Celia Zhou is outraged.
The 18-year-old borrowed the term to describe her anger toward social injustice from the book “Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?” The author, Michael J. Sandel, assures justice isn’t won on the sidelines, but tackled in the thick of the huddle.
Zhou’s outrage: hunger in the school system.
On July 26, Zhou hosted Cultivate Conversation with the Jamie Kirk Hahn Foundation at the Bridge Club in downtown Raleigh to share ideas, generate homegrown solutions and inspire action.
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This spring, Zhou graduated from Enloe High School, home to Wake County’s first public high school food pantry. The school sits in a food desert, with limited access to healthy, affordable food.
Zhou learned that 34 percent of her classmates receive free or reduced-price lunch, and one in three goes to bed hungry.
“I believe those numbers tell a story,” said Zhou, who will attend Wake Forest University this fall. “I challenge you all to think with an open mind, with creativity and innovation, and to follow through with action steps.”
The crowd of 95 people was diverse – experts, high school students, activists, nonprofit and business leaders, teachers and politicians. They stood shoulder to shoulder to zero in on causes of food insecurity and ways to increase access to nutritious meals and reduce the stigma associated with hunger.
Cultivate Conversation was part of the Jamie Kirk Hahn Foundation’s Gathering for Good, a series of meetings designed to bring groups together to find ways to solve problems in our communities.
The foundation was established to honor the life’s work of Kirk Hahn, a young political activist who was stabbed to death in her home in April 2013.
It works to empower and motivate emerging leaders, and to help bring people together to find solutions for poverty, hunger and more.
“This is a problem that belongs to no race, location or gender,” said Nation Hahn, who continues the work of his late wife. “We have an obligation to talk about it. These are problems we can solve. Jamie believed that. We believe that.
“It’s not that we lack the food,” Hahn said. “We lack the will.”
Programs are already in place to combat the issue, including community gardens, farmers markets and food pantries.
But while robust and thoughtful public discourse is important, action is crucial and meaningful. Otherwise, the talk is for naught.
“We began this series to track our work,” Hahn said. “Jamie hated duplication. One way to avoid duplication is to bring people together to have conversation.”
Ultimately, Hahn said, our community needs an army of Jamies, a cadre of leaders across the Triangle and state who are connected and engaged.
“When we’re connected, there’s no telling what we can do,” he said. “We need to know that.”
For Cultivate Conversation, Zhou was joined by Matt Calabria, a member of the Wake County Board of Commissioners; Jim Keaten, director of child nutrition for Durham Public Schools; and Shorlette Ammons of the Center for Environmental Farming at N.C. A&T State University in Greensboro.
A myriad of solutions came up, from creating more opportunities for open dialogue to providing healthy and culturally appropriate food.
Action steps included efforts to increase awareness about hunger, engage more people, teach others about healthy food, encourage more young leaders like Zhou and provide better transportation to allow more access to healthy, affordable food.
The dialogue continues via social media, using #cultivateconversations.
Calabria said he thinks the efforts to end food insecurity are effective and smart, but they must be comprehensive and metrics-driven.
“A kid who’s hungry is part of a family who’s hungry,” Calabria said. “We’ve made some meaningful advances ... but we’ve got a long way to go.
“We owe it to them, and we owe it to each other, to help these people.”