Above: the “Pioneer Class” of Hunger Fellows. People mentioned in this article include Jen Coken (standing, 4th from right), Max Finberg (standing, 2nd from left), Lisa Moore (standing, 7th from left), and Melissa Zook and Mark Kennedy (seated, 2nd and 3rd from left).
For our 30th Anniversary year we’re looking back at important people and events from our past three decades, and the legacy we carry forward as we continue our work of growing leaders and cultivating change.
As we learned in our last installment, the Congressional Hunger Center was founded in 1993, following a three-week fast from Rep. Tony Hall, to take over the mantle of leadership in domestic and international humanitarian needs from the disbanded House Select Committee on Hunger. From the start, fighting hunger by developing new leaders was the mission. But what could this leadership development look like?
The very first staff member hired on to build the organization was director Jen Coken. Drawing on her background in organizing and development with the National Student Campaign Against Hunger and Homelessness and NJPIRG, Coken set about developing what became one of the cornerstones of the Hunger Center’s leadership development programming: the National Hunger Fellowship.1
“There was such a disconnect between laws that were being passed and what was happening on the ground,” recalls Coken. “We saw the Hunger Fellows as the people who could bring some reality to elected members who are sometimes disconnected.”
“We came up with the idea that we wanted to train young people for the future, to be leaders,” recalled Rep. Hall in a 2017 interview, “so that they would go out and teach other people about hunger. That they would carry this for the rest of their life. I wanted it to be second nature.”
The formula for the fellowship was this: a year-long fellowship broken into two parts: a community-based field placement with a frontline anti-hunger organization, and a public policy-focused placement in Washington, D.C., with research institutions, advocacy organizations, and government agencies—even including the White House.
This format was designed to address disconnects and inefficiencies in local and national hunger programs by training leaders with expertise in both. “Due to the lack of a comprehensive understanding of the problem and its long-term solutions, action often begins and ends with volunteer work on short-term efforts,” read an early program document. “On the other hand, those involved with formulating hunger policy often are removed from the reality of the people suffering from the tragedy of hunger.”
Another early hire was Max Finberg, program associate for leadership development. “Tony wanted the fellows to be a ‘domestic Peace Corps focused on hunger’ and wrote that on a napkin that he gave to me at the very beginning. That was the founding document of the Hunger Center,” explained Finberg.
Together, Coken and Finberg set about building a network of partners to support the fledgling program. “Max and I took a three-week road trip interviewing possible candidates on campuses and potential service sites,” recalls Coken. “We slept on people’s couches and floors and ate meals in our car. We were on a shoestring. No internet. Can you imagine? Whew. We learned a lot.”
The fellowship launched in August 1994, with support from AmeriCorps VISTA2 and its first class of fellows began that fall. The “pioneer class” of 17 fellows worked in nine states and ten organizations, establishing and expanding food salvage programs, improving nutrition education programs, producing a cable TV show on hunger, publishing two cookbooks, and generating over 30 media clips to raise awareness of hunger in their host communities.
The experiences of the first class of fellows still resonate all these years later. Dr. Melissa Zook worked with Kentucky River Foothills Development near Berea College. She subsequently went to medical school and later moved back to the same area of Kentucky to continue her service to the community as a physician. “It’s the whole reason that my life is what it is today,” she says. “I’m doing exactly what it is that I always thought I wanted to do, but I didn’t always believe that I could do it.” (Read our interview with Dr. Zook here.)
Lisa Lynelle Moore was placed at the Westside Food Bank in Phoenix, Arizona, where she developed a nutrition education program and expanded their work with child nutrition issues. Today Dr. Moore is a Senior Lecturer and the Director of the Master of Arts in Social Work and Social Welfare Program at the University of Chicago Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy, and Practice. “The fellows program contributed to my understanding of what systems do to people and helped me to understand the ways I can intervene before further harm is done,” she recollects. She also reflects on the strong bonds that formed between the members of the cohort. “The fellowship introduced me to people who have been supportive of my professional and personal growth as an educator, researcher, and parent. I met one of my very best friends in the program. Whenever there is an opportunity to reunite with friends from the fellowship, it’s always exciting to hear the ways each of us persists in pursuing justice.”
The second half of the fellowship brought the class back to Washington, D.C. for work with policy-focused organizations and agencies. After working with the Alabama Coalition Against Hunger, Hunger Fellow Mark Kennedy was placed with Food Research & Action Center (FRAC), helping to build and launch that organization’s very first website. “My time in the fellowship and the dawn of the web as a communications platform coincided perfectly,” recalls Mark. “Being able to build the web sites for FRAC, and later Bread for the World and the Congressional Hunger Center, set me on a career path in technology that continues to this day. I’m very grateful for being given the opportunity to apply the then-new tools of the web to the advocacy mission of some really great organizations.” Other fellows’ work included organizing conferences, compiling research, tracking legislation, authoring reports, and assisting staff with building out the fellowship program for the following year.
Another early innovation of the program was to have fellows survey the landscape of local hunger responses in the towns and cities where they were placed and report out on each locale’s progress towards becoming a “Hunger Free Community.” Defined by House Concurrent Resolution 302 introduced by Rep. Hall and co-sponsored by Rep. Emerson in the 102nd Congress, Hunger-Free Communities established a framework for communities members to use to solve hunger and malnutrition problems for its residents. The fourteen points of the framework ranged from developing emergency food distribution networks to participation in federal nutrition programs, from improving public transportation to community gardening to gleaning.
While at their field placements fellows interviewed local leaders, complied contact information, and evaluated how their host community was performing on each of the points of the framework. In these early days of the Internet search engines were in their infancy and up-to-date information was harder to come by; the first applications for the Hunger Fellowship were paper-based and included no line for applicants to submit an email address. Hunger-free community reports were the most comprehensive collections of on-the-ground information about local anti-hunger efforts across the U.S. In addition, the fellows also included suggestions for how the community could improve its hunger response, a practice reflected today in the Emerson Fellows’ annual briefings, like this year’s State of U.S. Hunger 2023. The Hunger Free Communities framework is also carried forward to this day by the Alliance to End Hunger and their Hunger Free Communities Network, and the Baylor Collaborative on Hunger and Poverty’s Network of Hunger Free Community Coalitions.
The two-placement structure and the focus on practical solutions to addressing the gaps in local and national responses have remained central organizing principles of the fellowship over the last three decades. In that time more than 500 Hunger Fellows have completed the program, supporting the work of nearly 300 organizations across the country. Fellows have served in the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and 47 states; this fall that number will grow to 48 as our first two fellows will be placed in Sioux Falls to support Feeding South Dakota.
- At the time the fellowship was named in honor of the late Rep. Mickey Leland. In 2001 the National Hunger Fellowship was renamed in honor of Rep. Bill Emerson, who passed away in 1996, while the newly-formed International Fellowship was named to honor Leland.
- “VISTA” stands for Volunteers in Service to America, originally envisioned in the as a domestic version of the Peace Corps. Finberg later served as Director of AmeriCorps VISTA from 2015 to 2017.