More Than Just Food
Where We Go From Here
Dr. Melony Samuels, CEO and Founder, The Campaign Against Hunger
When Dr. Melony Samuels first dipped into her own pocket to help a single mother struggling to make ends meet, she had no intention of leaving her career to found a nonprofit. “It is just a natural thing for any human being to know someone is in need to do something about it,” says Melony. As she followed this instinct to help families, she then discovered a great need in her community. And thus The Campaign Against Hunger (TCAH) was born, with Melony as founder and CEO. Twenty-five years later, TCAH’s programming now goes far beyond tackling food insecurity to provide nutrition education, urban farming, youth work readiness workshops, financial and healthcare training services, and more.
In this conversation, Melony shares what she’s learned working with her community, debunks myths about who struggles with food insecurity, and offers advice to other leaders navigating the challenges of growing an organization. Joining her is Ryan Williams, Manager, Consulting at NFF.
In this video:
Melony’s role and work at TCAH. (0:23)
How The Campaign Against Hunger got started. (1:00)
What a “community approach to caring” means. (2:25)
What food insecurity looks like. (4:44)
How to manage an organization as it grows more complex. (6:30)
How TCAH’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic changed the way New York City addressed food insecurity and emergency food distribution. (7:40)
MELONY: Oh, okay, because I’m looking at Ryan, okay.
MELONY: So Ryan, stay awake.
RYAN: To kick us off, we would love to have you, Dr. Samuels, introduce yourself and tell us a little bit more about the work that you do.
MELONY: I am Dr. Melanie Samuels. I’m the CEO and founder of The Campaign Against Hunger. And as one can imagine, in the anti-hunger community, my job really is to make sure that there is a lot of innovative programs that meet the needs of our community – especially the Black and Brown community – and also a leadership role where I work implementing just strategic plans with my staff and others.
RYAN: If you don’t mind, would you tell us how The Campaign Against Hunger got started?
MELONY: It was never on my mind to start an organization, to be actually clear. I was in the financial industry, and I was really excelling in my company. And what took place was that I got a call from a woman that my sister knew. She lived in Brooklyn, New York. She had four children. She was disabled, and was having a hard time making ends meet. Of course, it is just a natural thing for any human being to know someone is in need to do something about it.
So immediately I – myself and my husband – packed bags from our cupboards and went to Brooklyn from New Jersey, and it started there. One family, then I found myself helping five, then twenty, then I found myself helping fifty. After a while I recognized that this was not an isolated situation where families – it was just an isolated person that was in need or a few individuals that were in need. I found out after a quick survey of the area that there was such a great need. So, what I did was I sought additional funding for I could not keep up with the needs by myself out of my resources.
RYAN: That makes me think about The Campaign Against Hunger’s community approach to caring, right, that being your North Star. And so could you tell us more about what that means for The Campaign Against Hunger’s programs and services?
MELONY: What we have done is not just per se, put a brick and mortar building in any area of Bed-Stuy [the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn], but it’s actually looking at the direct needs. If you were to visit us, you would find – some would call it a closet, but we call it a boutique. A boutique of a range of different items for families that might be burnt out. Someone needs a job, you know, they have the ability to stop by and get clothing for a job. Even changing with the weather – you know the weather’s changing – to get new clothing. If families cannot afford food, think about it – they’re living in transitional homes, etc. – they can’t afford to give a bash birthday party like many of us can – thousands of dollars for a birthday party for their daughter or their sons. You know, we understand that. So, we have gone a little further to make sure every child gets a birthday bag.
I’ve seen where a mother, curled up in bed – she came back and told us this story: “I’m in bed, I got an opportunity for a job interview. And what took place was my son – I had no money. I could not go for the interview. So, I knew I needed to work, but I can’t even get to the job interview.” She said her son walked in with $20 in his hand, and she said, “Where did you get that money?” He said, “From my birthday bag.” So that’s not just food. It’s not just food. It is a little further, touching the hearts and the needs of families. That’s a community approach to caring.
RYAN: It feels like you’re able to have so many touch points that may even, like, extend past your direct service.
MELONY: And she got the job.
RYAN: And she got the job.
MELONY: And she got the job.
RYAN: Look at that.
MELONY: You can’t beat that, right? You cannot beat that; she got the job, so.
MELONY: You know, you feel that sense of accomplishment. You feel like, okay, I can go on. You know, I’m making a difference.
RYAN: That makes me think about that there’s a lot of misconceptions around what food security and economic inequality look like. Can you do some myth busting for us on how they actually show up?
MELONY: The myth is that everyone on the line is homeless, drug addict, high school dropout, worthless, Black and Brown community. You know, it’s just what people associate, when they think of emergency feeding programs, right? That is so far from the truth. You come here, you’ll find someone driving a car that needs food, right? People with degrees.
I will never forget one, there was a … the line was very long, and I was walking down and I saw a gentleman. And I for some reason I knew that he was a little different, how he looked. He stood strong and bold, yet his head was down. And I said, “Hi, can I ask you why you’re here?” And he said to me, “I have been an engineer for so many years. This was the last place that I thought I would be. But I lost my job, and after using up all my savings, I have nothing. And I have to feed my family.”
So the misconception is that the worthless is on line. No. The teachers are on line. The government workers are on line. We have so many occupations, so many working poor that are on line because the cost of our city, to live in New York City, is not cheap.
RYAN: So today you managed this nonprofit with multiple streams of funding and programs that stretch far beyond addressing hunger. So what advice do you have for organizations as they become more complex?
MELONY: Don’t just add programs to your organization based on funding. You should first find where you’re going – your mission, your vision, what you’re capable of – and add funding to that. Enhance that. Find out what’s happening in your community. Make sure your mission aligns with your community that you decide to serve and then stay with it. Sure, you can expand on it, but you should not be changing your mission statement every time there is new funding. Or you should not be altering the core vision of the organization. That is not the right way to approach it. Believe in what you started. However, if it’s been handed down to you, work with the mission, enhance it, expand it. Make sure it’s impactful, it’s saving lives, and changing families.
RYAN: Could you share a moment or a story of The Campaign Against Hunger’s work that you are proud of? You’ve shared many stories before, and so we would love to hear some more.
MELONY: What made a difference with the Campaign Against Hunger during COVID-19 was that when families were coming without PPE, TCAH with its limited staffing – myself – we stayed on the ground. A third of soup kitchens and pantries closed their doors because of fear of death. Who could blame them? A lot of senior citizens who normally take care of families when it comes to pantries, soup kitchens, lost their lives. So, it was a devastating time.
The way we were serving was putting everyone at risk; the lines wrapped around in the hundreds as people hoped to get something but feared death. I literally prayed and asked God, “Help me, I need a warehouse. I know it’s an impossible ask.” But in three days we were able to be introduced to Broadway Stages, who introduced us to their space at 101st Street in Brooklyn. And we had an 11,000-square-feet warehouse where we were able to build partners on the ground, and take the food to partners, and buy additional vehicles, and start moving food.
But what came out of this that I’m so proud of is that all the other larger emergency food pantries that saw what we did – all the names that you would probably think of – decided that this is the answer. The city themselves saw this as a way of approaching missing meals, thousands of missing meals in our community.
I am so excited I’m a trailblazer, The Campaign Against Hunger. We were able to change the trajectory of how we look at food distribution and this is what we do best. And out of disaster came light. Out of death, came life.