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Tom Smart, Deseret News
Utahns Against Hunger executive director Gina Cornia and associate director Mike Evans show new space set aside for a learning center at Wasatch Community Gardens next to Neighborhood House at 1050 W. 500 South, Tuesday, March 25, 2014, in Salt Lake City. Cornia has been awarded the Dr. Raymond Wheeler/Senator Paul Wellstone Anti-Hunger Advocacy Leadership Award.
Really, this is a project that brings us full circle. It's giving us an opportunity to be involved in the food system in really tangible way. —Gina Cornia

SALT LAKE CITY — Gina Cornia is surveying what she affectionately calls "the back 40," an acre-plus plot on the city's west side cultivated by Utahns Against Hunger's youth program.

It is on this patch of ground that Utahns Against Hunger has returned to its roots, Cornia said.

In the 1980s, the nonprofit organization was instrumental in establishing one of the first community gardens in the Salt Lake Valley. Its youth program now grows fruits and vegetables on a plot on the campus of Neighborhood House, a nonprofit group that provides child care and adult day services.

"Really, this is a project that brings us full circle. It's giving us an opportunity to be involved in the food system in really tangible way," said Cornia, Utahns Against Hunger's executive director since 2001.

The garden, an urban farming/service learning laboratory for youth in Utahns Against Hunger's Real Food Rising program, is just one way the nonprofit advocates for people in poverty.

From public policy debates on Utah's Capitol Hill to the halls of Congress, Cornia has worked for more than a decade educating policymakers and the public about the issue of hunger and its impacts on low-income, disabled and senior populations.

Recently, Cornia was awarded the national Food Research and Action Center's Anti-Hunger Advocacy Leadership Award. Each year, the center honors an advocate who has demonstrated outstanding leadership in the fight against hunger.

Cornia, who has encyclopedic knowledge about hunger, public assistance programs and state and federal laws, said the award acknowledges the work of Utahns Against Hunger.

"I have a really great team. None of us do this alone or in a vacuum," she said.

"You can get more done if you have good folks working for you," Cornia added.

Under her leadership, Utahns Against Hunger has worked with a coalition of low-income advocates to defeat legislation introduced in the Utah Legislature to increase the sales tax on food.

Utahns Against Hunger also obtained a grant from Goldman Sachs to purchase technology to enable people on nutrition assistance programs to buy food at farmers markets. The benefits are now accepted at 14 farmers markets.

Cornia frequently trains community partners on food stamps and other nutrition programs.

“Not only does Utahns Against Hunger work effectively within the state to create change, but the organization also has made it a priority to mentor anti-hunger organizations across the country,” said Food Research and Action Center President Jim Weill in presenting the award.

The award is named for national anti-hunger advocates the late Dr. Raymond Wheeler, a North Carolina physician who championed the rights of blacks and the poor and in the 1960s documented hunger and malnutrition among the nation's poor children; and the late Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., who challenged his congressional colleagues to reject stereotyping and misinformation about poor, hungry Americans.

Cornia and Kathy Gardner, director of the Idaho Hunger Relief Task Force, were honored during the National Anti-Hunger Policy Conference held jointly with Feeding America in Washington, D.C., earlier this month.

Darin Brush, president of Utahns Against Hunger's board of directors, said the award recognized "Gina's tireless work to end hunger in Utah."

"It is an honor for Gina, Utahns Against Hunger and everyone in Utah who supports our mission,” Brush said.

Cornia's journey with Utahns Against Hunger began with a college internship through the University of Utah's Lowell Bennion Community Service Center.

After college, she worked on welfare policy for five years at Utah Issues before finding her way back to Utahns Against Hunger, which was founded by Crossroads Urban Center in 1981.

Cornia said the nonprofit has become a rich mix of public policy work, education and getting one's hands dirty thinning beets in a community garden.

The job involves high-level meetings with members of Congress and others who affect the development and implementation of nutrition policy.

Cornia said she is guided by her knowledge of the real-world needs of children, families, people with disabilities and seniors.

"I think of the parents, mostly the single moms who have to make the choice whether to buy groceries or put gas in the car," she said. "I'm a single mother, and I've never had to choose between buying groceries or paying utility bills. I never had to put Jake to bed hungry."

Utahns Against Hunger labors to ensure fewer families have to make those difficult choices through its advocacy work and teaching other community organizations about federal nutrition programs.

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"Federal nutrition programs work. We know they lift 4 million people out of poverty every year, and 2 million of those are children," Cornia said.

The programs can be a tough sell in a conservative state like Utah, but fraudulent use of the program is very low, less than 1 percent, she said.

The most important thing Utahns Against Hunger does is advocate for people who don't know how to negotiate government systems or lobby their elected officials, Cornia said.

"Someone has to give a voice to those populations that don't have one," she said.

Email: marjorie@deseretnews.com