Ellen Parker, the executive director of the anti-hunger organization Project Bread, is a leader in the national dialogue on poverty and hunger as a health crisis. During her tenure at Project Bread the organization has raised more than $100 million to help children and families who struggle to find their next meal. A major portion of those funds come from the East Boston-based Project Bread’s annual Walk for Hunger. On Sunday, May 3, the 47th annual Walk will take place. Ellen is a former senior policy adviser to Boston Mayor Ray Flynn and worked at area social service agencies before taking charge of Project Bread 16 years ago. A stylish, sought-after speaker with a professorial command of the devastating effects of hunger and nutrition, Ellen also knows her way around Boston’s neighborhoods, where she loves to shop and sample the traditional fare of the city’s newest immigrants.
Everyone knows about the Walk for Hunger, what else should people know about Project Bread?
As the only statewide anti-hunger organization in Massachusetts, Project Bread works to promote sustainable and reliable access to healthy food for all. Put simply, we want to end the public health crisis that is grounded in economic inequality and a fragmented food system. That’s why we work so hard to invest in the strength and resiliency of local communities—particularly in the public schools systems. There is no reason why children should leave school hungrie than when they arrived in the morning. And, we collaborate with others in building a robust regional food system from farmers, to food producers, to stores, anyone in the chain.
Project Bread’s Walk for Hunger is the most prominent in the country. Why is it so important to have regular people raising money and not just raise money in larger amounts from foundations or corporations?
The Walk for Hunger is a way for everyone to give back and raise awareness for anti-hunger work. It is a movement that is much larger than a single donor, corporation or foundation. More than 40,000 people come together and show their support by walking 20 miles. Now that is a powerful message.
How is Project Bread different from other anti-hunger organizations? Does “anti-hunger” adequately describe your mission?
Project Bread is very much about that old, but wonderful saying: “Give a person a hand up, not a hand out.” People in the United States are so accustomed to seeing hunger within the narrow framework of charity and dependence that we think we know the answer. But we haven’t asked the most obvious question: how does the person facing food insecurity see their situation—and what do they truly need? If they had real choices about the kind of help they could receive, what would they choose and why? The most effective anti-hunger investments deliver multiple benefits. A healthy meal, first and foremost, but what if that meal could lead to new skills and better health? That’s what we call a “hand up.”
Is there a typical profile of a Massachusetts resident in need of food assistance? Is the need stronger in certain parts of the state than in others?
No, unfortunately we cannot predict where and when people will face this. Everyone has a different story. Everyone has a different background. What we do know is that those who are earning minimum wage or less are typically in need of food assistance. For too many working families—thousands of families in Massachusetts—no matter how hard they work, they cannot reliably protect themselves from hunger. The long-term answer is simple: people need to earn a living wage.
What’s a common misconception about hunger both in Massachusetts and nationwide?
When the head of household works fulltime, her or she should earn enough money to pay the rent and put food on the table. That is not a reality. To achieve that outcome requires broad collaboration among wage earners and political, civic, religious and business leaders. But, interestingly, anti-hunger advocates across the country are will to speak up for charity, but when challenged to speak out for a living wage, those same leaders are conspicuous by their silence.
You live and work in one of the most ethnically diverse neighborhoods Boston. Any favorite places you like to eat and go food shopping?
East Boston has some of the best food in the city. I love Angela’s on Eagle Hill and everyone in the office knows about Rino’s because it was featured on the Food Network. My go-to is Meridian Market, a favorite of the late Mayor Tom Menino. I also love shopping at Market Basket for the fresh food and the company’s commitment to the community. Now that spring is in the air, I can’t wait to revisit our local famer’s market. East Boston has residents from all over the globe and the local market reflects those cultures. On a given day I can find anything from papalo, a South American version on arugula, to Asian mustard to collard greens to sweet Thai basil.
All eyes are on the energetic – and telegenic — Andris Nelsons when he bounds across the stage of Boston Symphony Hall to take his place at the conductor’s podium, his sheer physicality a performance unto itself. At 35 years old, Nelsons is one of the youngest and most electrifying conductors on the international scene today and the youngest music director to lead the BSO in more than 100 years. He might also be the only one to have ever been a student of martial arts. Prior to his arrival in Boston, the Latvia native was music director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO), where he earned critical acclaim. Born in Riga to a family of musicians, Nelsons began his career as a trumpeter in the Latvian National Opera Orchestra before studying to be conductor. He is married to the internationally renowned soprano Kristine Opolais, who joined him on stage for his first opening night leading the storied Boston Symphony Orchestra.
AS A YOUNG CONDUCTOR, WHAT DID THE BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA MEAN TO YOU? WHAT WERE YOUR FIRST IMPRESSIONS?
As a music student growing up in Latvia, I was aware of the leading position of the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO), one of the world’s greatest orchestras. I followed the careers of several BSO‘s legendary music directors, especially Serge Koussevitzky, Charles Munch, Erich Leinsdorf, and Seiji Ozawa, and more recently, James Levine. I remember listening to many BSO recordings and feeling overwhelmed by the extraordinary performances. I never imagined that I would become this orchestra’s music director!
WHAT’S BEEN THE BIGGEST SURPRISE ABOUT BOSTON AUDIENCES FOR YOU SO FAR?
The enthusiasm that the Boston audiences has shown to me, has touched me deeply. I have always heard that the Boston audiences were passionate music lovers—and it is very true! They also are generous in expressing pride and love for the orchestra. The BSO has been a great inspiration and joy for many of our patrons. My hope is to do all I can to continue to inspire them to ever greater levels of satisfaction and reward.
IS THE ORCHESTRA DIFFERENT TODAY THAN WHEN YOU FIRST GUEST-CONDUCTED IN 2011?
I don’t know that I can speak to how different the orchestra is today than it was in 2011. When I conducted the orchestra for the first time in March 2011, I was overwhelmed by the beauty and power the orchestra displayed in Mahler’s Ninth Symphony. It is a very difficult piece of music, but we developed quickly a good connection and were able to make incredible music together. My joy nearly four years later comes from getting to know the orchestra better. I enjoy meeting and getting to know each individual musician, knowing them by name. This helps us work better together and make some great music.
WE’RE IN THE AGE OF “NEW” MEDIA. DID YOUR TRAINING AS A MUSICIAN AND A CONDUCTOR PREPARE YOU FOR YOUR NEW ROLE AS HOLOGRAM AT SYMPHONY HALL?
I have never participated in the creation of a hologram before, so it was fun to see how they created the 3D image. It’s both strange and exciting to stand next to your own talking and moving hologram – and I was happy to see that I have lost some weight since recording the image last July! I hope our wonderful patrons enjoyed this technology, and that the hologram and overall exhibit communicated some interesting and new information, especially to newcomers to the BSO.
IS THE ROLE OF CONDUCTOR OF A WORLD-CLASS ORCHESTRA OF THE 21’ST CENTURY DIFFERENT THAN IT WAS FOR YOUR HISTORIC COUNTERPARTS?
I would say that it is a faster moving world today, of course it is, and this pace applies to all aspects of modern life! However, in contrast, the fundamental role of the conductor has not changed so much at all on the podium. This profession is still based on personal communication and it rather stands the test of time in this sense. It’s such a magical and of historic profession.
BOSTON HAS A REPUTATION FOR BEING A FAIRLY TRADITIONAL CITY. CAN YOU GIVE US A PREVIEW OF ANY EXCITING, NEW WORK YOU’LL BE INTRODUCING?
The Boston Symphony Orchestra has always presented many new interesting compositions with major composers as Bartok, Hindemith, Stravinsky, Babbitt, Birtwistle, Carter, and Saariaho, and many others, and also significant premieres. So there is no doubt that with the great repertoire that we all love so deeply—music of Brahms, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, etc.—we will also explore works by new composers and go back to some of the works of the 20th and 21st centuries that have made the recent history of classical music. Sophia Gubaidulina’s Offertorium is a great example of bringing back a late 20th century work that is now considered a masterpiece of our field—and Baiba Skride’s recent performances captured the extraordinary sound of Ms. Gubaidulina’s composition. This season we’ve also programmed works by Boston composers Gunther Schuller, John Harbison, and Michael Gandolfi, as well as works by Australian composer Brett Dean and my Latvian compatriot Eriks Esenvalds. Our audiences have responded very enthusiastically to what we have performed so far. We will continue to explore new works and bring the very best of music to our wonderful patrons.
For further information about the Boston Symphony Orchestra and a complete spring schedule, visit Boston Symphony or click here for complete programs, ticket information, photos, press documents, and artist bios.
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