When the first graduating cohort of the Food Depository’s Food Equity Ambassador program recently gathered for the last time, it marked both an ending and a beginning.
Over the past year, the five participants, all passionate anti-hunger community leaders affiliated with a Food Depository pantry or program, have been learning how to take their advocacy work to the next level. Their final gathering was a chance to celebrate all they’ve learned and to anticipate how they will apply that knowledge to make even more strides toward ending hunger.
“The Food Depository has been walking with us all these years and helped us grow,” said Reverend Gwen Sampson, director of the All Things Through Christ food pantry, and one of the ambassadors. “This was another great opportunity to link up and learn.”
From listening to the needs of her pantry guests and networking with the other ambassadors, she’s planning a new SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) outreach program.
At their monthly sessions, Reverend Sampson and her fellow cohort members learned the importance of staying informed about anti-hunger policies, the best ways to engage with elected officials, and how to mobilize advocates in their communities. The program, launched in 2022, has already been recognized by Feeding America with a Network Excellence Award.
“Lifting our voices is central to our mission," Food Depository CEO Kate Maehr said to the ambassadors at the celebration. “The only thing that will end hunger is the work you are doing.”
The ambassadors have already seen that work bear fruit. Ezra Conway, another participant, experienced the powerful role of communication. When he learned that many of the young people he works with as a job coach for Chicago CRED weren’t aware of food pantries and other food programs, he began spreading the word.
Through his efforts, he got 220 students signed up for SNAP. Most weren’t aware they qualified for the benefit. Conway also learned that many students aren’t able to utilize pantries because most food distributions occur when they are in class. He communicated this to area pantry managers and saw some hours adjust.
Ambassador Lovely Sardin, senior operations coordinator of the Inner-City Muslim Action Network (IMAN)’s Food & Wellness Center, also realized that many people in her community are unaware of available resources. “What is the benefit of [food pantries, community gardens, and love fridges] if people don’t know about them?” she said.
Sardin has directed many people to the Food Depository’s website, especially the Find Food function, and goes out of her way to make sure vital information is communicated in the way guests need – whether in another language or explained verbally to nonreaders.
“The first cohort of Ambassadors were an extremely passionate and dedicated group of individuals who showed clear enthusiasm for their work and impacting their communities,” said Molly Dubow, associate manager of advocacy at the Food Depository and the Ambassador program manager. She plans to bring the members of the group back to share their expertise with the next cohort, who have already begun meeting.
“This was so empowering,” Sardin said of the Food Equity Ambassador program. “We want to be a voice for the community with the community.” We can’t wait to see what she and the rest of the ambassadors accomplish.