Let's end childhood hunger -- and the shame that goes with it

Ruth Riley, right, an NCAA and WNBA champ and Olympic gold medalist, testified for a congressional subcommittee on nutrition in October. House Committee on Agriculture

As an athlete, I've sat down in front of a microphone hundreds of times around the world.

But this was an experience like no other.

There was the microphone, and the usual white, folded-over name card in front of me declaring my identity to those in attendance.

But that's where the familiarity ended.

Instead of media members wanting to hear about Notre Dame and the Final Four, or my thoughts after a WNBA game or an Olympic contest, a handful of men and women of the United States Congress sat before me on an elevated U-shaped platform.

No, this was not my normal Q&A.

Different interrogators. Different stage. Different message.

On Oct. 27 in Washington, D.C., I testified at a public hearing for a subcommittee on nutrition about my family's experience receiving governmental assistance with food stamps and free and reduced lunches. That five-minute testimony was an important part of my continued effort to fight the social stigma involved around participating in these programs.

I knew that sometimes my mom paid for groceries with what looked like Monopoly money instead of cash. And off and on, I had a little ticket that would get me a free breakfast or lunch at school. But as a child, I was clueless to the level of poverty we lived in.

So to prepare for my testimony and the questions I would face, I had an in-depth conversation with my mother. She told me that when I was a child, she shielded me from the reality of her struggle. She shared the low of having only five quarters to her name and having to decide whether to get a gallon of milk or a gallon of gas.

Amid the emotional recollection was an unmistakable resilience and pride. It armed me with a new perspective, too, and gaining insight about my own narrative has given me a more holistic view of the impact poverty has.

While playing in the WNBA in 2012, I was introduced to No Kid Hungry -- which aims to end child hunger in America as part of the national nonprofit Share Our Strength -- in one of our NBA Cares initiatives. Since then, I have been passionate about using my platform to share my story with individuals, at schools, with our sports fans and now before Congress.

But my hope is not just to create awareness, advocate for funding, or help raise money and resources, all of which are important and definitely needed. My heart breaks for the challenges the kids face, and I am trying to help break some of the stereotypes attached to the programs. Childhood hunger is known as the invisible crisis because it is easy to ignore. I share my story so single moms can be inspired by the courageous path my mom took, and so that kids will embrace the provision that is before them as a part of the path that leads to a better life.

Criticism is an ever-present shadow accompanying any spotlight, and something I have grown accustomed to over the years. While I expected some criticism, I was not prepared for the line of questioning by one representative after my testimony: "Why are parents having children, multiple children, if they can't have the responsibility to take care of them?"

My defensive reflex was instantly activated. You can talk about me all you want, but don't you dare say a word about my mother! Defending my mom, and so many other single mothers like her, I explained that she did have a responsible plan to raise a family. What she did not anticipate was my father walking out and leaving her to raise my brother, sister and me on her own. Yes, there was an irresponsible adult in this equation. It was not the one making the sacrifices to raise her children and using the resources available to help her as she went back to school to develop a skill set needed to be a provider.

We all need to evaluate how we are framing the issue of hunger in America. As a nation, we will continue to display very little empathy if we do not recognize the magnitude of the need and if we stereotype the families benefiting from these programs as "welfare dependents" instead of hardworking Americans who just cannot bring home enough money to provide each month.

Most people have visions of starving children in Africa when the issues of poverty and hunger are raised. It is shocking to learn that more than 16 million American children do not have reliable access to the nutritious food they need to lead healthy, active lives.

It has been said that ignorance is bliss. When it comes to the 1 in 5 children in our country who do not know where their next meal is coming from, we can no longer afford to blissfully overlook them in our neighborhoods and schools. Eliminating our tendency to discuss these issues in the abstract and starting to adopt a more personalized understanding is an essential starting point.

The holidays are right around the corner, and it is generally a time full of family, friends and food. Rather than guilt people into giving, I try to challenge people to gain knowledge and understanding, because I think that leads to a collective consciousness and authentic generosity. For those who feel compelled to get involved:

1. Seek the facts: Learn more at www.nokidhungry.org.

2. Think local: Connect with your hometown food bank for a better perspective on hunger in your community and how you might want to get involved.

3. Be an advocate: It's important to remember many kids are hungriest during the summer, when the free school meals they rely on every day have disappeared. This month, Congress has a chance to improve the way kids get the meals they need during the summer through the child nutrition reauthorization bill -- also called CNR. The proposals have strong bipartisan support. Call, email or tweet members of Congress and push them to act on a strong CNR that improves summer meals programs and helps millions of kids.

4. Donate: If you feel inspired to make a financial contribution, please give.

5. Shine a spotlight: Have a conversation with your kids, discuss it with your friends and use your platform of social media to raise awareness.

While I am humbled and grateful for the incredible support I received after testifying, and for the opportunity to share my story, I was also deeply affected by the number of people who shared their personal stories with me. When one of my high school classmates recalled a very similar narrative about his family, I once again had to reframe my perception. It caused me to realized how much we unnecessarily silence our struggles.

It is my hope not only that the programs and processes are securely funded to ensure that no child or family goes hungry but that we also insert an empathetic understanding into the conversation to break down these silos forged by shame and replace them with connected communities of hope.