Women Leading in Central MA: Worcester Food Bank’s Jean McMurray
Monday, June 10, 2013
Jean McMurray is the executive director of the Worcester County Food Bank in Shrewsbury, a position she has held since 1998. In this role, she provides leadership and direction to all areas of the Food Bank's programs and operations. She has also worked for a local homeless shelter and held positions in Washington, D.C., as a media analyst for the Embassy of Jordan, as a research assistant to former White House communications director David Gergen, and as a consultant to the Central American Peace Scholarship Program at the United States Agency for International Development.
In 1987, Jean spent a year in Costa Rica working with small-scale family farmers on a sustainable agricultural development project. She also serves as co-director of the Worcester Advisory Food Policy Council, is on the Grants Committee for MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, and is a member of the Worcester Advisory Board of the Massachusetts Department of Transitional Assistance. She earned a bachelor's degree in international relations from Eisenhower College, the liberal arts college of the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York.
SW: As executive director of the Worcester County Food Bank, you have been waging war on the silent epidemic of hunger. What led you to become an activist against hunger?
JM: My very first visit to the Food Bank was in 1994. I filled in for someone else while I was working at a homeless shelter which had a food pantry and immediately reconnected with my interest in hunger issues. I had worked at an international level on sustainable agricultural development. I kept watch on opportunities at Worcester Food Bank and in 1995 was hired as agency relations coordinator, three years later becoming the director. All the pieces just seemed to come together.
SW: Since the economy has deteriorated and costs continue to escalate, you must see a lot more working poor or impoverished elderly citizens who are using the food bank. Do you have statistics on just whom you serve?
JM: In 2012, Worcester County Food Bank and our 149 partner agencies helped almost 100,000 people. The Food Bank distributes the food in a number of ways. We work with agencies who provide bags of groceries for home use, community meal programs (once known as soup kitchens), shelters for transitional housing, and after school programs. The community meal programs are so important as they give people a chance to share the social act of eating with their neighbors. There are a number of reasons that people don’t have enough food but some statistics are surprising. Only 8% of those we feed are homeless. At one time hunger and homelessness went hand in hand but now 25% of the people we serve have at least one person in the family working who can’t keep pace with the escalating cost of living. 12% are seniors trying to survive on a fixed income and 34% are children under the age of 18. The rest might be people who lost their job, seasonal workers, and all between the ages of 18 and 64.
SW: I was astonished at the extent of hunger locally and have heard that you distributed over 5 million pounds of food in over 60 communities. That is a massive undertaking. How do you make it happen?
JM: It is a huge team effort. We have a staff of 16 but we also have over 400 volunteers who give nearly 6000 hours of service. All our food has to be inspected for quality, box by box. The generosity and loyalty of our food donors is also a large part of making this happen. One third of our food comes from local supermarkets, manufacturers, family farms and community food drives, one third from the Massachusetts Emergency Food Assistance Program, which supports four food banks and provides $13 million in funding, and the final third from the US Department of Agriculture, which buys food from farmers and donates it to food banks around the country. Of course none of this would be possible without our network of 149 partner agencies. They actually get the food from us to the people that need it. A lot of credit for our success goes to them.
SW: If you could point to one single undertaking of the food bank that has had the most impact on the battle against hunger what would it be?
JM: Our dedication and commitment to creating community partnerships and advocating within the community to create strategies for fighting hunger and food insecurity as well as providing food for people in need today. In 14 of the city’s low-income neighborhoods one out of every three children live in a family unable to meet its basic food needs. The Worcester Advisory Food Policy Council is an example of the Worcester County Food Bank’s involvement and partnership with a broader community effort focusing on increasing access to healthy food and supporting sustainable and systemic solutions to the problem of hunger. At Worcester County Food Bank, we thrive on this as it is all about community. It is equally exciting to lead or to support someone else’s efforts.
SW: As the problem continues to escalate without being addressed on a national level, how do you as an individual stay focused on the positive?
JM: We definitely have to do better as a country and a society to ensure that all people have enough nutritious food to support their health and development. We need more leaders like Congressman McGovern at the national level to advocate for federal nutrition assistance programs that invest in people such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. We need more leaders at every level – in the U.S. government, at the state level and at the local level to join with community nonprofit organizations to work together on effective and efficient programs that invest in people, that lift people out of poverty and support the in being more self-sufficient.
SW: This new End Hunger Now Initiative spearheaded by Rep. McGovern seems long overdue. What are the primary objectives and how are you involved?
JM: We have 50 million people in America who don’t know where their next meal is coming from. Congressman McGovern is calling on our elected officials in government to provide the political will to end hunger now in this country. He is trying to get President Obama to coordinate a White House conference on food and nutrition and secure congressional support by bringing everyone to the table to develop a plan. So much is being done at the community level but we need the president’s leadership to move forward forward on a national level.
SW: I found a wonderful PDF of Stories of Help and Hope. I know there have been so many but what stands out the most in your mind?
JM: It is so difficult to choose one story over the other as they are all so important. Behind the numbers, we are talking about real people with real struggles. I think the ones that resonate with me are those of people who used to volunteer at a food bank and never thought they would need help. There’s also the flip side where we have volunteers giving back who benefitted from food banks when they were kids.
SW: How can community members help?
JM: A great way for community members to help is to learn more and stay engaged. They can do this in a couple ways such as visiting the Worcester County Food Bank and their local food pantry. Organize a food drive in their neighborhood, school, civic/social club or business. Become an advocate by visiting the websites of anti-hunger organizations such as Project Bread in Massachusetts, www.projectbread.org and signing up to receive email action alerts from Feeding America,www.feedingamerica.org, the Food Research and Action Center, www.frac.org. One of the most important things community members can do is to talk about the problem with their neighbors and co-workers and let their elected officials know at the local, state, and federal levels that hunger is a solvable problem and that it is a priority that needs their leadership and political will if we truly want to have hunger-free communities and a hunger-free United States of America.
Susan Wagner brings more than 25 years of leadership experience as president of Susan Wagner PR, the company known for driving events, initiatives, launches and openings for non-profits and healthcare. Susan consults in the development and execution of a broad range of outreach programs, & public relations initiatives that effectively educate, inform, and build relationships with targeted stakeholder groups. Susan has consulted to clients such as Children’s Hospital Boston Trust, Hasbro Children’s Hospital, Ford Motor Company Fund, UMass Medical School, Worcester Center for Crafts & Heifer Project International.
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