Steps In the Right Direction

As many of my readers know, I am currently a candidate for School Board Director for my local School District.  In order to be informed about the issues coming before the Board, I have been attending the monthly School Board meetings.  At the recent June meetings I learned about two positive changes happening in our District.  Starting during classroomthe 2017-18 school year, every student enrolled in K-4th grade will be able to receive breakfast and lunch at no charge.  In addition to providing free breakfast and lunch to elementary school students, the Board proposed a district-wide policy to guarantee all students with lunch debt will continue to receive a regular lunch regardless of that debt and all attempts to collect payment on lunch debt will be made through contact with parents or guardians, not children at lunch.

My local School District is able to provide free breakfast and lunch to all elementary students in our district through the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP).  As I explained in my previous post CEP allows qualifying schools to provide free breakfast and lunch to all enrolled students without collecting household applications for free and reduced meals.  The schools are then reimbursed for all breakfasts and lunches provided using a formula based on a percentage of enrolled students who participate in other means tested programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Access Program (SNAP) and Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF).  Participating in this program will help lessen the amount of annual school lunch debt carried by the School District, as many of the children who have school lunch debt live in households which qualify for free or reduced meals but for various reasons do not apply to participate in the program, or households which just miss the threshold to participate in the free or reduced meal program.  Additionally, when a school participates in CEP, the stigma children who have difficulty paying for school meals face is removed because every student is treated the equally by being served the same meal.

Not every school in our District qualifies to participate in the Community Eligibility Provision.  Only three of the elementary schools are eligible, leaving the remaining threeschool lunch schools in the District to provide breakfast and lunch under the same circumstances as previous years.  These remaining three schools will continue to experience cases of school lunch debt as they have in the past.  To address future cases of school lunch debt, the School District has proposed a district-wide policy to only discuss this debt with parents or guardians of the children who carry the debt.  In other words, no action to regarding a child’s school lunch debt will be taken with the child during the during his or her lunch.  Furthermore, any child with school lunch debt will continue to receive the same lunch listed on the daily menu, just like every other student getting lunch.  No more dreaded cheese sandwiches!

These two actions taken by the local School District are exactly some of the steps I suggested needed to be taken to address the problem of school lunch debt, which often leads to lunch shaming.  The District applied to have eligible schools in the district participate in the Community Eligibility Provision, thus taking a step to lower the District’s overall school lunch debt.  The Board then proposed a district-wide policy to cease the practice of singling out and punishing students with school lunch debt by allowing them to only have a cheese sandwich for lunch.  I commend the School Board’s efforts to consider the needs and feelings of the District’s students while taking steps to minimize the amount of future school lunch debt.

Lunch Shaming

girl blue glassesI hadn’t heard of lunch shaming, most people probably hadn’t, until a few months ago.  Now the topic seems to be in the news everywhere, thanks in part to the Hunger-Free Students’ Bill of Rights legislation enacted by the New Mexico State Legislature outlawing lunch shaming.  So what is lunch shaming?  School lunch shaming is holding children publicly accountable for any unpaid lunch bills they have accumulated, or in other words, holding children responsible for a debt their parents can not pay.  Some might say school districts have no other choice.  After all, they can not be expected to annually absorb this debt, which for some larger urban districts can reach into the millions of dollars.  What makes this situation news worthy isn’t that school districts are trying to recoup this debt.  They should be.  No, what makes this situation news worth are the tactics many districts use to go about about collecting the debt and perhaps less emphasized, but possibly more important, that this debt exists in 76% of school districts across the United States.

The reason the topic of school lunch debt exploded onto the news scene is due to reports about how some school districts have chosen to handle students who can not pay for lunch.  Angry teachers, cafeteria staff and students report incidents involving cafeteria staff taking a regular lunch away from a child and throwing it away in front of the hungry child and other students before giving the child a less desirable lunch or in a few cases no lunch at all.  Other disturbing examples include stamping or writing on the child’s arm that s/he has unpaid lunch debt.  In the not too distant past, children with lunch debt were made to do chores in the cafeteria in exchange for food, as was the case with Michael Padilla, the State Senator in New Mexico who introduced that state’s anti-lunch shaming legislation.  Of course the more extreme cases of lunch shaming are the ones making the news, but the most common practice is to deny the child with lunch debt the regular hot or cold meal, serving him instead a less desirable meal, usually a cheese sandwich.  In many school districts, no uniform policy addressing school lunch debt exists, leaving each individual school to address the issue of how to deal with students unable to pay for their lunch.  In an effort to remedy the lack of uniform school district policies dealing with children who can not pay for their lunch, the US Department of Agriculture has set a July 1, 2017, deadline for states to establish these policies.

In addition to attempts to prevent school lunch debt from rising during the school year,school boy school districts, as well as the general public, are making attempts to alleviate existing debt.  In districts where the debt is small enough, it may just be absorbed or funds may be shifted from the General Fund to offset the debt.  For many larger districts, however, this is not an option.  Most school district Food Service Managers actively work with families owing school lunch debt to find solutions for paying off the debt.  Additionally, these managers strive to enroll every student who is eligible in the free and reduced school lunch program.  In addition to school districts trying to lessen their meal debt, the general public has gotten involved, especially once reports of lunch shaming started being reported in the news.  According to GoFundMe, at least 30 active campaigns exist to help pay down lunch debt in a particular school district.  Additionally, two high school juniors in West Palm Beach, FL have started School Lunch Fairy, an organization, to help zero out lunch debt in school districts nationwide.  Finally, good Samaritans in scores of school districts have made arrangements with a school district to pay off all or part of that district’s outstanding lunch debt.  (See note at the bottom.)

All of these efforts are laudable, but they are band-aid responses to the problem and more thought needs to go into planning long term solutions.  One of the first places to start would be with what is already in place.  The programs which provide free and reduced breakfast and lunch to children are very successful for the students enrolled in these programs.  School districts should be making every effort to enroll as many of their qualifying students in these programs as they possibly can.  Additionally, school districts with schools whose student population qualifies to be included in the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), which allows qualifying schools to provide free breakfast and lunch to all enrolled students without collecting household applications, should take steps to participate in this program if not already doing so.  Both of these programs help provide millions of children with a nutritious breakfast and lunch, but still they fall short of solving the lunch debt problem.  Many eligible families, in spite of a school district’s best efforts, still fail to fill out an application for free lunch and most schools in the United States do not qualify for CEP.  Furthermore, of those school who qualify for CEP, roughly half of them fail to participate in the provision.  The failure of the current programs to fully address the nationwide problem has lead some educators to suggest school busthat maybe schools should just be providing all students with lunch, much in the same way students are provided with textbooks and transportation to and from school.

Equating providing lunch to all students to providing other necessary items for student success, like textbooks or transportation to school, is an interesting concept and one that I am sure will require much more debate, as will other ideas proposed to deal with school lunch debt.  In the meantime steps can and should be taken to alleviate the shame and embarrassment children experience when they have lunch debt.  One of the easiest first steps to take is to do away with the dreaded cheese sandwich.  Why can’t children with school lunch debt just receive the cold meal that is on the menu for the day?  By giving them this meal, these children do not stand out among their peers by carrying the stigma of being unable to afford lunch.  Another practice that should banned immediately is the practice of taking food from a child and throwing it away, particularly in front of the child.  I find this practice incredibly cruel, not to mention offensively wasteful of food and taxpayers’ dollars.

Removing the shame associated with having school lunch debt, some fear, will only cause more families to abuse the system, increasing school lunch debt for school districts.  A certain number of people will always cheat whatever system exists, but little evidence exists to support that the majority of households carrying lunch debt could actually pay for their meals, but instead are attempting to freeload off the system.  What most districts find is that this debt is carried by households who qualify for free/reduced lunch, but are not signed up to participate or by households who just miss the cutoff to qualify.  One anecdotal way school districts know these families are truly struggling rather than freeloading is that they often receive an influx of payments on school lunch debts every other Friday, which is a common payday.

Ask almost any teacher, school administrator, or cafeteria worker in a public school,giggle especially one located in a community with significant poverty, and she will tell you that children come to school hungry every day of the school year.  Research exists showing the negative impact hunger and lack of good nutrition can have on children and learning.  Many of the proposed solutions to the problem of school lunch debt, and the larger underlying problem of childhood hunger will cost money.   As a society we have to decide whether we want to pay the cost to solve a problem in its infancy or wait to pay for the all the repercussions that the problem will cause if allowed to exists unchecked.  Feeding hungry children now is a less costly solution than having to address the cognitive, emotional, and health problems that hunger and the lack of good nutrition cause in children.  Besides, ensuring children in one of the wealthiest nations in the world do not go hungry is the only morally appropriate choice to make.

Note:

In my school district a good Samaritan paid off the entire school lunch debt this year.  I hope she knows what a difference she has made for these families.

On a personal note:

Over the school year I repeatedly fussed at my younger son for how quickly he went through the money we deposited into his school lunch account.  This past week he received his school yearbook, and as I thumbed through the pages looking at how grown up these kids suddenly look, I was stopped by one autograph.  It said, “Thanks for buying me lunch when I didn’t have money.”  I don’t know how many times my son bought lunch for this friend or whether there were others he helped.  I do know I was incredibly proud.

A Spoonful of Sugar

The title of this brief post references the song from the movie Mary Poppins.  You know the lyrics, sing along.

A Spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down
The medicine go down-wown
The medicine go down
Just a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down
In a most delightful way.

Like unpleasant medicine, sometimes the truth is difficult to swallow.  In those cases, comedy can act as the sugar, to help the truth be ingested.  I recently encountered this video from comedian Trae Crowder, in which he adds a sprinkling of humor to convey some truths about food stamps.  Click on the link below to watch. Oh and I apologize if you are singing that song for the rest of the day!

Shaming people who are on food stamps is just wrong. — Trae Crowder

 

Red Noses On

The Municipal Primary Election is over.  I secured a spot on the ballot for the General Election in the Fall and I am back!  And wow, do I have a lot of catching up to do!  While I was in the middle of my campaign I tried to focus on the campaign and the issues I needed to address as a School Board Director candidate and not let the noise of national and state events seep in too much.  Don’t get me wrong.  I was well aware of current events.  I just didn’t let those events sidetrack me from my focus on my campaign.  Consequently, I have a rather large backlog of articles and position papers to digest.

I have really missed writing and have been wanting to get a post out, so rather than waiting until I had waded through all that material to write something, I thought I would write a post letting readers know what I plan to focus on over the next few months–childhood hunger and poverty.  I have chosen this focus, because I know this topic surfaces several times in my stack of reading, including articles concerning lunch shaming and proposed cuts to the National School Lunch Program.  I am also interested in understanding how the proposed budget cuts and other proposed changes to social safety net programs will impact children.  Childhood hunger and poverty will not be the only topic about which I write.  I will continue to write about other timely topics as they arise, but I will delve deeper into the topic of childhood hunger and poverty, to try and understand how poverty and hunger affects young children as they grow and learn and the consequences these effects have on our society as a whole.

As a nation we debate the reasons people are in poverty and the proper steps to take to address poverty.  Done civilly and with a willingness to compromise, I believe this debate is healthy and necessary.   Child hunger and poverty, however, is a topic about which there is very little debate.  Despite what one may feel are the causes of poverty or the best way to address poverty, few Americans believe that a child in poverty, who is hungry, is responsible for the situation he or she is in.  I know childhood hunger and poverty is a depressing topic that can weigh heavily on one’s heart.  I will do my best to temper the heavyheartedness with as many reports of hopefulness as I can find and when possible the playfulness of red nosea child.

This is one of those times I can include the playfulness of a child.  Tomorrow, May 25th, is Red Nose Day.  Walgreens is partnering with Comic Relief, Inc. to raise money for and awareness of childhood poverty.   In addition to raising money through donations, cycling events, and purchases of Red Nose merchandise, NBC will host a night of special programming on May 25th to highlight some of the programs sponsored by Red Nose Day and offer viewers a chance to support Red Nose Day by calling in to make a donation.  So if you haven’t already gotten your red nose, stop in to Walgreens to pick one up and “noses on to help end child poverty”.

 

Devastating and Instantaneous

Did I get your attention with the title of this post, because those words definitely grabbed my attention a few days ago.  I follow the news and have been aware of all the discussion surrounding the proposed budget recently released by President Trump.  I am disheartened to read about the cuts he wants to make in funding for education, the arts and humanities.  I worry for the future of the planet I will leave to my children when I see the proposed cuts to the EPA, Department of Energy, and NASA.  While these cuts, if enacted, will result in changes in my world, those changes will not be calamitous for me or my family (although I worry we are getting close on the climate).  Another group of proposed cuts, however, worries me greatly, because I understand that unlike me and my family, those affected by this group of cuts will be impacted quite adversely and sooner rather than later.  The cuts to which I am referring are proposed for the budgets of the Departments of Agriculture, Housing and Urban Development, and Health and Human Services and will affect programs designed to assist those who are food insecure, like Meals on Wheels, Women, Infants and Children Nutrition Assistance (WIC), and government provided food to emergency food providers.

I did not realize how quickly or severely these already vulnerable segments of our population were going to be affected until I read a recent post of Facebook.  The local Philadelphia CBS station interviewed two key staff members at the Chester County Food Bank (CCFB) about the effect President Trump’s proposed budget would have on the CCFB and its network of affiliated food pantries and cupboards as well as the Meals on Wheels program operated out of CCFB.  While I knew these proposed cuts would definitely impact the food pantry in which I volunteer, I was not quite prepared for what I read in this interview.  Phoebe Kitson, Director for Agency and Community Partnerships describes the impact these proposed budget cuts will have on CCFB as “devastating and instantaneous”.  Jeani Purcell, with Chester County Meals on Wheels says the budget cutelderly eating would result in a huge loss for Chester County’s Meals on Wheels program, as 35% of their budget comes from government contracts.

I understood when I first heard about this proposed budget that it would hurt people, not nameless, faceless people, but people I interact with every week at the food pantry.  I just didn’t quite realize that the impact would be “devastating and instantaneous”.  I can tell you our clients understand it will hit them and hit them hard.  Prior to the release of this proposed budget, several clients, all of them seniors, expressed their concern about possibly loosing their healthcare and just how difficult getting by would be for them if the Affordable Care Act were to be repealed.  Now imagine if on top of loosing your healthcare, the food pantry you already turn to for assistance can no longer provide the amount of aid it has been able to provide in the past.  At a time when some need help more than ever, they will have to get by with even less.

These proposed budget cuts are drastic and take aim at some of America’s already most vulnerable citizens.  Meals on Wheels and food banks provide food aid to populations who desperately need it–seniors, the disabled, veterans, children.  They will hurt real people, people in our neighborhood, people I know.  But right now these proposed cuts are just that, proposed.  I urge you to monitor the status of this proposed budget as well as any other legislation that takes aim at our already threadbare social safety net.  Then please contact your legislators and make your voice heard.

Homeless Helpers!

Over the past few weeks we have helped more homeless individuals than usual and our supplies for the homeless have dwindled.  Much of what we are able to provide for our homeless clients comes from donations.  I have had several local readers regularly ask me what they can purchase that is needed most.  I often do not have a specific list of items, but today I do.  Here is a list of the items we could use to restock our shelves for the homeless.

  • small cans of fruit or applesauce
  • canned meat–Spam, Vienna Sausages, Potted meat, tuna (individual servings)
  • Cup of soup–dried soup mix in a cup to which you just add hot water
  • breakfast items–single servings of cereal, granola or breakfast bars
  • plastic utensils
  • paper plates and bowls
  • inexpensive can openers

We have a satisfactory supply of canned vegetables and canned soups, stews and other similar items.  Cans with a pull top lid are always the best in case our homeless client does not have a can opener and we do not have any on hand to give out.  As always, I am happy to collect items donated and take them into the food pantry when I volunteer.  Thank you so much for supporting and caring for our community’s homeless.

 

A Fork in the Road

I am writing this post to let my readers know that I will be stepping away from writing regular blog posts for a couple of months.  I have decided to run for school board in our local school district and I will be very busy over the next couple of months with the campaign.  I remain committed to assisting people with food insecurity, and will continue to volunteer weekly at the food pantry.  During these few months, as time allows or topic dictates, I will write posts, just more sporadically than in the past.  Once the initial push of the campaign calms down I will return to more regular postings.  Please continue to send me information, articles or links to interesting approaches to addressing food insecurity or timely information about issues facing those who are food insecure.  As always, I thank you for your interest and support.

The New Trend on College Campuses

purdueMy oldest son, a sophomore in high school, recently took the PSAT.  Consequently, we now have a flood of college materials pouring into our house.  Some days he gets more mail than everyone else in the house combined.  Some of the colleges just send  postcards directing him to the website, while others send packets with color pictures and testimonials highlighting the good qualities of their school.  What none of these materials highlight, however, is the campus food pantry and/or other services the university provides to students struggling with food insecurity, and yet a growing number of colleges and universities house a food pantry on their campuses in an effort to assist these students, whose numbers ballooned after the recession and show no signs of deflating.  I was alerted to this issue by a piece on NPR’s Morning Edition and after some more research I was surprised to learn that there are 447 member institutions registered with College and University Food Bank Alliance (CUFBA), a national organization co-founded by the campus food pantries at Michiganmsu State University and Oregon State University to support campus food banks currently in operation as well as those just opening.*  I was equally surprised to learn that all 3 of the universities my husband and I attended now had food pantries on their campuses.

In order to better understand college campus food insecurity issues, CUFBA joined forces with three other campus based organizations to survey students, who attended eight community colleges and 26 four-year colleges and universities, located in 12 states.  Between the months of March and May 2016 these groups talked with 3,765 students from these institutions and produced a report titled, Hunger on Campus:  The Challenge of Food Insecurity for College Students,  which was released in October 2016.  The study found that food insecurity can be found at both two and four year institutions, with two year institutions experiencing higher levels, 25% and 20%, respectively.  Food insecurity was higher among students of color and first generation college students.  The study also found that students who experience food insecurity are likely to be struggling with housing insecurity, like trouble paying the rent, mortgage or other utility bills.  As a result of these struggles, the study found that the educational efforts of these students have been hampered or harmed because the students have not been unable to afford to buy textbooks or their situation has caused them to either miss classes or even drop a course.

A reasonable response to this study’s findings would be to suggest that these students get a job or avail themselves of the resources, like SNAP, already offered to those suffering from food insecurity.  The study found that over half (56%) already did have a job and 38% of those employed worked over 20 hours per week.  Working at least 20 hours per week is a requirement for any student who receives SNAP benefits, of which 25% of food insecure students reported receiving.  Additionally, three fourths of food insecure students receive financial aid.  Fifty two percent receive Pell Grants and 37% took out student loans.  Finally, being on a meal plan does not guarantee that students will not experience food insecurity.  According to the survey, among the food insecure respondents from 4 year institutions, 43% reported being enrolled in some type of meal plan.  The fact that so many of these food insecure students are already taking action to help make attending college possible suggests that more needs to be done to understand their struggles and assist them during their time in college.

sjsuThe report offers some recommendations to colleges and universities to address the issue of food insecurity on their campuses.  To date most of the initiatives in place on college campuses, like campus food pantries or dining center meal donation programs, like Swipes at Columbia University, have all been student initiatives.  The recommendation section of this report suggests that university administrations support and further develop campus based initiatives which address food insecurity, including but not limited to, food pantries, campus community gardens, food recovery programs, dining center meal donation programs and coordinated benefit access programs.  In addition to working creatively on their campuses to address student food insecurity, college and university administrators should implement programs that promote college affordability, for instance creating resources which help make textbooks more affordable, like a book scholarship.  Implementing an emergency grant fund, like the one offered at CUNY, will aid students who are food insecure and are likely struggling to continue to afford college deal with any unexpected expense which could cause them to have to leave school.

The effort to assist college students who are struggling with food insecurity should not end with the immediate steps taken by college and university administrators.  The report details a list of recommendations federal policymakers should take to improve the situation of students experiencing food insecurity.   The first action suggested is to include food security questions on the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS), administered annually by the National Center for Education Statistics, which will provide policymakers with the data to better understand the depth of the situation and assess potential solutions.  Simplifying the SNAP eligibility requirements for college students and removing the 20 hour per week work requirement for students enrolled at least half time are also suggestions made by the report.  Finally, included in the suggestions is a call to improve the federal aid process for homeless students, including the simplification of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

When I went to college, I was able to pay half of my college tuition at a reasonably priced uwmadisonstate university using money I had saved from working while in high school, supplemented with money earned by working a few hours a week while at college and full time in the summer.  Gone are the days when many college students are able to work to put themselves through college, at least not at a normal college pace of 4-5 years to complete a Bachelor’s Degree.  College tuition has skyrocketed, even at the once reasonably priced state institutions, and financial aid for low income students, like Pell Grants, is less readily available, making it more difficult, if not almost impossible for some to be able to afford college.   At the same time, colleges are seeing a rise in nontraditional students–lower income students, first generation college students and adults, some with families, fully responsible for their own living expenses–enrolling in higher education.  These new college enrollees present college and university administrations with a set of challenges few are likely to have previously faced, but these challenges are not insurmountable.  The ability of these college students experiencing food insecurity to succeed at college is as important as any other college student’s ability to succeed at college.  Ensuring their success is important to the vitality of our nation’s work force and the strength of our economy.

* To illustrate the seriousness of this situation on college campuses, I initially did my research in January and on 1/17/17 CUFBA listed 434 member campus food pantries.  When I rechecked that number today (2/15/17) the total number of campus food pantry members had risen by 13 to 447 in less than a month.

West Chester University Food Pantry which partners with Chester County Food Bank

 

 

 

Luxury Items

As I started to collect coffee, tea and hot chocolate mix for our food pantry’s Warm Their Hearts drive, my husband expressed concern about something I too had been wrestling with.  He pointed out that the items I had held food drives for were luxury items and that maybe those folks who had helped out might rather donate items that are more of a staple item, like canned vegetables or peanut butter.   I certainly saw his point and understood teahis concern.  The debate of what is an appropriate food item for someone who is requiring assistance with food, either through SNAP or from a food pantry, has been debated in American society many times.  After some more thought on my part and discussion with some people who had participated in both drives I am comfortable with the two items that have been chosen for our food drives, and I now understand that providing these items to our food pantry clients has been beneficial to both the recipients and the donors.

Most people have experienced hunger, if only for a little while, when our busy schedules force us to delay or even skip a meal, but very few of us have had to experience the psychological toll privation has on those who are food insecure.  Contemplating the absence in my life of the food items I chose for these recent food drives illustrates for me what that psychological toll would begin feel like if I suffered from food insecurity.  I know if I could not bake Christmas cookies I would experience a profound sadness, because I could not bake cookies with my sister for my family and friends.  Additionally, life without coffee is almost unimaginable to me.  I start my day with coffee and use it as a reward, a pick me up, a reason to take a break.  Plain and simple, coffee makes me happy.  Neither the holiday cookies nor the daily coffee are necessary for my daily sustenance, but without hot-chocolate-2them my mental outlook on life would be very different.  Consequently, receiving an unexpected treat, like a cookie mix or coffee, tea or hot chocolate might lift the spirits of those who struggle with food insecurity and must go without these unaffordable extras on a regular basis.

The recipients, however, are not the only ones who psychologically benefit from these food drives.  The donors do too.  The benefit to donors was not immediately evident to me.  I know that I experience a sense of pleasure at knowing I am brightening someone else’s day by helping them get food at the food pantry and by helping provide these treats, but I wasn’t sure that same sentiment was felt by everyone who was participating in the food drives.  A recent thank you letter from a reader and donor, as well as conversations with a couple of other donors has made me realize those who choose to participate in these food drives receive a positive psychological boost as well.  The feedback I received indicated they loved these ideas and were very happy to participate in donating items.  From these interactions I was also able to determine that these specific food drives had allowed the donors to also contemplate the psychological toll food insecurity might have on a person.  Perhaps most encouraging to me, however, is that each of these individuals has mentioned wanting to participate in future drives and/or has suggested other ways in which they could donate.

I would like to say that each action I take is part of some larger plan, but more often than not I am just making it up as I go along.  When some aha moment happens and gives me a black-coffeemoment of clarity or understanding, I try to translate that understanding or clarity to my readers who are following me on my journey.  Like the SNAP Challenge, these food drives have been a device to help illustrate more clearly what being food insecure is truly like.  I can go without all kinds of food for a day, or week to try and replicate food insecurity, but I probably never would have thought to stop drinking coffee.  It would never have occurred to me, until I heard someone who is really food insecure ask if we might possibly have some to give out.  I don’t know what the next food drive will be, but I do want my readers to know, that I will always take substitutions if you disagree with the item being collected.  As a matter of fact, I will take almost any unexpired food or personal care item you want to donate, any time you want to donate it.  It will always go to good use.

Give It to Someone Who Needs It

“I don’t need this. Give it to someone who does.”

I heard this, or something very close to it, said three times this week while I was volunteering at the food pantry.  The three people who said this were not folks who had come in to donate food.  They were three clients who were receiving food.  Each one of these clients declined to take at least one item we were offering in their monthly allotment of food, not because s/he didn’t like it, but because it was not needed this month.  One lady, when she realized she had a couple of items she did not need, even brought those items back in to us after taking her food to her car .  (She also brought in a bag of children’s books to share with others because her children were done with them.)   The items they declined were dry good items–a jar of jelly, cans of vegetables, syrup–thatpancakes-and-syrup would have lasted on a shelf for several months to a year or two, and yet these people, who have so little, refused to take what they did not immediately need so that someone else who needed it more could have it.

I’m not writing about these three clients because their actions are unusual.  On the contrary, we hear this sentiment all the time.  I am often touched by the generosity of people who have little to share making sure others, who have less, are able to have something as well.  And their generosity does not end with just food.  I recently learned of two client households who opened their homes to one or more persons who were going to find themselves homeless otherwise.  Can you imagine if your resources were already stretched to the breaking point, telling more people to “Come on in. We’ll figure it out somehow.”? I am so touched by their acts of selflessness and glad that we are here to help them as they help others.

Coming to a food pantry is often a last resort for people.  They need help, but are usually embarrassed by their need.  Once they receive that assistance, they are so appreciative.  The situation is no different with our clients.  In addition to being thoughtful, the majority of our clients are extremely grateful for our assistance, often to the point of tears.  They appreciate the dry good staples we regularly provide, but are especially enthusiastic thank-you-peppersabout the fresh produce and the little extras we sometimes have, like dog food, special dietary items like low sodium soups and the baking mixes in December.  It has been so rewarding to hear how much of a lift those mixes were.  One client, in relating how grateful she was to receive the baking mix told us she used the item she baked as a gift from someone.  Once again, these stories and thank yous are not unusual, but the norm.

So often the portrayal of people who are at or below the poverty line, and are therefore food insecure, is less than favorable.  I have heard people refer to those needing assistance as lazy and that they are cheating the system.  One politician called them takers. To be fair, he has apologized for using that term and has since stopped using it, but the sentiment he expressed is alive and well in our country.  The reality of who a typical food pantry client is, however, resembles someone far different.  The typical food pantry client is the young man who left college in his third year to return home to care for his ailing mother because he was all she had.  It is the grandmother who is now caring for her grandchildren and maybe even an adult child, because drug addiction has devastated their family.  It is the person struggling to beat cancer or the senior citizen who can’t quite get by on just Social Security.  It is even the family trying to make ends meet on one, two or even three minimum wage jobs.  Time and again I am humbled by their words of gratitude and simple acts of generosity for others.  They understand more than most what it is like to need help and more importantly, how important it is that others are there to provide that help.