Comedian Christina Wong brings laughs as ‘food bank influencer’

November 7, 2023

ASU artist-in-residence Gammage tackles food insecurity in new show ‘Sex, Lies and Food Banks’

Are food banks sexy?

Christina Wong said she intends to prove that they are for a show she’s creating about food insecurity.

“I’m here pushing to bring sexiness back to food banks,” said Wong, a comedian, actress, writer and current ASU Gammage-in-Residence.

Wong was the keynote speaker at the ASU Graduate College Distinguished Lecture on Friday. Her show “Sex, Lies and Food Banks: Rethinking the Future of Emergency Food” was a humorous look at the scale of the food insecurity problem and her advocacy for an innovative food bank in Los Angeles.

“There’s no precedent for drama about food banks,” she said, before launching into one of several parody songs, this one to the tune of “Welcome to the Jungle”:

“Welcome to the food bank/ We got groceries!/ If you got no money baby/ We take EBT!”

Wong, who said she hopes to debut the final version of her show in 2025, described the difference between hunger and food insecurity:

“We’ve all been hungry for dinner, but food insecurity is this long-term condition where you’ve done things like skip meals or eat cheaper food because you don’t have access to foods that are culturally or nutritionally appropriate or for you.” she said.

Using humor to make his point, Wong asked the audience to reveal the things they did to get free food when they were food insecure, and they answered: attending campus events, going to boring meetings, volunteering to pack of boxes at a food bank in exchange for a hot meal and going to a church you don’t believe in.

Wong, who qualified for food stamps when she was in her 20s but never applied, said that even now she will forego healthier food options because they seem too expensive.

One day, Wong, who lives in Los Angeles, wandered into the World Harvest Food Bank, which was set up as a grocery store. Anyone can come in and fill two grocery carts for $40.

“I was so in love with that system and how much dignity there was in being able to choose the food you wanted. This food bank does not ask for proof of income. It doesn’t feel humiliating. There are a lot of Asian groceries,” she said.

“I said, ‘I’m going to be the first food bank influencer in the world. I’m going to fill up this food bank!”

So she made a series of YouTube videos showing what she gets for $40. Then LAist online magazine did a story on the food bank and she was asked to become a lobbyist for Calfresh, the state’s food stamp system.

Wong said food banks started as a short-term solution to a crisis, but are now such an accepted part of life that volunteering at them has become a standard charitable gesture.

She also discussed food waste in a parody song to the tune of “Hit Me Baby One More Time”:

“Oh, discarded can, how could I know/ That you were still fit to eat?/ Oh, day-old bagel, I shouldn’t have let you go,/ Now you can’t take my bite.”

Megan McCaughan (center), president of the Graduate and Professional Student Association, moderates a panel of food experts at the ASU Graduate College Distinguished Lecture on Friday. They are, from left: Kathleen Merrigan, executive director of ASU’s Swette Center for Sustainable Food Systems; Maureen McCoy, associate professor in the College of Health Solutions and faculty advisor to the Pitchfork Pantry; Steve Short, owner of Atlasta Catering; and comedian Christina Wong. Photo by Charlie Leith/ASU News

After her show, Wong sat on a panel with other experts on food insecurity and answered questions submitted by the audience earlier. Some highlights:

Kathleen Merrigan, former US Deputy Secretary of Agriculture and executive director of the Swette Center for Sustainable Food Systems at ASU:

Merrigan said using humor, like Wong, is an important way to approach the subject.

“It’s hard to talk about these issues. “Oh, there she is again, Kathleen ruining dinner.”

“We need to bring more people into the conversation and use humor and art to get people to say, ‘Yes, I want to have this conversation.'”

Merrigan discussed how the pantries are trying to improve the quality of the food they provide.

“In Washington, D.C., they don’t accept candy from grocery stores anymore,” she said. “More food banks are buying food to get the fresh produce that their customers want to have.”

During the pandemic, the federal government eased the rules for students to access SNAP benefits. The current farm bill now being negotiated contains a provision that makes these rules permanent.

“There is a misunderstanding between members on both sides,” she said. “They think all the students live in the dorms and mom and dad pay tuition. I’ve had single moms with four kids and college students who were homeless. If these legislators could meet these students, they would see the lengths they have come to obtain this life-changing degree.

Maureen McCoy, associate professor in the College of Health Solutions and faculty advisor for the Pitchfork Pantry:

“We’ve normalized the ‘starving student’ mentality,” she said.

“I starved as a student, therefore you must starve too. You can live on noodles.

McCoy said applying for SNAP benefits is confusing, and students in the Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions go through training to sit in the Pitchfork Pantry and help their peers apply.

Pitchfork Pantry started as a student club in 2017 and now serves 2,000 students per month across four campuses. The Pantry is entirely self-funded, is a non-profit organization affiliated with the ASU Foundation, and works with all major food banks in the Valley, as well as the Trader Joe’s grocery “rescue.”

“Relying on outside food storage won’t give you what you need. For our larger events, we need 300 cartons of yogurt and 300 heads of lettuce,” McCoy said. “We do buy a lot of food.”

Many students don’t have transportation, so last year the pantry received a grant to work with DoorDash for free delivery within a 10-mile radius. The pantry also uses the tiny robots to deliver on campus for a $2 fee because delivery is an important issue.

“If you walk by our closet and you see a line of 300 students, it’s intimidating to get in that line,” she said.

Steve Short, owner of Atlasta Catering, who is committed to sustainability:

Short said the problem with food waste is logistical.

“Restaurants are not the answer. Any restaurant that offers extra food is not going to be around for long,” he said.

“These are hotels, catering, civic centers, event centers. It’s the involvement of chefs and cooks after the events and the energy it takes to put this together. There are business models to get kitchens to bag (the excess food) and take it out, but it’s all a logistical problem,” he said.

Short said his business’s zero-waste policy requires commitment.

“I don’t treat food insecurity. I treat food going to landfill,” he said.

Wong said the decision should be wide-ranging.

“It’s about advocacy and addressing food insecurity, not just throwing food at it. It is holistic. Food banks should mobilize their customer base to call Congress to advocate for a higher minimum wage.

Wong will appear with world-renowned chef and Nobel Peace Prize nominee José Andrés at the 2023 Resilience Celebration to honor this year’s Resilience Fellows on Wednesday, Nov. 8, at ASU Gammage. Tickets are $25.

Top image: Christina Wong, comedian, actor and artist at ASU Gammage, performs her show, “Sex, Lies and Food Banks: Rethinking the Future of Emergency Food,” as the keynote speaker at the ASU Graduate College Distinguished Lecture on Friday, Nov. 3. in the Marston Exploration Theater on the Tempe campus. Photo by Charlie Leith/ASU News

Mary Beth Faller

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