assignment of figuring out this deficit reduction direction, how scared are you, how frightened are you, what’s going to happen to women and babies and women and children, given what might happen in this supercommittee.

Escarra: I’m very concerned. I am concerned because there is an idea floating that we just cut 1 percent of nutrition programs. So in real terms, what that means is families that qualify for SNAP benefits and food stamps, if you will, what that means is the family of four that’s making $21,000 a year, food stamps provide about $325 to $350 a month. So a 1 percent cut would in essence cut about $50 to $75 out of that monthly budget.

Now, you tell me how does a family of four with $21,000 a year, with food prices being at an all-time high, get by on $275 a month in food? Well, they don’t, which is why we are seeing, at a rate that we’ve never seen in the 35 years that food banks have been doing the work that we’re doing, we’ve never seen demand the way it is right now.

So really, really concerned. Sounds easy, 1 percent, let’s just take 1 percent, but that has a real impact.

Tavis: How does Feeding America define food insecurity?

Escarra: Food insecurity is actually defined by USDA. It means that families don’t know where their next meal will come from, and there are a variety of varying views and definitions around food insecurity that all lead up to people being hungry.

Tavis: You suggested earlier, a few minutes ago in your conversation, and I heard it and wanted to come back to it – I just didn’t want to stop your flow at the time – but I heard you suggest earlier that we are a country of plenty. Does that evidence still hold up? Is America still a country of plenty? Do we have enough food? Is it possible to feed all these folk in this country who are hungry?

Escarra: There is enough food that is produced in the United States not only to feed every citizen who lives here, but the majority of the world. The real question is around political will. Do we have the political will? Do we have the values that this country was built on, that says that we will take care of people that are lesser than all of us and make sure that they are cared for? So I think it’s really a question of values and political will.

Tavis: What happens to children specifically who don’t get enough to eat over a sustained period of time?

Escarra: I’ve seen these kids, Tavis. I’ve visited with them a lot, and you see them come in on Monday morning and they’re fidgeting, like all of us when we don’t eat. They don’t pay attention, they’re jumping up and down, and then around lunchtime, when they actually get in for lunch, they settle down a bit.

We actually started, through our network, a program called the Backpack Program, that was actually developed by a school nurse because she knew kids were going home on the weekend and they didn’t have enough food to eat.

So we also know through work that we’ve done that children that go for even a short period of time without food, and certainly nutritious food, don’t develop not only cognitively, but emotionally, spiritually and psychologically they feel like they’re not as good as other kids in school.

You see them. They hang their heads down like they don’t fit in. So the emotional distress that these children go through is something they’ll be living with for the rest of their lives.

Tavis: Dr. West and I, as part of this poverty tour, went by a facility in Detroit this summer. Tons of kids. I walked in the door and they started screaming and yelling. We had a great time. We spent time with them and talked to the kids and hung out with them for a while.

But we ended up in one of your facilities that you support in Detroit with these kids. What kind of network do you have to have to provide the kind of food service that you provide to these kids in Detroit and other places all across the country?

Escarra: It’s a fabulous network, and it is 202 food banks across the country. We have 62,000 agencies which are soup kitchens, pantries, Boys and Girls Clubs, senior citizen clubs. We have over 100,000 programs. So we, as I said, are feeding right now 37 million people, 14 million children.

This past year we distributed 3.1 billion pounds of food. Seventy-five percent of our network is involved in attaching families to government programs.

Tavis: First of all, thank you for the work that you’re doing.

Escarra: Yes, thank you.

Tavis: And for supporting this effort on the poverty tour, I appreciate it. Number two, this, to my mind, is not just a national disgrace, this really is a state of emergency. This ought to be unacceptable in a country this great.

Tomorrow night, part three of our poverty tour series, including a conversation with Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius from the Obama administration.

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Last modified: April 15, 2012 at 12:00 am