In the early- to mid-1980s, Ethiopia was gripped by a historic and devastating famine that would eventually kill more than one million of its citizens. Even though she was not yet 10 years old at the time, Rebecca Middleton remembers being deeply affected by the images of starving and emaciated families she saw on the evening news. One night, she brought her piggy bank to her parents and asked them to donate its contents to help Ethiopia.
At the time, Rebecca’s vision of her future career was as hazy as it is for most children. At different points, she had planned to become a librarian or aerospace engineer. She could not foresee that she would one day be serving as the chief advocacy and engagement officer for World Food Program USA, the stateside nonprofit partner of the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP), working to address hunger and food scarcity around the world. And that she would be helping to address these issues during a global pandemic.
Full disclosure: Rebecca and I live in the same neighbourhood in Arlington, Virginia, a close-in suburb of Washington, DC. Surrounded by high-rises and two metro stations, our neighbourhood has gone through several waves of urban redevelopment over the years, most recently with the arrival of Amazon’s HQ2, now under construction nearby. And yet ours is a neighbourhood that remains so tight-knit that neighbours often refer to it as “the Village” – a place where people actually know each other and jump in to help when it is needed.
Although it looks very different, that community feeling reminds Rebecca of the place she grew up going to, a place that shaped her and generations before her: Neebish Island, Michigan. And it reminds her of the woman whose independent spirit, work ethic, and commitment to her community inspires Rebecca to this day: her great-grandmother, Maude Earle.
Bracketed by Lake Superior to the north and Lake Michigan and Lake Huron to the south, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan (UP) is a province of both wilderness and industry, a land peopled originally by the Chippewa (also known as Ojibwe), Ottawa (Odawa), and Potawatomi (Bodawotomi). Since the turn of the 20th century, mining, logging, and shipping have fuelled its economy to varying degrees. The UP has long been a tourist haven, too, drawing people to its lush forests and lakeside cliffs and beaches.
If the UP is like a long, green finger of land pointing east, Neebish Island is the tip. Accessible only by ferry, the 21.5-square-mile (55.7 sq km) island sits on St Marys River, which connects Huron with Superior, directly across from the Canadian province of Ontario. Routinely, massive freighters travel up and downriver past Neebish, blaring their horns or “salutes” as they head to or from the Soo Locks at Sault Ste Marie, just one of the many locks and channels along the Great Lakes-St Lawrence Seaway. It was here that an enterprising young woman decided to buy property as a summer getaway, surely not realising the role it would play in her family for generations to come.
Of her four great-grandmothers, Rebecca was lucky enough to have known three of them. Ironically, Maude was the only one she never met, and yet Rebecca has always felt a special kinship with her. “Maude really appeals to me because she was a bit of a pioneer woman, a bit of an independent spirit, a very strong woman,” Rebecca says. “She was just a larger-than-life presence in my memories because of her connection to Neebish.”
[Illustration of Maude Earle by Jawahir Al-Naimi and Muaz Kory/Al Jazeera]Born in Pennsylvania in 1877, Maude was raised in Ohio, where she attended business school. Maude responded to an advertisement for a stenographer position in Michigan, a role that eventually led her to meet Wellington Earle, who needed a stenographer and bookkeeper for the business he founded, the Soo Lumber Company. “I could never understand how Maude could leave home and go so far away as she was such a mamma’s girl,” Maude’s sister once wrote in a letter. But leave she did, settling in Sault Ste Marie and quickly making a practice of coming to Neebish Island with friends to swim, hike, and go boating on the weekends. Before long, Maude and her friend, Agnes Fucik, decided to pool their money and buy a little cottage at Neebish right on the St Marys River. Because of the colour of their hair, they named it Auburn Lodge.
“Maude bought property on this tiny dot of an island on the St Marys River in 1906, before she was married,” Rebecca notes. “A single woman buying property in 1906 – I find that remarkable in and of itself.”
Eventually, Wellington and Maude fell in love, marrying in 1912 and honeymooning at the cottage at Neebish. They kept a primary home on the mainland of the UP, but they regularly entertained friends and family on the island, throwing big swimming parties and getting to know the freighters that regularly plied the river. Although Maude was an attentive mother and homemaker, family lore has it that she would sometimes ignore her chores just to watch the sunset. Eventually, once the first cottage burned, a new Auburn Lodge was built and a second, smaller cottage was added to the property as a gift for the Earles’ son Murdock. These are modest properties, Rebecca notes – “it’s not Kennebunkport,” she jokes, referring to the coastal town in Maine known for its imposing oceanfront homes – but the property quickly became the cornerstone of the Earles’ lives.
Among other things, Rebecca relates to the way that Maude picked up and changed the direction her life was heading in. In 2002, she married her husband Dennis Middleton, with whom she has a teenage daughter and son. When her youngest went to kindergarten, she found herself examining what her life’s work should be. She had developed a successful career in policy and legislative affairs, working for a US congressman and then as a lobbyist, when she felt drawn to working on hunger issues, first with the Alliance to End Hunger, a Washington, DC-based nonprofit that is a broad coalition of groups, universities, associations, and others working to fight hunger. She began as the Alliance’s COO before becoming its executive director.
“I’d always been involved with our local food pantry – volunteering, dropping off donations, that sort of thing,” Rebecca says. “I’m very fortunate in that I haven’t personally experienced hunger, but I am outraged by the fact that, with all of the advancements that we’ve had across so many fronts across the world, hundreds of millions of people don’t know how they’re going to feed their families for the month.”
When the pandemic hit in 2020, Rebecca was, like others, horrified to see how lockdowns, job losses, and other ripple effects were putting tremendous pressure on US food banks and other assistance organisations. At the Alliance, she convened a broad coalition of domestic anti-hunger groups to coordinate advocacy efforts around COVID relief. The group helped convince the US Department of Agriculture to approve waivers to its policies so that families that rely on school breakfasts and lunches could pick up meals even when the schools were closed due to the pandemic. The Alliance also advocated for a 15 percent increase in the SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) maximum benefit for all SNAP households; Rebecca notes proudly that the advocacy letter to Congress had about 2,500 signatories – including anti-hunger and assistance groups from all over the United States.
It was rewarding to see USDA food distributions set up at the middle school her son attended. “It was really rewarding because the need was so real,” she says. “We worked it on the policy side, but the hard work is at the community and state level – adapting food service to COVID protocols, the volunteers who signed up at personal risk to distribute food.”
“It was great to come into the anti-hunger space through such a broad perspective [that the Alliance offers],” Rebecca says, “because I got to learn a lot about both domestic and global hunger issues, both the relief side – feeding people now – but also some of the root cause issues, such as how you help folks over the long-term be able to provide enough nutritious food for themselves and their families.”
Although she was interested in domestic issues, she felt more drawn to international hunger relief. It felt serendipitous that, in the middle of last year, Rebecca was recruited to join the World Food Program USA. In 2019, the WFP assisted 97 million people in 88 countries, and Rebecca notes that the group is targeting about 130 million people for 2021. Yemen, for one, faces a continuing famine that threatens more than half of its population with crisis levels of food insecurity. And the pandemic has made everything worse. “With the pandemic, you had folks who were already at risk of hunger who are still at risk and suffering from hunger,” Rebecca says. “And then folks who had their livelihoods essentially eliminated, with no safety net from their governments to support them, are now also at risk of hunger.”
In her role with the World Food Program USA, Rebecca advocates to Congress and others about the need for US-based support for international anti-hunger initiatives. Seeing how dire food scarcity is closer to home, too – estimates show that one in four American children could be living in hunger, nearly double the pre-pandemic rate – she is pleased that World Food Program USA recently granted $100,000 to Share Our Strength’s No Kid Hungry campaign to support efforts to feed US children affected by the pandemic. She does not get caught up in what she calls the “false dichotomy” between stateside and international hunger needs. “It’s in our interest to focus on both,” she says, “and to make investments in both.”
[Illustration of Rebecca Middleton by Jawahir Al-Naimi and Muaz Kory/Al Jazeera]When the world’s problems feel heavy, Neebish Island is the place Rebecca turns to for grounding. Auburn Lodge remains in the Earle family to this day, now owned by Rebecca’s parents, Steve and Anne Earle, who split their time between Neebish and their home in Virginia. It is the place they retreated to after Steve’s return from the war in Vietnam; it is the place where family and friends have gone to laugh and heal from the large and small wounds of living, just as it was for Maude. Rebecca grew up going there every summer, and she still goes there every summer with her husband and children now. “Auburn Lodge is the family homestead,” Rebecca says. “My kids are the fifth generation. It’s the place where I feel most at home. As a kid, it felt like this magical sort of Narnia, a place where, as long as you know how to swim, it feels like nothing’s going to hurt you.”
There is a picture of Maude and Wellington Earle at Neebish, taken not long before Wellington’s death in 1944. Maude leans on a boulder in a patterned dress; Wellington sports a jaunty cap. They look happy, although a photo cannot capture all the complexities of a marriage or a life. Maude lived another 30 years, throwing herself into sustaining the Neebish Island community in various ways. A newspaper clipping noted that, in 1960, Maude was honoured by the Neebish Island Women’s Community Group at a luncheon with 75 guests. “I could have picked a more interesting person for the subject,” Maude said of the bash. “And I might have given them more spicy anecdotes for their programme.”
Anti-hunger work is not just about putting food on the table, Rebecca explains; it is also about allowing women everywhere to dream bigger dreams about what is possible for herself or her family. Something Maude Earle did, and something Rebecca did when she left her previous career path to work on fighting global hunger.
Rebecca remembers when she first explained her hunger work to her young daughter. “She said, ‘Mom, your job is to make sure that there’s enough money for people to get the food they need. So if you do your job and people aren’t hungry, then you’re not going to have a job any more.’ It stuck with me so much, just the innocence of the perspective of an eight-year-old that you can end hunger.” Rebecca adds, “I mean, it really is possible. We have enough food; it’s a matter of will and access.”
If she were alive today, there is a lot that Maude Earle might not recognise about the world – the pace of growth and change, or the various ways that the global economy both helps and hinders access to food and resources. But she would likely still recognise the little corner of Michigan where she bought the property and began a meaningful and lasting family legacy. And she might recognise something of herself in her great-granddaughter as well.
“I’ve always been really connected to Maude’s story, and her independence,” Rebecca says. “And that connection through Neebish and how it’s just the touchstone for our family.”