Interview With Soledad O’Brien

by Alexina Cather, MPH

Soledad O’Brien is the CEO of Starfish Media Group, a media production company that uncovers and investigates empowering stories on social issues including those involving race, class, wealth, and poverty. She is an award-winning journalist, speaker, author, and co-founder of the PowHERful Foundation, whose mission is to get young women to and through college.  

O’Brien anchors and produces the Hearst Television program Matter of Fact with Soledad O’Brien and reports regularly for HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel as well as the PBS NewsHour. She created the In America documentary series and is the author of two books, her memoir, The Next Big Story, and Latino in America.

Food Policy Center (FPC): You’ve produced and directed a number of documentaries that have told stories and uncovered truths about many challenges and divisive issues. What inspires you to start these conversations, and, specifically, what inspired you to highlight food insecurity on college campuses in Hungry to Learn?

Soledad O’Brien (SO): I’m inspired each time I meet the people out there doing the real work — feeding the hungry, teaching our young people, and all the other service activities that require generosity. For some time, I had been hearing from people in academia about the problem of hunger on college campuses. They were concerned that it was being dismissed as the whining of entitled college students. Well, it’s not. Rising tuition and falling levels of financial aid have put students in the impossible position of having to choose between paying for school and paying for food. It’s not acceptable and I wanted to make the general public and our policy makers aware of the problem — so I put a human face to it.

FPC: During the production of the film, what was the most surprising statistic or fact that you learned about food insecurity on college campuses? 

SO: The fact that 45 percent of college students report struggling with hunger is shocking. It shows that this is not a problem limited to the very poor. And it is growing.

FPC: Does food insecurity impact students equally across private institutions, state colleges, community colleges and the country as a whole? 

SO: Yes. We looked at a state university in New Jersey, a school in the City University of New York system and a private institution in New Jersey. We talked to people at schools across the country, and found that, from the Ivys to local community colleges, students are going hungry for lack of money.

FPC: Are college campuses equipped with sufficient resources, such as food pantries and assistance programs, for so many students in need? Are these resources typically advertised and easily accessible to students? In your opinion, are these the resources college students experiencing hunger and food insecurity actually need?

SO: As one of the people in the film said, “Let’s not get stuck on a food pantry.” There are now hundreds of food pantries across this country. They are desperately needed and more and more colleges are opening them all the time. But they do not solve hunger or address the institutional problems that create it.

FPC: How does Hungry to Learn serve as a call-to-action when it comes to finding solutions?

SO: In our documentary, we show people searching for solutions. By putting a human face to the problem and highlighting the people who are working hard to solve it, you start a conversation that needs to happen about how we address rising costs and falling financial aid and make it possible for students to go through college without suffering the side effects of either.

FPC: What would you say are the first steps we need to take to minimize food insecurity on college campuses? What are the bigger issues that require more understanding and take longer to address?

SO: I’m not a policymaker or a government official. My role as a journalist and filmmaker is to bring attention to the problem and provoke policymakers, government and the public to find and implement solutions.

FPC: What policies are in place right now to address food insecurity on college campuses? What more needs to be done?

SO: Right now many colleges seem to be focused on food pantries, but there are also some promising initiatives in the mix. Some of the most interesting are coming from the students themselves–like an app that was created to tell students where free food is being distributed and a program to share your meal card swipes with students who can’t afford the plan.

FPC: The impact of food insecurity is so multi-faceted (physical, psychological,and academic): What do you think is the greatest toll food insecurity takes on students? 

SO: The expert in our documentary speaks to that. It’s the trauma, the experience of having your dream of a college degree spoiled by the stress and trauma of not having enough to eat. Hunger is debilitating.

FPC: Can you speak to the difficulty students have qualifying for food stamps? What other resources can they turn to for assistance?

SO: The students in our piece had trouble qualifying for food stamps. The requirement that they work a minimum number of hours is difficult for someone with a full class load and other obligations, such as caring for family members. The application process and paperwork are not easy. 

FPC: You and your husband created the PowHERful Foundation, whose mission is to get young women to and through college by providing financial assistance, mentorship and wraparound support. What inspired you to create the foundation and focus on empowering young women through education? How does this relate to and parallel your uncovering the challenge of food insecurity on college campuses?

SO: We both had opportunities in life that we are enormously thankful for. My parents were both immigrants who had to work very hard to give us all we had, and the opportunity for education was transformative for them and their children. We wanted to give that opportunity to needy students, and we also felt an obligation to tell the story of some of the challenges they face.

FPC: What makes Hungry to Learn most important right now? How has food insecurity on college campuses changed in recent years? Where do patterns suggest the crisis is going–towards finding solutions or growing into an even larger problem nationally?

SO: We have just begun in recent years to quantify the problem and search for solutions. The data shows it’s getting worse but also that more and more schools are trying to address hunger.

FPC: Having produced, directed or done the reporting on nearly two dozen documentaries, and after seeing the devastation created by Hurricane Katrina and the earthquake in Haiti, what gives you hope and most fuels you to continue covering the challenges and hardships faced by so many people?

SO: The Starfish Story, which roughly goes like this: a beach is full of dying starfish washing ashore. A boy decides to try to help by throwing them back in one by one. A man walks by and asks him why he is doing it when there are so many starfish on the beach. Most will die, he says. The boy responds by telling him it will matter to the one he saves. I want to be that boy. Even if I make a difference for just one girl, or hopefully a few, then it will be worth it. We all need to do our part.


Grew up in: St. James, NY

City or town you call home: Smithtown, NY

Job title: Founder CEO Soledad O’Brien Productions

Background and education: Harvard BA

One word you would use to describe our food system: Lacking

Food policy hero: Sara Goldrick Rab

Your breakfast this morning: Skipped!

Favorite food: Too many

Photo description: Shaquara Peters works a shift for the Herbert H. Lehman Food Bank at CUNY’s Lehman College. Peters also uses the food pantry to feed herself and her father.

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