According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in 2017, 40 million people (1 in 8 in the U.S.) lived in a food-insecure household. This is the equivalent of the population of Canada. Food insecurity, as defined by the USDA, means that at some point during the year, those households struggled to obtain enough nutritious food for all their members to lead an active, healthy life.

Enter Jessica Hager. Since graduating from Southwestern in 2008, Hager has been working tirelessly for various organizations dedicated to eliminating hunger and improving access to nutrition across the country.

Variously described by her friends and colleagues as cunning, caring, dependable, curious, persistent, and funny, Hager began her career with the Central Texas Food Bank during her senior year at SU and went on to get her master’s in social work at the University of Chicago before taking a job at Feeding America, the nation’s leading hunger-relief organization. As the manager of external engagement for health and nutrition, Hager has pioneered a range of initiatives illuminating and addressing the intersections of food insecurity, nutrition, and health while working with a range of national partners, regional food banks, and individuals experiencing food insecurity. Much of this work is highlighted on Feeding America’s widely influential Hunger and Health website, also designed by Hager, which supports innovative efforts to increase access to healthful foods and make the healthy choice the easier choice for all. Hunger and Health enables professionals across various sectors to develop and share tools addressing the root causes of food insecurity and the social determinants of health.

Michelle Marshall, who originally hired Hager for a graduate internship at Feeding America and later offered her a full-time position, says that Hager “was a constant reminder [of] the reason we did the work, … never compromising her values and passion to treat people with respect, dignity, and inclusion. … She has been one of my greatest teachers as a person and manager.”

Matt Anthony ’07 shares that Hager’s compassion and persistence have an impact on the national scale. He says that her current position allows her to lead our nation in a direction to lower the rate of food insecurity for all individuals. Through her management, expertise, and embodiment of SU’s core value of respecting the worth and dignity of all persons, Hager and her team are making a real difference in collaboration with communities and neighbors who don’t always know if or when their next meal is coming. Leigh Mingle ’07 agrees: “Jessica has taken the skills she learned at Southwestern and beyond to make a great impact and serve the community. She … should be recognized for her dedication to making the world a better place.”

Long-time friend Kathryn Haskin Bongiovanni ’08 recalls meeting Hager during Pirate Training during their second day at Southwestern. Hager beat Bongiovanni in a limbo contest, but instead of holding a grudge, Bongiovanni struck up a friendship with Hager over a lunch of peanut butter and banana sandwiches. “Her joy and curiosity have only deepened since then,” says Bongiovanni. “I could rave about how amazing she is in her profession, but she is so much more. She is an amazing friend, a dog rescuer, an activist, a hiker, a sorbet fanatic, and a loving wife. Jessica is not a friend who lets those around her become spectators to life. She’s in the game—sweaty—and inspires those around her to step up, too.”

Because of her perseverance and dedication to addressing the root causes of food insecurity, Southwestern is proud to name Jessica Hager a 2018 Distinguished Young Alumna.