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On the Road to Syracuse... Seeking Representation from the Unrepresented and Forming a Childhood Hunger Coalition

In this next installment of the series "On the Road to Syracuse" highlighting the issues we'll be discussing at the upcoming National Right to Food Summit in Syracuse, June 4-5, 2024, Rachel Murphy-Viens, Director of Food and Nutrition Services at Syracuse City School District, argues that addressing complex problems such as childhood hunger requires understanding the root causes and multiple factors at play.

By Rachel Murphy-Veins

Rachel Murphy-Viens, Director of Food and Nutrition Syracuse City School District


The City of Syracuse (pop. 144,263) is one of the most distressed urban communities in the country, with poverty becoming even more pervasive over the last 15 years. More than half of all children in Syracuse live in poverty, the second-highest poverty rate in New York State. In 2000, there were nine extreme poverty neighborhoods (census tracts with more than 40% of residents living below the poverty level) in Syracuse, compared to 30 (half of all Syracuse neighborhoods) in 2015. Also, of the 100 largest metropolitan areas in the U.S., Syracuse has the single highest rate of extreme poverty concentrated among blacks and Hispanics, with nearly two-thirds of Syracuse’s black and Hispanic residents living in extreme poverty within the 30 census tracts. As a symptom of poverty hunger and food insecurity plague households within the city of Syracuse who lack food due to barriers in access, resource, and knowledge.


Multiple community organizations have implemented programs and services that aim to minimize the impact of hunger and food insecurity within the community.  Successful in their own way, children living in poverty have been positively impacted with or without necessarily being the focus of said programs and services. As a vulnerable population that is solely at the mercy of others whether it be parents/ caregivers/teachers or more broadly institutions and systems that “serve” children, the number of hungry and food insecure children seem to continually rise. With this background in mind, it would seem logical that we would employ collective governance strategies to formally engage various actors to dig into the complex issue of childhood hunger in the city of Syracuse. A group of paraprofessional students engaging in a service-learning public health project did research to help identify representation from a variety of community sectors including education, government, not for profits and more to conduct key informant interviews. These agencies included but were not limited to the Syracuse City School District, the Food Bank of CNY, Early Childhood Alliance, Syracuse Onondaga Food System Alliance, United Way of CNY, and Falk College. After conducting key informant interviews with stakeholders who could potentially address these issues it was found that there were significant gaps in cohesion between the various community actors. This is incredibly unfortunate as the findings in literature indicate collaborations typical to address hunger and food insecurity such as Food Policy Councils when connected to a broader array of food policy actors in their communities produce more diverse policy outputs. In the case of hunger, diverse policy outputs are essential in moving the needle.


As a representative of my own agency (the local school system) my own biases and self-interests were soon very evident which could muddle this work. For example, as an operator of federal nutrition programs my focus leaned towards expanding child nutrition meal services in the school setting only.  Because of this I would consider myself a stakeholder that is too engrossed in self-interest. I had intended to convene collaborative partners in a strategic fashion that includes policy makers, stakeholders, and individuals of various expertise to begin a collaborative process addressing the issue at hand but realized this work would need to be facilitated by a partner that had more diverse representation. 


Lead agency or not, one key issue remains, how does one or some form this “cohesive group” to address a vaguely identified problem for a population that does not have a voice, a seat or possibly even capacity to be represented in such a convening? Furthermore, during the research it became apparent that children had not been given the opportunity to have a voice about the issue of hunger. Had anyone even asked children in the community if they were truly hungry or were they subject to be defined by census data? These questions are incredibly pertinent as the design and structure of this, or any collaboration has significant implications for future performance. If children are not represented to help identify the problem the next obvious step would be to identify who or what should be chosen to be a representative for them. In an effort to avoid stakeholders that may be too disconnected from the target audience we looked to those who work directly with children. Teachers are intimately involved in a child’s life, they learn their favorite colors, establish individual education plans, and meet extended family for 180 days out of the year. Leveraging surveys, we found a typical schoolteacher, though incredibly impassionate about children were too misinformed to participate in deep conversations addressing the complex issue of hunger. Surveys showed information shared about the topic during this research revealed a strong disconnect from the general issue at hand. However, continuing the relationship between schoolteachers as part of the process was still imperative as the children’s participation and voice in developing this work could flow through their teachers who are trusted adult figures in a child’s life. Gaining access to the children to engage their participation through a teacher as an adult representative was an evolution in the process that was an unexpected and welcomed redirection. For example, shame and privacy concerns were found to be a hinderance when soliciting input from children about hunger and food insecurity issues but with a trusting adult (teacher) as a conduit we were able to have dialogue that can inform the collaboratives next steps in setting goals, policy and/ or problem statements. In this way representation was found from the children’s voice, a true evolution in governance response from new information discovered.


Summer Feeding Program, Syracuse, NY

It is clear that with proper governance structure key stakeholders coming together to address linkage issues can be a powerful dynamic. Related to food topics explored may include, food access, obesity, food supply, and nutrition. Within Syracuse the Syracuse Onondaga Food System Alliance (SOFSA) is the regions food policy council for Syracuse-Onondaga NY. It is a relatively young organization that is housed independent of any government entity or organization and is currently pursuing 501c3 status. Its membership includes a diverse range of partners and supports that addresses food access, agribusiness, and food system changes. To date, SOFSA has not facilitated dialogue from a collective group of like-minded organizations to constructively discuss the problem of hunger at large that puts children at the epicenter of truly identifying the “problem”. Community liaisons are employed within the group to solicit community representation in forming priorities, setting budgets, and identifying action steps proposed by the organization. It is through this process that SOFSA was identified to house a childhood hunger coalition. SOFSA aims to facilitate complex policy issues without allegiance towards any group, but rather to “the people”.  According to the literature more connected councils produce more diverse policies, and the nature of representation by council members affects diversity of policy outputs. 


As a result, SOFSA agreed to convene initial meetings with select partners to identify existing access points to students to gain insight and secure representation to help direct governance strategies. As already mentioned, community liaisons were already in place, trusted adult figures (teachers) were identified as key partners and new access points were identified to ensure child representation. New opportunities that the group identified included working through athletic coaches, incorporating child feedback in combination with emergency food distributions and accessing existing parent/child forums that are established in other agencies. By combining multiple sectors and exploring feedback and data from a variety of stakeholders it is apparent that addressing complex problems such as childhood hunger is interdependent on multiple factors and cannot be addressed by any one actor.


Analysis/Lessons Learned

•        Multiple stakeholders agree on a generic problem: Poor food environment exists across the city, with inequalities in access existing between families and school buildings.

•        Building upon places and people that already have established relationships of safety and trust with children creates easy in-roads to children’s participation and representation.

•        Most community members have not amassed contacts, resources, or knowledge to assist in addressing the issue though school staff are trusted partners for children and therefore are a good partner in the collaborative.

•        Direct from student voice: information solicited should ensure the “problem” crafted is representative of the children.  If the “problem” is defined solely by the data it isn’t necessarily the true “problem” especially if the key participants are not identifying the “problem” as the same issue.

•        Privacy concerns from children resulted in poor representation; when individuals are very weary to join into collaboration due to shame and personal risks.

•        Many interested agencies have personal/organizational or funder interests, they complement the work but should not necessarily be setting the agenda, as such it is important to encourage a broad range of actors.

•        Various Institutions hold parent advisory council-direct input that is very good and should be leveraged throughout the process to continue to keep children's voice at the center/via third party participation.

•        Research and discovery should include an attitude of flexibility and awareness, unknown funding sources may evolve, or new partners and self-interests may be uncovered.



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U.S. Census Bureau, American Community Survey, 2011-2015, 5-Year Estimates

Onondaga County Health Department (2017) Mapping the Food Environment in Syracuse, New York 

Baylor Collaborative on Hunger and Poverty,  A toolkit for Developing and Strengthening Hunger Free Community Coalitions, 4/2024 <]

Food Bank of CNY (2020) Intersections of Hunger, Barriers to Food Security Among Families with Children, < NYC-Hunger-Conference-Report_02.13.20.pdf>

Anastasia Snelling et al. (2014) Key Factors for School-Based Food Pantries: Perspectives From Food Bank and School Pantry Personnel, Journal of Hunger & Environmental Nutrition, 9:3, 350-361

Mona Mansour MD, MS et al. (2017) Asthma Improvement Collaborative Reduces Hospital Re-Visits by 41%, JAMA Pediatrics

Jashim U. Ahmed et al. (2024) AgroCenta: Connecting Smallholder Farmers Through Digital Distribution PlatformsProduct, Sage Business Cases

Saba N. Siddiki et al. (July/August 2015) How Policy Rules Shape the Structure and Performance of Collaborative Governance Arrangements Public Administration Review, 536-547

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Marianne Bazydlo - Kitchen Coordinator & Office Manager Samaritan center

Maureen Verone - Budget Administrator at Hendricks chapel

Nancy Wind, Ministry Coordinator at Isaiah’s Table

Pollitt, Ernesto, Mitchell Gersovitz, and Marita Gargiulo. "Educational benefits of the United States school feeding program: a critical review of the literature." American Journal of Public Health 68.5 (1978): 477-481.


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