TEDxManhattan Heroes: Joel Berg

Leading up to TEDxManhattan 2015, we've asked this year's speakers to introduce themselves by answering a few questions. Our first guest is Joel Berg, Executive Director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger, Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, and author of All You Can Eat: How Hungry Is America?

What's the topic you'll be speaking about?

The conventional wisdom about fighting hunger is all wrong. Many Americans believe that we can end US hunger one person at a time, one can of food at a time. While well meaning, they are wrong. The only entity capable of leading the political and economic action that would eliminate hunger in America is the federal government.

Why is this important?

Many are under the false impression that charity can solve the problem, but the charity model of fighting hunger in America is misguided, and we need a completely new and different approach to combat US hunger. Trying to end hunger with food drives is like trying to fill the Grand Canyon with a teaspoon. Even though food drives increase each year, feeding charities simply don't have anything close to the resources needed to meet demand. It's clear that charity - no matter how vast or small - cannot substitute for systematic, progressive social change that would reduce poverty and inequality nationwide.

Are there other projects you're also passionate about right now - either yours or someone else's?

I'm most passionate about our Food Action Board, VISTA, and CSA programs.

Trying to end hunger with food drives is like trying to fill the Grand Canyon with a teaspoon.                                   Even though food drives increase each year, feeding charities simply don't have anything close to the resources needed to meet demand.

At the heart of our advocacy work is our Food Action Board program, which empowers low-income and food insecure individuals to advocate on their own behalf for a more just and equitable society. These individuals meet with elected officials, speak to the media, and organize events to educate the public about food insecurity in America. No social movement in history has been won without engaging the people it's fighting for, which is why food insecure individuals must be at the center of our fight to end hunger. 

Our national AmeriCorps VISTA program engages idealistic Americans in full-time national service fighting hunger. We currently run a yearlong program, as well as a Summer Associate program, for 8-10 weeks. Taken together, these programs have a total of 150 members in 32 states, and the District of Columbia, building the capacity of state and local anti-hunger organizations, recruiting volunteers, increasing summer meals awareness, and identifying and decreasing barriers to accessing SNAP, and other nutrition benefits.

Finally, our innovative CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) program brings fresh, local and affordable produce into some of the lowest-income food deserts in NYC. In 2013, our CSA distributed over 91,000 pounds of fresh, local, and affordable produce to 427 families. This project not only boosts farmers and aids the diets of struggling families; it also provides a model for how Washington and Albany can create polices to improve community nutrition.

If you could do one thing to change the food system, what would it be?

Ensure living wage jobs and provide an adequate social safety net so that low-income individuals don't go hungry. We're the richest country in the history of the world, and there's no good reason so many Americans are food insecure.

Which other 2015 TEDxManhattan speakers are you excited about hearing? Which past speakers did you find particularly inspiring?

I'm really looking forward to hearing my colleague Marcel Van Ooyen's TED talk. I'm hoping he can explain the latest developments in how he is helping both small farmers and hungry New Yorkers through the Green Markets.

Where can more information about your project be found?

More information about New York City Coalition Against Hunger can be found at nyccah.org. Information about our national volunteer project can be found at hungervolunteer.org, and you can sign up to volunteer today!

TEDxManhattan, "Changing the Way We Eat," will take place March 7, 2015, at the TimesCenter in New York City. Interested in joining the day? You can apply to attend, or host or attend a viewing party.

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