Staff Reflection on the Building Blocks for Missouri’s Success Annual Conference

Last Saturday, we hosted our annual conference, Building Blocks for Missouri’s Success. The focus this year was on food security in Missouri, with Ellen Teller from the Food Research and Action Center in Washington, D.C. serving as the keynote speaker. For those who couldn’t make it, we asked the Empower Missouri staff to share a brief reflection on the event. 

JMOExecutive Director

I am extremely thankful to the many people who worked together to create and carry out the Building Blocks for Missouri’s Success conference on November 9. We owe such a debt of thanks to people who do a good job packaging reliable data for the use of other advocates. The Hunger Atlas team at the Interdisciplinary Center on Food Security at the University of Missouri-Columbia do a great service to all of us who care about improving food security in Missouri by producing an updated report every three years.

Their workshop was fascinating, with easily understood maps and charts. Their research prompts caring people to think about work we might undertake together to create a positive impact in a county where data currently concerns us, for example, in counties with high levels of food insecurity, but low utilization of federal nutrition assistance programs and food pantries. The conference also made me reflect on the fact that there is no substitute for the witness of those with lived experience. Several times during the conference, my understanding was deepened when someone who had experienced homelessness or hunger shared their story. Let us find ways to furnish better support to those who undertake this difficult and irreplaceable task.

Conner KerriganCommunications Director

Building Blocks for Missouri’s Success was my first conference as a staff member for Empower Missouri. The thing that most amazed me was the absolutely palpable energy – from participants and presenters. The conference began at 10am on a Saturday, and went until 4:30pm. From the opening greeting to the closing panel, everyone was engaged and enthusiastic, asking challenging questions and seeking meaningful answers. 

I was lucky enough to moderate a workshop with Samantha Stangl and Jake Eikenberry from The Clark-Fox Family Foundation about Mass Incarceration. After Samantha gave an overview of the state of mass incarceration in Missouri and recommended potential policy changes, Jake gave a very moving testimony about his experience in the criminal justice system. Participants in the workshop were captivated by Jake’s story, and used the Q & A time to ask meaningful questions about what reform can look like. The discussion that followed reminded me exactly why Empower Missouri puts on this conference each year. We want to provide enthusiastic activists with the tools and ideas that they need to advocate for justice and create meaningful change in their communities.

Christine WoodySenior Policy and Advocacy Lead

Hunger is not a partisan issue. This is one of the messages that was interwoven throughout the Building Blocks for Missouri’s Success Conference that was held last weekend in Columbia. It was a conference full of hope and plans of action to move us forward in our fight against hunger in our state! 

The non-partisan nature of hunger was highlighted by both our keynote speaker and in our closing legislative panel. Ellen Teller from the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) in Washington D.C. spoke during lunch at the conference, sharing story after story of success in advocacy that she has led during her 30+ year career at FRAC. To the audience’s surprise, the bi-partisan support she received for her efforts was not just from a long time ago! For example, just this past year Congress passed (with bipartisan support) a strong Farm Bill that was signed by President Trump. The events around last year’s Farm Bill passage gives advocates like Ellen, and myself, hope for the passage of a strong Child Nutrition Reauthorization in 2020!

Additionally, our closing panel highlighted good bipartisan dialogue on the safety net right here in Missouri. Earlier in the fall, Empower Missouri organized the #MOSNAPChallenge, where we asked our Legislators to live on a food stamp budget for 3 days to provide a small glimpse into how families on food stamps must make ends meet every day. Five Republicans and six Democrats took us up on this challenge. On the panel at the conference, Rep, Mary Elizabeth Coleman, Rep. Crystal Quade and Rep. Sarah Unsicker all spoke. Rep. Quade spent part of her childhood living on food stamps and she shared her experience and the experience of her mother while on food stamps. Her testimony was powerful and showed the success this program can offer families in need of support. Rep. Sarah Unsicker and Rep. Coleman both took the challenge for themselves and their families and talked about the challenge living on the food stamp budget was for them. They both agreed that the safety net is important and essential. The conversation that the three of them had during the pane gives me hope for some quality and productive conversations about the importance of the safety net in 2020 in Jefferson City.In the days ahead, I plan to take the message that hunger is not a partisan issue with me to both the state capitol and to DC when I talk with policymakers about the safety net programs. If anyone would like to join me in this, please contact me to get involved with Empower Missouri’s protecting our safety net coalition.

Sarah Owsley TownsendPolicy and Advocacy Lead, Housing

This line of work was an interesting choice for me. I am a self-described ‘crippling introvert’ and large gatherings of people are a specific type of challenge for me. None-the-less, I believe in the power of collective action and the importance of community. That often puts me right in the middle of large events such as our annual conference. While I often leave these events feeling very drained, I also leave feeling really energized and excited. Building Blocks for Missouri’s Success was no different. I spent most of Sunday in my sweatpants, and Monday morning I hit the ground running. 

Leading our housing work for the state, I was really happy to see packed rooms for all of our housing focused breakout sessions. I was able to attend most of the session led by board member Marqueia Watson. I’m honored to call Marqueia my friend, and firmly believe that her talks are essential. She led a diverse room of participants in a series of really vulnerable and honest conversations about racial equity in housing. More than that, we discussed community, safety, education, and ultimately privilege. 

It is really important to me that Empower Missouri works with communities. For our conference this means situating ourselves in the local high school. It also means working with locally owned venues for catering. Peachtree Catering and Beetbox Café catered box lunches with locally sourced, healthy lunches, and The Grind provided caffeine for our day. 

Legislative panels are nothing new. However, Empower Missouri is uniquely positioned to do it well. A bipartisan panel of women in our legislature talking about food security and hunger was the perfect way to wrap up our day of learning and action. We want to extend a warm thank you to Representatives Mary Elizabeth Coleman, Sarah Unsicker, and Crystal Quade for sharing their experiences with the #MOSNAPChallenge. As a mother of four I really appreciated Representative Coleman’s experience feeding her family of eight on the limited SNAP budget.

Overall, our annual conference is an opportunity for advocates across the state to network, learn, and plan for effective changes in Missouri’s public policy. Of course, we have a lot of fun in the process. Building Blocks 2019 was no different. If you were unable to join us, I hope your prioritize attendance in the future.

Chloe OwensJustice Organizer

Many of us attend conferences to engage with each other professionally regarding the work we do in our jobs and careers. So when we have the opportunity to connect as individuals, share our personal beliefs, and learn about who we are beyond our professional posts, it is a treat. This weekend at Empower Missouri’s Building Blocks for Missouri’s Success, it was a pleasure to take away insights from experts on food, nutrition, and hunger that I can apply to the work I do with the Missouri HIV Justice Coalition and to my life as a whole.

Julie Pole of Food Outreach delivered an incredible presentation on the importance of nutrition and food dignity for people living with cancer and HIV. In a health and wellness culture that constantly preaches on how to be healthy and increasingly shames habits deemed unhealthy, it was refreshing to learn one agency’s approach to food insecurity means providing foods that people love that may not be deemed as the best choices along with fresh vegetables, lean meats, fish, and fruit. My favorite session of the day was Discover the “Good Taste” of Healthy Food, facilitated by Jeanne Florini of St. Louis Community College. Florini, along with her students, provided an interactive learning experience featuring meal prep demonstrations, food samples, as well as tips and tricks for attendees to consider in their everyday lives. It was a fun way to drive home the point that advocates must focus on taking care of ourselves as we seek to support others. Plus, who doesn’t love food samples?

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