Social Impact Heroes: How Noreen Springstead and WhyHunger are helping to combat hunger and provide greater access to nutritious food
Practice Humility. I’ve learned a lot just by showing up time and time again and building relationships with people. When you do that with humility and authenticity, they trust you. It’s important to practice humility inside the organization as well. When I make mistakes, I own them.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Noreen Springstead.
Noreen Springstead serves as executive director of WhyHunger — a 45 year-old global organization working in over 30 countries to end hunger and advance the human right to nutritious food, by providing critical resources to support grassroots movements and fuel community solutions rooted in social, environmental, racial and economic justice. Noreen started with the organization in 1992 as a front desk assistant and quickly worked up the ranks. Each day, she fights in solidarity with the millions of people around the world facing food insecurity. Noreen brings a unique and visionary approach to solving the hunger crisis, seeking to implement systemic change to tackle the root cause of hunger and build social justice for all.
Noreen’s vision guides WhyHunger’s programmatic, philanthropic and marketing strategies. Under Noreen’s direction, WhyHunger has established successful partnerships with diverse companies such as Hard Rock International, Entercom New York, SiriusXM and ASCAP among others. As part of WhyHunger’s signature program Artists Against Hunger & Poverty, Noreen has built long-term relationships with notable artists including Bruce Springsteen, Yoko Ono Lennon, Carlos Santana, their management and record labels, resulting in millions of dollars of support for WhyHunger and its the community-based partners.
Noreen is a graduate of Rutgers University and has a BA in Political Science. A lifelong leader and learner, Noreen completed the Harvard Kennedy School Executive Education Course Leadership, Organizing and Action and a course at the University of Notre Dame Non-Profit Business Excellence Continuing Education Program.
Noreen is frequently called upon as a thought leader to discuss the hunger crisis and was named one of the most powerful female changemakers by SHAPE magazine in 2019. Noreen uses her platform to challenge the dominate narrative about hunger and its solutions and has been featured in Fast Company, WCBS Newsradio 880 and The Record among other outlets.
Thank you so much for doing this with us Noreen! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Since I was a child, I knew I wanted to make a difference in the world and have a career that was grounded in social justice. I’m proud to say that my entire career has unfolded at WhyHunger. I started as the front desk assistance answering phones over 25 years ago and rose up the ranks to now serve as the organization’s executive director.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
My professional journey at WhyHunger has been quite an adventure. From my backstage experiences at rock concerts to ‘shaking the can’ out front to raise funds, I have had many eclectic experiences. I recently participated in a ten-day intensive learning experience alongside our campesino (farm) partners in Nicaragua. Living a day in their life was eye opening. Experiencing their hard day’s work and fruits of their labor is indelibly etched in my memory and the solidarity we formed helps me to better lead our organization. It makes it visceral and real for me to talk about the urgency of growing food in harmony with the earth to nourish people and cool the planet. I carried heavy bags of corn and worked the machete to clear the fields. I understood that growing your own food is freedom. Seeing the abundance of foods grown like pineapple, corn, beans, rice, papaya and eggs tended by loving, skilled hands in the midst of poverty was illuminating to me.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I remind myself to laugh at the many funny moments along the journey to the top. WhyHunger hosts many events including our annual Hungerthon campaign. I have schlepped so much stuff over the years. Fun things like autographed guitars from your favorite rock star and mundane things like 300 bottles of olive oil that served as part of our gala gift bag. To this day I still pack, carry, cart, and schlep stuff! I always chuckle to myself when I remember stacking the 300 bottle of olive oil onto our hand truck and pushing it down 35th Street in NYC when one of the solid wheels broke -literally — in half. I broke down hysterically laughing with my co-worker and we still talk about it to this day. We ‘wheeled’ that cart down the street and loaded into a cab and took off for the venue. Thankfully, all of our guests took home this beautiful Italian olive oil, but who would have thought the hardest part of the voyage would have been one city block? That day I learned perseverance and to always remember to laugh when unexpected stuff occurs!
Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?
WhyHunger brings a new narrative on the solutions to poverty and hunger. It’s more than food charity. It’s not just about eliminating food waste and celebrating the number of pounds donated and people served. It’s about systemic change at the root cause of hunger — dismantling policies and institutions that benefit multinational corporations and wealthy nations, while leaving millions of people without access to food, land, water and sustainable livelihoods.
At WhyHunger, we do three really important things: 1) Help people get the nutritious food they need. We’ve help connect over 2.4 million kids to free, healthy meals in the summer when childhood hunger spikes and 1.5 million seniors, veterans, working families and people struggling directly to local nutritious food via the WhyHunger hotline (1–866–348–6479). 2) Built a powerful, national alliance of hundreds of U.S. emergency food providers working to transform the way we address hunger from a model of food charity to a model rooted in social justice that addresses root causes. 3) Advance hundreds of thousands of small-scale agroecological farming to grow abundant food and address climate change.
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted by your cause?
We’re lucky to have met and impacted so many wonderful people through our work. One story that sticks out a young woman named Sam. Growing up in the Caribbean, Sam and her brother could always count on healthy meals prepared with whole foods and fresh ingredients. After moving to New York City, Sam found her neighborhood full of bodegas and fast food restaurants rather than grocery stores and farmers’ markets. Sam saw her family and community struggling with diet-related disease like diabetes, hypertension, and obesity. She knew she needed to find a solution. Sam connected with a community farming program at The Campaign Against Hunger that provided her with leadership training, farming skills and fresh producer for her and her family. By working with incredible community-based organizations, we will continue to help support youth like Sam to get the skills they need to grow fresh food and build a healthy future.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
- Raise the minimum wage to a true living wage
- Provide a universal school breakfast and school lunches for all children
- Invest in local, small scale agriculture to transform communities and stimulate local and regional food economies
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
Leadership is about leading people. Management is about managing projects. There is a big difference when you lead to inspire, motivate and fulfill the promise of the true potential in people. Leaders have to humbly admit when they’re wrong, show resilience in the face of adversity, show up continually, and be a beacon of hope for people.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- You can do anything if you put your mind to it. My father started in the mailroom at IBM when he was 18 years old and worked his way up to be a senior manager revered by his teams. That showed me that I could start at the front desk of my dream job and over time and through experience become the executive director.
- Be Fearless. You have to take risks and follow your instincts to succeed. I had the courage to blindly send a request to Yoko Ono Lennon and ask her if she would support a global “Imagine” campaign to help children around the world by growing and providing nutritious food in their communities. The request was compelling, and she was the right partner to take the vision she shared with her husband John Lennon of a world at peace and free from hunger. We successfully partnered with Hard Rock International and Yoko Ono Lennon for many years to train farmers to grow abundant food and provide millions of nutritious meals to children.
- Practice Humility. I’ve learned a lot just by showing up time and time again and building relationships with people. When you do that with humility and authenticity, they trust you. It’s important to practice humility inside the organization as well. When I make mistakes, I own them.
- Partner. WhyHunger has gotten farther faster because of partners like our radio station partners, artist partners, community-based partners, social movement partners, donors, volunteers and board members.
- Ask. The art of the ask is something I’ve learned over time. If you don’t ask for help or support, you don’t get it. The ask must be compelling and clear so people are not left guessing. I believe in the power of the question. If you want someone’s help, then ask that question.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
Food should be the most basic of human rights. My four grandparents were Irish immigrants who came to America for a better life. More than 1 million people died in the Irish famine of 1847 which was created by oppressive political, economic, and catastrophic environmental forces. When people are well fed, they are free. We have abundance of food in the world and we must agree that all people should have the food they need to learn, grow and thrive.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
When I first started at WhyHunger many years ago, I wrote this quote in my first notebook and have always carried it with me:
“Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.” — Goethe
That sums it up for me. I don’t hesitate, I go for it, thoughtfully of course. I love the idea of being bold, magical and living out the dream.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. :-)
I would like to sit down with Oprah and tell her all about WhyHunger’s massive network of growers we know all around the globe. Black farmers, women farmers, peasant farmers, fisher people, indigenous farmers nourishing their communities and cooling the planet through agroecogical food production. Representing more than 200 million people, they are our planet protectors and greatest hope.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!