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Connecting Faith and Community Leaders So Everyone Has a Place at the Table

A couple of weeks ago I joined two exciting events: the National Council of La Raza’s (NCLR)  Convention, here in our nation’s capital, and the White House Connecting for the Common Good Conference in Denver.

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack led the NCLR Town Hall on nutrition and spoke of the need to find partners in every community to tackle the problems of hunger and access to nutritious food. Latinos are the hungriest demographic group in our country: one out of four Latinos has difficulty putting food on the table, and two out of five children live in homes that struggle with hunger. Secretary Vilsack referred to USDA’s approach to community engagement with La Mesa Completa/The Complete Table, an initiative to ensure that Latinos have access to federal nutrition assistance and a place at the table to discuss ways to promote healthier communities. He emphasized that it is in our nation’s interest to address the issue of nutrition because it is about healthcare, about economic security, and about our national security. “It is an issue that goes to the heart of the morality of this country,” he said.

Secretary Vilsack speaks at the child nutrition town hall at the 2011 NCLR Annual Conference

Secretary Vilsack speaks at the child nutrition town hall at the 2011 NCLR Annual Conference

The next day, President Obama reminded Convention attendees that “it is up to us to hand down the promise of America as a land of opportunity for all… that we are family and that we need each other… and that we need to summon the best in each other.”  Following the President’s remarks, USDA Center Director Max Finberg and FNS Deputy Administrator for SNAP Lisa Pino engaged in a conversation with a select group of NCLR leaders about USDA’s La Mesa Completa/The Complete Table. As Secretary Vilsack said during the panel, it is important to engage community members who know the lay of the land. We need community partners not just to work with us to help families in need set the full table but also to ensure that Latinos have a place at the decision-making table to educate families about the healthy choices they can make in a way that is culturally and linguistically appropriate.

In Denver, over 500 leaders from faith and community-based organizations came together to discuss ways to connect in our common efforts to build strong communities and serve those most in need. FNS Mountain Plains Regional Administrator Darlene Barnes joined me in leading a workshop on our food programs, and later I was joined by White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships Deputy Director Alexia Kelley for our Let’s Move Faith and Communities roundtable. We heard from community leaders who inspire and move folks to action. Roundtable attendee Pastor Joseito Velasquez shared how on a Wednesday he participated in a Summer Food Service Program webinar USDA sponsored with the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, and by Friday he was able to work with the Department of Colorado to meet their deadline and become certified as a summer feeding site. With help from Hunger Free Colorado and area businesses, in just 27 days, Healing Waters Family Center was able to provide 3400 meals and activities like bowling to kids free of charge.

Before heading back to Washington, DC, Denver FNS colleague Bart Bushman joined me and Sister Alicia Cuaron for a visit to Centro San Juan Diego. Staff invited us to share a meal as they told us about wonderful work the Center does in meeting the aspirations of the many adults and their families who turn to them for help. We shared a bit about our work, and they were excited to think about what their Center would look like if next summer they were able to become a summer food site, or better yet, a sponsor. As we sat around the table, I could not help but think of how precious it was to see folks connecting with one another, in support of one another’s call to service for the common good.

If you and your organization would like to get involved, please email us at collaborate@usda.gov

Secretary Vilsack joins leaders at the child nutrition town hall at the 2011 NCLR Annual Conference

Secretary Vilsack joins leaders at the child nutrition town hall at the 2011 NCLR Annual Conference

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