A Moral Disgrace

eraserMonday I sat down to write, but was unable to get started.  I had a topic–charitable organizations alone can not adequately address poverty and food insecurity.  I had done reading on the topic and had even written out some notes and a basic outline.  Still nothing came.  I am very familiar with the topic, having touched upon it several times already in my writing, and have definite ideas about the role charity should play in addressing poverty.  I thought maybe the strong opinions I had regarding the topic might be creating a barrier to writing.  Sometimes the posts I am the most emotionally attached to are the more difficult ones to write.  Consequently, I decided to put my chosen topic away and look for another one to write about, maybe something positive and uplifting  as I was feeling a bit overwhelmed at the enormity of the problem of food insecurity.  I began searching on the Internet, reading articles and postings on various websites, but nothing jumped out at me, certainly not anything positive.  And then, just before I my blogging day ended and I had to shift back into Mom mode, something caught my eye.  The President had released his proposed budget.

As I transitioned from my home office to the kitchen, I switched on the radio to listen to the evening news cycle.  The release of the proposed budget dominated the evening news, with NPR even incorporating the budget release into their banter during their winter fund drive break as a result of the budget’s proposal to zero out funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.  Dinnertime neared and the radio got turned off.  It wasn’t until later that night that I was able to check back in to various news sources to get an update on what the budget contained.  I expected there to be information and even some criticism from various news outlets.  While I was not expecting good news to come out of this budget, I was not quite prepared for what greeted me.

There were articles and analyses about the content of the proposed budget, but there were also statements and press releases, from various organizations advocating for and assist with those experiencing poverty and food insecurity, who I follow on Facebook.  And these organizations, who make it their purpose to assist those in poverty, who understand intimately what the result of these proposed budget cuts will be, were outraged.  Among those responses, the harsh statement from Abby J. Leibman, President and CEO of MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, calling the budget proposal a “moral disgrace,” really grabbed my attention.  At that moment I realized that the statements from the these organizations, condemning this budget,  were making the same point I had been planning to make in my aborted post on Monday.  Philanthropic organizations alone can not make a dent in the problem of poverty or food insecurity.  Nor should they be expected to take point on a problem as complex as poverty. These organizations, who are in the trenches trying to help people who are hungry, know that if you further slash these social safety net programs or re-work successful programs, like SNAP, real people will suffer and the problem will only get worse.

The anti-hunger field has been prepared for disappointment, but this proposal is beyond the pale. 

Abby J. Leibman President & CEO of MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger

Over the past couple of days I have learned more about the President’s proposed budget, especially with regard to social safety net programs like SNAP.  I have saved numerous articles and website postings critiquing this budget and the changes it proposes to thesecompass rocks programs.  The despair I felt paralyzed by on Monday has been replaced by anger and indignation.  I am going to spend some time reading all the material I have saved.  Once I have done that I will share with you why this budget is the train wreck so many people who study poverty and/or work with the poor know it to be.  For now I will leave you with the main question on my mind.  Have we Americans lost our moral compass when it comes to understanding the reasons for poverty and the steps needed to be taken to successfully address poverty?  Looking at this budget, it sure feels like it.

Advertisements

One Horrific Accident from a Nightmare

This past year, in addition to paying close attention to governmental proposals affecting the social safety net, I have also followed proposals concerning legal and undocumented immigrants.  For now, most of the proposals concerning the social safety net have not been enacted.  Unfortunately, the same can not be said for proposals affecting the statue of libertyimmigrant population, and although these policies are targeted at undocumented immigrants, the ripples of fear they have caused are moving through the qualified immigrant population as well.

Before I retell the narrative I have chosen this month I want to restate the regulations regarding immigrants and their ability to qualify for social safety net programs.  Most of these regulations have been firmly in place since the late 1990s, but some date back to the inception of the program.  Undocumented immigrants are not eligible for federal governmental assistance, like the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), not now, not ever.   Any children of undocumented immigrants who have been born in the United States, and are therefore US citizens, are, however, eligible for this assistance.  Just the children are eligible and the amount of assistance the household receives is only commensurate to the number of eligible children.  For instance if you have a family of 5: two undocumented parents, two undocumented children, and one child born in the U.S., the household would only receive SNAP benefits for one, not five, members of the household.  With the 1996 passage of Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act (PRWORA), and subsequent legislation passed in 1998 and 2002, documented immigrants are eligible to receive benefits, but only after they have resided legally in the U.S. for 5 years.  There are some some exceptions to the 5 year waiting period for protected classes of documented immigrants, like refugees.  Furthermore, for all who receive assistance from TANF, whether documented immigrant or U.S. citizen, there is a lifetime limit of no more than 60 months of benefits, but that lifetime limit can vary from state to state with some states having a maximum 24 month lifetime limit on benefits.  In all states TANF recipients must get a job within 24 months of getting benefits to avoid reduction or termination of benefits.  The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program does not have a lifetime limit for benefits, except for Able-Bodied Adults without Dependents (AWBADS).

My point in explaining these rules is to convey that immigrants can not come to the United States and live off our government, especially those who come illegally, since they are ineligible to receive any assistance at all.  Even under the best of circumstances, immigrants must reside legally in the U.S. for 5 years to be eligible for any public assistance.  I do not intend to argue the pros and cons of immigrants coming to the United States, legally or otherwise, merely to discuss the reality for those who are currently here, living and working in our communities.  For undocumented immigrants, like the subjects of the following narrative, this is the reality they have been facing forstrawberry pickers years, maybe even decades.

The family whose story  I am going to tell consists of 2 undocumented immigrant parents and their children living in my greater community.  I did not meet this family personally, but a very trustworthy friend did and conveyed their circumstances to me.  While the parents are undocumented, all of the children were born in the United States, and are therefore American citizens.  The oldest child is 17, so that means this couple has been residing in the United States for at least 17 years, almost 2 decades, making ends meet without receiving public assistance, while contributing to our local economy.  They were able to do this because the father worked full-time and supplemented his take home pay by doing additional farm work.  The mother stayed home raising the children.  The kids are good students, and the 17 year old approached senior year with visions of attending college.

For almost 2 decades this arrangement worked for this family, until one day the father was killed in a horrific accident, witnessed by his children.  And just like that their life turned into a horrible nightmare.  Within a week of losing their husband and father, this family lost their housing.  The 17 year old, who had aspirations of attending college, now faced the potential of having to drop out of school and start working.  The mother did not know where to turn.  She feared going to any agency for help in securing the benefits for which her children were eligible due to their status as U.S. citizens.  She worried about drawing attention to her undocumented status, triggering her removal from her children who had just lost a parent, and her likely deportation.  When I decided I was going to write about this family, I went back to my friend to ask what had happened to them.  Sadly, I can not report any update.  My friend, unable to help them personally, referred them on to an agency better equipped to help.  I can only hope they were able to find some assistance.

wildfireUnfortunately, the heartbreaking story of this family is not an isolated event.  Last fall fires burned out of control in large areas of Sonoma and Napa counties in California, including business and residential areas in the city of Santa Rosa.  The countryside surrounding Santa Rosa is lovely wine country, but Santa Rosa itself is a large city, with tens of thousands of residents.  A wildfire in the vineyards on hills would harm the economy, but a wildfire within the city of Santa Rosa would cause devastation for thousands.  At the time of the fires, I didn’t stop to think who would suffer the most as a result of these fires, or that vastly different levels of suffering would even be experienced.  On reflection, I realize the immigrant population will experience a greater loss as a result of these fires.  Santa Rosa, like most California cities and towns, has a large immigrant population, both documented and undocumented.  These immigrants, who lost everything in these fires, can only receive governmental assistance if they meet the previously explained requirements.  Additionally, FEMA assistance, which is vital to help those experiencing a disaster put their lives back together, is only available for U. S. citizens, non-citizen nationals (Somoans), and qualified aliens (those living legally in the U.S. for at least 5 years) .  For the others, there will be no money for them to rebuild their lives after this disaster.

The story of this local immigrant family haunts me as does reading about the hundreds, if not thousands, of immigrant victims of the wildfires in Santa Rosa who do not qualify for public assistance.  Prior to these horrific events, these households were surviving without assistance from the federal government.  Now, ineligible for help, what are they to do?  Immigrants, qualified and undocumented, live in almost every community in our country.  They mostly work in low paying, back breaking or otherwise unpleasant jobs that most American employers are unable fill using U.S. citizens.  They put money back into those local economies and pay taxes.  In return, during a time of need, they receive little to nothing.  What have we as a society gained from this?  And equally important, what have we lost?

Be the Change

be the changeI wanted to let my Facebook followers know that I have launched a From a Simmer to a Boil Facebook page.  It has actually been in existence for quite some time, but I have just recently updated it.  My intention with this page is to share, in addition to my blog posts, interesting, informative, thought provoking items about food insecurity and poverty, like the video I just posted about better understanding poverty in the United States.  I encourage you to check it out and “like” and “follow” the page.  You can find it by searching From a Simmer to a Boil on Facebook or by clicking here.  I also have a Twitter account @fromasimmertoaboil, which I hope to post to more frequently as well. Thank you for your interest in what I write and for caring about people who are experiencing poverty and food insecurity!

Trying to Restore Some Dignity

birthday-cakeThe other day, as I was scrolling through my Facebook feed, I came across a reposted blog entitled Poor People Deserve to Taste Something Other Than Shame.  In the blog, the author relays her reaction to and feelings about her mother bringing home a Boston cream pie one evening after work.  At the time, the author, her mother, and her brother were living in poverty and receiving food stamps.  As I read the author’s recounting of the event, I understood from the title what she was going to end up emphasizing, but was certainly surprised at her reaction, as a child, to that unexpected treat.  After some some reflection I wondered at my surprise.  Wasn’t her reaction to the treat coming from the same place as the apology we often get at the food pantry from clients, the apology to us from the client because he or she needs to come ask for help?  Both reactions result from a feeling of shame and both reactions break my heart.

I believe that most people consider themselves compassionate, willing to help those in need as much as they are able.  And luckily for organizations like food pantries, many people do give, not only food and other items, but also time and money, to help those in need.  I wonder, however, how many of those people give without question or judgement of the person needing help or the reason he or she is in that situation.  I imagine very few do.  Unconditional giving is difficult, especially if you have had to work hard and sacrifice to have what you do.  I will be the first to admit that I am not always free of judgement, even though it is important to me to remain open minded and learn the story behind the situation.  Remaining non-judgmental is even harder if you are told by others that most of those in poverty find themselves in that situation solely because of bad decisions or that they are lazy, and when you help them you are allowing them to takesteak advantage of you and/or the system.

When you hear this message enough times, spoken by people with authority, like politicians or the media, the message becomes internalized, whether you are person giving the assistance or the person in need of the assistance, and the repercussions of hearing this message are negative for both groups.  Those who are inclined to give may give less to charitable organizations assisting the poor or support politicians who advocate reducing assistance provided by the government, as a result of internalizing this message.  Additionally, when they do give, they may give with an attitude that the recipient should feel grateful for what is given, regardless of their taste for the item (think food), the condition of the item, or their preference/need for something else over the item given.  For those in poverty the repercussions of this message are disastrous.  Not only do they have to cope with the reality of shrinking assistance, whether that is governmental assistance like SNAP or local charitable assistance like food in a food pantry or non-food items like winter coats, but they must struggle with the knowledge that many in society view them as a pariah, which undoubtedly causes feelings of shame and failure.

I am very aware of society’s current attitudes toward those in poverty.  Each time I launch a drive for a special item, like coffee and tea or cookie and brownie mixes, I brace myself for pushback from readers.  I worry about comments like “These items are not necessities.” or “Coffee (tea, brownies or fill in the blank) are luxury items, indulgences.” followed by “Why should I use my hard earned money to pay for someone else to have a luxury?”.  Luckily for me, I have yet to receive any of these comments.  Any person questioning my choice of these items for a food drive would be correct.  The items I have chosen thus far are not staples, and indeed are indulgences, but that is exactly why I have chosen them.  At the food pantry, and I would imagine the same is true for most food pantries, we do not focus on the reason for the need, only that there is a need.  Because we receive state and federal food items to distribute, we do have regulations we need to follow as to who qualifies for assistance and how much we can distribute to each household, but once these requirements are met, all those in need are treated equally with dignity and compassion.

boston cream pieIn addition to being non-judgmental and compassionate, however, we try to offer kindness and restore a little bit of dignity to those who are struggling daily with the weight of poverty.  When we learn about a client facing a particularly difficult situation, we try to brighten that person’s day.  For the grandmother who is raising some of her grandchildren or the caretaker of an ailing family member, we try to slip in a brownie mix or some other special treat if we have them.  We keep on hand some birthday gift bags filled with all the fixings for a birthday party for households where a child is celebrating a birthday, but there is no money for a celebration.  For clients who are cancer patients we give scented lotions and soaps donated from a local store when they rotate their stock. I can tell the aim of offering these niceties is successful in lessening the burden of shame these people carry by the look on the recipient’s face and the thank yous, often said repeatedly, we receive when we let them know about the item. And this is why I have chosen the items I have for my food drives.  I wanted to pick things which would be a treat and would, if only for the amount of time it takes to drink a cup of coffee, allow someone in poverty to put down the weight of shame society has asked them to carry and and live like a person worthy of dignity.

A Human Face

happy 2018As one year comes to a close and another opens, full of possibilities and potential, it is only natural to reflect on what has transpired over the past year, and to look forward and plan for the upcoming year.  Many set resolutions for themselves based on goals they wish to attain, and others start new ventures.  I am no different than most.  This morning I made friends with my treadmill again and started logging my daily water intake, in hopes maintaining a better level of hydration.  I have not limited my reflections and resolutions to just my personal life, however.  As a result of stepping away, over the past year, from my bi-monthly schedule of locating, researching, and writing posts about interesting and informative topics concerning poverty and food insecurity, I have been able to think about what I hope to accomplish by writing the blog, to what degree I have been successful, and what, if any, changes need to be made.  Consequently, I have decided to introduce monthly narratives about people I encounter as I assist those who are experiencing food insecurity.

The decision to write these monthly narratives stems from a frustration I havecoffee frequently experienced when talking with others about poverty, especially with regard to public assistance.  The comments causing my frustration concern the questioning of the deservedness of those who receive any form of public assistance, whether that assistance is welfare (TANF), food stamps (SNAP) or food from a food pantry.  I’ve heard individuals classify those receiving assistance as lazy and living off the hard work of taxpayers or as illegal immigrants who have only come to the United States to get a handout.  Running through all of these comments is the theme that those in poverty are at fault for their situation, should feel shame, and any help they receive should carry a punitive component.  Over the past few years of writing this blog, I have presented statistics and facts about the average individual receiving assistance in an attempt to educate those who make such statements as to who the typical individual receiving public assistance is and the typical circumstances causing his or her need.  Unfortunately, I do not think I have made much headway in convincing those critical of public assistance that the majority of those receiving it are truly deserving.

teacupRefusing to give up, I have used my time away from writing to think about another strategy I can use to encourage these folks to stop and consider the possibility that the majority of individuals receiving public assistance are in dire straits, are working as hard as they can to get out of their situation, and do deserve the assistance they are receiving during their time of need.  As I have engaged others in a dialogue about poverty and the deservedness of those receiving public assistance, I have noticed that quite often the individual questioning the legitimacy of those in poverty to receive assistance is familiar with a person or family’s story which demonstrates for them genuine, legitimate need.  Those critical of public assistance give a pass to the individuals in these cases.  As a result of this observation, I have decided to write each month about a real person who is struggling with poverty and food insecurity, and whose story will hopefully give pause to someone who doubts the necessity of a strong social safety net in the United States. For these monthly narratives, I intend to draw on firsthand encounters* as often as I can in order to assure the veracity of the narrative, but will occasionally include an account I have read or heard about, so long as I can satisfactorily verify its accuracy.  I welcome your stories as well, either in the comments of my blog posts or privately, for me to include in a future narrative.  My hope is to put a human face on those who are struggling with poverty and food insecurity.hot-chocolate

Finally, the reason I have included pictures of warm beverages in this blog, other than it is cold and snowing, is to let readers know that I will once again be collecting warm beverages to give out to clients at the food pantry during the month of February.  This beverage drive was greatly appreciated by our clients last year, so much so, that we now routinely get asked if we have any coffee or tea available. It was also popular with readers, as I received numerous donations from many of you and have had readers already inquire this year about whether I was going to be collecting beverages again.  For those of you who are unfamiliar with the warm beverage drive I held last year, I will provide a link to the blog post from last January so you know about the drive, and like last year, regular coffee, black tea and hot chocolate made with water are the best options.

*I will not use names or any other piece of information which might cause the subject of my narrative to be identified.

 

 

#Giving Tuesday

donateToday is #Giving Tuesday, a global day of giving, intended to kickoff the end of year charitable giving season.  This movement was started in 2012 by a group at the Belfer Center for Innovation and Social Impact at the 92nd Street Y in New York City.  The creators hoped to continue the theme of giving, spurred by Black Friday and Cyber Monday, by designating a day to focus on charitable giving.  I wrote a blog post about #Giving Tuesday last year as well, but because I had completely missed the day, the focus of that post was to urge readers to not relegate giving to just one day and to give throughout the year.  I still believe in giving throughout the year, and so while I am encouraging you to give to a charitable organization today, I want to highlight ways you can give to your local food pantry throughout the year.

Giving to food banks and pantries often spikes in November and December as people are moved to be more charitable during the holidays of Thanksgiving and Christmas.  As I have been grocery shopping over the past two weeks I have started collecting items for my reverse Advent box, and later in December I will purchase some clothing and toy items to donate to our parent organization as they assist canned veggies drawingfamilies in need at Christmas.  But food pantries need donations throughout the year and are always happy to receive staples, like canned fruit and vegetables, pasta, soups, peanut butter and jelly, and tuna to name a few items.  One consideration to keep in mind when collecting these staple items is to try to find the healthiest versions possible, as people receiving food from a food pantry want, and often need, to eat healthy too.  For instance, when purchasing canned vegetables, soups, and peanut butter look for low and no sodium options.  Try to buy canned fruit packed in light syrup or its own juices and for canned meat, like tuna or chicken, choose those packed in water rather than oil.  Finally, look for hot and cold cereals which are 100% whole grain or at least list a whole grain as the first ingredient.

In addition to dried goods, other food and non-food items may be welcome donations at your local food pantry.  With the same focus on providing healthy food options, many food banks and pantries will accept excess produce from gardens, so the next time you find yourself uncertain as to what you are going to do with 25 pounds of zucchini, consider donating some to your local food pantry.  Additionally, shotgun season for deer just opened here indeer Pennsylvania and through the statewide program Hunters Sharing the Harvest, PA hunters are able to donate whole deer, which will be processed and distributed to food banks, who in turn, will deliver the venison to food pantries, soup kitchens, homeless shelters, and other hunger relief centers.  Finally, donations of non-food items, like diapers, personal care items and cleaning supplies are often greatly appreciated at many food pantries.

The items I have mentioned in this post are items that will be of need at most food pantries.  I urge you, however, to contact the food pantry to which you want to make a donation, particularly if the pantry is a small one.  The staff may be able to guide you to items which are most in need or clarify their policy on what they will accept and what they might be unable to handle.  Another reason to contact your local food pantry prior to giving is that maybe they have a need about which you were unaware, like an ongoing capital campaign to expand their space or purchase a large appliance like a freezer.  In such a situation the best donation you could make would be a cash donation.  Based on my nearly 3 years of volunteering in a food pantry, there is always a need, and we are always grateful when we receive donations.  Without them we would not be nearly as successful as we are at helping all those we do!

thank you veggies

A Giving Advent Calendar

After taking most of this year off from writing so that I could run for school board, I’m back!  The election was last Tuesday, and I am happy to say I was successful in my run and have been elected to the school board for a 4 year term.  I was surprised at how much I enjoyed campaigning for school board, and I now know many more people from my community than I did when I started my campaign.  I was, however, equally surprised at how much I missed writing this blog.  I am so glad to be back and eager to dive into reading all the articles I have saved over the past few months!

My shift in focus back to food insecurity coincides with the run up to the Thanksgiving and Christmas holiday seasons.reindeer advent  Being involved in a food pantry during the holiday season results in a seesawing of emotions for me.  I have more than once found myself leaving a volunteer shift in low spirits over the holiday season.  Hearing the stories of individuals and families who find themselves in such heartbreaking and often desperate situations is extra difficult when the balance of your life is filled with thoughts of and plans for the gastronomic bounty that is Thanksgiving and the excitement of giving and receiving that comes with Christmas.  The juxtaposition of these two very different life situations can leave me filled with a combination of anger, sadness and helplessness.

Luckily, working in the food pantry during the holiday season also brings examples of generosity, gratitude and joy.  Donations to food banks and pantries tend to increase during the holiday season, as individuals reflect on the abundance in their lives.  Churches, schools, social groups and businesses often sponsor food drives or adopt-a-family programs for the holidays.  Currently, I know my sons’ high school student council is sponsoring a food drive to benefit our food pantry.  In addition to the generosity exhibited by the general population through their increased donations, my spirits are often uplifted by the expression of gratitude a grocery cart full of food can bring to the face of a mother who spends much of her waking hours wondering and worrying not about how santa adventshe will provide Christmas presents for her children, but how she will feed them dinner on Christmas Day.  And I can not begin to explain to you the look of excitement and joy I saw on the faces of several young children as they picked out the sweet treat we gave out last December.

As a result of experiencing this back and forth of emotions while volunteering at the food pantry during the holidays, I knew instantly when I saw the idea of a giving (or reverse) Advent calendar on Facebook that I wanted to write about it in my blog and encourage others to participate in this year’s holiday project by creating a giving Advent calendar.  Most people are familiar with an Advent calendar, where you do something each day, starting with December 1st, until Christmas Eve to count down the days to Christmas.  In our house our two Advent calendars involve hanging an ornament on a Christmas tree each day.  The idea behind a giving Advent calendar is that you add something every day from December 1st through Christmas Eve to a box to be donated.  So for the food pantry, one would put a food item, personal care item or cleaning product each day in a box ending on December 24th with 24 items to then be donated to a food pantry.

This year, in addition to counting down the days to Christmas with our Advent calendars, my family will be counting up to 24 items in a box.  I encourage you to do the same with your family.  What you put in the box is up to you.  You can diversify, putting in 24 different items or simplify by putting in 24 of the same item.  You could pick a theme, like items a family might need in a day or ask your children to pick some of their favorite non perishable foods or focus on items for the homeless.  The options are many.  Below I have included a list of some of the more useful items that can be included in your giving Advent calendar, and if you are local to me, I would be happy to pick up your giving Advent calendar after Christmas.

Non Perishable Food:  canned vegetables, canned fruit, soups, peanut butter, jelly, spaghetti noodles, spaghetti sauce, rice, dried beans, tuna, canned chicken, cereal, instant oatmeal, coffee, tea, hot chocolate, sweet treats

Personal Care Items:  bars of soap, toothpaste, dental floss, toothbrushes, shampoo, deodorant, toilet paper, tissues

Cleaning Products:  laundry soap, dish soap, paper towels

Baby products:  baby cereal, formula, baby food, diapers (especially larger sizes), baby wipes, baby shampoo, baby wash

Homeless Products:  single serving cans, items with pop tops, Spam, Vienna sausages, chili, packages of single serve cereal, granola bars, single serve juices, dehydrated soups, plastic utensils, can openers

 

 

Think Locally When Acting Nationally

fireworksThis past Saturday the Chester Country chapter of the A.B.A.T.E. motorcycle group delivered the results of their annual food drive to the food pantry.  The group estimates this year’s drive netted approximately 10 tons of food and personal care products.  I was unable to be there when the food arrived, but I hope to be able to attend this event next year.  The caravan of motorcycles and pickup trucks pulling trailers loaded with food was met at the edge of town and given a police escort through the town center to the building that houses the food pantry.  To me one of the joys of living in a small town is the hoopla that occurs for an event like this.  I’m certain when I witness it firsthand I will tear up.

After writing a blog post about this event last year I happened to encounter some members of the local A.B.A.T.E. motorcycle club at our town’s First Friday event.  I had been so moved by their effort, and as a volunteer in the food pantry, had seen what a difference their food drive made, so I decided to approach these leather clad bikers to thank them and let them know they were making a difference.  What I got in return was a very touching conversation.  The biker I talked to had at one time needed the assistance of our food pantry.  As a result of the help and kindness he had received at a difficult time in his life, he made a promise to himself that he would participate in this food drive as a way to repay this kindness and help others who were going through a similar rough patch in fireworks red white bluelife.

As I recall that conversation I can not help thinking about another conversation I had earlier this summer.   My husband and I were attending a reunion ceremony for his undergraduate program.  It was a cocktail reception and he and I were milling about, not knowing anyone.  We approached a couple standing at a table and struck up a conversation.  As we discussed who attended the college and our time at the college, the conversation naturally progressed to what we were currently doing.  When I mentioned that I blogged about and advocated for those who were food insecure, the wife asked if I focused my efforts on global food insecurity or national food insecurity.  Her question instantly made me wary and I cautiously answered nationally, especially locally to where I live.  I was relieved when she responded affirmatively, stating that so often there is an emphasis placed on the suffering going on in third world countries, while willingly ignoring the suffering that is happening within our borders to our fellow citizens.

I found truth in her statement but with qualifiers. Locally, I have witnessed numerous people, from this motorcycle group to local churches to concerned neighbors eager to donate food and other items to help those who come to our food pantry.  I am always touched and humbled by the generosity of others when the local schools’ food drive is delivered or one of my neighbors calls to ask what the pantry needs or how they can help.  These local actions are necessary to help bridge the gap between what these individuals who are food insecure have and what they need to get by, but even at our best we can do very little to lift those in need out of their desperate situation.  We are just a band-aid.

sparklerTo truly change the plight of the food insecure requires a much larger nationwide effort, starting with a strong social safety net and jobs which pay a livable wage, and yet, as a nation Americans currently seem very reluctant to embrace these policies.  This divide between the individual acts of generosity I have witnessed repeatedly and the willingness of the greater American society to support policies that will cut aid to the very same people that local generosity has helped is befuddling to me.  I have read articles and books to try to understand it.  I have engaged in conversation with and listened to those who support cuts to the social safety net to try to understand it.  And still I do not.  So as I celebrate this Fourth of July with family and full table of food, I will be thankful for the individual generosity of others and hopeful that their generosity continues to be enough to bridge the gap for those in need until our society can come together nationally to work toward nationwide solutions to food insecurity which will lift people up rather than just bridge a gap.

4th of July

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.