A few months ago, our program committee led by former State Legislator Forrest Swall, who is also a retired professor at the KU School of Social Welfare, came up with an idea of doing a candidate tour & reception for candidates to learn more about the Just Food program and what it is doing in Douglas County to fight hunger. Forrest told me on a few occasions that as a candidate, people always want to hear from you, but he felt it was appropriate with all of the things going on, that these candidates need to hear from us about what was happening here.
Our incredible program committee began to meet and come up with an outline for the evening. We were going to invite candidates here and give them a tour of our facilities, feed them some finger foods, and educate them about what the needs are and what we're doing to meet them.
One of the things Just Food has tried to do since the beginning is to be a voice for people who haven't figured out how to use theirs yet. A component we felt was missing were the clients.
If you look around at the next candidate forum, or presidential election on TV, there aren't low-income individuals there. They are rarely at the table. They won't come unless they're invited, and they won't participate if they don't feel comfortable. It's tragic that we have conversations about how to help those folks get on their feet when life has KO'd them, and they were the people we passed on the way to these forums saying, "goodness, I hope someone helps them."
We started dreaming of a forum where clients were able to come and participate. But we didn't want to lose the integrity of educating our elected officials, and those running for office about what Just Food was doing.
So, we invited candidates last Thursday, October 11 at 6:00 p.m. for a private tour and a Q&A session and education session about Just Food. While the candidates were learning about Just Food, a huge group of clients began to gather outside, and the League of Women Voters were getting people registered to vote. We wanted clients to have their voices back. We wanted this conversation to be on their turf. A place they felt safe and comfortable with.
Our candidates and elected officials were great. They came out on a night where many were busy going door to door, to have a conversation with low-income clients of Just Food. I admire the heck out of them for that. (I'll give a list below of who came). They engaged. Asked questions. And said if we ever needed anything to let them know. I told them I'll be calling them soon.
At 6:55 p.m., we opened the doors and the clients flooded in. Our lobby filled up. And when the elected officials came back from from their tour of the warehouse, clients were sitting in the lobby eagerly awaiting this event to start.
As you can see from the pictures, we wanted to make it informal. No tables in between candidates and clients. No lectern. We were all in one room, looking for answers together.
We asked each candidate for three minutes to answer the following question: as a low income individual, who is un(der) employed, un(der) insured, and working my tail off to get back on my feet, what are you going to do to help me if I put you in office?
The responses and the engagement that happened were incredible. Our clients felt safe enough to ask tough questions. They expressed appreciation. They expressed frustration. And at the end of the night, they were registered to vote, and their voice was heard.
This might have been one of the top five moments in my time at Just Food. Giving people a voice in a conversation where they don't normally have one is of the utmost importance to our mission as an organization. I am so grateful to our program committee, and especially our lead team of Forrest Swall, Lisa Harrod and Jim Baze.
Candidates and elected officials who showed up (we invited those not running as well) were:
Patrick Bengtson, Ron Ellis, Senator Marci Francisco, Frank Male, County Commissioner Nancy Thellman, Senator Tom Holland, Representative Anthony Brown, Representative Paul Davis, John Wilson, District Attorney Charles Branson, County Commissioner Mike Gaughan and City Commissioner Mike Amyx. Unfortunately, the other candidates had other events planned for the evening and were unable to attend. But we are eternally grateful to those who came.