News & Politics

Solving Hunger at SXSW

SXSW may be known for its party atmosphere, but this year's conference also set a lofty goal: to end hunger in America.

The annual SXSW festival of music, film and interactive may be well known for its party atmosphere—they don’t call it “spring break for geeks” for nothing—but this year’s conference also set a lofty goal: to end hunger in America.  

A mere glint in the eye of organizers last year, partners from across the spectrum of social entrepreneurship, non-profit organizations and tech innovators came together on Monday morning for the inaugural CauseLab. Designed as an “action tank,” WeCanEndThis.com brought in participants and leaders to spend half the day in one of two sessions addressing three fundamental angles of solving hunger in this country: 

Daunting, to say the least. I was asked to be a leader, along with Susan Mernit of OaklandLocal.com, of the morning breakout on local action and advocacy. We were prepped for our tasks with a series of powerful introductions to what exactly comprises the hunger situation. Appalling numbers and wrenching stories sank us into the heart of the problem, but the work already being done by organizations like Share Our Strength and Feeding America inspired us to wrap our brains around the issue. How could we take advantage of the convening of such a huge number of innovators and change-makers and apply that energy to feeding every person in the country? 

Most impressive was the directness that Brian Reich, one of the organizers of the event, spoke with around the tasks that were laid out for us. “We don’t need another ‘awareness campaign,’” he said. “We don’t need another Facebook app or catchy slogan.” He implored us to focus on solutions in our areas of expertise, and not band-aids that would ultimately only serve to make participants feel better about themselves. 

Facing the problem of hunger head on is intimidating. If you look at the pure numbers—49 million Americans don’t know where their next meal is coming from—it can seem insurmountable. Breaking down hunger into solvable chunks is critical, and the teams in the room struggled to answer the call of getting past awareness campaigns. We’ve been inundated with slickly produced messages telling us that even $5 makes a difference, but it’s rare that we find programs that actually reward us with tangible knowledge that we’ve made a difference—and thus inspire us to participate again in the future. 

Our group spent some time on the other side of the issue: brainstorming solutions around delivery and access for the people in need of the food. A representative of Share Our Strength reported that they’ve discovered via the Witnesses to Hunger program, many of those in need are aware that programs exist, but are so trapped in the daily cycles of survival they aren’t able to overcome the hurdles of accessing free and low-cost food.  

It reminded me of a story that Baratunde Thurston, comedian and Web editor for the Onion, told during a panel on diversity and technology issues the day before. He was walking through downtown Manhattan one morning, when a woman stopped him and asked for directions—she had a job interview and was running late. He pulled out his iPhone and looked up the location; after a few moments of minor confusion, they found it. She sighed heavily before going on her way, saying, “You know, they don’t want poor people to know this stuff.” 

Thurston pithily captured what he learned in that moment. “Every day, I walk out of my house blind with a seeing eye dog called technology,” he said. Like any privilege, technological privilege gives us an often invisible (to us) advantage as to what kinds of tasks we can perform—simply by having both the access to the information and the skills to find and digest it. 

Looking at the hunger issue from this perspective, our group started proposing possible text-message-based services that meet people where they are, and reduce the obstacles to obtaining food. Ideas included the ability to get a bus pass to a food pantry via text message, location-based Q&A services, and more. Other groups in the room contributed to developing community development and creating data visualizations that have impact. 

All the ideas generated will be posted to GoodZuma, a new Web service (currently in private beta) where pitches to solve social issues can be posted, promoted and funded. WeCanEndThis.com will continue to serve as a platform for uniting organizations and networking individuals to end hunger in America. 

Forty-nine million people facing food insecurity is an intimidating fact. But with technology at our hands to augment the hard work on the ground, we can hit the ground running at greater speeds and with greater efficiency than ever before.  

Deanna Zandt is an AlterNet contributing editor.
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