Experience meets expertise at Philly hunger conference

Posted: May 03, 2012

Lecturing on hunger to 50 people packed into a small Center City hotel conference room Wednesday, Laticia Ansley didn’t need an academic’s PowerPoint presentation of pie charts and graphs.

Instead, the home-care aide from Germantown stood in front of the group and delivered a graduate-level talk, eloquent in its succinct candor: “Hunger is the choice between feeding your 6-year-old grandchild or paying the electric bill,” she said.

This month, the power company is going to have to do without her check, and maybe the lights in her apartment will go out, Ansley, 53, told the group: “I am struggling and juggling, and I’m personally going through hunger right now.”

“But,” Ansley added, “my grandchild will eat.”

A participant in the first national conference on hunger to be held in Philadelphia, Ansley is a member of Witnesses to Hunger, the internationally known group of women that is part of the Center for Hunger-Free Communities at Drexel University’s School of Public Health. The center, run by Drexel anthropology professor Mariana Chilton, is hosting the three-day “Beyond Hunger” conference at the Doubletree Hilton Hotel on South Broad Street.

Chilton started Witnesses to Hunger in 2008, when she gave 40 North Philadelphia women cameras to document their circumstances to show what mothers and their children endure in the city’s neglected precincts.

Since then, the photos have been displayed in venues throughout the country, including congressional office buildings. Witnesses has expanded into an advocacy group with chapters in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Maryland. And the women have drawn media attention from France, India, and elsewhere throughout the world.

The unusual aspect of this conference, hunger experts say, is the participation by Ansley and about 90 others from low-income communities around the country, discussing hunger and related problems of poverty side by side with advocates and academics.

“Their voices make this conference unique,” said Ellen Teller, a lobbyist with the Food Research and Action Center, an antihunger advocate organization in Washington.

Rabbi Nancy Epstein, a Drexel professor participating in the conference, agreed. “We learn best about hunger and other issues from people’s stories,” she said.

In all, some 325 people signed up for the conference, which is sponsored by the Merck Company Foundation, the ConAgra Foods Foundation, the Cigna Foundation, and the Claneil Foundation, among others.

During the first day of the conference, experts expounded on themes that challenged conventional wisdom with antipoverty facts outside the mainstream.

For example, Teller noted in her presentation about antipoverty programs, stalwart Republicans such as President Richard M. Nixon and U.S. Sen. Bob Dole worked hard to maintain the federal government’s strong role in nutrition programs for low-income Americans decades ago.

These days, Teller pointed out, many Republicans in the House of Representatives are on record calling for changes to so-called safety-net programs that may pare down federal programs such as food stamps, now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

Craig Gundersen, a University of Illinois economist, sparked conversation with his nonstandard views.

“One of the best things a low-income community could have is a Wal-Mart moving in,” Gundersen said. Though Wal-Mart has been demonized for alleged sins, including killing small businesses throughout the country, the retail giant can afford to price food items low enough for people who live in poverty to afford them, Gundersen said.

“Unfortunately, you’ll find a lot of resistance to putting Wal-Marts into neighborhoods,” he said.

Contact Alfred Lubrano at 215-854-4969 or alubrano@phillynews.com.

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