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.

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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.

 

 

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

 

 

Devastating and Instantaneous

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

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

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

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

Calling All Elves!

cookiesEvery year my sister and I get together and bake Christmas cookies.  It is one of my favorite activities over the holiday season.  We light a fire in the fireplace and play Christmas carols all day.  As the aroma of freshly baked cookies begins to waft through the house my kids and husband follow the smell to the kitchen to sample a still warm cookie or four.   Many of these cookies will find their way to others as gifts–a little thank you to the mailman or the neighbors who can always be counted on for last minute items or pet assistance.  The cookies spread cheer to my husband’s employees and the people who work at the agency that houses the food cupboard.  As the rush and demands of the holiday season begin to encroach I always make sure I save a day for this event sometimes knowing that I will miss something else.

The other day as I was thinking about holiday events and planning activities, I thought fondly of my annual cooking making day.  I happened to be at the food cupboard when I was having this reverie and was almost immediately brought up short.  I can’t imagine how difficult maneuvering the holidays must be for someone who is food insecure.  From Thanksgiving through Christmas and the New Year quite an emphasis is put on special foods, large meals and sweet treats.  I felt a great sadness for those who can not escape the images of the abundance associated the holidays, and yet can not afford to partake in those treats.  At that moment I knew I wanted to do something to help our clients experience a little bit of holiday cheer, but I knew I would not be able to accomplish this task alone.

This is where you, my elves, come in.  I would like to be able to give every person who comes in to receive food for his or her household in the month of December a treat to make their month a little brighter.  I am asking for donations of packaged baking mixes, baking-mixeslike quick breads or brownies, especially ones geared for the holiday season, for instance gingerbread or pumpkin bread or brownies with seasonal add ins.  I couldn’t find it in my grocery store, but I’m pretty sure Ghirardelli had a chocolate peppermint brownie mix out over the holiday season last year. Not every packaged mix will work, however.  I am looking for mixes which only need the added ingredients of eggs, water and oil.  These added items–eggs and cooking oil–are regularly provided by the pantry.  I had initially been thinking of getting cookie mixes, but most of those require a stick of butter or margarine and many food insecure households just don’t have that luxury.  I did find that the peanut butter cookie mix from Duncan Hines does not call for butter, so it is okay.  Lastly, the donations must be mixes as opposed to slice and bake cookie tubes or frozen cookie dough, as we do not have the extra space to store items that need to be refrigerated or frozen.

I have estimated that for every household receiving food in December to receive a treat I will need approximately 250 mixes.  If any mixes are leftover at the end of December, they will continue to be given out in January.  So many of you in the past have expressed an interest in helping in some way and I thought this would be a fun, uplifting way to donate.  If you are interested in participating, please contact me and we can work out a way for me to collect the mixes or for them to be delivered.  Let’s help bring a little holiday cheer to someone in need.

Click and Carry

As a volunteer in a food cupboard I have heard many stories that have broken my heart.  Often clients are embarrassed about needing help, so they want to explain why they are asking for food or sometimes they are just overwhelmed and want to share the frustration of their struggle with someone.  Even though their stories are often hard to hear, the sadness or frustration I feel is mitigated by the act of providing them with food.  I feel less helpless as I  watch them wheel their loaded shopping cart out to their car, knowing I have helped make their difficult time a little easier.  Unfortunately, with our homeless clients, this uplifting of spirit does not always occur.  The reason I am occasionally left with a sense of despair is that I can’t load a cart with food for them.  There is usually no car to which they can take bags and boxes of food.  I can only give them what they can carry, and it’s never enough, even for only one person.

canned-foodFor over a year I have been troubled by the problem homeless clients, especially those on foot, present.  We can not overcome some of the limitations that prevent us from providing our homeless clients with certain types of food.  For instance, if they have no way to keep food refrigerated, we can not give them food that requires refrigeration.  Similarly, if they do not have a means to cook food, we can not give them anything that requires even minimal cooking, like ramen noodles.  One problem unique to providing food to homeless clients that I have felt we can solve, however, is limitation on the quantity of food we are able to give them at one time.  The strategy to solving this problem involves a two-pronged approach–increasing the quantity and variety of food and nonfood items specifically for the homeless and coming up with solutions that allow homeless clients on foot leave with more food.

The first prong is the somewhat easier one to tackle.  For the most part, homeless clients receive different food than our non-homeless clients due to their unique living situations–no way to heat or refrigerate food and/or no can openers–which dictates the specialized food items they receive.  Consequently, a majority of the food they receive comes from donations.  As a result, we can only give homeless clients what we have in stock at the time.  I have had several local readers express an interest in donating food and other supplies for our homeless clients.  Over the summer I spent some time compiling a list of items, food and nonfood, that work for homeless clients given their unique circumstances.  I will post this list of suggested items for the homeless on my webpage.  It can be found on the dark blue banner at the very top of the page.  I will be happy to let anyone know of a specific need we have and to collect food and non-food items anyone wishes to donate.

The second prong in the approach to solving the problem of limitations on the amount of backpacksfood homeless clients can take with them involves figuring out a way for them to carry more food away, so that their allotment more closely resembles the amount an individual with transportation is able to take.  When packing food for a homeless client one of the questions we ask is whether s/he has a backpack.  Backpacks can be packed with heavier items and to capacity, as it is easier to carry something heavy on your back.  We have on occasion gotten backpacks donated, but do not always have them on hand for new homeless clients.  Additionally purchasing new ones is cost prohibitive.  Consequently, I starting searching for a more inexpensive alternative.  We usually pack as much food for clients as we can in boxes, but that is not very practical for homeless clients on foot, so most of their items are put into plastic bags.  Over time carrying multiple plastic bags in one’s hand can become uncomfortable or even painful if the bags are heavy, as anyone who has ever gone shopping at the mall can attest.  Thinking about these mall trips made me remember a sales clerk who rigged up a handle that the other handles went through so that I was only having to carry one handle in my hand.  She did this mostly so I didn’t drop a bag, but the result was also more comfortable to carry.

click-and-carryI began searching the Internet for an item that could be fed through the handles of multiple bags and then closed, making one single handle to carry.  What I found was Click and Carry.  The Click and Carry is a wide plastic handle, shaped to fit comfortably in one’s hand.  When the top of the handle is pushed down, it can rotate open allowing bag handles to be inserted.  To secure the plastic bag handles the top is just rotated back, clicking into place.  The bags can be carried in someone’s hand, or if the bag straps are long enough, they can be carried over the shoulder, allowing up to 50 lbs. to be carried at once.  I contacted the company and explained what I wanted to use the Click and Carry for.  The owner has graciously offered us a generous discount and the cheapest shipping she can find.  I am currently awaiting shipment of our first batch and can’t wait to start providing them for our homeless clients.shelves

Often when I sit down to write a blog post it is draining, because the subject matter can be bleak and depressing, or like the last post I wrote, frustrating and exasperating.  For me, I find it necessary to have positive news or events every so often.  They give me hope and keep me going.  I am excited about the Click and Carry and can not wait to receive them and start providing them to homeless clients.  In anticipation of an increase in supplies for our homeless clients, I straightened and reorganized the shelves where we store items appropriate for homeless clients to make more space.  I am hopeful that these actions will more successfully help us in assisting our homeless clients.

Tastes Good

free kaleThis past Saturday I spent the morning at a training session for a new program, sponsored by the Chester County Food Bank (CCFB), called Taste It!.  I went to the training with another volunteer from the food cupboard. In addition to us, attendees included a few nutrition students from West Chester University, a representative from another food pantry and several individuals interested in volunteering with this program through the CCFB at various food pantries and at the Fresh2You Mobile Market. Volunteers with the Taste It! program prepare a nutritious recipe, provide samples of the prepared recipe and information about healthy cooking on a limited budget.

The Taste It! program is very similar to what I have wanted to see offered through food cupboards and pantries.  The program does not seek to preach at participants about eating more nutritiously, but rather to introduce them to various fresh produce and other healthy foods and to demonstrate how easy to prepare, flavorful recipes using just a few ingredients can be.  The simple recipes try to emphasize fresh fruits and vegetables, utilize low cost or cupboard provided ingredients and provide adequate seasonings so that they taste appealing.  I appreciate that the CCFB encourages Taste It! volunteers to modify the recipes provided so that they use actual ingredients available in a specific pantry or cupboard and to use recipes created by the volunteers or shared by clients, provided they follow the criterion above.  I am additionally pleased to see that volunteers are encouraged to consider the cultural appropriateness of the recipes they choose to prepare.

The training took place at the Chester County Food Bank and in addition to providing anfree sweet potato overview of the program and proceedures, included a tour of the facility and a basic cooking and knife skills demonstration by a guest chef.  We finished the training with hands on cooking of some of the recipes.  The attendees were divided into 4 groups and prepared 4 different recipes provided by the Food Bank.  Once completed we sampled all of the dishes and discussed the cooking process, our thoughts on the recipes and what we might discuss when presenting the recipe.  For participating in the Taste It! program our food cupboard will receive a cooking kit, which includes bowls for ingredient display and mixing, measuring spoons and cups, a can opener, a cutting board, a knife, cooking utensils, a few basic ingredients like seasonings, oil, vinegar and soy sauce and an electric skillet for preparing the recipes.  These items will facilitate the implementation of this program.

I am excited about this program and was glad to have been included in the training.   We already have tremendous interest from a many of our clients with regard to fresh produce and eating healthier.  This program will serve to grow that support and further assist our clients in making healthier food choices.

Showing someone that a recipe sample is delicious can be much more powerful than telling them that it is “healthy”!

From the Taste It! Program Volunteer Handbook

 

 

Christmas in July

harleyFor over 25 years on the Fourth of July weekend the local chapter of a motorcycle club pulls up outside the food pantry where I volunteer to deliver the results of their annual food drive.  This year was no exception.  On July 2nd three pickup trucks towing utility trailers loaded with food, diapers, personal hygiene products, cleaning products and paper products arrived, bringing the food pantry Christmas in July!  During the month of June, members from Chester County A.B.A.T.E. set up outside local grocery stores on the weekends to collect donations for this drive.  Additionally, club members take any financial donations they receive and purchase items the pantry IMG_0815needs, but are not usually donated in a food drive, like the personal hygiene products, diapers and paper products.

This considerably large donation comes at a great time of year.  Food banks and pantries, ours included, often get most of their large donations in the late fall, right before the holidays, so by the summer donated supplies are running low.  Additionally, summer is often a time when food pantry usage goes up, as children, who may normally receive two meals a day at school during the school year, are home for the summer.  This sizeable donation helps in another way, by allowing us to bring new items into the pantry and fill in the gaps in our staple items, like pasta, beans, rice and vegetables.  I can see the difference this donation has made already.  Our shelves are completely stocked, including personal care items, diapers, and items for the homeless.

IMG_0816Operating a food bank, cupboard or pantry would be impossible without the generosity of those who donate.  We are fortunate to get individual and organization donations regularly throughout the year.  As a matter of fact, as I was leaving the pantry on Tuesday I held the door open for a lady bringing in a box of donated food.   Additionally, several churches drop off regular donations from parishioners.  Sizeable donations like this one, however, coming at a time of year when most people are focused on things other than food drives, help us better serve those in need in our community.  So to the members of this motorcycle club I say a heartfelt thank you and safe ride!

Good News for a Change!

There have been times lately when the daily news feed has just been depressing to the point that I will go several days with minimal monitoring of the news.  To continue to follow the news cycle only serves to deepen the malaise that I feel and at times has almost caused me to throw up my hands and say what’s the use.  These past few days have been no exception.  So when I received two particular emails yesterday containing good news my lunchboxspirits were immediately lifted.

The first email came from the Director of Food Services in my local school district, notifying me that the school district’s application to provide free summer lunches to students in our school district had finally been approved.  The school district had applied to serve reimbursable meals under the federally funded Summer Food Service Program.  Any child under the age of 18 will be able to come to the designated location and receive a meal at no charge.  Adults are also able to eat a meal as well for a nominal fee.  The school district will be serving lunches at a convenient, walkable location, 4 days a week from June 20-August 18.

This is the same program that I had been researching last year, with the hope of convincing the school board to authorize the district to apply to be a sponsor of this program for this summer.  When I contacted the Food Services Director for the district to obtain some information for my group’s presentation, she told me the district was already considering this program.  At the time she was just beginning her research, so I was able to provide her with the contact information of the person with whom I had been speaking at the PA Department of Education.  I was very relieved to learn that the school district was already considering this program.  I had been thinking that our group was going to have to do quite a bit of convincing to get this program implemented.  I need to get my background check completed, but once I have accomplished that I plan to volunteer with this program once a week  as well.

The second email I received that buoyed my spirits was the monthly newsletter from thevegetables Food Bank of Delaware.  The Food Bank of DE has received a 3 year grant from Giant Food’s Our Family Foundation.  This grant allows the Food Bank of DE to partner with Delaware Pediatrics in a pilot program entitled “Produce Prescriptions”.  The pilot will allow participating Delaware Pediatrics offices to identify up to 120 families they feel are at risk for food insecurity and diet related health conditions, such as cardiovascular disease, obesity and diabetes.  Those families will then be given a “produce prescription” which allows them to receive a monthly allotment of 15-20 pounds of fruits and vegetables from the Food Bank.  These fruits and vegetables will be able to be picked up by the families at the pediatric clinic they attend.  What a great idea!  I have read about doctors and hospitals writing prescriptions for fruits and vegetables, but this is the first program I have heard about that provides the produce to those who are otherwise unable to purchase the produce themselves.

These emails came at just the right time for me.  Periodically I get very discouraged and pessimistic about what can be accomplished, and in particular, what I can ever hope to accomplish.  While I do not take any credit for the summer lunch program in my local girls eating watermelontown, I am happy to know that I helped connect the Food Service Director with the right person at the right State agency to move the process along.  I’d also like to think that keeping in contact with her over the past few months and letting her know that people in the community supported this action strengthened the district’s resolve to see this process to fruition.  Either way, it matters not.  The most important thing is that kids, who would otherwise be hungry, are now able to get a nutritious lunch 4 days a week over the summer.

 

Nothing For Us, Without Us

The title of this blog post makes reference to a Latin phrase, Nihil de nobis, sine nobis (Nothing about us, without us) that has its origins in Central European map polandpolitical traditions.  This motto aided in the creation of Poland’s 1505 constitutional legislation, which transferred political power from the monarchy to parliament.  It also sounds very similar to, and perhaps inspired the creation of, the American Revolutionary War demand “No taxation without representation!”  More recently the phrase was used the 1990s in the disabilities rights movement.  The ancient phrase expresses the equally age old notion of self-determination, that people want to control their own lives.

I just recently encountered the phase in a report entitled, Special Report:  American’s Food Banks Say Charity Won’t End Hunger.  The report is the result of a collaboration between WhyHunger and food access organizations that participated in the 2015 biennial Closing the Gap “Cultivating Food Justice” Conference.  This conference, started by the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona, brings together emergency food providers, who currently engage the entire community, including clients, to solve that community’s specific hunger problems.  The Closing the Hunger Gap network’s stated purpose is “to engage food banks and their constituents in expanding their efforts beyond food handouts, toward community based empowerment initiatives that effectively network with broader food security work.”  They envision a time when:

  • food banks measure success, not by the increase in the number of people they help or the amount of food they distribute, but in how many people no longer need a handout.
  • people, who now view themselves as recipients of food handouts, will be able to determine their own futures.
  • low income people, food banks and community leaders work closely together to establish food security efforts that are not only national, but local and regional, in scope.

To accomplish their vision, these emergency food providers seek to move beyond being an organization that just distributes food (charity), to an organization that engages all of the community, including the poor, to work toward reducing poverty by addressing its root causes (social justice).

To aid in this shift, we must understand that the narrative we use when we speak about poverty is flawed.  Mia Birdsong, in her TED Talk entitled, The Story We Tell about Poverty Isn’t True, actually suggests it is false.   Toward the end of her talk, which highlights the innovative ways several people who are poor have solved problems facing them, Birdsong states,

I’m tired of the story we tell that hard work leads to success, because that allows…those of us who make it to believe we deserve it, and by implication, those who don’t make it don’t deserve it.  We tell ourselves, in the back of our minds, and sometimes in the front of our mouths, “There must be something a little wrong with those poor people.”  We have a wide range of beliefs about what that something wrong is.  Some people tell the story that poor folks are lazy freeloaders who would cheat and lie to get out of an honest day’s work.  Others prefer the story that poor people are helpless and probably had neglectful parents that didn’t read to them enough, and if they were just told what to do and shown the right path they could make it.

Neither story is correct and both prevent us from tapping into what Birdsong calls our “most powerful and practical resource. . .people who are poor.”  Poor people are the experts on their problems and they probably see a solution to fix those problems.  What is missing are the seed accelerators or venture capitalists, found in Silicon Valley and other places, who are willing to invest in the ideas of poor people.  And I don’t mean just money.  They need mentors, collaborators and people to open the right door.  They need someone to listen to them and believe in them.

Let’s circle back to food banks and apply the new narrative that poor people quite often can create solutions to their own problems, provided they are offered the same help and encouragement that is offered to other segments of the population.  What if the people helping handswho run food banks invited some of their clients in to talk with them and other community leaders about the problems they are facing?  And not just food related problems, but all of the problems they face.  What if emergency food providers and other community leaders listened to them as they discussed their problems and believed they were the experts on their problems, including the solutions?  What if after that meeting, clients, emergency food providers and community leaders collaborated, using the ideas of the clients coupled with the resources of the community, to address some of these problems?  I think all parties involved would be surprised at what might be accomplished.  I also think we would see stronger communities, as divisions decrease and understanding and respect grows.