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.


Empty Bowls

Just recently I became aware of a really creative and innovative fundraising effort for food banks, pantries, soup kitchen and larger organizations that give aid to those suffering from hunger.  The Empty Bowls Project is the major project of the non profit, Imagine Render, whose mission is to “create positive and lasting change through the arts, education, and projects that build community.”  This program is an international effort to raise money and awareness in the fight against hunger.  Each empty bowls fundraiser varies from community to community as organizations adapt this program to suit their group and community.

empty bowls ticket

Here in my community a local food bank is partnering with the local Arts’ Alliance organization to sponsor this event.  People wishing to participate can go to the Arts Alliance building during a series of Saturdays.  After paying $20, they receive a blank ceramic bowl which they sign and decorate any way they choose.  The Arts Alliance organization will fire all the decorated bowls.  On the day of the event, participants will go to the local fire hall, find their bowl and use it to be served a simple meal of soup and bread.  For those people who wish to participate in the fundraiser, but not decorate a bowl, some decorated bowls will beme decorating bowl available the day of the event as long as supplies last.  Once the soup has been consumed, the bowl is yours to take home to serve as a reminder that hunger exists in our world.

I love the creativity of this fundraiser, both in the uniqueness of the fundraising activity and in the fact that participants get to be creative and create something to take away.  I also like the idea of coming together as a community and eating a meal together.  I live in a small town, so chances are I will know several people as I sit down to eat my soup and bread.  Finally I like that the meal is simple, because for people experiencing hunger, simple is how they eat, when they eat.  I am often torn by the large gala fundraisers, often featuring celebrity chefs, that are thrown to raise money for organizations fighting hunger.  I guess that may be what is needed to get some to give money to fight hunger.  I just like that this event not only raises money for those who are hungry, but it helps to raise awareness of what someone who is experiencing hunger might eat.

Kevin Finn bowlsThis past Saturday my family went to decorate our bowls, some more enthusiastically than others.  (It’s hard to get enthusiasm out of teenagers sometimes!)  We got our bowls, chose our color palette and got to work.  We all had different styles and ideas.  I had been stressing over what to paint, as I am not artistic at all.  In the end, I decided it was best to keep it simple and went with stripes and polka dots.  When these bowls are fired the colors will darken a bit.  Since finishing our bowls we have all mentioned how excited we are to see our finished products.  Check back after February 20th and I will have pictures of the fired bowls!  There are two more Saturdays left to decorate bowls, so if you live in my community and are looking for a fun, creative, socially aware event to do with your family or just on your own, head on down to the Arts’ Alliance building and get a bowl of your own!

my bowl from topmy bowl from side

Pennsylvania Budge Update

happy new yearHappy New Year and welcome to day 190 without a state budget here in Pennsylvania.  If you are keeping track, and I am, that is just over half of the 2015-16 fiscal year without a budget and almost that long without any funds being released at all.  Governor Wolfe’s refusal to approve of any stop gap funding in lieu of a passed budget came to an end just before 2015 did.  On December 29 the Governor announced he would line item veto the state budget sent to him by the legislature.  This action allows for $23.4 billion in emergency funds to be released.  These funds will flow to school districts, human service agencies and county governments.  Of that $23.4 billion, $18.4 million will go to the State Food Purchase Program.  Through this program cash grants are awarded to lead agencies in each county, allowing them to buy items in bulk, which are then distributed to smaller emergency food providers–food pantries and cupboards–within the county.

These funds are desperately needed by both the lead agencies and the smaller emergency food providers.  Right before Christmas I talked with a friend who had toured the Chester County Food Bank, our local lead agency, the week before our meeting.  She said they showed her group a large warehouse room with literally tons of food waiting to be distributed to the small providers once the funds were released.  The warehouse was running out of space and staff wasn’t sure how they were going to get the excess food out to the pantries and cupboards.  Only so much food can fit on the truck.  Additionally, the pantries and cupboards only have so much storage room, and can therefore only handle so much food being delivered at one time.

Now that some of these funds have been released, the delivery logistics for this food will have to be addressed quickly, because the need at the smaller pantries and cupboards is great.  Yesterday I returned to empty shelvesvolunteering at the local food pantry after having taken last week off.  I was shocked at how empty the shelves were.  We were down to just three types canned vegetables from our usual five or more. We had only one type of cold cereal or oatmeal instead of several selections of cereal, oatmeal, and pancake mix from which clients can choose.  We had no spaghetti or dried beans and were almost out of rice, both white and brown.

Luckily the crisis caused by the lack of funding occurred just after the holidays, a time of increased food donations to food pantries and cupboards.   A staff member and I were able to unpack 10-12 boxes of donated food to augment the food items still on our shelves.  Although very helpful, relying heavily on donations to provide food often leaves recipients at the whim of what people choose to donate.  As a result of the holidays, we unpacked several cans of cranberry sauce and black olives, both tasty as an accent to your holiday meal, but neither something you want to eat a whole can of by itself!  We also found numerous cans of soupcanned soup in these boxes, and while soup may seem like, and is, a good thing to donate to a food drive, canned soup contains an outrageous amount of sodium.  Giving a client several extra cans of soup to make up for lacking items which could be used in meals clients prepare, like dried beans,  means they are most certainly eating a more unhealthy diet this month.

I asked when we could hope to see some relief, in the form of food shipments, that these released funds promise.  I was told we will get at least one food shipment in the next week, but how big it is, is anybody’s guess.  Only so much food will fit on the truck and it delivers to multiple food pantries and cupboards each trip.  I am hopeful that when I arrive to volunteer next Tuesday I will see evidence of the funds Governor Wolfe released in the form of fuller shelves.  In the meantime, I hope our elected officials take seriously the job they have been elected to do, for which they are still being paid, budget or not, and work in earnest to reach a compromise leading to the passage of a state budget.

The Struggle Continues

pennsylvania sealOver a month ago, on September 30th, I wrote a post about how the Pennsylvania budget impasse was impacting one of our local food pantries.  Well it is 43 days later and we still do not have a budget in the state of Pennsylvania.  Today is day 135 without a budget, and while I have not been back to that particular food pantry, I can only imagine their situation is even more bleak.  Food banks and pantries across the Commonwealth, in places like the city of Carlisle and  Juniata, Bucks and Carbon County, are struggling to meet the needs of the numerous people in their communities who rely on them to make their food ends meet.

According to the PA Department of Agriculture website, Pennsylvania leads the nation in the amount of food assistance it provides to its residents under the State Food Purchase Program (SFPP).  Actually, only a handful of states even provide state revenue for an emergency assistance food program for low income residents.  This program serves PA residents with an annual income at or below 150% of the poverty line ($27,795 for a family of three).  Through this program cash grants are awarded to lead agencies in each county, allowing them to buy items in bulk, which are then distributed to smaller emergency food providers within the county.  These food purchases are made at wholesale or competitively bid prices to further stretch the funds available.

This week the struggle to continue to assist people needing emergency food, while dealing with the lack of funds resulting from budget impasse, hit home once again.  Tuesday is my usual day to volunteer in the other local food pantry in my neighborhood.  When I arrived I was informed about the new guidelines for distributing food we had to follow as a result of the lack of funding from the state.  Basically we are having to ration what we have, because we do not know how long we will have to go until we receive food from the lead county agency that receives SFPP empty shelvesfunding.  For smaller households, 3 and under, the reduction in the amount of non-perishable food they received was not that noticeable, but for the larger households, and on Tuesday we packed food for two households of 6, the non-perishable food allotment was almost cut in half.  Luckily we have a wide variety of produce in stock and because it is perishable, must be moved in regular quantities.  Between the produce and donated items, like bread, we were able to augment the diminished supply of non-perishable food the clients received.  But winter is coming and the produce supply will dwindle and the amount of donated bread varies from week to week, so some weeks we will have little with which to supplement the non-perishable food.

The approach of Thanksgiving and Christmas causes further concern for many food banks and pantries.  This is a time of year when utilization of emergency food services surges, as people who may not regularly frequent emergency food providers turn to them for the food for their Thanksgiving and Christmas tables.  Without the necessary state funding, meeting this extra demand will be a challenge for many food banks and pantries, like King’s Kettle Food Pantry in Shippensburg, who has already had to draw on extra funds they had set aside for their annual Thanksgiving turkey dinner baskets, just to keep the doors open these past few months.  Similarly, Project SHARE (Survival Help and Recipient Education) in Carlisle wonders if their Thanksgiving meal boxes will be able to be distributed if they do not receive their state funds.  They currently have less than 100 turkeys, but expect 1500 families to turn out to receive these Thanksgiving meal boxes.

Thanksgiving dinner

Thanksgiving is my youngest son’s favorite holiday.  He loves turkey and all the other side dishes that adorn our Thanksgiving table.  I can’t imagine looking into his expectant eyes and telling him that we will not be able to have Thanksgiving this year.  Even more difficult to imagine would be having to tell my family on a daily basis that we will have to eat less in order to make our diminished allowance from the food pantry last for the month.  If you live in Pennsylvania I strongly urge you to contact the Governor’s office and your local members of the General Assembly to insist they seriously work on reaching a compromise to get the budget passed.  These are real people who are being affected by this stalemate.

Additionally, I urge you to seek out your local food pantry and ask what their current need might be.  Many food pantries have a list of their most needed items if you want to donate food items.  If your local food pantry is distributing turkeys for Thanksgiving and Christmas meals, you can also give them the grocery store coupon you may have earned for a free turkey. Cash donations are always appreciated as well.  Food pantries may have the ability to purchase items at a discounted rate, further stretching any monetary donation.


Barely a Drop in the Bucket

The food pantry where I volunteer operates on an appointment basis.  One client is scheduled every half hour.  This method of operation ensures a manageable flow of clients receiving food and keeps the waiting area from becoming too congested.  Unfortunately it also creates a backlog of clients waiting to receive an appointment for food, sometimes as long a two weeks.  When a client is unable to keep an appointment, they go back into the line of clients waiting for an appointment.


The past two weeks, during my time volunteering at the food pantry, something unusual has happened.  Clients scheduled to come and get food have not come in for their appointment.  I volunteer from 9am-12pm, so usually only 6 clients can come in during that time to receive their monthly allotment of food.  Often we have one client out of the six not show up, but this past week only one client came in for food.  During that time we were also able to assist someone who came in without an appointment, but was eligible to receive food.  The previous week only half of the scheduled clients kept their appointments.

At first glance clients not coming in for food may seem like a good thing.  Maybe their situation has changed for the better.  Maybe they are no longer food insecure.  But after almost a year volunteering in food pantries I have learned this is probably not the case.  In the past clients influenzausually fail to keep appointments to get food because their ride fell through or their car broke down.  They have missed appointments due to illness, either their own or another family member.  During the winter months weather is a factor, particularly for the clients who walk.  Sometimes clients schedule their appointments to coincide with a break from work, but for whatever reason that break doesn’t happen as scheduled.

My point in sharing my concern with clients not showing up for their appointments is not to complain about wasted time or denigrate our clients.  My intent is to show how this situation perfectly illustrates one of the “Seven Deadly ‘ins'” of the emergency food system, as posited by charity bookJanet Poppendieck in her book Sweet Charity.  The “deadly in” to which I am referring is inaccessibility.  This particular food bank is open from 9am-4pm, 3-4 days per week, but only on week days.  Furthermore clients must have an appointment to receive food.  They must remember to call two weeks before their eligibility date because of the roughly a two week waiting period for an appointment.  If they find at the time of the appointment they can not make it, as stated above, them must start the process all over again.  Calling to cancel is helpful for food pantry staff, but usually the cancelation, if it comes at all, is last minute as the reason is usually unforeseen.  Consequently, staff is rarely able to reschedule another client on such short notice; therefore, not only has the originally scheduled client not received food, but s/he has also kept someone else from getting an appointment.  All of these clients are in need of food, but due to the limitations of the emergency food delivery system it is inaccessible to them.

This example of food pantry clients missing their appointments also highlights another of Poppendieck’s “Seven Deadly ‘ins,'” the inefficiency inherent in the delivery of emergency food.  Not only does this method of delivery require a sizeable three tiered system (federal, state and local agencies) to distribute the food, but it duplicates the food delivery system already in place in society–the grocery store.  In our rural community there are at least 3 large grocery storessupermarket which are open seven days a week, two of which are open 24 hours a day.  Additionally, there are several markets in and around town and a weekly farmers’ market during the growing season.  Wouldn’t it be more efficient and cost effective to just increase the monthly SNAP allowance and make sure all those who are eligible to receive those benefits are getting them, instead of funding this inefficient, parallel food delivery system?  This option would allow those who are food insecure and need assistance to use the system already in place in society when it is convenient for them, given their daily commitments, instead of relying on a parallel food delivery system that is much less convenient to access.

In a chapter from A Place at the Table, the companion book to the documentary of the same name, Joel Berg compares the emergency food delivery system to the fireman’s bucket brigade of the past.  Prior Fireman_brigadeto the mid 1800s, when there was a fire in a city or town, bucket brigades would be formed to combat the fire.  Citizens would line up from the town well or another water source and pass buckets full of water to the fire, with empty buckets returning down another line.  The problem was that these bucket brigades, although well intentioned, rarely put out any but the smallest of fires.  To remedy the inefficiency of the bucket brigades local governments stepped in to create fire companies with better fire fighting equipment.  Today we would never think of trying to fight a house fire with a bucket brigade.

Hunger in the United States is a fire that we are currently trying to fight with a bucket brigade.  Local citizens in food banks, pantries and soup kitchens across the country are trying to put out the building sized fire of hunger with a bucket sized solution.  Just like when the government of yesteryear stepped in to create a more effectivefire truck solution to the problem of fires, the government of today needs to reorganize how assistance for those who are food insecure is delivered into a more efficient, effective method.  I enjoy volunteering in the food pantry and the good feeling I get from knowing I am helping someone, but I look forward to the time when the emergency food delivery system of food banks, pantries and soup kitchens goes the way of the bucket brigade.  Once that happens, maybe the fire of hunger in America will begin to be extinguished.


Pennsylvania Budget Impasse

half dome
Image courtesy of porbital at

The first time I remember ever hearing anything about budget impasses or government shutdowns was during the fall/winter of 1995-96 when the Federal Government shutdown twice after President Clinton vetoed a spending bill sent to him by Congress.  I remember feeling apprehensive at the thought of our government shutting down.  How long would it last?  What would happen?  Once it was all over, however, what I remember most about these shutdowns was that Yosemite National Park was closed during the shutdown and people who had planned vacations to the park were quite upset.  (I was living in California at the time.)  Upon reflection, I’m certain there were other, more pressing problems this shutdown caused, like the curtailment of health and welfare services for military veterans, or the suspension of disease surveillance by the CDC, or the furlough of government workers during the holiday season.

Fast forward to the present where it seems that government shutdowns or the threat of a shutdown is a regular occurrence.  Take for instance my state of Pennsylvania, where on June 30, 2015, Governor Tom Wolf vetoed the budget bill passed by the General Assembly.  It is three months later and the state of Pennsylvania is still operating without a budget.  Just yesterday (9/29) Governor Wolf vetoed a stopgap spending bill.  While most governmental functions continue, billions of dollars are not flowing to public schools and other social services providers.  Caught in this budget impasse are food banks, pantries and other emergency food providers who rely on food from the state food purchase program.  Typically food banks and pantries participating in the state food purchase program receive a line of credit which can be drawn down to purchase food to be used for distribution at the food bank or pantry.  Unfortunately, no emergency food provider has received their current fiscal year allotment.

empty shelvesFortunately, not all emergency food providers are feeling the pinch as a result of this budget impasse, due in part to how they are funded.  For instance Philabundance, which is funded mostly with private donations, is probably not feeling the loss of these funds, but at the small food pantry where I volunteered yesterday the effects of the lack of this state funding were readily apparent.  The shelves that hold the state supplied food were only half full.  The pantry had no milk and very little meat, most of which was ground beef.  I have never seen the supplies so depleted!  Clients left the pantry with a smaller supply of food.  Each week that passes without a resolution to this budget stalemate will result in a dwindling supply of state food for this pantry’s clients.

The purpose of this blog post is not to point fingers or lay blame on one side or the other.  Rather, I would like to make readers aware of the consequences resulting from the current unwillingness to compromise that seems to exist at all levels of government.  These are real people, often children, senior citizens and people who are disabled, who are being impacted.  I worry that as a society we are becoming complacent with our politicians’ unwillingness to compromise.  Or even worse, that we view their actions as a virtue.  Unfortunately, there are real life consequences when both sides are unwilling to negotiate.  The time has come for all politicians to get back to the work of governing, and sometimes that means sitting down with someone who has political beliefs different from the ones you hold and working together through compromise to reach a solution.


SNAP Challenge

Gwyneth's food
Gwyneth Paltrow’s SNAP Challenge purchases

I have thought about taking the SNAP Challenge several times over the past few years.  Participants of the SNAP Challenge pledge to live on roughly $4.00 per person per day, which is the amount of the average daily food stamp benefit.  Emergency food providers have taken the challenge.  Politicians have taken the challenge.  Celebrities have taken the challenge.  Although usually garnering positive coverage Gwyneth Paltrow received tons of negative press earlier this year over her food choices when she decided to take the SNAP Challenge.

When I became serious about understanding the issues around food insecurity, taking the SNAP Challenge seemed like one of the most obvious things for me to do if I really wanted to understand what it would be like to experience food insecurity.  Yet I never have.  I have my reasons.  The first being that I have a family, and while this is my mission and they support me, they would not be too happy to subsist on a SNAP Challenge diet, nor do I think it is fair to ask them to participate to that extent for my cause.  Additionally, do not I want to do double cooking duty by preparing a separate meal for me.  Neither my family’s dietary discomfort, nor my lack of time to prepare double meals is the main reason I have never taken the SNAP Challenge.  As a person who likes to cook a wide variety of food, I have a very well stocked kitchen pantry and I spice cabinethave not quite figured out how to take that pantry out of the SNAP Challenge equation.  I could decide to not use any items in my pantry, but that seems a bit unrealistic.  Most food insecure people have a minimum of kitchen staples to use.  I could purchase only ready-made, preprocessed foods, but that doesn’t fit my mission to help those who are food insecure eat as healthfully as they can while stretching what little food resources they have.  And so consequently, I have never taken the challenge.

This summer the perfect opportunity to take the challenge presented itself, and if I had only been thinking ahead I could have capitalized on the opportunity.  Every few summers my family vacations in a cabin in Maine.  The cabin belongs to another family and we rent it from them for the week.  While the cabin is stocked with food belonging to the other family, we bring whatever food we need for the week.  This would have been the perfect chance for me to take the SNAP Challenge, without having to worry that I was cheating by using some of the staples in my own kitchen.  We could have bought our food, staying within the parameters of the challenge, and relied on whatever spices or other small quantity ingredients were available at the cabin.  The only problem was that I didn’t think about trying this until half way through our vacation.

To be honest, it is probably for the best.  I’m pretty sure my family would have revolted at the thought of turning our vacation dining into a SNAP Challenge even though when we take this spaghetti and saucevacation we tend to eat simple, easy to prepare meals. (Except for the lobster dinner.  We were in Maine after all!)  This is in part because the cabin in which we stay does not have electricity, and while it did have running water, it was pumped from the lake and not potable.  The adequate, yet primitive nature of our cooking setup, dictates relatively simple meals.  Some of the meals we ate included spaghetti with jarred sauce, vegetarian burritos with beans and rice, sandwiches, leftovers and other ready made foods like soup.

Once the missed opportunity occurred to me, however, I did begin thinking about what we had purchased, how much it had cost and what we could have done without.  To feed my family of four for a week I would have only had roughly $112 to spend.  Our total shopping bill was well over twice as much as that.  When you factor out alcohol, lobsters, and items that can not be purchased by SNAP benefits, like toilet paper, our expenses would have been lower, but still considerably more than the SNAP Challenge allotment.  Since we were on vacation I bought fun items, like cookies, chips and soda.  Those items could have been sacrificed.  We also had to bring in all our drinking and cooking water, as the water from the lake was not potable.  That is an expense not usually factored into the average SNAP Challenge.  Even without all these items I still do not think our total would have been the roughly $112 we would have had as our benefit.

no snacks

In the abstract I knew SNAP benefits did not allow for much food to be purchased; they are not intended to totally supply a monthly allotment of food, even though they do for many.  What this mental exercise accomplished for me was to concretely demonstrate, not only how little food SNAP benefits provide, but how difficult eating well can be if relying on SNAP benefits and how repetitive one’s food choices would be.  I will probably never take the SNAP Challenge and I am okay with that.  While I understand the intent of the challenge, I find it a bit flawed.  Here is the challenge I have for you that I think will demonstrate the point the SNAP Challenge is attempting to make.  Next time you go shopping keep your grocery bill.  How much was it?  Now figure what your household SNAP benefit would be ($4 per person per day for the number of days your shopping trip would cover).  After you deduct all the non-food items, how far over that amount is your grocery bill?  Now, examine what’s left and decide what you would do without to come within your SNAP benefit range?


Mention the word glean and most people will think of gathering information from variousthe-gleaners-1857 sources, because that is how the word is mostly used today.  But glean has an historical definition, meaning to gather grain or other crops left in the field after a harvest.  In some ancient cultures gleaning was encouraged as a method to assist those in need, an early form of helping the food insecure.  The Bible and the Torah instructed farmers to leave sections of fields unharvested or to not pick up crops dropped during harvest.  These crops were to be left for the poor or strangers.

Today, many emergency food organizations have gleaning programs.  Some programs, like FOOD (Food On Our Doorstep) Share in Oxnard, CA coordinate an extensive network of volunteers and growers.  This organization harvests an average of 50,000-60,000 lbs. of produces each month, mostly from farms, but also from backyard gardens and fruit trees.  Other gleaners2programs may just have a handful of volunteers who establish a relationship with a few farmers or gardeners.  Currently Chester County Food Bank does not seem to have a gleaning program, but they did at one time.  When I first considered volunteering at food banks, gleaning was one of the areas in which I had considered volunteering my time.  It appeals to me in two ways.  First, gleaning helps to eliminate waste.  America is an incredibly wasteful society, embarrassingly so in my opinion, and keeping any fresh produce from becoming part of the waste stream, particularly in landfills is a step in the right direction.  Secondly, gleaning gets fresh produce into the hands of people who would otherwise not have access to it.

I often wondered how successful a gleaning program would be in our corner of Chester County.  While we live in a rural setting, most of the farmers growing on any large scale are Amish.  I was unsure whether they would assist the non-Amish community and give away the fruits of their labor.  I wasn’t even sure if they would have excess produce to donate.  I know many Amishamish-farming-dy farmers have produce stands and travel to local farmers’ markets, but maybe they would keep any excess produce to share within their community.  Or maybe there would be little to no waste  because they canned or otherwise preserved their harvest and gave any marginal produce to their livestock to eat.  They are such a simple, plain folk, maybe they very conscientiously only grew what they could use, frowning on excess.  I just did not know.

012d233fda6026a80e2dd7f7d677d04d2e7579e13eThis summer I got my answer.  Every Tuesday morning a van belonging to one of the local food panties would go to Amish farms to collect what they could not use or sell.  During the latter part of summer, when the vegetable harvest is in full swing, the van would return loaded with corn, zucchini, peppers, cucumbers and more!  Learning this brought me happiness on many levels.  I was glad to see folks in need of food getting access to so much fresh produce.  I was pleased to see that food was not going to waste.  And I was happy to know that this connection existed between our communities.  I am quite fond of the Amish farmer who’s produce stand I frequent, and while I do not completely agree with all of their practices, I do believe we could learn much from them.

Lights Out!

power lines bIn June, Chester and surrounding counties experienced a line of thunderstorms that produced strong winds, resulting in the disruption of electric service to more than 130,000 people.  Some people were without electricity for several days.  I know in my community power was not restored for 50 hours and we were not the last ones to have power restored.  To save the contents of our refrigerator and freezer, both of which were full of food, my husband bought a generator.  We lost very little food.  Some of my neighbors, who did not have a generator lost several items in their refrigerator.  While buying a generator or replacing food is an expense for which we had not planned, my family and my neighbors were be able to absorb the cost of the new purchase or the replacement milk, eggs, mayonnaise and other lost items.

For my family and my neighbors, this power outage was mostly just a nuisance.  For others it was a major setback.  While volunteering yesterday, I met a lady who had lost most of the contents of her refrigerator during the storm.  This was her first time to the food pantry since the storm, as clients can only come once in a 30 day period, and she was desperate to get some food.  Mypower lines a heart went out to her as I counted up the days and realized the storm had happened 3 weeks earlier.  She said she cooked up as much of her food as she could, but for how many days had she been scrapping by with almost nothing?  We were as generous with her as we could be, giving her a few extra items from our donated food and making sure she got plenty of fresh vegetables.

I had not stopped to consider how potentially devastating a prolonged power outage could be for some folks.  How costly it would be to have to replace partially used condiments or precious eggs, milk or meat.  Also concerned with the inability of some to replace food items lost in the power outage was 4 year old Dylan.  I found out about Dylan from a post on The Chester County Food power lines cBank’s Facebook page.  They were giving him a huge shout out of thanks for his effort.  He collected 474 pounds of food for the Food Bank after he learned that not everyone could afford to replace all the food they lost during the power outage.  I imagine Dylan, like myself, will never just groan at the inconvenience the next time the power goes out.  We will be counting the hours and thinking about the folks out there who are hoping the power comes back on before food they can’t replace is lost.

Follow up to a previous post

In an earlier post I wondered if the food pantries would see increased use during the summer, especially among families, because kids who received free or reduced lunch at school, did not have many options to get meals due to a lack of summer feeding programs in our community.  Yesterday I got confirmation that the lack of summer feeding programs in our area does take a toll on struggling families.  One of our clients said she was having a hard time feeding her kids over the summer.  Although she did not ask for help or extra food, we were generous with her as well, focusing on items for the kids like a large jar of peanut butter, donated bread and snack items, and fresh vegetables.

I am always a little conflicted after volunteer days like yesterday.  On one hand I feel bouyant because I know I definitely helped people in need.  That is a satisfying feeling.  On the other hand, I get frustrated and saddened that people, in this country of abundance, have to face these hardships.  In the end, I have to remind myself that these are the days that keep me committed and drive me to keep working to find solutions, both large and small.



Sunny Side Up

egg faceI took a couple of weeks off.  The news of the robbery at one of the food pantries in which I volunteer, coupled with the realization that most of the kids in my school district, who receive free or reduced lunch, will potentially go without some meals over the summer due to a lack of summer feeding locations in our area, caused me to become very discouraged.  I felt overwhelmed by the size of the problem and my inability to make a noticeable difference.  Rather than spread my pessimism, I decided to take a break from writing over the past couple of weeks.  I am happy to say that the tide has turned on my negative attitude.

Even though I was not writing, I continued to volunteer.  Last week I volunteered at the food pantry that had been robbed for the first time since the robbery.  I was inspired by a couple of things.  First, in spite of everything, the pantry was still operating as normal and had been since the robbery.  Somehow they had managed to find a way to compensate for the equipment they lost and were still able to give out the items that needed refrigeration–milk, eggs, cheese and frozen meats.  Additionally, the staff and volunteers had not let this crime dampen their spirits or commitment to those in need in their community.  Our area has had a very hot, humid start to summer, and one of the items taken in the robbery was the air conditioner.  Without air conditioning, in a building without windows, sitting in an unshaded parking lot, on a day the temperature was expected to climb into the 90s, the doors were thrown open to those in need and clients were welcomed with smiles and hugs.  I was buoyed by their unshakable commitment to provide assistance to those in need in spite of the hardships their organization faced.

This past Tuesday I volunteered in the other food pantry and had different, but equally uplifting experience.  Perhaps you have read or heard on the news recently about various states wanting to ban junk food from the allowable items that SNAP beneficiaries can purchase.  The reasoning behind this proposed regulation is the belief that people receiving assistance choose to purchase less nutritious food over more nutritious options.  I read a great article  in Mother Jones magazine by Tom Philpott that sheds light on why SNAP beneficiaries often purchase less healthy items, and also makes a claim that their purchases are not very different from those receiving no assistance.  I now have first hand experience showing, that given a choice, people receiving assistance will happily take the more nutritious option.  The food pantry on Tuesday had received a huge shipment of  produce cauliflower broccolifrom the county food bank in it’s weekly delivery.  They had fresh cauliflower, broccoli, collard greens, lettuce, red and green cabbage and corn on the cob.  Additionally there were frozen blueberries, diced carrots and pureed tomatoes.  We had no trouble getting clients to take this produce.  Many eagerly took some of everything.  It felt like Christmas and I was Santa Claus!  Incidentally, the previous week the other food pantry put out some beets and lettuce from their garden, and they too were being readily taken by clients.

The problem of hunger in America is much greater than one person or organization can hope to solve, and it is very easy to allow that reality to weigh one down and bring despair.  I am grateful for the my experiences volunteering.  They lift my spirits and inspire me to continue doing what I can to help.  I have seen the difference that these food pantries and the people who run them make in the lives of the clients who use them.

happy sun