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Connect: Hunger’s adversary

Mon., April 7, 2008

Some people come to Spokane guided by serendipity.

When a young graduate from the University of South Carolina was looking for a new challenge 29 years ago, she wanted to move far away to try something new, do something different.

She searched Seattle newspapers for job openings. Not finding what she was looking for, still yearning to put her new master’s degree in city planning to use, she broadened her search and started reading The Spokesman-Review.

In 1979, Linda Stone found a job with the city of Spokane’s community services department. Little did she know that in 1986 the planning job would connect her to then-Washington Gov. Booth Gardner’s task force on hunger. That would get her hooked on the quest she remains on today: to end hunger in Washington.

“It’s been quite a ride,” said Stone, 58, Eastern Washington director of the Children’s Alliance. “Yes, I do believe there are more hungry kids today than there were 10 years ago.”

The Children’s Alliance is based in Seattle, and when it was formed in 1983 it was more of a trade association focused on the needs of children’s service providers.

“But it didn’t take long for the mission to change to advocacy for the needs of children,” Stone said.

Today, the alliance has more than 120 organizational members, such as the Children’s Home Society, and more than 8,000 individual members of its Action Network.

Funding comes from many sources.

“We try to do what we call a three-legged stool: good policy advocacy, great communication and then we try to mobilize people around the state,” Stone said. The Children’s Alliance focuses on child welfare, child access to health care, early learning, and child hunger.

For a while, the alliance had an office in Spokane, but Stone works out of her Altamont Circle home. Don’t for a moment think that’s a hindrance.

“People should not assume someone in a home office is a solo flier,” said Jon Gould, deputy director of the Children’s Alliance. “Linda’s genius is her ability to work with the huge variety of people that are needed to make social policy change. She’s masterful at having a very concrete perspective. She doesn’t have ego – she’s not selfish – she can really knit things together.”

Gould has worked with Stone for 10 years. One of her biggest accomplishments, he said, was to get the state of Washington to reinstate food stamps for families who lost them in the wake of welfare reform.

“Linda led the charge to restore food stamps to families in Washington in `96-97, in spite of the federal government’s refusal to pay for them,” said Gould. “Not only does that mean that Linda was doing the right thing at the right time, what she did was eventually embraced by the federal government, which realized it had perhaps gone too far and began restoring support for this program.”

So, it’s more than 20 years ago that Stone got involved in hunger activism, yet today children in Spokane still go to bed hungry. How does she keep going?

“Well, it can be frustrating at times, especially since it really isn’t a complicated problem: Children are hungry, you give them food three times a day,” she said, sitting on her couch with her cat Milky Way snuggled up at her feet. “Somehow, in this country, we’ve chosen to address hunger through this hodgepodge of safety-net programs – most of them do wonderful work – but they are all very narrowly focused. In this country there is no universal vision on how to end childhood hunger.”

No longer married, Stone has an adult daughter in Seattle and spends a lot of time taking care of her parents here in Spokane.

She finds it especially frustrating that some people simply don’t believe childhood hunger is a reality and refuse to acknowledge the impact a child’s hunger can have on the rest of the community.

“Hungry kids are lethargic, or sometimes they are more aggressive simply because they are hungry. What a waste of human potential. It’s a cycle: Kids who are hungry get sick, they miss school more, then they come back to school and get sick again, because they are still hungry.” She adds that hunger and obesity are two sides of the same coin because cheap food often is of poor nutritional value.

Stone said she hasn’t focused as much on Eastern Washington programs the last couple of years, because she’s worked on statewide initiatives and on coordinating efforts to end hunger in the Western states.

But one thing has her especially worried:

“We really haven’t filled the gap after the summer food program that the Spokane Parks Department used to run,” Stone said. While some meal sites at schools and community centers remain open all summer, it’s still a struggle for children who rely on school meals.

“I guess what frustrates me the most is that I wish we had a better response to these issues. In the vast majority of cases, parents will do anything to feed their kids – but this country doesn’t even have an official family or children’s policy. It’s a bizarre thing, it really is.”

Teresa Venne, AmeriCorps/VISTA volunteer at Vanessa Behan Crisis Nursery, has known Stone since the early 1970s – at a time when both were pregnant.

Venne lived in the same neighborhood as Stone, but they had very different career tracks while Venne worked in accounting and human resources before she began volunteering at Vanessa Behan.

“As an activist, Linda is just really good at this sound bite thing,” said Venne. “We should all listen to her advice when it comes to communicating. She always says just the five right words that can’t be twisted around or anything.”

On a personal level, it’s Stone’s ability to do it all that impresses Venne.

“She travels so much, to Washington, D.C., and to Seattle, and she talks to all these different people, while she juggles taking care of her parents and her kids,” Venne said. “And she’s always so calm – that’s just amazing.”


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