Food as social justice at the border

Food as social justice at the border

At our border in the Rio Grande Valley, the declaration of a national emergency pales in importance to the work of countless individuals caring for the basic needs of our people. It doesn’t seem to fit the definition of what an emergency is all about, and as anyone who has spent time on the border will tell you, the question of whether or not to build a wall is not even a distant second to the more pressing question of how thousands of children and families will get fed. 

With illegal border crossings declining and border crossing apprehensions at their lowest level in 45 years, there is no sense of crisis — but a weariness from deep poverty and long struggle. Solving immigration is complex, but feeding children and families is not. Food nourishes justice. When you solve one problem, you have more momentum to take on the next. Whenever nutritious food strengthens the health and spirit of an individual on either side of the border, they will be in a better position to support themselves.

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Although there are no simple solutions to immigration, there are practical humanitarian actions that could lead to progress. Many of them involve food. 

For example, Sister Norma Pimental runs the Catholic Charities respite center in McAllen, Texas where immigrant families are brought by Border Patrol, typically after long journeys from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. They are the lucky ones, released on their own recognizance (some with electronic ankle bracelets) and receiving soup, a shower and assistance buying a bus ticket. We helped serve lunch to families and chatted across language barriers.

Pimental prays for the Border Patrol agents and recounted the time one officer, watching immigrant families being fed, told her “Thank you for helping us remember we are human beings.” She frames the challenge: “We need a secure border and we need to treat people humanely and with dignity. We are a powerful nation and can do both.”

Or take, Pat Matamoros, who has been with the Cameron County health department for 25 years and calls the need for a food pantry. She said so many of the basic health issues the county confronts are due to insufficient nutrition, a topic that made Matamoros choke up.. The border knows tears of sadness and tears of joy, but her tears were different. They were tears for unrealized possibilities.

Or take, Rich Newman is an unlikely pro-bono lawyer for unaccompanied minors and detained immigrants. Previously a prosecutor and special agent supporting ICE enforcement, he says drug cartel control of the border, raiding smugglers’ stash houses. He notes that absent a legitimate asylum claim (fear of government persecution counts, fear of gangs does not) virtually no one crossing the border illegally can come and stay here legally.

So, what can we do? Congress should marry its interest in immigration reform with a commitment to address persistent poverty along the border. If it did, our immigration challenges might look very different and more manageable. 

The rest of us can build on what works. We can ensure the respite center has healthy food. We can help build food pantries along the border. We can continue to assist elementary school kids who qualify for a free or reduced-price school lunch to also get school breakfast, afterschool snacks and summer meals. Each action, no matter how small, is larger than the small thinking that divides us. 

We must all try — and working to ensure that every child is fed is the place to start.

Billy Shore founded the national anti-hunger nonprofit Share Our Strength, which created the No Kid Hungry campaign focused on ending childhood hunger in America. He also served as a congressional appointee to the National Commission on Hunger, a group tasked with finding innovative ways to end hunger in America. Shore is the host of “Add Passion and Stir,” a weekly podcast that brings together high-profile chefs and change-makers to talk about the central role food plays in social justice.