How Colleen Moriarty Of Hunger Solutions Minnesota Is Helping To Address The Growing Challenge Of Food Insecurity
An Interview With Martita Mestey
Be ready for anything. A pandemic, a fire that closed the only grocery store in town, a massive civil rights movement. If the past few years have taught me anything, it’s that the work can change on a dime. Always be ready to shift priorities to meet the needs of the community.
In many parts of the United States, there is a crisis of people having limited reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food. As prices rise, this problem will likely become more acute. How can this problem be solved? Who are the leaders helping to address this crisis?
In this interview series, we are talking to leaders who are helping to address the increasing problem of food insecurity who can share the initiatives they are leading to address and solve this problem.
As a part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Colleen Moriarty.
Colleen Moriarty has been involved in poverty programs for the majority of her career. As Hunger Solution Minnesota’s Executive Director and co-chair of the Hunger-Free Schools campaign to bring universal school meals to Minnesota, she works to motivate decision-makers to take supportive action on state and national hunger policy issues.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I grew up in a politically active family. My grandfather was in politics and my father was a strong DFLer. As a young girl, my dad would ask — “what did you do for someone else today?” — that was leadership in our family, and a mindset that guided my career path. I’ve worked in many roles, including Chief of Staff to Minneapolis Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton, served on the Minneapolis School Board, and was the Executive Director with the Minneapolis Youth Coordinating Board. My first job however was as a community organizer, and I still consider myself one today.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
It might not be the most interesting, but the most surprising thing that’s happened since working in the anti-hunger field is realizing how many people don’t understand that hunger exists in their own communities. Many people don’t believe in funding resources for hunger because they don’t see it everyday and don’t realize how great of a need there is out there. Food insecurity exists in every single community; urban, rural, and suburban. It’s not just a third world issue, it’s in our own backyards.
Are you able to identify a “tipping point” in your career when you started to see success? Did you start doing anything different? Are there takeaways or lessons that others can learn from that?
This year, we started to see traction on a career-long goal of mine to bring free breakfast and lunch to all students in Minnesota. When I first started advocating for the issue, it started with a belief that school meals need to be nutritious, then we moved towards advocating for adding school breakfast to schools. Then, when stories began coming out about school administrators punishing and humiliating students for unpaid lunch debt, we secured a legislative victory to end lunch shaming practices.
This year, after a 15-year fight and lots of persistence, Minnesota’s Governor Tim Walz announced funding for universal school meals in his budget. It was a great first step, and we’ve been working hard ever since to make it a reality. There’s a lot of work that still needs to be done to get Hunger-Free Schools passed, but it’s a top priority for our Governor and it’s an issue that has finally been getting the attention it deserves.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person to whom you are grateful who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Connie Greer served as the Director of the Office of Economic Opportunity at the Minnesota Department of Human Services for 30 years. Connie was instrumental in my success as leader of Hunger Solutions Minnesota and everything I’ve learned I attribute to her. She taught me the value in true partnership and it’s shaped the collaborative nature of the organization we have now. Thanks to my partnership with Connie and the Minnesota Department of Human Services, I came to learn that not one person or one organization can end hunger. It’s only a fight we will win if we all work together.
You are a successful leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
I’d say it starts with determination. We couldn’t have made the progress in the fight against hunger that we have without determination. For 15 years I’ve dreamed of a time when all school aged children were able to eat breakfast and lunch at school. It took a lot of determination from myself, my staff, and our partners to get to where we are today.
I also think as leaders we need to be willing to listen. Listen to our stakeholders, colleagues, and peers, but perhaps more importantly, listen to those that we are working to help. I’m focused on making sure that everything we do is of direct benefit to those facing food insecurity. Listening and learning from those with lived experience help guide my work.
And finally, being able to communicate effectively. I’ve learned after years of testifying for both state and federal anti-hunger policies that the most effective and impactful leaders are ones who are clear about their mission, the issues, and how it’ll impact real life people.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My family had an old Irish Catholic motto that has always stuck with me — “We Bend and Never Break”. It perfectly encompasses the struggles we all go through as humans, especially women balancing raising a family and having a thriving career. It became a special reminder as I raised my three boys as a single mother.
Ok super. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion. Can you describe to our readers how your work is helping to address the challenge of food insecurity?
I’ve always been a big picture person. Our work at Hunger Solutions does exactly that, it’s comprehensive. We aren’t just focused on one part of the food insecurity story; we focus on the emergency food system as a whole. From governmental programs like SNAP, to food shelves and farmers markets, to pop-up community fridges, from the senior center to the school lunchroom — it’s all connected.
Ending hunger in the long-term is always our top priority, which is why I’ve always gravitated to working with the Legislature. We need sound public policy changes to make a real impact. Right now, in Minnesota, 1 in 6 children are facing food insecurity. We know that school meals account for over half of a child’s daily calories. It’s policies like our Hunger-Free Schools campaign that could really make a difference in ending childhood hunger.
Can you share something about your work that makes you most proud? Is there a particular story or incident that you found most uplifting?
In 2017, I was awarded a national award for SNAP innovation from the Food Research Action Council (FRAC.) FRAC is a national organization that we work very closely with. SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) is a critical program for people and is one of the most effective ways of lifting families out of poverty. We implemented a program to connect patients at their health care clinics and hospitals with food resources through our Minnesota Food Helpline. Since its implementation, we’ve been able to help nearly 5,000 people find food help and have supported clinics and health care systems to bridge the gap between health care and food insecurity. It was an honor to see that work recognized and I’m very proud of that award.
In your opinion, what should other business and civic leaders do to further address these problems? Can you please share a few things that can be done to further address the problem of food insecurity?
Business leaders need to pay a living wage. Families are facing real challenges with the rising costs of food, housing, and other monthly expenses. Support your employees and their families in any way you can. Oh, and if your employee needs time off to visit a food shelf — grant it! Food shelves are often only open during business hours, so be flexible and understanding.
Are there other leaders or organizations who have done good work to address the challenge of food scarcity? Can you tell us what they have done? What specifically impresses you about their work? Perhaps we can reach out to them to include them in this series.
Sophia Lenarz-Coy is the Executive Director of The Food Group, a food bank that serves 30 counties throughout Minnesota and Wisconsin. Under Sophia’s leadership, The Food Group works hard to ensure the emergency food system works for those disproportionately affected by the issue. They purchase local products, support sustainable farming, distribute culturally specific foods, and drive food systems change.
If you had the power to influence legislation, are there laws that you would like to see introduced that might help you in your work?
We need universal school meals in every state in this country. We require kids to go to school, why shouldn’t we take care of them while they are there? It’s the most equitable and just way to ensure proper childhood nutrition.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
- Small wins are impactful. Ending hunger can sometimes seem like a big, insurmountable issue. It’s not a fight that will be easily won. Focus on what change you can make, and work hard to achieve it.
- Stay learning. You’ll never know it all. Continue to listen to and learn from everyone you meet.
- Cultural Competency is key. It’s not enough to have a DEI statement and call it a day. To lead a successful organization, you need to value diversity. You need to do the work to increase your own cultural competency and develop adaptations to your organization that reflect a better understanding of diversity and cultural differences.
- Be ready for anything. A pandemic, a fire that closed the only grocery store in town, a massive civil rights movement. If the past few years have taught me anything, it’s that the work can change on a dime. Always be ready to shift priorities to meet the needs of the community.
- Take care of yourself. It’s simple, you can’t help others if you’re not taking care of yourself.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
We need to return to a more trusting and truth-telling environment. People have lost track of truth these days. Facts can easily be distorted, and it’s hard for people to trust what they’re hearing from the government and the media. I’d love to see a movement of respect, honesty and trust.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Bruce Springsteen. For years, I’ve traveled all around the world to see him perform. I don’t just love his music; I love what he stands for and his values.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
You can follow our work to bring free school meals to Minnesota at www.hungerfreeschoolsmn.org, or on social media:
Follow the other work Hunger Solutions, or sign up for our Action Alerts on how you can help at:
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This was very meaningful, thank you so much, and we wish you only continued success.
How Colleen Moriarty Of Hunger Solutions Minnesota Is Helping To Address The Growing Challenge Of… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.