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Gimme Five: Joel Berg


When one thinks about childhood obesity, it’s not a common thought to think about hunger. But Joel Berg, executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger sees the effort to reduce obesity as “the flip side of the same coin as hunger.” Coming from a long and illustrious career in the federal government, Joel shared with us his accomplishments and current projects on fighting hunger and obesity at the same time. If you’re interested in connecting with Joel, message him through his Leader profile here.

Name: Joel Berg
Title: Executive Director
Organization: New York City Coalition Against Hunger

What inspired you to start working on childhood obesity?
I am inspired to work to reduce obesity because it is the flip side of the same coin as hunger. Low-income Americans simply can’t afford enough nutritious food. I first started working on hunger after I joined the Clinton Administration and worked at the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) starting in 1993. I was involved in progressive politics from a very early age (in, fact I ran for New York State Senate at the age of 21), but once I arrived at the USDA it quickly became clear that my life’s work was meant to be fighting hunger.

How are you helping to reverse childhood obesity?
The Coalition Against Hunger fights obesity on several fronts. I always say that obesity and hunger are indeed highly related, and it’s important to point out that fighting hunger is a critical component of fighting obesity. Millions of Americans are simultaneously obese and hungry because they only buy the unhealthy food they can afford—healthy food is harder to find and generally takes longer to prepare.

We’re leading the national advocacy effort fighting hunger in America. We know precisely what works to end hunger, but unfortunately the government is doing the exact opposite—shrinking the very programs that are proven most effective in fighting hunger. We need to create jobs that pay a living wage and provide an adequate social safety net so that those who can’t afford food don’t go hungry.

Nationally, we run a program called the Anti-Hunger & Opportunity Corps, an AmeriCorps VISTA program. We currently have about 100 members in 32 states combating hunger on the ground. These folks do work on a number of fronts – on local food initiatives, SNAP access, nutrition education, summer meals and much more – to combat hunger and simultaneously, obesity.

We also run a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) program which we operate on a sliding scale based on income. This program does amazing work connecting low-income individuals in underserved communities with fresh, local, and affordable produce.

The last program I’ll note, which makes a huge impact in the fight against child obesity, is our child nutrition outreach program. In summer months this effort emphasizes outreach on federal summer meals programs, so that kids across New York City know where they can get meals all summer long.

What’s your biggest accomplishment so far in helping reduce childhood obesity?
I think our policy work increasing access to federal nutrition benefits has been my biggest success, particularly since the USDA has started giving out grants in an innovative state-level child hunger reduction grant program that I first proposed. But no one accomplishment in reducing child hunger and obesity is sufficient. We must continue working until the problem is solved. There’s more than enough food for everyone in America to eat and civilized nations don’t let their children go hungry.

Who is your role model in your work?
Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Both were incredible social and human rights leaders who, through compassion and peace, created a better and more just world.  But I also want to give a shout-out to Frances Perkins, who started her social work career fighting hunger and then, as the nation’s first female cabinet secretary, helped FDR to create the modern social safety net.

What healthy snacks did you enjoy growing up?
I’m from Rockland County, and we have great fresh picked apples there!

Each week, our own Prarthana Gurung speaks with a Leader to get a quick look at why he or she loves working to create healthy environments for kids. Want to take part? Visit Prarthana’s profile and contact her.