Thursday, August 15, 2013

Iowan helps distribute food in nation’s capital

Work was planned through Brethren Volunteer Service with a local food bank.
By Jon Overton

WASHINGTON — Museums, art galleries, iconic monuments and the world’s most powerful institutions encase the immaculate National Mall. Yet behind this gilded façade, reality is much harsher.

The violent crime rate is triple the national average, nearly half of its minors qualify as low income and 30 percent of all its children are food insecure, to name a few problems.

The United States Department of Agriculture defines food insecurity as poor access to a consistent variety of quality food.

Hannah Button-Harrison, a native of Iowa and 2012 graduate of Carleton College in Minnesota, joined Brethren Volunteer Service (a volunteer placement agency sponsored by the Church of the Brethren) and has worked with the Capital Area Food Bank since November 2012.

Button-Harrison described the organization as “helping the helpers.”

“Instead of servicing people looking for food, we’re servicing organizations like food pantries, soup kitchens and after school programs,” she explained.

Volunteers in a cooking class give each other high fives
after completing their test in a teaching kitchen. Every year,
the Capital Area Food Bank distributes 33 million pounds of
food. (Contributed Photo)
Much of the food bank’s supplies include edible leftovers donated by grocery stores and produce from local organic farms. Button-Harrison works under the Fresh Produce Grant, which aims to deliver healthy food to those who need it most.

“The whole idea is getting fresh produce into places where people don’t really have access to that sort of food,” she explained. “In D.C. and most of urban America, it’s not an issue of not having access to food; it’s largely an issue of not having access to healthy food.”

Growing up with stories of life-changing experiences with Brethren Volunteer Service helped motivate Button-Harrison to join.

“I’ve always felt like I need to — while I’m here on this earth — be serving people in order to give back to the world,” she said.

Button-Harrison chose to join the project with the Capital Area Food Bank because her initial project in Belfast, Ireland fell through five days before she was supposed to leave the United States and “I really liked the idea of promoting healthy eating and promoting these veggies that I’ve always loved and giving people access to that really excited me.”

Although working in Washington wasn’t as foreign as Button-Harrison originally had in mind, she said she has thoroughly enjoyed the learning experience and feels “like a small fish in a big pond” due to the size of D.C. and the size of the Capital Area Food Bank, which has 130 employees and provides food to 700 client organizations.

Button-Harrison noted several differences between the Midwest and D.C. including greater social stratification and a much stronger Black culture.

“It made me really realize my whiteness and be OK with that and not thinking about it as much like ‘oh yeah, I don’t think about race,’ but more like ‘I think about race in a very mindful sort of way and within the context of my own race and realizing my own race and my own privileges that come with that.’”

Button-Harrison said that the vast majority of the clients the food bank serves are Black because they tend to live in poverty much more often than whites, pointing out that “it’s a problem we have in all of America, but it’s very clear here.”

The commitment many fellow volunteers and employees have for helping feed the D.C. area, Button-Harrison said, was especially admirable.

“Seeing people who have just dedicated their lives to serving those in need, is really inspiring to me,” she said.

Button-Harrison said living with bare essentials while serving others humbled her and taught her about simple living.

“It’s one of those things where the less you have, the less you want,” she explained. “I feel like I have everything I need and I don’t have a lot more that I want ... It really makes you think about your priorities and understand the value of things, like how special it is to go out to eat or to buy a doughnut.”

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