Let's end world hunger: Compass Podcast episode 41

Taking action against hunger
Taking action against hunger

Do you believe it's possible to end world hunger?

According to FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations), 821 million people worldwide don't get enough food to lead healthy lives. That number is increasing, not decreasing. In light of such a massive statistic, how can we expect to end issues around hunger?

Barry Mattson and the people of Rise Against Hunger believe it's possible to drop that number down to zero. Barry spoke with Ryan Dunn about how we can all be a part of the movement that ends world hunger. He also shared his personal story of witnessing how helping people get the very things they need creates a more just and secure world.

 

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Barry Mattson, our guest on this episode, is the CEO of Rise of Against Hunger. Barry has a strong commitment to serve in international hunger eradication. Barry worked to launch agriculture programs for people facing hunger in the southern highlands of Ethiopia. This experience impacted Barry’s personal commitment to end hunger immeasurably. In order to best support community members in Ethiopia, Barry lived and worked alongside them and learned the local languages. He has served in the military, where his experiences showed him the best ways in which to create change in the world.

A few of Barry's suggestions for rising up against hunger right now:

Episode Transcript:

This is the Compass Podcast where we dive into the presence of the divine in the everyday. My name is Ryan Dunn. Pierce Drake is sitting this one out unfortunately. It’s summer. He’s on a bit of a vacation. With that and holidays, and everything else sometimes it’s a little tough to try to get everybody together. But he will be back for the next episode. In the meantime I’m glad you’re here.

I used to joke around that Jesus messed up my life. What I meant by that was that I had a presupposition about where my life was gonna go. And in that future envisioning of life I was gonna go after all the items of a comfortable life, right? A job that paid well but didn’t demand too much from me. A nice house. A timeshare. I don’t know. All that stuff we might equate with making it our day and age. Committing to live in the way of Jesus changed all that. My goals changed. For sure I’m giving up the timeshare and the 6000 square foot house. You know, pretty unlikely I’ll ever pull in in a 6-figure salary. That’s okay. My priorities are different. And now I’m totally motivated by something else. So Jesus messed up what I wanted for my life, but for the better. I was pretty unfulfilled purposing the former dreams.

When we started this podcast we hoped to share a lot of stories about how faith interrupts life and pulls towards something bigger and better. I’m excited for this episode because we’re gonna share one of those stories today. I got to start with Barry Mattson. Barry is currently the CEO of an organization called Rise against Hunger. And he and the organization have a big goal to stamp out world hunger. I love Barry’s optimism because he seems pretty confident we’re gonna do it. Barry’s story is interesting because while we didn’t get too deep into his motivations in life when he was younger, we do hear that he was looking to change the world, to interrupt some of the cycles in which we hurt one another. And during his time in the military he observed that the best way to create change was through helping people get what they need. Listen for that encounter in this interview. And I invite you to listen for how you can take part in the world-changing work of helping people get food, too. That’s coming up in this conversation with Barry Mattson, CEO of Rise against Hunger.

Ryan:  Barry, thank you so much for joining us. You’re calling in from Raleigh, North Carolina. How’s everything looking out there right now?

Barry: Well, things are going well. I’ve been here since March 16th. And friends ask me how I like Raleigh, North Carolina. And so far my answer is, we have no idea.

Ryan:  So, you’re fresh to the Raleigh area and fresh to the position…with Rise against Hunger.

Barry: Thanks so much for having me today. It’s an honor to be here. And it’s an honor to speak with you, especially because the United Methodist Church has been one of our big partners for years and years and done so much to support Rise against Hunger and the people that we serve across the globe.

Ryan:  Yeah, I’ve done personally a number of the meal-packaging events that y’all sponsor. They’re a great way to just kind of be active and get involved in doing something good. But also y’all do a really good job of kind of setting the table for us. I mean, you know, in a literal sense of the meal-packaging table is set very well. But also, in the figurative sense of really describing what the needs are, and how the efforts that we’re giving out on any given day are moving to meet those needs. And that’s really where I wanted to start on our conversation is that y’all have a long-term vision and it’s a pretty bold one. It’s to stamp out world hunger. Do you really believe it’s possible to stamp out world hunger?

Barry: I absolutely do. We’re driven by the vision of a world without hunger. And hunger is a problem that is not a necessary problem. I strongly believe that it doesn’t have to exist. There are enough resources in this world that no one should go hungry. And so our vision is to get to that place. And certainly we’re not gonna do it alone. It’s gonna take everybody involved to prioritize this global crisis. But we’re growing a global movement to do just that.

Ryan:  How do you foresee that goal coming about? What steps are Rise against Hunger taking to really end world hunger?

Barry: Thanks for asking that. We just went through our strategic planning session. And we’re in the middle of building out our strategic plan for the next 3, 5 and 10 years, at different levels of detail. But as we think about this giant, audacious goal of ending hunger, what can our niche be? What can the part that Rise against Hunger play in that as we work with other multi-national corporations, with faith-based organizations, with civic organizations, with international organizations like the U.N. and World Food Program, others. We all play a part. And how can we do that? So where Rise against Hunger’s theory and roadmap to change lands is really in four pathways to ending hunger. So our 4 pathways are: empowering communities, nourishing lives, responding to emergencies, and growing the movement. And so all 4 of those--and I can into detail iin each of those pathways--that's really where we provide immediate nourishment for those that are facing hunger today, but also implement sustainable solutions that will, you know, lift entire communities for years to come.

Ryan:  Since you brought that up, that’s kind of the key question for me is, as we do these meal–packaging events and we’re able to feed somebody with, say, a month’s worth of food, well what happens then? And I love the idea that y’all are getting involved in maybe building a sustainable way to feed people. Can you detail for us a little bit about Rise against Hunger’s vision for sustainability?

Barry: Sure. Well, starting with what you mentioned around our meal-packaging program, so as an organization we’ve been around since 1998. And we’ve packaged over 530 million meals to date. And of that the United Methodist Church volunteers have packaged over 11.6 million meals at events just last year. It’s packaged over 117 million meals with Rise against Hunger. So imagine over a hundred million meals that the UMC alone has done. The impact that can make is enormous. And we send those meals across the globe largely to school-feeding programs in developing countries where perhaps that’s the only nutritious meal a kid has to eat that day. And then they can focus on their schoolwork and their education. And we have all kinds of success stories around that where kids have…who weren’t able to go to school before, now they’re able to go to school ‘cause their parents know a meal will be provided to them there. They don’t have to choose between feeding their kid and sending their kid to school. There are also success stories about people who have been graduated and went on to college, university graduates, government officials. Success stories in communities like that. But also the community as a whole. You mentioned sustainability.  So in many locations that we’ve gone into at the same time that we have started with meal-packaging meals that we sent over there in these school-feeding programs, at the same time we’ll start empowering communities programs—whether that’s through sustainable agriculture or homegrown school feeding programs, or microenterprise, working with women to develop small businesses. Those kind of things we’ve done in several communities across the globe where we’ve started with meals, but when we launched the empowering communities program at the same time we’ve had success stories where communities have graduated off of our meals to no longer want or need them. And that’s the always the goal, of self-sustainability and then self-scaling those programs. And I really love that you asked about the sustainability piece because that is what’s truly going to end hunger. It’s not going to be from America a lot of people that really want to do good sending western solutions to developing countries. Really the only way to end hunger completely is to work through local leaders because they know more about their local culture and context and solutions than I ever will, or our team ever will. And so empowering local leaders to develop their own programs through some best practices that we can bring from around the world, some training and really making it a customized local solution that can then grow. So it’s gonna look different in different communities across the globe. It’ll look different in Senegal than it does in The Philippines, for sure. And it might even look different in Ziguinchor in southern Senegal than it does in northern Senegal. So community is community. But the cool thing about this is that the process is the same. The process to get to the solution is starting with the who instead of the what. It’s starting with local leaders and empowering them to figure out their own goals for agriculture or whatever it is, to develop those solutions locally.

Ryan:  So, are there other steps to that process then? So maybe your first step is identifying the local leaders, for lack of a better way of putting it, like an afflicted area? And then what happens on top of that?

Barry: That’s a great question. It’s a longer process than most people think. So I did this actually in southern Ethiopia. Went into a town called Zuria in the mountains of Gamo Gofa And it was really in the middle of nowhere, very small town. And you know, we want to talk about starting with the who instead of the what. I didn’t speak the language at the time. I’m about to learn it pretty well after living there for a year. But really finding those local leaders who are humble servant leaders, well-respected in the community and people that are listened to. And when you find those type of people then I hired them, and hired 27 amazing Ethiopian leaders, men and women, experts in agriculture, healthcare, economic development and education. And at that point, you know, you have the rapport of the village because the people that they trust are working on this mission, and you still don’t know how to end hunger at that point. So you go out and you talk to people. You talk to farmers. Everyone’s a farmer. You find out what are your strengths? What are you good at? And what are the biggest needs that you have? And we found out specifically that their strengths was working in groups. And their biggest needs were that they had low crop yields in small land size. And then from there you go through…. After that strengths and needs assessment you go through some training with the local leaders, training in how to do barrier analysis and logic models and questionnaire development surveys and then find out really the details. You bring in best practices from around the world where they can say this will work here, this won’t. And they’re really developing their own goals and their own solutions for this agriculture program. I’m just facilitating the conversation. And then…. So they create it. They own it. And the goal is that they can sustain it and scale that process throughout the country. They’ll also develop the budget, the staffing model, the pace of scale. All of those things. So everything… We’re really training leaders to develop an NGO from the ground up. So that was one example. That’s kind of a case study of how it can work.

We also work with other, what we call impact partners. So we’ve got one in Senegal called Developing and Gardening. And they’re doing some amazing work in the areas of agriculture. Their goal has been to deliver nutrition-sensitive agriculture programs to young mothers, especially people living with HIV, undernourished children and groups in the region in which they’re working. We’ve partnered with them and it’s been an amazing story, especially since COVID-19 hit. They were actually the supplier of the town’s fresh produce because they developed an innovative solution using farmer’s cell phones to be able to do that. So, again, varies in different locations, but that was kind of a long way to answer your question. But there are multiple solutions in different contexts and cultures, as well as that…. You know, looking at the long term while still trying to swat the closest ‘gator to the boat with this COVID-19, and figure out how to deal with that.

Ryan:  Yeah, well, let’s go there. We’re in the midst of it. As we’re recording it’s early July 2020. And I don’t know for you all in North Carolina, in Tennessee we’re back under a kind of like a phase 2 lockdown. So somewhat pretty severe social distancing. How has this push towards social distancing and the regulations that we’ve got surrounding affected the work of Rise against Hunger?

Barry: Yeah, it’s a great question in multiple ways. So, I came on board on March 16th, and that was right when the pandemic grew and hit. And it wasn’t the typical first week that any CEO expects. But the silver lining to the COVID-19 cloud is that it’s forced us to question operating assumptions and to, you know, ask uncomfortable questions, and to innovate and pivot. And every organization should be doing that. One of my mentors told me that the best question in the world is “if we’re so good, why aren’t we better?” And I think it’s a great question that every organization should be asking, and this continuous improvement. Also it’s kind of, you know, kind of weaponing curiosity into a figure-it-out mindset. And so again unprecedented times. But exciting as well to be able to shift and pivot to new challenges. The gravity of the situation is not lost on us. I mean, we’re looking at in many of the world’s most impoverished regions, a large percentage of the people are dependent on the informal economy. So you think of urban areas where people are shining shoes or selling chickens or have a very small restaurant or, you know, food kiosk or something like that. These informal workers are facing significant unemployment or underemployment due to COVID-19. The restrictions on movement, the restrictions on mass gatherings, it’s predicted to impact food security. The UN has predicted that the number of people facing food crises could double globally this year. It was already at 820 million people facing hunger. And to double that, we find that very alarming. It’s resulted in a lot of border closures as well. Our friends in our Philippines office, they are saying that they can’t even go from island to island. So there’s food shortages. There’s increased food prices. There’s closed markets. They’re limiting the group meeting sizes in many of the countries we serve. And that also impacts our ability to do meal packaging events. So we generally have about 400 thousand volunteers a year packaging meals. And somewhere upwards of 60 million, 65 million meals that we package every year. And so you can imagine a 200-300 person meal packaging event that’s no longer viable. And so how can we do that? With our team, our innovative team, has done a great job of shifting to find new ways of doing modified meal packaging events that adhere to CDC guidelines. So we’re still doing those. And so if your church or community wants to participate in some of those, like say you’re doing a social distance church gathering anyway, we can certainly do with our new best practices of socially distance meal packaging events at your locations as well. And more information is available on our website—Riseagainsthunger.org about that. And then for COVID specifically our response has been really looking at a three-step relief and resilience plan to support those that are still facing hunger. So hunger hasn’t gone away because of COVID, and in fact in many locations the conversation is shifting away from COVID-19 deaths to deaths from hunger because of COVID-19. So our mission matters more than ever. So the 3 steps that we’re working on…. And you can find ways to support these on riseagainsthunger.org/COVID-19 actually. And you’ll see our 3 steps there. But the first is to continue to distribute our meals across the globe as well as bulk quantities of rice. So you can imagine in our warehouses…we’ve got 28 locations across the country where we have these rice inventories and other vegetables and nutrition packets and soy beans and things like that that go into our meals. But we’re not able to do these large events that we’ve planned for, but we still have all this inventory of the raw commodities. So we’re shipping those both internationally and domestically for emergency relief. So that’s something that we’ve been doing since it hit, as a first step. Our second step is to do local procurement of food in countries. So the countries in which we ship, if we can’t ship meals to meet the needs of our partners there, then we’re looking at local food procurement through distributing short-term grants to our in-country partners. And then finally a third-step is that Empowering Communities Program that I talked about through sustainable agriculture projects so that they can increase their food production and their capacity locally of the farmers, and specifically in 4 locations right now that we’re really heavy into that are Malawi, Bali, Senegal and Zimbabwe. We’re pushing new projects in northern Malawi and then south Sudan and have a scaling plan to different hunger pockets around the world in the future as well. But those are really the first efforts that we’re working on in response to COVID-19.

Ryan:  You know, there is a lot going into that. And it’s obvious that Rise against Hunger is a fairly large organization with quite a bit of experience. What’s the best story behind Rise against Hunger, like, how was it founded? How have you grown to this point?

Barry: Yeah. Sure. So, first of all, we were founded in 1998, actually by a United Methodist minister named Ray Buchanan. And, you know, he saw a need and actually he’s a Duke Seminary graduate. He founded a domestic hunger organization in 1979 which was called the Society of Saint Andrew, which is also another UMC partner. And then he moved towards an international focus with the founding of Rise against Hunger. And so that’s really the background. But the background with the United Methodist Church particularly is…. I mentioned how many…you know, over a hundred million meals, 117 million meals that you’ve packaged with us. But you’ve also supported with gift-in-kind shipments that accompany our meals and some of your leaders have been very actively involved. So Bishop Will Willimon, who’s formerly the resident bishop of the Northern Alabama Conference serves on our board of directors. And I just had a conversation with him last week about the new strategic planning shifts that we’re doing. We’ve also had Bishop Hope Morgan-Ward who’s the resident bishop of the North Carolina Annual Conference of the UMC has been a major support to our growth as an organization. Her husband Mike Ward sat on our board for many years. And I don’t know if you know this, but our headquarters was also housed in Fairmont United Methodist Church for about 11 years before we moved to this location. That’s a little bit of our background. But we’ve got a long connection to faith-based organizations. We had over 1400 faith communities engaged with our mission last year, and many, many volunteers, many, many meals. A huge portion of the meals that we do, that we package are done by faith-based groups. And it’s all faiths as well. So, I’m really excited to have faith, civic, corporate all be a part of growing this movement.

Ryan:  Do you know when Rise against Hunger started, was it mostly a meal packaging type movement in the beginning?

Barry: In fact it was mostly emergency relief. Then we developed into international meal packaging and then we added on the sustainable development programs and our Empowering Communities Pathway. So all of those have really been a part from day one. We’ve always known that we’re not gonna end hunger through donations, and we’re not gonna end hunger from America. But we are also cognizant that sometimes people are just hungry. You know, and they need to get by. So it’s a mix. It’s a really healthy mix of short term immediate relief and long term sustainable development.

Ryan:  Let me get a little personal, if I may. Having just come on board in March, what drew you into this position? Was there a sense of calling there?

Barry: There is. My career has been about a lifetime of service. And it’s really important to me. I spent some time in both the Air Force and the Army—combat deployments in each, serving our country overseas in Iraq and several other places. But that was really the first time, when I was deployed to Iraq, where I saw extreme poverty and extreme hunger and what it meant for a father to not have meaningful choices, and to have the choice between, like I said, maybe feeding his family or doing something that he might not otherwise do. And I’m not…. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that hunger or poverty causes terrorism, but it can be a catalyst for people doing things that they might not otherwise do if they don’t have meaningful choices. So my personal experience on the ground, seeing that…. Also when I was there in 2010, 2011 I was actually the liaison between the United States Department of Defense and the foreign leaders. And I was working very closely with the Minister of Agriculture in Iraq, the farmers’ union leaders and building demonstration farms and doing a lot of the things that we’re doing in capacity building in Africa, in Asia, in other places with Rise against Hunger. So it was really the first time that I had seen that up close and personal, and then after I got out of the military I spent some time, as I mentioned, in southern Ethiopia doing similar work. And it’s just been a calling to work with the….. I’ve learned a lot along the way. I’ve made a lot of mistakes, to be honest. You know, when I went to Ethiopia I went there to change Ethiopia. And Ethiopia changed me instead, more than I did. And so, just understanding that mindset of the people that we serve, the people that we’re working with, I don’t like to use the word vulnerable. I don’t like to use the word at-risk. These are people with a sense of dignity. They’re value conscious entrepreneurs who are doing risk management often better than you and I are, based on the decisions that they have to make to feed their family. And so understanding that and empowering people to make their own solutions and lift themselves has been really important to me. I also got to do it domestically through my last organization, The Mission Continues. It’s a veterans organization that uses veterans to do community development work here in the U.S. And so seeing how both domestically and internationally, when this opportunity came at Rise against Hunger it was perfect. It was the culmination of a lot of experiences, some leadership in high stress crisis situations as well as the international development focus. I’m so happy to be here. I’m so blessed by this team. This team has been able to innovate and shift and support one another and collaborate since I’ve joined. And it’s been amazing to see the progress and the commitment to the cause, the passion that people have for the people that we serve across the globe. So thanks for the question. I’m really honored to be here.

Ryan:  Yeah. Well, thanks for answering it. I appreciate you getting a little vulnerable there and being able to talk about your own experience. I feel like, Barry, that there’s a book coming out of that at some point. I don’t know.

Barry: .[Both talking at once.]

Ryan:  No, we don’t. But it’s a compelling story. I’d love to learn a little bit more about it. So that’s very cool.

For folks who are looking to get involved, right now, even as an individual…. So, you know, likely our person listening, individual listener who’s got the earbuds in, what’s something that they might be able to do today once they get home and pull those earbuds out, to be able to help the effort?

Barry: Well, thanks for asking. I’m really happy to talk about some of the things that we’ve been able to do and shift to even virtually. We’ve done some things like a Rise against Hunger goes live event where you’re able to see some interview with people that are in our offices overseas. By the way, we’ve got 5 international offices in South Africa, Italy, Malaysia, India and The Philippines. Being able to see what we’re doing over there, being able to see what some of our impact partners are doing, and being able to see some fine events like how you can make some cool recipes with our meals and some…. You know, we even had one of our team members play the saxophone. You know, just making fun events like that online. So continue to look out for those. We’ve also done a 5K/10K virtual race called Go the Social Distance. We actually have some more upcoming of those, a Race to School challenge. So you can check for more on that by following us on social media—Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn. You can also to Riseagainsthunger.org and find out more. Or just contact us. Of course, I’m gonna ask you if you care about this cause to donate to help financially support the COVID-19 Release and Resilience Plan at riseagainsthunger.org/COVID-19. But also, as I mentioned, for your church or your community we are hosting those modified meal packaging events that do adhere to CDC guidelines. And we do wear masks and the hairnets and gloves and all that. So more information is available on our website about that as well. Even above that, if this mission is compelling to you, if you care about a world without hunger one day, we believe strongly in the power of growing the movement. And growing the movement is actually one of our 4 pathways to end hunger. So it’s spreading the word. It’s shouting from the rooftops about what’s going on in the hunger crisis, to your family, your friends, your network, through social media. It’s just a great way to get involved.

Ryan:  And to put a number on that hunger crisis again, I think you had dropped it earlier. Was it like 800 million who are affected?

Barry: Yeah. Eight hundred and twenty million people in the world. But that’s 1 in 9 people. But also, keep in mind that that number is out dated with the COVID crisis. And the UN’s reporting that that number is going to double this year, which is certainly going in the wrong direction. And that means that we have a lot more work to do.

Ryan:  Well, Barry, thanks for that invitation and for spending some time with us.

Barry: My pleasure. Thanks so much.

Ryan:  You bet. And thanks so much for spending time with us, friend. Riseagainsthunger.org is the site you want to visit to learn more about what’s going on there. And, check out UMC.org/podcasts for more episodes. If you like this one you might want to check out our talk with Dan Haseltine of Blood Water and the band Jars of Clay, or don’t back way, is our talk with Benjamin Sledge about how relationship and faith made something special happen in his life. When you’re searching for all those drop a rating and review on your podcast platform like Apple Podcasts, that’s the best way to let others know we’re here. Thanks much again. Peace to you.