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Food insecure Iowans share their experiences

Siegfried Poepperl
The Des Moines Area Religious Council (DMARC) is hosting a 'Storytellers Roundtable' on Saturday to help teach those who have experienced hunger and food insecurity how to use the power of their voices.

Tara Kramer spent three years without a place to call her own. She didn't have regular access to clothes, shelter or food. She tried to get help. After all, she was college educated. She had a job for a long time. She even went on cruises. But then she got sick and had to leave her job. When she tried to tell people her story and ask for help, she didn't get very far.

"It was like talking to a wall. People couldn't hear me. They didn't validate me. I didn't get anything that I needed for such a long time," Kramer said. "There are still people in my life today who have detached from me because they've said, 'Well, it's your fault. That was a moral failing because you didn't do XYZ in your life.' And that type of narrative is not based on fact. It's very shameful."

But then the Des Moines Area Religious Council (DMARC) connected her with the resources she needed to escape from the cycle of poverty she had been experiencing.

And she found for the first time in a long time, she had access to an apartment. She had clothes hanging in her closet. Her fridge was full of food.

She met and started working with one of DMARC's representatives. They organized opportunities for Kramer to share her story with decision-makers. And she began to notice change.

"We just started really seeing the power that came with people being able to tell their own stories and to tell their truth, and to be able to ask for what they needed and see what they got out of that. So, we saw the power that that took in my own life. And we wanted to expand that to other people in the community," Kramer said.

Storytellers Roundtable

So she and DMARC's Communications and Advocacy Director Luke Elzinga organized a 'Storytellers Roundtable' on hunger and food insecurity to offer that same opportunity for others. It's a day-long workshop on Saturday, Feb. 26 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Des Moines Central Library.

Des Moines Area Religious Council
At the first Storytellers Roundtable in August, participants listed out what they have experienced as root causes of food insecurity, the dominant narrative society has about it and what the reality actually is.

Participants who sign up will be compensated $100 and be given a free meal. Childcare services will also be offered. The event will be offered in other languages if needed.

Elzinga said it will focus on flipping the narrative about food insecurity — which about nine percent of the state experiences.

“It's also about letting people know, look, you have a powerful story to share. Your voice matters. And there are a whole lot of other people just like you experiencing the same thing. And when we can work together, our voices are louder than just a single voice," he said.

The participants will have time to discuss their own experiences with each other and DMARC as well as learn how to share their stories with decision-makers to influence policy.

Elzinga said he has been planning an event like the Roundtable for four to five years, and Kramer was an integral partner in bringing it into existence.

"It's really important for people to remember that everybody is deserving of dignity. And it's important to remain curious, instead of just slapping labels on people," Kramer added.

This is the second roundtable DMARC has sponsored, and Elzinga said the first one had very few participants. Although it did offer a more intimate setting, he hopes more people will be able to share this time. That way, it will be more apparent how many different experiences and stories there are about hunger and food insecurity. One person's challenges will not necessarily be identical to another's.

It's been a great opportunity for me to find the purpose in all of the pain that I experienced in my life.
Tara Kramer

Elzinga said food insecurity can feel like a very lonely process. So the more people to help validate those experiences and emotions, the better. The budget does limit participation to 15. However, there will be a waitlist for future events, which Elzinga hopes to host every few months.

He'll also encourage those who do participate to become involved with DMARC's advocacy committees, just like Kramer did. She's the one who actually named the event.

“It's been a great opportunity for me to find the purpose in all of the pain that I experienced in my life," Kramer said.


Part of the goal of the workshop is to empower people who have experienced food insecurity and poverty to share their stories with legislators.

"This legislative session, like past legislative sessions, we've seen efforts by lawmakers to restrict public assistance programs and to make them harder to receive benefits," Elzinga said.

He cited a bill that would limit some Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits as an example. He clarified that it was not included in the House Public Assistance Package that moved forward. Conversations like the ones the Roundtable will encourage can help introduce helpful legislation for people experiencing hunger, poverty and food insecurity.

Elzinga recognized not all participants will feel comfortable with sharing their stories, but this event will also help attendees learn how to express those stories, even if just to themselves as a way of processing and healing.