Ed. Notes: This issue is a very special one as it celebrates the 40th Anniversary of WhyHunger, (WHY), a member of the Finding Solutions to Hunger, Poverty & Inequality Alliance. This occasion also is a personal one as 25 years ago Jane & I became involved with WHY initially as volunteers and then as Board Members. Twenty one years ago, we founded KIDS as a program of WHY and five years ago, KIDS became a program of iEARN Despite this separation, the close relationship that existed between WHY & KIDS continues to this day. As you learn about Jen Chapin from this interview, we must add that we are privileged that Jen is an active advisory board member of KIDS.
Jen Chapin On A Life’s Calling & WhyHunger At 40 – Interview
By Steve Wosahla
Sometime tonight at the WhyHunger Chapin Awards Gala at Chelsea Piers in New York, Jen Chapin will remember three words she heard her father Harry Chapin once say. It was the idea of the “obscenity of hunger” that pretty much shaped her identity by the time she got to high school and might have been earlier. Now looking back on the forty years of the organization he co-founded, she can say she pretty much grew up in WhyHunger. It’s also where she has spent the better half of her life on its board trying to understand the root causes of hunger and poverty – and speaking out about its fundamental injustice.
If Chapin sees scenes from her life replayed at the organization’s anniversary gala, it might come with an unsettling unease that is only increasing. “The thing that is most frustrating,” she told me while on a break from jury duty last week, “is the incredible recent wave of politicians who feel comfortable, even righteous, in demonizing the poor. I’m pretty sure that the 49 million Americans who are poor and malnourished, and the many many millions more who are on the edge of economic disaster, are not all lazy.”
Bill Ayres was a radio disc jockey on the show “On This Rock” on WABC when he brought on a guest by the name of Harry Chapin, then a popular balladeer and folk singer whose “Taxi” and “Cats In The Cradle” were signature songs of the Seventies singer-songwriter genre. Ayres suggested over dinner that the two try putting together a concert benefitting the starving in Africa but as he later wrote it never got off the ground. “Even if we had succeeded and raised a million dollars with the concert and then raised a million dollars each night for a year,” Ayres reflected years later, “it would have been only a drop in the bucket. We realized that to truly effect change, we needed a lifelong commitment to ending hunger right here in the USA. We needed to support local solutions to this global problem.”
The bond they formed would lead to a fledgling organization called World Hunger Year (later changed to WhyHunger.). The Hungerthon radiothon began an annual Thanksgiving tradition that continues to this day (only interrupted for a few years after the tragic automobile accident that killed Chapin in the early 1980s.) Flash forward forty years to Chelsea Piers and Ayres will be honored by the organization and receive a Lifetime Achievement Award. The other honorees include Grace Potter, who just a few weeks ago was belting out “Gimmie Shelter” in Minneapolis with Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones, will receive the ASCAP Harry Chapin Vanguard Award. Paul Shaffer will present Felix Cavaliere of the Rascals with the Harry Chapin Legacy Award.
One of the artists who came on Ayres’ show shortly after Harry Chapin was Bruce Springsteen. Springsteen would go on to become the most prominent anti-hunger advocate in the industry, bringing local food banks to display and collect donations at his concerts. He helped create WhyHunger’s Artists Against Hunger & Poverty which also includes Jackson Browne, Carlos Santana, Jen Chapin and Brandi Carlile who writes how food banks were an essential resource and blessing for her own family growing up. A special edition poster of Springsteen’s Born To Run photographed by Eric Meola is being sold through Backstreets Magazine to raise money for the event. 1975 copies were produced to commemorate the year of its release – and the year of the founding of WhyHunger. A slew of other items are available on Charity Buzz.
When I ask ask Jen what she thinks has contributed to the enduring Artists Against Hunger and Poverty and music industry involvement, she responds she’s found that art and social consciousness go hand in hand. “Some of the most justice-oriented, big-picture thinking, alive-and-alert to the world people I know are artists.”
On her most recent album, Reckoning, Chapin’s advocacy intersects with her music and features a song “Feed Your Baby” that emerged directly from her work with WhyHunger and what she describes as “our mission to tell the stories of hunger.” In the song, a single mother struggles to make ends meet, a victim of the service economy that forces her to travel great distance for a thirty hour work week and make choices like buying food or supplies to manage diabetes. The singer remembers her grandmother growing her own vegetables in the Caribbean sun, a life lesson to be handed down but one interrupted by the illusory promise of a better life here. With the price of nutritious food too high, she’s forced to fight a “minefield of junk food on tv” and a cycle of despondency in which, metaphorically and literally, she can’t feed her baby.
“I suppose it was only after becoming a mother that I could bring an immediacy to the stories,” she says of the song which came right out of her involvement with the issues WhyHunger is addressing. “It’s a universal primal truth that mothers think about and biologically produce food on a different level.”
Another new song from Reckoning, “Gospel,” celebrates the interconnected social movements including the food justice and climate movements for which WhyHunger has played a leadership role.
Last Thanksgiving around the time of Hungerthon, I had a chance to listen to Bill Ayres on Dave Marsh’s SiriusXM radio show Kick Out The Jams on the Spectrum channel. Ayres talked about the question of why is there still hunger in a world that can feed itself. As Ayres and Chapin built WhyHunger, they asked how the richest country in the history of the world could have a hunger problem. “You have to ask the ‘why’ questions,” he explained. “If you don’t ask the why questions, you won’t change anything.”
Ayres posited that the root cause of hunger is poverty. And the root cause of poverty, he believes, is powerlessness. The question then is how do you empower people? His answer: “People have to do it for themselves but they need help. Other people have to help them.”
He went on to say that initially, WhyHunger focused on getting food to people. The result is that the country has the best emergency food system in the world. But where emergency food was meant for emergency situations, many who are not making enough money regularly rely on supplemental food services to survive. The organization has broadened its approach to focus on sustainability and working with community organizations around nutrition education, encouraging production and access to local foods, and increasing self-reliance. The very nature of a food pantry is changing from being a source of one-time relief to centers of education that foster for example, gardening and planting for youth and adults in a world where people have lost the ability to cook because of the prevalence of fast food.
“They’re not just giving people food but they’re taking the next step to help get people out of poverty and become self-reliant.” Marsh concurred on the show, saying the “web of connections” among people fighting this problem didn’t happen on Capitol Hill – and the network that’s developed through WhyHunger has turned out to be the most valuable asset of the anti-hunger movement.
For Jen Chapin, the organization’s approach remains directionally sound and over time makes more sense to her. “On a personal level, I find the issues – and the way that WhyHunger has always addressed the structural complexity of hunger combined with support for the vibrant grassroots solutions – very intellectually compelling and morally fundamental.”
One of the reasons I became interested in this issue and am writing this story is a visit her father made to my high school in Ridgefield, Connecticut. I remember less about the songs he played and more about the reason why he came to talk to us that day. It left a lifelong impression.
Some things are handed down and you’re likely to hear Jen speak of WhyHunger and the issues of hunger from the stage just like her father did all those years ago. “I certainly aspire to follow his example in advocacy perhaps even more than in music,” she reflects. When you talk to Chapin, you’re likely to be pointed to something she’s written about. She’s as much a singer, songwriter and advocate as a policy wonk. “I’m sorry to keep including links but I’ve written about that too,” she says almost apologetically when you bring up a subject.
There’s a comment on Jen’s Twitter page where she says “for me being with dad means finding the rhythm, sometimes halting and slow, towards social justice.” I guess change is incremental and you don’t always see it while you’re going through it. Looking over the history of WhyHunger, I wonder what have been the greatest advances in the anti-hunger movement? What makes you proudest and maybe most frustrated? I ask her.
“Yes, change is incremental,” she agrees, “but it’s a long road that ‘bends toward justice’ as MLK said. The change that WhyHunger seeks is deep and structural and visionary, and requires undoing centuries of colonialism, and ‘steady, loving, confrontation’ with the ‘giant triplets of racism, materialism and militarism’ to combine two other of MLK’s memorable phrases.”
“But what else would I rather be a part of?” she concludes. “The flow of inspiration and true possibility is endless.”