Last week Town of New Paltz supervisor Susan Zimet announced that she had been offered and accepted the post of executive director of the Hunger Action Network of New York State (HANNYS). With offices in Albany and Manhattan, the not-for-profit advocacy organization uses a combination of legislative action, logistical support to food assistance programs and informational and advisory services for needy New Yorkers in pursuit of its mission to eradicate hunger and poverty: adversaries tougher and more intractable than any political opponent she has yet faced. Zimet has said that she will continue to serve full-time in her municipal post while transitioning into the new position — at least until her current term ends at the end of 2015. The New Paltz Times asked her for details on her new situation:
When do you start your new position as executive director of the Hunger Action Network of New York State?
I have been working with them for a few weeks sporadically, but officially began this past week.
How will you juggle the demands of the two full-time positions?
The amount of work I pack in a day is more than many do in a week’s time. There are also weekends!
Unfortunately, much of our time in the town is sucked up by those creating extra work and drama. By ignoring that, there will be more time to deal with the real work of Town Hall.
Interestingly, the HANNYS job has already opened doors for the town. Through this job I have access to very high-level commissioners. In a recent meeting with the governor’s budget director on budget issues relative to HANNYS, we had conversations that impact the town. I brought up the need for IDA [Industrial Development Agency] reform and learned about plans in the works for just that. I was able to lend my strong support for the areas that would make a major difference in the impact of IDAs on the town.
The other day I was in another meeting with the governor’s deputy budget officer, and we are scheduling a one-on-one sit-down in the next few weeks. We agreed to make it a two-pronged meeting: HANNYS’ budget concerns and town budget concerns. Councilman [Kevin] Barry and I are working on a plan for fair taxation for all, and the access to the governor and the legislature is critical to the success of this concept. Both organizations stand to be served well by this situation.
Will the deputy supervisor be taking on added duties to support your ability to do both jobs simultaneously?
Let’s remember that in my first term, I did not have a deputy supervisor. Since appointing Jeff Logan, he has stepped up to the plate and has been helping me with many of the projects before us.
Most recently I asked deputy supervisor Logan to be the lead on the upcoming water project. I felt that was critical to its success, since he is also a resident of the road where the water resource is located. These are his neighbors. Jeff is taking the lead in meeting with our town attorney and others. However, he consistently consults with me.
Jeff and I have a great working relationship and he is very comfortable with the situation. Jeff keeps reminding me my only legal obligation as supervisor is to hold a reorganizational meeting and do the town budget. However, our goal is to be focused on what we as a board would like to accomplish and get the work done together as a board.
What has the reaction been from Town Hall staff? Do you think that your more frequent absence will add significantly to anyone’s workload?
We have a great working relationship at Town Hall. Truthfully, most of the employees have been concerned about the hostile treatment I receive from a select few and the impact on me personally. They see it in my face. Many have already said they do not know how I can take it.
Also understand the employees have been in a sick building for a long time. I took the lead, and along with the support of the board and extraordinary help from Stacy Delarede and Chris Marx, we got everyone into a healthy space. Everyone is much more productive and extremely happy. I actually still get hugs from the employees.
Of course they want me to run for supervisor again, because they have faith in me and certainly believe that I would assure a solution for a permanent building — although I have to say we are all very happy in our new temporary space. But it is just that: temporary space.
There is no way anyone will have additional work, except maybe Carol [Connolly], my assistant, who is underappreciated by many. She has done more to get the town government working than anyone realizes. Carol is an extraordinary asset to the town government. Carol, however, believes in the importance of working on eradicating hunger and poverty and is happy with my decision.
What will your regular hours be at Town Hall once you’ve transitioned?
I never have had set hours. I work at all hours, depending when and where the need is. Also, in the days of smartphones, you are always connected. Laura Petit has commented that she would send an e-mail to a group of us and only I would respond. Then she would find out I was on vacation!
How often is the new job likely to require you to be in Albany? Will you work primarily from the Hunger Action Network’s offices, or can you do a lot of the work from home?
It will vary. It is a critical time right now while the legislature is in session and the state budget is being worked on. Advocating to make sure that the budget allocates resources to address this critical issue adequately is of top priority.
There is also federal work that is a part of this. Nearly 15 million US children live below the federal poverty level, including 23 percent of children in New York State. By investing an additional two percent of the federal budget to expand existing programs and policies that increase employment and ensure children’s basic needs are met, 97 percent of poor children would benefit and 60 percent of them could escape poverty immediately.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 25, states, “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services.”
With food insecurity at a high point, a new approach to food is desperately needed. A human rights approach to food offers a way forward by shifting the focus from food assistance as charity to adequate food as a human right. Adopting a human rights approach to food and addressing the root causes of food insecurity will be an issue I will be undertaking. I am looking forward to working with the Eleanor Roosevelt Center on this very issue, which fortunately is right here in our backyard.
A project that I plan to launch is Conquering Hunger County by County. Since much of the human services resources are handled by the counties in New York State, this is the perfect place to start. I have already had conversations with county executive Michael Hein and deputy county executive Ken Crannell, and they are very excited to work on this. Michael is the perfect person to lead the way. He has a record of creating innovative ways to solve problems, and I am excited to work with his dedicated staff to solve this ever-increasing crisis. This will also keep me close to home.
What does the Hunger Action Network do besides lobbying? What specific activities or services does it provide to help eradicate poverty and hunger?
HANNYS’ main purpose is to advocate for an end to hunger and to help Emergency Food Pantries (EFPs) do a better job of feeding people.
HANNYS seeks to increase the amount of nutritious food distributed by emergency food programs, while also assisting low-income individuals in gaining more control over their own food supplies through programs such as community gardens, food-buying clubs and community-supported agriculture. They help low-income households access the various federal nutrition programs such as food stamps, WIC [Women, Infants and Children] and school and summer meals. Hunger Action also promotes legislative action on issues such as a higher minimum wage, job creation, universal health care, child care, tax reform and increased access to education and training
Some of Hunger Action’s accomplishments in recent years include helping to pass the New York State college work/study and internship bill to allow these activities to count as TANF [Temporary Assistance for Needy Families]-approved work activities; they were the only anti-poverty organization cited in the governor’s 1999 budget for the need to increase the Earned Income Disregard; and published one of the first workfare survey reports, entitled Workfare: Workers Expect Paychecks.
Additional budgetary and legislative successes in the past two years include $60 million for a wage subsidy program to help create jobs for welfare beneficiaries, a $16 million increase in funding to emergency food programs and ES2 campaign gains of $20 million for transportation assistance and $283 million for child care assistance.
Some of Hunger Action’s current programs and activities include the Welfare Made a Difference National Campaign, Welfare Reform Network’s Federal Committee, Empire State Economic Security Campaign (ES2), Faith and Hunger Network (FHN), Empire State Jobs Bill Coalition (ESJ), Welfare Accountability and Monitoring Project, Hunger Awareness Day, food stamp outreach and community gardening and food recovery.
I already have leaders in the state from Sierra Club, NRDC [Natural Resources Defense Council], Catskill Mountainkeeper and others who want to work with me on programs that assure fresh local farm produce can be used to help alleviate hunger.
Tell us a little of the history of your association with this organization.
My first introduction to Hunger Action Network was through our own New Paltz activist Michelle Riddell. I called her home to follow up on our work we were doing to protect veterans from the harmful effects of depleted uranium our soldiers were being exposed to. Brian Riddell is on the board of HANNYS and they were hosting a board meeting at their home. I found out that Gioia Shebar and my close colleague in property tax reform Ron Deutsch was there, as he is also a board member of HANNYS.
It was on that phone call over seven years ago the Michelle first said, “They need you!” Michelle then proceeded to talk to me about the growing crisis of hunger (an issue that was already of great concern to me) over the years, constantly saying that the cause needed me.
Finally, years later, the longstanding executive director, Mark Dunlea, wanted to move on to work on climate change and the search for a new executive director began. I was called and asked to apply. I went through a process of interviews along with others and was offered the position.
The Hunger Action Network has had a male executive director for a long time. Will Mark Dunlea be available to consult with you through the transition period? Do you anticipate any changes in priorities or approach specifically related to having a woman at the helm?
Mark Dunlea has been there from the beginning of Hunger Action Network. He is the face of the organization. Mark is a brilliant man, with a depth and breadth of knowledge that I can only wish to possess. He comes with an organizer’s background.
Mark is still working with the organization to help with the transition. We have spent hours together, and he is a wealth of information. There is much to learn about the specifics of health and human services, in which I do not have a deep background.
I recently wrote to Mark, “Your mind never stops and your depth of knowledge is extraordinarily deep, and I am finding it more overwhelming than I thought in regard to replacing you.” Mark responded with, “Yeah, but that took 29 years…. What you know is the politics of the issues and decision-making — and it is the politics, not the details, that ultimately decide the issues. So you are strongest where it matters the most, and you will learn the rest pretty quickly.” How he knew what I needed to hear!
In regard to the question about being a woman at the helm, there are two answers to that:
First, a woman at the helm of anything has so many more obstacles in their way. Many people have commented that they believe if I was a man, I would not be getting the abuse I get from the abusive men in our community. With that aside, I do not think the difference I will bring to the organization is specific to being a woman, but my vision. Children are my first focus.
Mark was more of a generalist and an idealist. My years inside government have helped me to understand the practical side of what needs to be done to accomplish your goals. Mark had a very global perspective. While I share that perspective, I will most likely be much more targeted in my approach.
According the organization’s IRS Form 990s, the Hunger Action Network has a very small annual budget and has operated at a deficit in recent years, taking in less in grants and other income than it expends on payroll. How will you use your municipal fiscal management experience to help make the organization more financially viable?
I asked Mark to answer this question, so here is his answer to the question:
“Over its 30 years, we probably have run a deficit four to five years and small surpluses the other 25 years. It ran a small surplus in 2014 and I believe in 2013. It ran a deficit the prior two years because of a special project, the Hamilton Hill Food Processing Project, which was to provide more markets for local farmers while providing job opportunities and nutritional services in a low-income neighborhood in Schenectady. It continued to run the project for several years after the initial federal and foundation grant ran out, but unfortunately was not able to transition into a sustainable model, so was forced to close it down.
I wouldn’t call it a small annual budget for a nonprofit. It has run between two to eight staff over its 30 years, and because of closing the Hamilton Hill food project, which involved the layoff of three staff, at a low point. You hope to build it back up.”
My years in the corporate world overseeing budgets of over $250 million and managing the town’s budgets will be a great help.
You have indicated in other interviews that you will finish out your current term and then decide whether or not to run for supervisor again. Can you give us a sense of what criteria you will use to make that decision?
A much-respected person said that this move is good for me. It will give me the distance I need from the negative noise I hear from the small cabal on a daily basis, while continuing to serve the town. In this job I am surrounded by people who are passionate about those less fortunate than many of us, and it is very soul-nurturing work.
Last Monday I was at a Moral Monday event. It is a press conference/prayer vigil of representation of social services, teachers and other reformers. It takes place right outside the governor’s offices in Albany and New York City. It was one of the most moving experiences, and we hope to grow it. I would hope people from New Paltz would join us, and I will be talking to many faith-based groups about just that. Together in one voice will we bring the attention to the serious issues of hunger and poverty we have right here in New Paltz the state and beyond.
Right now I need the distance from the negative voices that have overtaken the civility of our community. After the last meeting, I have had many individuals and groups reach out to me to see how they can help. My request was for them to help turn the conversation back to how we all work together to build community. We do not have to agree, but we have to live together and see each other about town. That is the focus for now. ++