Meet the Summer Youth Ambassadors – Zia Abdullah

The first time I officially learned the official definition of food insecurity was during my sophomore year of college at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. It was during my Social Issues class, when our played the documentary A Place at the Table that I learned that hunger was a real issue facing people in the United States.

Needless to say, I was shocked. This is one of the most advanced countries in the world, in more ways than one. I was born in South Africa, and grew up, in part, in a refugee camp in Botswana. I am intimately familiar with the concept of malnutrition. The conditions my family and I lived under were destitute, to say the least, and it was difficult to watch my mother struggle every day to feed and clothe us and worry about the day after that and feel guilty when she couldn’t. There was no such thing as welfare programs or low-income housing in the camp. It was a young mother, her very young children, against (literally, sometimes) the elements.

When we were granted asylum here in the United States, we felt like we had been rescued from hell. Persecution, violence, xenophobia, and hunger. We were enrolled in low-income housing in Omaha, Nebraska, as well as in nutrition programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. I went to high school and was fed free or reduced breakfasts and lunches. During the summer, our sources of food were more scarce. SNAP wasn’t always enough to feed all five of us, but that was okay. We were poor, and that was just how it had always gone for us.

And then I got to college and learned that it wasn’t just me or my family or the kids at my public school who lived like this. I learned that around one in six Americans don’t have enough to eat at home. I learned that food insecurity was a nationwide problem and I was staggered by it. Food is a basic human need, same as water, or safe place to sleep. How could this be the reality in a country where machines could operate heart surgery or take you to the moon? It didn’t make sense. It still doesn’t make sense.

I started volunteering with the UNO food pantry when it was still in its early stages of development. I learned that university students were just as food insecure as single moms and their children; some and many being those same children themselves. One of the issues that we had was what to do when the university was out for break. The pantry wouldn’t be open, but students still needed the services. Katherine Keiser, the professional psychologist who opened the pantry in 2013, started the Boxes for Break event, where students, faculty and staff alike could take boxes (instead of the usual bag) home during winter and spring break when they wouldn’t have daily access to the pantry. It meant a lot to me to do work like that, and I utilized the service many times myself.

Hunger Free Heartland helps organizations help kids. It connects organizations to resources and strives to build a powerful network of people dedicated to carrying out the same goal: ending childhood hunger. The skills I gain here will be invaluable in the career I hope to have as a public health professional. I believe in coordinating efforts and poling and resources and being of service and those are all values that I think will only continue to strengthen in my time here.

In a way, I can’t believe that I am actually getting to do this – and not just because I used to wear cardboard boxes for shoes. (I’m kidding! It was plastic bags for jackets). For a long time, and still to this day, I was the one being helped and taken care of. It feels extraordinary to finally be on the other side, pouring back into the universe what it gave to me.

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