December 10, 2011

STRANGER: Shamia Holloway
LOCATION: Busboys & Poets, 2021 14th Street NW, Washington, DC
THEME: Lunch with a food bank communications manager

For Shamia Holloway, one of the most important things she wants people to know about Washington, DC, is that widespread hunger doesn’t just affect the homeless.

“People don’t think that hunger is here in the nation’s capital,” said Shamia, who is all too familiar with the plight of the hungry through her work with the Capital Area Food Bank. It’s the largest non-profit hunger organization in the DC region — also reaching into Maryland and Virginia — and its goal is to provide nutritious food to those in need while also educating them on healthier eating.

As communications manager Shamia often works long hours, including weekends, organizing events like food drives, spreading the word about the organization’s efforts, fielding calls from the media and setting up interviews. Add to that list having lunch with me.

We met at Busboys & Poets, which bills itself as a community gathering place. The restaurant doubles as a bookstore, and features a performance space that hosts events like poetry readings. Artwork by local painters and sculptors is scattered throughout the place, including what looked like a misshapen red cactus by the side of our table. Shamia said she’s a regular at the place. Given the large number of customers inside, I think a lot of other people are repeat visitors.

Although Shamia lives in Silver Spring, Maryland, her job and other interests often bring her into the city. She’s been with the food bank since June 2007, and it was the first job she got after she moved to DC. But this isn’t the first time she’s lived in Washington.

Shamia studied at DC’s Howard University from 1996 to 2000, getting a Bachelor of Arts degree in speech communication and broadcast journalism. Then she moved to California. Why the move? “It was too cold in DC,” she joked, breaking into a friendly laugh.

In 2004 she graduated from the University of Southern California (USC) with a Master of Arts in strategic public relations. From there she went on to take marketing and public relations jobs with the USC, the Cincinnati Bengals football team, and Ebony and Jet magazines.

Working in the for-profit sector got Shamia thinking. “I wanted to do the work I was doing in the private sector, but for a non-profit.” During her time with the sports team and other companies Shamia had done work with various non-profit organizations and liked what they did.

After spending a short amount of time in Ohio (where she was born) due to a family illness, Shamia moved to DC. That’s when she found out that the Capital Area Food Bank was hiring. “This opportunity came up and I took it,” she said. That was more than four years ago, and she still loves her job.

Coordinating the organization’s media outreach and related events is ideal for Shamia because she’s always preferred making things happen behind the scenes rather than being the person in front of the camera or microphone. “But it’s funny because I’m on TV for the organization I work for. So it’s like a joke. I tried to get away from it,” she said, breaking into another laugh.

The food bank is essentially a huge warehouse that sources donations from retailers and others, and then distributes the food to seven partners throughout the city — such as Martha’s Table, located across the street from Busboys & Poets, which provides meals to the homeless. According to the food bank’s website, it distributes more than 1.9 million pounds of food each month, reaching more than 383,000 residents.

“My role is to raise awareness about not only the food bank but also our programs, and then hunger throughout DC,” Shamia said. “People don’t think that hunger is here in the nation’s capital, they tend to think it’s the homeless or the poor that are coming to food banks.” But hunger affects working people too. Only five percent of the food bank’s clients are homeless, she said.

The economic downturn and the fact that wages haven’t kept pace with the cost of living means that many families now struggle to make ends meet, Shamia said. The problems with the economy even mean that some of the bank’s former donors are now clients. For some people, losing a job leads to having to make the choice between getting medicine or getting healthy food.

That’s a choice she doesn’t want people to have to make.

“In my mind hunger shouldn’t happen in America, and it shouldn’t happen in our nation’s capital. Food is the most basic human right,” Shamia said. The food bank works to fix that problem not only by providing decent food but also education on nutrition.

Many people in poorer neighborhoods of DC live in what she called “food deserts,” where the only dining options are fast food places or high-sodium, high-fat cheap food from a corner store. Some parts of the city only have one grocery store per 100,000 residents. But for the local residents, many low-income, the price is right for those options. “It’s cheap to eat badly,” Shamia said.

To counter that, the Capital Area Food Bank through its partner agencies provides access to healthy food in those areas, and classes to learn how how to cook that food.

The organization also hosts an urban garden where children are encouraged to grow their own vegetables and learn how to prepare them — knowledge and skills that Shamia said children then take back to their parents. “The parents get involved because the kids go back and say, ‘Hey, look what I made today.’ We’re not going to see 100 percent parental involvement but the kids are the gateway to the parents.”

Given all the talk about families struggling to find good food, it felt a little awkward ordering a restaurant meal. But my site is called Dining With Strangers, so it was inevitable.

Shamia kept things light and easy with a traditional Caesar salad served with garlic croutons and chicken.

She had high praise for the dish, and said the good food is one of the reasons she’s at Busboys & Poets so often.

It was a little cold outside, so I opted for the beef chili.

A simplistic dish of grass-fed beef and beans topped with cheese and sour cream, it was nevertheless delicious. Crunchy blue corn tortilla chips provided a great way to scoop up some of the tasty chili, which was mildly spicy. Just the right temperature for my bland palette.

As we made our way through our lunch dishes, I increasingly wondered whether the food bank’s work touches on the political. After all, they’re dealing with a weighty topic that’s often in the headlines, even more so as the holiday season rolls around and people start to think more of those less fortunate. But Shamia said the organization’s mission — to end hunger and increase healthy eating — isn’t political.

Shamia said support comes from individual donors, corporations, and others, but the mission remains the same: battling hunger. “You can’t politicize that. Our mission is to food those at risk of hunger. Our stand is we welcome support, our mission is not political.”

During my hour-plus time with Shamia I got the sense she’s a funny, outgoing woman who is very confident in herself and proud to talk about her work. But I asked whether spending every day working on such a tough topic ever got her depressed.

Her response was to phrase things in a positive light. For example, a child might be getting breakfast and lunch at school but might struggle to get a meal at night. The food bank provides that third full meal of the day, and Shamia said she’s happy it can do that.

Likewise she’s proud of the urban garden and watching children who arrive not knowing anything about vegetables leaving with expertise and new dishes they can cook.

She said another benefit is that no two days at work are alike. During the holiday seasons the phones could be ringing off the hook with the media trying to find families to interview that use the food bank’s services, or holding all day food drives like a recent 6am to 11pm event.

So are there are any challenges?

For Shamia it’s mostly staffing issues. The Capital Area Food Bank’s media work is handled by Shamia and one other person, which means a lot of work organizing events, seeking donors, keeping up the organization’s media presence and making regular trips to the bank’s seven partners.

In addition, Shamia has to keep the organization’s Facebook and Twitter profiles regularly updated, and is already at work on coordinating the bank’s annual fundraising ball.

“It can be challenging, but it’s great to get the message out about hunger,” she said.

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