How to Be an Effective Advocate: 5 Lessons from the Anti-Hunger Policy Conference


Lukas Budimaier

Two of us here at GRACE just came back from the Anti-Hunger Policy Conference in Washington, DC rejuvenated with new information, ideas and strategies. The conference, attended by roughly 1,300 high-spirited and resilient food advocates, offered an array of workshops that challenged our thinking and served as a reminder for why food policy work is so important. After both of us had a few days to process the influx of information, we put our heads together to distill the weekend's events into a few key takeaways for you:

Want to Affect Lasting Change? Tell a Story

Are you feeling inundated (erm, let's be honest, positively overwhelmed) with news lately? You're not alone. If you're like us, you may read five pieces of news before even getting out of bed in the morning! The sheer volume of news these days has journalists and communications experts alike wondering how to break through the noise to ensure that their articles stand out.

The answer is seemingly simple: tell a story. So often, we underestimate the power of lived experience, prioritizing numbers and data instead. Now, we're not here to devalue these things - we all know that facts matter (well, some of us do, at least). But if you want to deliver a compelling message that resonates with your audience, an integrated approach of grounding your data in personal, human experiences might just be your best bet. Think about it: people care about issues when they affect people they know. Stories allow the reader or listener to step into another's shoes and relate the information they are processing to their own feelings and experiences.

Migdalia Rivera, Healthy Food Team Specialist at MomsRising, explains their storytelling approach succinctly: "everybody has a mom." Using this common thread, MomsRising is able bring together a diverse audience on a wide variety of issues. Through storytelling, they humanize the issues they discuss and demonstrate how policy directly affects livelihoods. These stories are integral in their advocacy campaigns, working to move the needle on policy change and amplify voices that may be underrepresented in the media.

Lastly, strong stories are told through collaborative voices - everybody needs a seat at the table. When spreading awareness about pressing issues, it's vital that we do not talk for people, but rather with them. Highlighting the voices of those who have been directly affected by an issue you're communicating is the only way to tell an inclusive, effective story that will resonate with your audience and motivate them into action.

In This Political Climate, Communications and Journalism Are More Important Than Ever

If storytelling is central to your audience finding the needle in the haystack, then a strong communications strategy is the mechanism in which we achieve this end.

Even in a time where it seems like public opinion on issues ranging from food policy, justice and advocacy is constantly at odds, communications strategies and campaigns have the ability to forge common ground. Plenary speaker Doug Hattaway of Hattaway Communications emphasized that "communications is a science, and what breaks through is meaningful."

We may be able to bridge gaps of opinion and beliefs, or at the very least become exposed to diverse points of view, through effective and meaningful communication. The Social Media Advocacy workshop offered several actionable tips from experts in the field, including digital strategy gurus M+R. A few choice strategies include:

  • Meet people where they are: mobilize supporters through newsletters and social media channels
  • Develop campaign strategies on your primary issues to distribute to your critical mass
  • Identify influencers on varying levels, ranging from small influencers that trickle up to larger influencers with the capability of big impacts
  • Produce digital advertising content to attract new audience members, engage current followers or promote your organization's tools/mission
  • Keep it personal: audiences respond best when they feel as if they're being addressed genuinely, rather than a one size fits all, manufactured approach. Don't be afraid to segment your audience and message as you see fit.

We'll leave you with this: it's important to be nimble and dynamic. Media advocacy and communications requires a lot of trial and error to figure out what your audience responds to best. Don't be afraid to take risks in order to find that sweet spot.

We Need to Hold Big Corporations Accountable Too

Politicians aren't the only one's with major influence over the way our food system works: big corporations also play a key role in determining how our food is produced and what ends up on our grocery store shelves. The good news? By using our wallets and forks, we have an opportunity to vote three times a day for the food companies and practices that we support! We've already seen how influential this type of consumer advocacy can be with the significant number of companies moving to improve animal welfare standards, reduce antibiotic use and eliminate GM ingredients from their supply chains over the past couple of years.

While it's great to see big grocery companies, soda producers and agribusiness corporations donate money to organizations doing incredible work in the anti-hunger space, these nonprofits should also work to hold their donors accountable and encourage them to implement internal policies that will help fight hunger overall. Paying their millions of employees a living wage and providing access to sufficient health care would go a long way in helping to reduce food insecurity in America.

Talking to Your Elected Official Face to Face Is the Best Way to Influence Them

According to a recent study from the Congressional Management Foundation, by far, the best way to influence your elected official's stance on an issue you care about is to go meet with them in person. It's also important in those meetings to tell stories illustrating how a particular law or regulation can or is impacting you (or people you know) directly and what they as your representative can do to help.

You may be thinking: I don't have the time or the money to travel all the way to DC! How can I possibly find the time to travel to talk to my representatives? The good news is that the study found that it's even more effective to meet with your elected official's staff at their local district office in your home town than it is to meet with the representative themselves in Washington. The district staff have their ear to the streets and are in constant communication with the Washington office to let them know what's going with their constituents. However, if you feel strongly about meeting directly with your members of Congress, just check the Congressional calendar to see when they are on recess from Capitol Hill (the white areas of the calendar) and are back in their home district. You may be surprised to know that members of Congress are often at their local offices at least several days a month, over holidays and the entire month of August, giving you ample time to schedule meetings when it's convenient for you!

Stop Mailing Postcards and Form Letters!

Research also shows that after in person meetings, personalized letters are one of the best ways to get your elected officials attention and change their minds on an issue. Unlike postcards, petitions and other form letters, personal messages that tell a story from an individual's perspective and why they care about an issue are memorable, recorded and often passed along to your elected official.

But before you mail in your handwritten letter on that nice stationery you've been dying to use, you may want to consider the fact that all paper mail that goes to Congress first must be inspected for anthrax, irradiated and tested. It's true, and it sometimes makes the letters illegible. It also means that when you mail paper postcards and letters to Capitol Hill they are often delayed by three or more weeks before they get to your elected official - sometimes too late to sway their vote on the bill that you cared about. On top of that, according to a staffer from Senator Patty Murray's (D-WA) office, all paper letters get scanned into a computer and emailed to the member's office anyway, so you might as well save your time and a stamp and just go ahead and email that personalized note.

Interested in more tidbits from the conference? Visit the hashtag for highlights: #hungerpc17