Something Beautiful out of Tragedy

fruit heartTuesdays are always my crazy busy day, and yesterday afternoon as I was running errands I heard a heard a news story on the radio which brought a sad smile to my face.  The segment was about the Philando Feeds the Children fund, a memorial fund set up to raise money to pay off school lunch debt in schools in St. Paul, MN.  The fund was established in honor of Philando Castile who was fatally shot by police in 2016.  The creator of this online crowdfunding venture chose a fund to pay off school lunch debt as a way to honor Philando Castile, because Mr. Castile worked as a nutrition services supervisor at a school in St. Paul and would regularly assist children who were unable to pay for lunch with money out of his own pocket.  The fund has raised $70,000 over its initial goal of $5,000.  As a result, fund organizers have decided to increase their goal to $100,000 and to expand the reach of the fund to any school in Minnesota with school lunch debt.

I wish I didn’t live in a world with school lunch debt or hungry children or innocent, unarmed individuals getting shot by police offices, but the creation of this fund and the outpouring of support for it help to restore my faith in the kindness and caring of others.


A Budget Built on Myths

Over the past two weeks I have read analyses and responses to the President’s 2019 proposed budget from a variety of sources, including organizations which report the news, conduct policy review, advocate for the poor, and help provide food for those who are food insecure.  All of these organizations and news outlets have come to the same conclusion–this budget will be disastrous to poor Americans.  Since my blog focuses on food insecurity, I am going to limit my discussion of the proposed budget to changes which will affect aid to those who are food insecure; however, the budget’s proposed cuts to the federal housing assistance program, Medicaid, and other programs comprising our social safety net will undoubtedly further negatively impact these same households.  I will mostly focus on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which is slated to have its budget cut by $213 billion over the next ten years, or 30 percent.   This budget cut to SNAP would be achieved by drastically restructuring benefit delivery, a change affecting a majority of participating SNAP households.  Additional proposed changes in benefits and eligibility requirements would make at least 4 million peopleelderly hands ineligible for any SNAP benefits.  These proposed cuts will affect SNAP participants across all groups, including the elderly, those with disabilities, low income working families, children and veterans.

If this budget is approved, the largest cut to SNAP would occur through a dramatic restructuring in the delivery of benefits.  In this restructuring $260 billion (over 10 years) will be shifted from benefits paid directly to households for the purchase of food, back to the government.  Here is how the restructuring will work.  Under the proposal, households which receive $90 or more in SNAP benefits each month (80% of all SNAP recipients) would see half of their benefit amount shift from direct EBT funds, which are then used by the recipient to purchase food, to a box of pre-selected, non-perishable food worth the same dollar amount including, shelf stable milk, cereals, pasta, peanut butter, beans, and canned fruits and vegetables.*  The cost for the purchase food, assembly, and distribution of these boxes, called America’s Harvest Box, is budgeted to cost $130 billion, or half of the money being shifted from direct benefits.  The remaining $130 billion of the held back funds would be eliminated from the program, comprising the majority of the USDA’s estimated ten year SNAP savings.  This change would affect almost 90% of SNAP participants, or approximately 34 million people in 16 million households in 2019.

The cuts to SNAP do not end with this restructuring though.  The President’s 2019 budget proposes an additional $85 billion in cuts to SNAP over a ten year period.  For example, the budget proposes raising the upper age limit for unemployed able-bodied adults without dependents (ABAWDs), who are limited to only 3 months of SNAP benefits, from the current age of 49 to age 62.  Another proposed change would be to cap SNAP benefits disabledat the level for a household of six, penalizing any households of more than six individuals.  This will greatly impact multi-generational households or households where two families have come together to pool their resources by sharing costs.  An additional proposed cut would be the elimination of the minimum benefit, ending benefits for roughly 2 million individuals, mostly low-income seniors and people with disabilities. These are just a few of the other areas the budget proposes to cut SNAP benefits.  SNAP, however, is not the only program assisting those who are food insecure targeted for cuts.

Like SNAP these other programs help all groups who are facing poverty and food insecurity.  For instance, the budget proposes the all but elimination of the Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP), which will impact seniors.  The CSFP distributes senior boxes, which provides meal boxes to low income seniors.  Additionally there are proposed cuts to the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) and school and summer lunch programs.  These cuts will greatly impact children and weaken programs which have been proven to not only lessen hunger, but infant eatingto improve the health and educational achievement of children.  The last cuts I want to mention are cuts to programs that assist with purchasing fresh produce at farmer’s markets, and nutritional education programs.  These cuts strike me as incredibly hypocritical as one of the main reasons for restructuring SNAP benefits to include the America’s Harvest Box was to ensure SNAP participants were purchasing healthy food with their benefits.  The America’s Harvest Box, however, contains no fresh produce and these cuts will reduce the amount of fresh fruits and vegetables individuals receiving assistance can purchase.

As I state above, the proposed cuts to these social safety net programs designed to assist the food insecure do not discriminate and will hurt all segments of the population receiving assistance.  This proposed budget reflects a clear misunderstanding about who the average SNAP participant actually is.*  I have come to the conclusion over the past few years of studying poverty issues and food insecurity, that many in this country, including a large number of politicians, believe that the average SNAP participant is someone who is lazy and doesn’t want to work.  They believe that person uses his or her benefits to buy junk food and sodas or steaks and other luxuries.  Furthermore, when they not making inappropriate food purchases, they are engaging in some sort of fraudulent activity with their SNAP benefits.  And all the while they are abusing the system, they are laughing at hard working Americans for providing their tax dollars to fund this program.  Ladies and gentlemen, this version of the average SNAP participant is a MYTH and before anyone starts to protest about some friend their brother knows, or a co-worker’s cousin or even their own deadbeat cousin, let me just say that I know there are those out there who abuse the system.  I have witnessed it myself.  But the number of farm workerparticipants I have witnessed who are truly struggling, working hard, and trying to do the right thing to get themselves and their families out of the situation they are in, vastly outweighs the handful of SNAP abusers I have encountered.

I grew up hearing that those in the United States who wanted to could pull themselves up by their own bootstraps and make a good life for themselves.  I was taught that in America if a person worked hard and played by the rules, he could rise up and attain the American Dream.  I have learned that this, too, is a MYTH.  Oh sure, the possibility does exist for an individual to start with very little, and with hard work and smart decisions, attain wealth.  I would just argue that there is more to that person’s story than just hard work and sacrifice, because I encounter individuals all the time who are working hard and sacrificing, but still live in poverty.  The truth is that it is against incredible odds that anyone is able to move out of poverty in the United States.  The social safety net in the Untied States contains gaping holes in its current state.  Maintaining the status quo will at best ensure that poverty numbers in the United States will remain at their current level.  If this budget were to pass, however, all bets are off.

* I will address this topic further in an upcoming blog post.

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.

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

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