Anti-hunger advocate Tajahnaé Stocker
Tajahnaé Stocker, an anti-hunger advocate, started the ICT Community Fridge Project in 2020 as a mutual aid effort. Stocker also works for Kansas Appleseed as its Thriving Campaign advocate, lobbying for food equality in public policy. (Fernando Salazar/The Beacon)

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When research revealed a disproportionate amount of dollar stores versus grocery stores in Wichita ZIP code 67214, it sparked an ambition within Tajahnaé Stocker: eliminate food insecurity in Kansas.

To do so, Stocker practices anti-hunger advocacy through several mediums. 

She wields social media as a platform to highlight food inequities in Wichita. She lobbies for anti-hunger policies in the state legislature. She shops for groceries designated for community fridges and pantries. She also writes, because, well, why not? 

The Wichita Beacon asked Stocker about the inspiration behind her advocacy, challenges she’s faced and how others can join her on the path to eradicate food inequities. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How do you advocate for Kansans lacking access to affordable food? What does “access” mean?

It’s a two-part answer. I do a lot of community organizing, that’s how the fridge project came up. I still raise money to grocery shop and do my part in making sure food is getting directly to people because that’s an immediate need. That’s something that needs to happen right now. 

On the flip side, my work for Kansas Appleseed is policy. It’s helpful but it’s also really, really long-term work since we don’t know what bills will get voted for or what will pop up. It takes a lot more time, which is why I’m a huge fan of mutual aid services since it’s so immediate. But I love legislation and policy because it creates long-term solutions when mutual aid might reach its capacity.

Why is food equality important to you?

It’s something that I’ve experienced with my family. We were recipients for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), WIC and Section 8 vouchers. A lot of social safety nets. Of course, when you’re younger there’s a lot of stigma to it so it wasn’t something I was proud to say. But as an adult, I realized I wasn’t the only one going through it. A lot of my friends were relying on dollar store meals, food pantries or SNAP assistance. 

Certain areas don’t have access to grocery stores. Students don’t have access to SNAP or healthy foods. These issues never go away. These barriers will always exist. They just manifest differently. I didn’t know how I was going to figure (food equality) out, but because it was something I went through I felt like an expert in the field. So… why not? Why not help alleviate and eliminate a lot of the barriers we still see?

You started ICT Community Fridge Project in 2020. How did that come together? What have been the challenges or successes in growing the project? 

On Twitter I saw friends showcasing community fridges in New York and New Jersey. I thought that was so cool! It makes so much sense! We have blessing boxes out here but no spot for perishable foods that’s accessible to everybody. Within a few weeks the first fridge started at Dead Center Vintage. 

The hesitation and backlash (in Wichita) was absolutely funny. That’s a big red flag for the community if you don’t really like free food popping up everywhere. It was really hard to get people on board. Not because they were opposed to free food, but they were opposed to the idea of there not being enough red tape. Some people didn’t like the idea that anybody could come up — no IDs — and take anything from the fridge. There’s a lot of community policing here. Some didn’t like the idea that someone could just clear the whole fridge. They wanted restrictions, little barriers, red tape. Because our idea was so free-flowing and so fluid, I think it’s taking a lot of people to adjust.

Tajahnaé Stocker refills a community fridge inside Leslie Coffee Co. in Delano. (Fernando Salazar/The Beacon)

Kansas Appleseed declared food equality as a 2022 policy priority. A state House bill allowing people with more than one felony drug conviction to receive food assistance failed to pass committee last month. What does this mean for your advocacy? Does this signify that hunger is not a priority in the legislature?

I was definitely disappointed. I know our community members who testified were also disappointed because it felt like we were so close. It’s hard for me to make a definitive statement like, “Kansas legislators don’t care,” because we did have bipartisan support. 

A lot of legislators were surprised that this was basically the only felony with restrictions to SNAP. Not any harsher crime — just a drug felony. And they were confused; didn’t understand why. I never got a reason why it was stricken from the calendar.

We’re still building relationships with people impacted — authentic relationships — and making sure that we’re not transactional. Building those relationships across the state and continuing education remains a priority. 

My colleagues and I created Hunger Action Teams across the state to have conversations about hunger and address barriers in their immediate communities. As we talk about those barriers and related policies, we see what we can do as a community to try and eradicate them.

How can Wichitans support anti-hunger work? Is this an issue solved by legislation? Money? Eliminating food deserts?

Hunger in Wichita is a multifaceted issue so it needs multifaceted solutions. We can say people should testify and support policy, but a program like SNAP doesn’t solve a problem. It helps, and alleviates a lot of poverty for a lot of families, but it’s ultimately a supplement. It doesn’t completely solve hunger. If we have a policy for SNAP, then we need a policy for increasing work wages to bring in extra income. 

The goal is to eradicate my job. On the policy side, it’s wages or SNAP. On a community level, it’s direct service. It’s donating money to food banks or pantries so they can purchase what people actually need. Or, if you know what to donate to the fridge, you can. 

It’s health care. It’s actual food. It’s policy for social safety nets. It’s community. It’s going to take a holistic approach to solve this very big thing because hunger isn’t just like, “People need food.” It’s poverty.

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Lugli was a community watchdog reporter at The Wichita Beacon. She was a Report for America corps member.