On July 25, 2023, the Pulitzer Center’s Reporting Fellowship Program hosted a Talks @ Pulitzer panel discussion about the fight against food insecurity in the southeastern United States. The event was moderated by program alum Olivia Diaz and featured work from Reporting Fellow alums Dylan Ortiz and Julia Knoerr.
“On a daily basis, many people will have to make a decision about whether they want to pay their bills and their rent or if they're going to pay for food,” Julia Knoerr said, kicking off the event with a short presentation about her reporting. Knoerr, a 2023 Global Health Inequities Reporting Fellow and Davidson College alum, added that even those who choose to pay for food might not have access to healthy food options.
While discussing her recent reporting on community efforts to address food insecurity in Immokalee, Florida, Knoerr noted that 28% of the majority migrant farmworker community live below the federal poverty line and without easy access to healthy foods.
“And this was something that I was not super aware of until I got there on the ground,” Knoerr said. “So in order to respond to just these various factors, there is both—I would say—a really tight-knit community of people who support one another, just more informally, and then also a number of nonprofits that have more formal meal distributions and strategies.”
For her Pulitzer Center project, Knoerr followed several solutions-based nonprofits, including the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and the Cultivate Abundance Community Garden, as they provided mutual aid, healthy food, and long-term resources and support to Immokalee residents.
Knoerr’s main story, “The Struggle for Food Sovereignty in Immokalee, Florida,” was published in both English and Spanish for Civil Eats and El Nuevo Herald, respectively. Knoerr said conducting interviews and publishing her story in Spanish was “one of the most important things” she could do because many of her sources spoke Spanish. “I think being able to build that relationship in someone's native language was really important and was definitely very helpful,” she said.
“I wanted the story to be linguistically accessible and like something that would be meaningful to the [Immokalee community],” Knoerr said.
2022 Carol Smith Passariello/Pulitzer Center Reporting Fellow for SUNY Westchester Community College Dylan Ortiz shared his reporting on efforts to tackle food insecurity in the lower ninth ward of New Orleans, Louisiana, which is considered a food desert by the USDA.
For his Pulitzer Center project, Ortiz produced a documentary featuring efforts by local nonprofits to feed their community using barrier and stigma free food distribution strategies.
“It's pretty much no questions asked,” Ortiz said about the barrier-free food distributions organized by Culture Aid NOLA, one of the organizations he featured. “They're serving an immediate need for food, and that's how they work. So that's why they stood out to me, and I was happy to interview a lot of their members.”
His project also touched on Hurricane Katrina’s lasting impact on the New Orleans community, how food insecurity impacts physical, mental and emotional well-being, and how social processes can impact food accessibility.
“There's just a multitude of factors that come into play when it comes to food insecurity,” Ortiz said.
Ortiz also screened a short clip of his documentary, The Food Insecurity Crisis Consuming New Orleans, before handing the mic over to moderator Olivia Diaz, a 2020 University of Richmond Reporting Fellow and metro fellow at The Washington Post. For her 2020 Pulitzer Center project, Diaz covered multi-faith food rescue efforts in Detroit, Michigan.
Diaz kicked off the Q&A portion of the evening with a question for Ortiz: “When I think of New Orleans, I think of food. Not necessarily food insecurity. And I wanted to ask in your reporting, how did you navigate that tension?”
Ortiz acknowledged the “irony,” saying that he was able to navigate those differences by remembering there are a lot of different factors that can influence food security.
“It's not just that there's not enough food for everyone, or that people just love eating junk food,“ he said. “It's more than that.”
Diaz also asked Knoerr about how she sought out sources and developed a relationship with them.
Knoerr said it took time for her to establish trust, but she was able to find sources by practicing patience, speaking with people beforehand, and getting connected through mutual contacts or nonprofit organizations.
An audience member asked Ortiz and Knoerr to identify any similarities they saw between their reporting. Both panelists said that, although they were reporting on different communities in different states, they were surprised to find that many of the social issues influencing food security in their reporting locations were the same. Both panelists also found and reported on grassroots organizations working to feed their communities.
Other audience questions tackled barrier-free strategies, access to mainstream grocery stores, and economic privilege.
To close the event, Diaz touched on what she learned from completing her own Pulitzer Center project.
“I don't think people are intentionally trying to keep food away from other people,” Diaz said. “I just think it's more so there are these systems—of race, of inequity, of so on—that just really drive disparity. But I do think there are little seeds of hope.”
She said her favorite part of her reporting experience happened on Labor Day, when volunteers helped make and distribute American Flag-decorated sheet cakes.
“The systems are real,” she said. “But so are the resistors.”
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