So What! Article

Helping to Blaze the Trail In the Fight Against Hunger

Sep 27, 2022

BY STEFFAN CHIRAZI

Charlie Blazevich manages to score benevolent cash and support for Feeding America’s objectives from all sorts of places. Steffan Chirazi talks to him about how his work gets done.

Zoom is not especially recognized as the way to gauge someone’s true personality. Yet, after five minutes looking at the fresh-faced, ebullient Charlie Blazevich, Senior Manager of Corporate Partnerships for Feeding America’s development department, it is clear that this is a man who positively relishes the challenge of doing good by society and of parting corporations from their cash for the common good. Within 10 minutes, I realize that this Arlington Heights, Illinois-raised positivity champion is where he is for a reason. For example, he’d have you parting with your dollars because he passionately articulates the challenges facing feeding Americans in 2022.

All of this has led me to conclude that the best possible thing I could do, is hand the written floor to Charlie and allow him to define what he does (and has been doing for the past seven years), what Feeding America continues to do, and why it is more vital than ever in 2022.

Ladies and gentlemen, the genuinely irrepressible Charlie Blazevich.

MY JOB

I have the best job in the world. I do nonprofit sales, which means I work with all manner of partners like Metallica and the [All Within My Hands] Foundation, financial services companies, food retailers and food suppliers, and folks like Kellogg’s. I get people to realize that all you’ve got to do is put gas in the tank and food on the table, and we can make sure that folks are able to go to work every day and have lives, spend time with their families, and not have to worry about things we consider ‘normal’ in life.

NUTSHELLING THE ISSUES FACING MILLIONS UPON MILLIONS

Everyone in America has seen empty shelves in grocery stores and empty shelves at your hardware store. Covid brought great supply chain challenges, and the strain that we are putting on our supply chain system significantly challenges not only individuals, but food banks as well. Feeding America probably purchases and sources food on the level of a national grocery chain. Something like five billion meals were provided through Feeding America last year. That costs a lot to move. That costs a lot to process.

THE IMPORTANCE OF EMPATHY

One important area of what we do is to focus on the issue of empathy with hunger. There is hunger and need in every single county of the United States, no matter how rich, no matter how poor, no matter how well-resourced. There’s hunger everywhere. We have 200 food banks that we work with across the country and 61,000 partner agencies. 34 million people were living in food insecure households in 2021, which is a tremendous amount. What’s unique about my position - talking about empathy and what the narrative looks like - is that I have to take this giant, sloshing goo pot of knowledge and figure out what means something to somebody and what can get them to empathize with our cause and needs.

Hunger isn’t necessarily somebody’s fault. Children, obviously, are blameless in such circumstances, but so are the adults. There are grandparents, there are single parents, there are children, there are mixed families, there are generations of people who need assistance, and it’s not because somebody chose to buy avocado toast. It’s because the world is really tough for a lot of people, and we’re trying to help provide stability in that space. Also, when we say we’re supporting America, it has to be understood that it’s not just the America that’s in the city. It’s the America in the rural communities as well. Getting food into a rural community costs more money. It’s not a matter of politics, because a rising tide lifts all boats.

We talk a lot about community, and we have this great tool called Map the Meal Gap, and we use USDA data. You can type in your zip code, your state, or your legislative district, and you can see what the reported numbers of folks facing food insecurity are in your community. How many kids are facing food insecurity? How many people? What does that mean for your community? What is the approximate amount of money that we would have to spend to meet that meal gap every year? And it’s, you know, hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars in the community. So with that, we embarked on this whole mission of trying to get folks to understand the issue of empathy for hunger because everybody has known, whether or not they know that, they know somebody who has used an agency, a pantry, a soup kitchen, a public service of some nature at some point in time.

HOW FOOD BANKS & PANTRIES JOIN THE FINANCIAL DOTS

Essentially, it is the private charity system that supports Feeding America, World Central Kitchen, and all those other organizations in the US, but there is no way we can meet the gap without governmental support. These governmental partnerships make policy changes which ensure that people in America, and when I say people, I mean everybody - American citizens, immigrants, folks who are seeking asylum, whatever that circumstance might be – can get fed. For every meal we provide as the charitable food system, the US government, through SNAP (Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program), provides nine. So, the charitable food system is still needed to help do this work.

As a society, we fail in supporting citizens and people across the US. One of my favorite anecdotes is that if approximately 90% of people in America had a $400 income deficit issue one month, something like blowing two tires would put them as needing food security and assistance. Think about that. It’s white collar, blue collar, public service, folks working in a restaurant, folks who have office jobs, that’s a lot of people. So a really important part of what Feeding America helps provide is some stability in such unpredictable times for the current economic security of the average person in this country.

THE IMPACT OF COVID

As a result of Covid-19, since 2020 we certainly saw a huge increase in the number of people needing food assistance. A lot were from the labor jobs sector, the service industry jobs, the enterprise industry…I have friends who work in event production, and they were all laid off; everybody. Fortunately, some of them had side hustles and gigs, and that helped, but overall Covid-19 resulted in a huge increase in the number of people facing food insecurity. These situations force people to talk about hard choices. So you know, are you going to put food on the table or are you going to heat your home this winter? Are you going to put a roof over your head or are you going to pay your medical bills? The sheer number of people who may not be considered food insecure but are still using food assistance services because these ‘choices’ mean they need it is staggering. We cannot judge other people’s circumstances, we won’t, and that’s what food assistance is all about. Ensuring that we can provide some stability in people’s lives so that it’s one less thing to worry about so that they can get back on their feet if that $400 challenge happens. We used to talk about feeding the line, about shortening the line and finding ways that we can help people get back on their feet. We are really focusing on ending the line now. Our goal is, essentially, to eliminate my job. That would be the real dream coming out of this.

THE IMPORTANCE OF EDUCATION IN MATTERS OF HEALTH AND NUTRITION

Another of the important tasks is to talk about health challenges mixed along with hunger. People see images of overweight or obese individuals who are at food distributions, and they say, “Well, obviously they don’t need a meal,” which is such a cruel, mean, and frankly often ignorant statement. Maybe the food choices that a person makes in terms of getting calories in their body are what they can afford. We never ragged on somebody in college for eating ramen. You don’t judge somebody for those types of things. Why would we judge somebody who’s just trying to do the best they can to get by, to take care of their loved ones, to take care of themselves? They’re eating what they can afford. They’re eating to fill their stomachs.

THE PROFILE KICK FROM WORKING WITH THE LIKES OF METALLICA

One of the best ways that I think Feeding America is able to get our word out is through collaborations with corporations, foundations, and with things that are public facing. So I, candidly, not only get to work with Metallica, but I also get to work with Luke Bryan on his Farm Tour that is funded by a couple other (corporate) partners. And I love these opportunities! Both acts really lift up the local communities wherever they are. And the amount of money that Metallica has put into communities is incredible, and it isn’t just about the money acts like Metallica give, but also how All Within My Hands gives what we do a platform to spread our mission messages. We can’t pay to have that type of exposure. And our food banks can’t that type of exposure, so it is incredible.

FEEDING AMERICA IN TIMES OF DISASTER

Feeding America is a first responder in times of disaster. Metallica has been very generous in support of our disaster work, and our 200 food banks and their 61,000 agencies are many times the first places on the ground that are getting food into people’s hands. Every year we strategically stock food, water, and cleaning supplies in locations across the Gulf Coast, the Midwest, and the West. The flooding in St. Louis and eastern Kentucky? We were there within 24 hours with shelf-stable, pre-packed goods—30, 40-pound boxes that we could get in somebody’s hands immediately. If we can provide food at such terrible times, it gives some stability here. It allows people to focus on getting their lives back together, getting back to work, and taking care of their families. We make sure they get fed, and we do it together as a community.

WHAT YOU CAN DO BEYOND DOLLARS AND CENTS TO HELP THE CAUSE

It might come across as a cliché, but it is the truth when I say that every dollar helps, every bit of visibility in communities, every time somebody can go and volunteer or be a mentor in a program because whatever skills you have are valuable. If you can’t give money, that’s okay. Go and volunteer your time. See if your place of work will do a matching donation. See if work will give you paid time off to go volunteer as a team. And if you have any type of social media platform, whether 2 or 2000+ followers, connect with your local food bank, pantry, or agency. Maybe even speak with them, and tell their story; any mention can be hugely helpful. In this fight, every single effort counts.

For more information, please visit FeedingAmerica.org