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Inside Oregon Food Bank: A Conversation with Matt Newell-Ching

From an early age, Matt Newell-Ching has known the importance of caring for our neighbors and making sure everyone has what they need to thrive. Today, as the Public Policy Manager at Oregon Food Bank, he draws on those early lessons to advocate for change and achieve our vision of communities that never know hunger.

[Hunger] is immensely solvable if we demand it. If we make sure our elected leaders know that it's a priority. We don't have to live in a world where there's hunger. We don't have to live in a world where there's homelessness. We don't have to live in a world where our kids aren't in safe places when we go to work. We can build these things if we demand them.

Matt Newell-Ching

Matt’s work begins not with the question “How do we get food to people?” but rather “Why do people need to come to food banks in the first place?” This is why Oregon Food Bank’s advocacy focuses on policies affecting SNAP, school meals, equitable housing, and racial and immigrant justice — policies that create the conditions that determine whether or not people will have to choose between rent or food or healthcare. This is why we are dedicated to advocating for policies that provide communities the opportunity to thrive.

Matt’s connection to his work is rooted in personal experience. When she was young, Matt’s mom was the primary breadwinner for their family while his dad was in school. But then she was in a car accident and injured her back, putting her out of work for six months. Matt’s family had to ask, would his dad need to drop out of school? What could they do to continue taking care of their family? His parents were able to apply for SNAP and public assistance, which allowed his dad to stay in school and for their family to thrive. From this early age, Matt learned that policies and systems that allow us to thrive — not just survive — make everyone better off.

“It was always instilled in me: it's not just about you.” Matt shares. “We need to be thinking about our community. How do we volunteer? How do we speak out? Whether it's school or our local or state government or federal government, how do we make sure that we're serving one another? We want to make sure that everything we do, we do collectively, that we're standing together with one another.”

In addition to their experience seeking public assistance, Matt’s parents illuminated for him the importance of social justice and policy work that address complex, nuanced barriers facing our communities. Matt is biracial — his dad is Chinese and his mom is white — and his dad was born in Seattle in 1948. This was shortly after the height of Japanese internment camps which ignited anti-Asian fear and discrimination. Wanting to protect their son, Matt’s grandparents didn’t teach his dad Cantonese, their family language. “One of the ways that racism hurts all of us is that it prevents all of us from being our true selves and living our full identities,” Matt says. “It's part of my family's history, where we saw the destructiveness and the divisiveness that can be dehumanizing… One of the things I'm really hopeful about is that we are living through a generational reckoning on racial justice, to ensure that everybody is treated with dignity, that all of us can be our true selves.”

Oregon Food Bank’s public policy, advocacy and organizing work is rooted in the community. It’s critically important that our public policy agenda is built by communities who experience hunger so that the legislation we seek to win makes a real impact within those communities. That’s why Oregon Food Bank staff, like Matt, are only one piece of the puzzle in creating policy change. Staff are ultimately accountable to the Policy Leadership Council, a body made up entirely of people with lived experience of hunger or its root causes, who decide which policy measures and advocacy work Oregon Food Bank will pursue.

“If we're going to authentically center community members in our decisions and put the power back in community,” Matt shares, “then it's necessary that we are accountable to a body that consists of people who have the most expertise, which is people who have experienced food insecurity directly.”

While the political landscape can be difficult to work in, and we sometimes don’t see the results we want, Matt has also seen the ripple effects that policy change can have in his decades as an anti-hunger advocate. In 2020, Matt received the Hunger Fellow Alum award from the Congressional Hunger Center. The award recognized his work in 2019 advocating for the Oregon Student Success Act to address hunger and make sure kids can eat meals in schools without stigma and at no charge. While Oregon didn’t achieve universal school meals, in part because of the progress Oregon made did, states like California, Colorado and Maine have enacted universal school meals. And as importantly, this work raised awareness and shifted the national conversation toward universal school meals as a real possibility.

Today, Matt is a parent himself, the dad to a daughter in fifth grade and a son in seventh grade. Building a better future for the next generations drives Matt to continue his commitment to anti-hunger work. “My wife and I, we talk a lot about the world that we want our kids to live in,” Matt says. “From our climate to living in a community that is committed to making sure that people have enough to eat, to making sure that people have a safe place to live… that’s something that definitely keeps us going.”

At the end of the day, Matt envisions a world where hunger does not exist. And he thinks it is possible to get there. Matt shares:

“There's really no reason that we have to live in a world in which there is hunger. There's enough food in the United States. And there's also enough food in the world to feed every single person who is alive today. Continuing to live in a world where there is hunger is a choice. We need to make the choice together to say ‘That's unacceptable and we can’t live in that world.’ I don't think that's a dream that's out of reach.”

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