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“Peace is a form of generational wealth.” – Dr. Monifa, M.D.

Portrait of John Hoang in front of a green park-like background

by John Hoang, Congressional Hunger Center’s Bill Emerson National Hunger Fellow

In the movie Barbie, as Ruth Handler walks with Barbie, she says, “We mothers stand still, so our daughters can look back to see how far they’ve come.” As I reminisce about my six-month tenure in Oklahoma as a Bill Emerson Hunger Fellow, I think about the generations of my Vietnamese ancestors that longed for a future of joy, stability, and imagination beyond the atrocities of colonization, war, and poverty. Survival and resilience are not traits I want future Vietnamese generations to have. The longer we endure depravity, with our suffering being dependent on the expense, exclusion, and oppression of the social identities we hold, it means we haven’t had the chance to live freely. I question my reality every day. Being a first-generation queer and low-income Vietnamese American, there are so many opportunities that elevated me, but it didn’t come without a cost. 

What drew me to the Congressional Hunger Center’s Bill Emerson National Hunger Fellowship is its mission and hopes for a hunger- and poverty-free future. I come from my mom who made the difficult choice to say goodbye to all her loved ones and homeland. I come from my dad who fought for South Vietnam and never spoke about what his eyes saw. My story resonated with the Emerson fellowship. I had a tumultuous childhood where my parents fought over money. From an early age, the United States shattered the innocence of my cultural and political reality. However, this country gave me the ability to reimagine and redefine the outlines of my Vietnamese American experience. 

As a New Mexican, I never thought my journey would lead me to Oklahoma or with Hunger Free Oklahoma (HFO). I didn’t anticipate becoming an Emerson fellow, either. I am still scared of living a life without the cushion of academia. I’m anxious about transitions, change, and new beginnings. I had wept a lot in my hotel room before my first day as an Emerson fellow in DC because I was so terrified of not living up to expectations, not highlighting my best performance, and falling flat on my face. In times where it feels daunting to hold it all in, I exhale, pray to Buddha, and turn to poetry, music, stories, and art to nurture and preserve hope, to no longer quail in anger and frustration, and not feel defeated and cynical in my efforts anymore. 

My time at HFO allowed me to meet elected officials like Representative Tom Cole and Oklahoma State Representative Mauree Turner. I was able to attend HFO’s 2023 Hungry for Action Conference and the Intertribal Agriculture Council’s Southern Plains Regional Conference. I was actively involved with the Oklahoma Childhood Food Security Coalition meetings and supported HFO’s lived experience community outreach. I also had the wonderful opportunity to go to beautiful Fayetteville, Arkansas. I was bestowed with many fleeting memories, experiences, and treasured moments that helped me develop a gentle fondness for Oklahoma and HFO.

My main objective at HFO was developing a non-congregate summer meals toolkit for nutrition program operators. Non-congregate summer meals are an option for rural communities. Unlike congregate summer meals, non-congregate summer meals can be picked up or delivered for children to eat at home. The expansion of non-congregate as a summer meal program enables more capacity to deliver free summer meals to rural and low-income communities nationwide. I took the initiative in doing thirteen interviews with non-congregate providers in Oklahoma and nationwide to hear their valuable experience, perspective, and guidance on best practices, solutions, and resources related to operating non-congregate meals and the transformative impact non-congregate provided in rural communities. I assembled all my qualitative research into a toolkit. My intention was for the toolkit to be used as a resource for nutrition program operators wanting to improve their non-congregate operations or starting their own non-congregate program. In a similar fashion, non-congregate operations and I exhibit the mutual qualities of resourcefulness, adaptability, and flexibility. 

During this project, I listened to stories from non-congregate providers about the people who need access to nutrition services and want to be seen as distinctly human, not a poverty statistic. I realized that nutrition program operators and artists think alike about the places they have been, what they witnessed, and what touched them constantly in a different angle. Like them, I also reinvigorate myself by looking at where I can talk about my inherent experiences differently without dwelling in my own disadvantageous peace to make my pain feel small, while addressing institutional barriers that impact, traumatize, and emotionally burden marginalized communities. In understanding the fuller picture of who I am, I hope it invokes an emotional response to compel who I am talking to, to not only reflect on the inside, but the invisible injustices they weren’t aware of before and realize the kind of transformative changes Americans have a right to. I hope future marginalized generations can live freely, make generational peace a part of their being, and be free of anguish, grief, and heartache that comes from regressive and adverse actions and policies. 

Working together for a hunger free Oklahoma.

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