FAO in North America

Unleashing the Power of Poetry to Address Hunger


30 April 2018, Washington, D.C. – Renowned local poets and food security experts gathered at the FAO Liaison Office for North America in recognition of National Poetry Month to explore how poetry can be used to mobilize people to combat hunger. Featured poets included Sylvia Dianne Beverly (Ladi Di), Sarah Browning and J. Joy Matthews Alford (Sistah Joy), who recited poems on the many faces of hunger.

“Poetry plays a key role in inspiring social change, which is essential to achieve the sustainable development goals,” said Vimlendra Sharan in his opening remarks. Poet and USDA Retiree, Hiram Larew, provided a background on Poetry X Hunger, a new initiative which aims to engage poets across the US and overseas, with an emphasis on youth, to lend their collective voices to reduce food insecurity and hunger. 

Setting the scene, Thomas Pesek, Senior FAO Liaison Officer for North America, sited the grim reality that globally hunger has been on the rise with 815 million people now chronically undernourished and 124 million facing crises levels of food insecurity. Asma Lateef, Director of Bread for the World Institute, noted the recurring problem of hunger in the United States, which affects 18 million households (15% of Americans), impacting Latinos, African Americans and Southern States disproportionally.  

“All across the world people die from hunger and malnutrition. To ignore this plight would be a ridiculous selfless shame. People are hungry, yet people continue to waste food,” were the impassioned words from Ladi Di’s poem Pitch In. Sarah Browning recited Lunch Break from her book Killing Summer that looked at how hunger deprives us of dignity. Sistah Joy’s poem Sweet Children brought to light the harsh reality of food insecurity facing children, “concentrating on mathematical calculations or scientific equations is hard amid stomach growls and hunger headaches.”

Following the thought-provoking interventions, food security expert Susan Schram moderated a dynamic discussion on how poetry can be harnessed to engage people around issues surrounding hunger. Participants explored:

  • World Food Day, the World Food Prize, and the 25th Anniversary of the Mickey Leland International Hunger Fellows Program, as upcoming opportunities to feature poetry.
  • Possible avenues for engagement included putting out a call for poems, poetry slams, a written contest, or requesting two liners for a collaborative poem, on hunger from diverse communities – especially including youth and those who have suffered or are suffering from hunger – to contribute to a collection of poetry.
  • Sharing the call for poetry in partnership with organizations that are active in this space such as Sarah Browning’s Split This Rock (STR) which runs several youth programs including Louder than a Bomb and Youth Speaks and Brave New Voices, as well as the online poetry database, The Quarry.
  • Offering library-based workshops in which kids are coached on writing poems about food and hunger.
  • Highlighting select poems on Now from North America, FAO Liaison Office’s monthly newsletter.

Overall the event underlined the powerful ways in which poetry can give stories to statistics, not only creating empathy, but empowering individuals to take a stand against hunger and to work towards ending it.

For more information on Poetry X Hunger's call to bring poetry to bear on issues of hunger, visit Poetry X Hunger on Facebook or contact Hiram Larew at [email protected].

Background on Featured Poets

J. Joy Matthews Alford, a.k.a. “Sistah Joy” is the author of 3 collections of poetry.  She was named Poet Laureate of Prince George’s County, Maryland’s mega-church, Ebenezer AME Church, in April, 2016. She has served as President of Ebenezer’s Poetry Ministry since 2003.  Known for messages of social consciousness, inspiration, and empowerment, she received the 2002 Poet Laureate Special Award from the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities “for her outstanding contributions to the art of poetry in Washington, DC. Sistah Joy produces and hosts the award-winning cable television program, Sojourn with Words, which has aired on CTV (Comcast Ch. 76, Verizon Ch. 42), the Prince George’s County local access station, since 2005.

Sarah Browning is the author of two books of poems: Killing Summer (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2017), and Whiskey in the Garden of Eden (The Word Works, 2007), and co-editor of D.C. Poets Against the War: An Anthology.  Browning is co-founder and Executive Director of Split This Rock: Poetry of Provocation & Witness and an Associate Fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies.  She is the recipient of fellowships from the DC Commission on the Arts & Humanities, a Creative Communities Initiative grant, and the People Before Profits Poetry Prize.  Browning has been guest editor or co-edited special issues of Beltway Poetry Quarterly, The Delaware Poetry Review, and POETRY Magazine.

Sylvia Dianne Beverly, a.k.a “Ladi Di” is an internationally acclaimed poet.  A collection of her work is housed at George Washington University's Gelman Library.  She is a member of A Splendid Wake, George Washington University, and has been featured at the Smithsonian's Museum of History, African Arts Museum, and the Hirshhorn Museum. Ladi Di as she is affectionately called is a founding member of both the poetry ensemble "Collective Voices” as well as Ebenezer AME Church’s Anointed PENS (Poets Empowered to Nurture Souls).  She is an alum of Poets in Progress with the former Poet Laureate of District of Columbia, the late Dolores Kendrick.  Featured during the 40th Anniversary of Grace Cavalieri’s national broadcast, "The Poet and the Poem" at the Library of Congress, Ladi Di is the author of three books (Forever In Your Eyes, Cooking Up South and Poetry from Our Hearts). She’s also called "Love Poet.”  Celebrating Black History 2018, she and her family received a posthumous Congressional Gold Medal for her Dad from the United States Marines.  Poetry is her passion.

Hiram Larew has fostered Poetry X Hunger as an initiative to promote the role of poetry in responding to domestic and global food security.  His poems have appeared most recently in The Huffington Post, Seminary Ridge Review, Lunaris (Nigeria), Honest Ulsterman and Amsterdam Quarterly.  His fourth collection is forthcoming from Foothills Publishing.  Retired from the USDA where he directed international food security programs in concert with Land Grant Universities, he serves on the Folger Shakespeare Library’s Poetry Board as well as a courtesy faculty member at four universities.  He lives in Upper Marlboro, MD.