Last week I had the good fortune to attend the Bread for the World National Gathering in Washington, D.C. If you’ve never gone, I highly recommend it. Generally speaking, you spend a few days learning about hunger issues and current, related legislation, and then you spend a day visiting your elected officials on Capitol Hill. It was a wonderful event, the content of which was inspiring, thought-provoking, troubling, challenging, and hopeful. 

But tucked into the thoughtfully-planned agenda, I glimpsed a telltale problem. It was not a problem with the event itself, but rather something less tangible…

Two incidents drew my attention to the problem. In the first, a group of maybe 25 or 30 people were going around a circle introducing themselves. As you might expect, many who attended the Gathering represented church groups, worked in food pantries, or had other non-profit work backgrounds. Then we reached a man who gave his name and said, “I’m from the dark side. I’m an engineer in the private sector.”

What does it mean when a person feels compelled to introduce himself as being from “the dark side” simply because he works for a corporation?

The second incident that gave me pause was at dinner Monday night. Sitting next to me was a scientist who works for a not-for-profit on improving the nutritional quality of seed, fertilizers, and food storage. She explained that her organization works with the private sector to get these higher-nutrient inputs into the food system. Then our keynote speaker took the stage: Mark Bittman, the New York Times food columnist. He spoke with passion about the problems with industrial food production systems and the way they harm our health. At the end, the woman next to me turned to me and said angrily, “He’s not a nutritionist or an agronomist, and he just dismissed everything we do.”

These incidents got my attention because here were two people committed to fighting hunger, attending an anti-hunger event, and both felt marginalized because they are associated with for-profit industries. And therein lies the problem. How many caring, interested, capable people never get involved because they feel insulted or excluded by a culture that vilifies the private sector? 

It’s a human tendency to simplify and generalize  complex issues to make them more manageable. But as we engage in this work, it’s important to remember that things are rarely black and white. We only make ending hunger harder if we don’t welcome diversity and seriously consider how people and institutions with a variety of viewpoints, motivators, and gifts can help.

-Nancy Michaelis