AmeriCorps VISTAs Continue to Help Build Hunger Free Communities

February 26, 2020

In 2017, the Alliance to End Hunger began an ambitious program with AmeriCorps VISTA (Volunteers In Service To America) to grow their Hunger Free Communities Network. Throughout this partnership, the Alliance has sponsored a total of 32 VISTA members at Hunger Free Communities partner sites across the country and members have continuously made progress eliminating food insecurity. In the first two years of the Alliance VISTA program HFC VISTA efforts have resulted in over 26,000 individuals receiving support, education and/or referrals and 3,900 individuals reporting increased food security.  The partner sites benefited from over $100,000 in cash and in-kind donations, almost 200 new coalition partners and over 1,000 new community volunteers.

Zandra Cuff, the current VISTA Leader for the HFC Network, is in her third year of service with AmeriCorps VISTA and reflects on why the program is important to ending hunger across the country. “As many become aware of the gaps that exist when it comes to the work in ending poverty, organizations have had to find creative ways to address the needs of their communities. The AmeriCorps VISTA Program provides a great resource for many non-profit and community organizations, to build capacity and scale to the work they do in their community.”

Aligning with the mission of the Hunger Free Communities Network, one of the core principles of VISTA is empowering communities. “Too often we approach this work from a deficit-based mindset, not considering the assets already present in our communities that can be utilized in the fight against poverty. A VISTA member does not speak on behalf the community but instead provides avenues for community members to become more involved in addressing the issue of poverty in their community. Watching community members grow into roles of leaders and advocates, is truly inspiring.  It gives me hope that we can end hunger in the US through the empowerment of our communities” says Zandra.

HFC VISTAs are making an impact through this great work within their own local HFC coalitions. For example, VISTA Anita Mills and Hunger Free Oklahoma piloted the Urban Data Pioneers Project in Tulsa, OK. The Urban Data Pioneers consist of individuals in the Tulsa area who have a passion for analyzing data. They receive questions from the community, use those questions to collect and analyze data, then take their findings and present recommendations to the community. The Tulsa Food Security Council teamed up with the Urban Data Pioneers to gain more information on how SNAP was being utilized in the city of Tulsa, based on zip codes, demographics and age. What they found and ultimately presented before the Mayor of Tulsa, was that only 62% of those eligible for SNAP are utilizing the program and increasing the city’s SNAP utilization rate to 80%, would add a total of $23.6 million to Tulsa’s economy. The data found from this collaboration, can drive programming that is tailored to address the specific needs of Tulsa’s communities and inform various stakeholders on what populations are underserved.

VISTAs Adama & Maryam from the Hall Hunger Initiative in Dayton, Ohio, developed a partnership with Childhood Food Solutions, a group out of Cincinnati who sends food packages home with school children for the weekend. They collaborated with Childhood Food Solutions on a project to send boxes of food home for local children during Christmas break. HFC VISTAs helped to identify specific families and about 680 individuals received boxes of food with this project, while another 100 boxes were delivered to a local food pantry.

A year of service with VISTA is more than just a job. It is an opportunity for people with lived experience to use their existing talents as well as learn new skills to prepare them for successful futures while working within communities of need. Newest HFC VISTA Olivia McConnell says, “I’m making a real impact on the world around me. VISTA recognizes that systems of oppression and historical influences have created the inequalities we have today therefore, we must use systems change in order to be the most effective in our efforts to end poverty and more specifically hunger.  It is this systemic approach that allows us to create sustainable change. Although my service may end after a year, it’s inspiring to know that the impact from my work is going to be long term.” Olivia also appreciates the sense of community she has found working with both VISTA and The Alliance. ““I feel supported by my supervisor here at The Alliance, my VISTA leader, and the entire VISTA network. Committing to a year of service can be challenging. It’s hard work and I’ve had to make lifestyle changes in order to participate, but VISTA provides so many resources that can help ease that transition.”

VISTAs continue to make lasting impacts in their communities to end hunger. In this last and final year of the project, HFC VISTAs have engaged almost 600 volunteers and secured about $13,000 in resources. Sustainability is key in the fight to end poverty and programs like AmeriCorps VISTA are essential in continuing that fight.