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

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Lunch Shaming

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Note:

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

On a personal note:

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

The New Trend on College Campuses

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Luxury Items

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

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

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

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

Give It to Someone Who Needs It

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

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

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

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

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

If It Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix It.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly called food stamps) is the federal government’s largest food assistance program.  It is also one of it’s most successful, not that the average American realizes its success.  In 2012, the most recent year for which I could find statistics, SNAP prevented 10.3 million people from falling into poverty, 4.9 million of whom were children, and lifted an additional 5.2 million people out of deep poverty, including 2.1 million children.  In addition to aiding people at or below the poverty line, SNAP benefits provide a boost to the economy.  A USDA study, corroborated by work done by Mark Zandi, of Moody’s Economy.com, found that every SNAP dollar spent generates from $1.70-$1.80 in GDP increase.  Finally, the SNAP program is very efficiently run, with 90-95% of funding going directly to food assistance, and experiences very low fraud rates, roughly 1% of benefits.  If SNAP is so successful, why does the average American not realize its success and why is there a desire among many politicians to restructure the program and reduce its funding?  I can not answer the second part of that question definitively, but I can suppose that the average American does not know about the success of the SNAP program because several myths about how the program is run and who benefits exist and little has been done to dispel those myths.

 

Myth:  Individuals receiving SNAP benefits are unemployed, able-bodied adults, who are predominantly people of color or immigrants.

Some of that statement is correct.  Most individuals who receive SNAP benefits do not work, but not because they are lazy or gaming the system.  Almost half (44%) of the individuals who receive SNAP are children.  The elderly and disabled comprise another 20 percent, making two thirds of SNAP recipients individuals who would never be counted in any unemployment statistic.  Furthermore, almost 90% of all households getting SNAP benefits contain either a child under the age of 18, a person over the age 60 or a disabled person.  Additionally, in more than half of households receiving SNAP benefits, at least one person is steadily employed and in over 80% of households receiving SNAP benefits at least one person worked either in the year before or the year after receiving benefits.  Concerning households containing an able bodied adult without dependents (ABAWD), exemptions allowing an extension in the amount of time they can receive SNAP benefits expired in most areas of the country in 2016.  These individuals are now restricted to only three months of SNAP benefits during any 36 month period when they are not employed or participating in a work or training program for at least 20 hours per week.

As for the ethnic breakdown of individuals receiving SNAP, approximately 40% of those receiving benefits are white, 25% are African-American and 10% are Hispanic.   In 2010,  only approximately 7% of individuals receiving SNAP benefits were foreign-born individuals:  3% were naturalized citizens, 3% were legal, permanent residents, and about 1% were refugees. I will address the extent to which immigrants receive SNAP benefits later in this post.

Myth:  Individuals receive SNAP benefits for years and years.

The SNAP program, unlike Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF, also referred to as welfare), does not have a life-time limit.  Consequently if an individual  wishes to reapply for benefits every 3-6 months, his/her household can receive benefits as long as they qualify, so in theory someone could receive SNAP benefits his entire life.  In reality, over half of individuals receiving SNAP benefits stop receiving benefits within 36 months.  One third of those receiving SNAP benefits no longer need the assistance within a year of initially receiving benefits.  The only exception, as already mentioned, are unemployed able bodied adults without dependents who can only receive benefits for 3 months in any given 36 month period.

Myth:  Many of the people receiving SNAP benefits are undocumented immigrants.

Undocumented immigrants are not now and have never been eligible to receive any form of government assistance, including SNAP benefits.  Children born in the United States to parents who are undocumented immigrants could, in certain circumstances, be eligible for benefits; however, the household would only receive the amount of benefit appropriate for the number of American born residents.  Any undocumented immigrant living in that household would not be counted in determining the benefit amount.  Furthermore, with regard to documented immigrants, they are eligible for SNAP benefits only after they have resided in the United States for 5 years.  The only exceptions to the five year rule are documented immigrants who are refugees, asylees, or veterans or active-duty military personnel.

Myth:  The amount of money recipients receive in SNAP benefits is  sizeable and these benefits are easy to receive.

 The SNAP program is a means tested aid program, which means that benefits are provided only to individuals or households which qualify.  Consequently, to receive SNAP benefits, individuals must apply and provide all required documentation of annual income level, deductions and household composition.  The application process must be completed every 3-6 months in order to continue receiving benefits.  To put that into perspective, imagine having to renew your driver’s license at the DMV every 3-6 months, providing all the original documents, like birth certificates, marriage licenses and proof of residency, each time.  Additionally, to be eligible to receive benefits, households have to have incomes lower than 130 percent to 200 percent of the Federal Poverty Line, depending on the state in which the applicant resides.

The dollar amount of SNAP benefits has decreased over recent years, with more cuts looming on the horizon.  Currently, the average SNAP benefit is roughly $126 per person per month, which equals about $1.40 per person per meal.  No one is living on delicacies on that amount.  As a matter of fact, one third of households receiving SNAP benefits still need to go to a food pantry to supplement their benefits.

Myth:  SNAP dollars can be used to purchase anything.

SNAP benefits can only be used to purchase food items and plants and seeds used to grow food.  These benefits can not be used to buy non food items, like personal care items, diapers, household paper products, pet food and certainly not any alcohol or tobacco product.  Even though SNAP benefits are to be used for food, not all food is approved for purchase.  For instance, no hot, ready to eat foods can be purchased with SNAP benefits.  This means EBT cards can not be used in restaurants, including fast food chains, nor can they be used to purchase ready to consume items in the grocery store, like a rotisserie chicken.  The SNAP Restaurant Meal Program, which is available in only a few states, allows disabled, elderly and homeless recipients of SNAP to purchase meals in approved restaurants using a SNAP EBT card.  Fast food eateries, like McDonalds are not eligible to apply to participate in the SNAP Restaurant Meal Program, so no fast food may be purchased by any one with SNAP benefits.  Finally, SNAP recipients can not purchase food items in just any store selling these items.  They can only use their EBT cards in establishments which have applied and been approved as participating stores or restaurants.  

Myth:  Fraud and waste is widespread in the SNAP Program.

According to a 2016 USDA report, fraud within the SNAP program is quite low, about 1 percent.  The incidence of fraud decreased significantly when plastic EBT cards began being used, instead of paper money.  This switch made the selling of SNAP dollars for cash dollars, trafficking, much more difficult.  In 2010 the Government Accounting Office determined that trafficking had decreased from 3.8 cents per benefits dollar to roughly 1 cent per benefit dollar, where it has continued to remain.  The SNAP program also contains little waste, with 93% of its funding going directly to providing food aid.

 

No federal government assistance program is problem free and often benefits from review and adjustments. As programs go, however, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program has proven itself to be successful at providing needed assistance to many while keeping fraud and waste at low levels.  Every year the SNAP program helps keep millions out of poverty, while lifting even more out of deep poverty.  As the program is currently administered, it responds well to the ups and downs of the economy, expanding to help more individuals in tough economic times and shrinking, like it has the past 2-3 years, when the economic outlook brightens.  SNAP dollars carry the added bonus of providing a stimulus to local economies as well, since the spending of SNAP dollars generates an increase in the Gross Domestic Product.  The proven success of the SNAP program makes one question why many politicians are eager to both restructure it, thereby making it less effective, and reduce its operating budget.  This program is not broken.  It does not need to be fixed; it needs to be funded!

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.

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.

 

Taking a Shot

 

I’m back after my brief respite from being immersed in poverty statistics and personal accounts from people who struggle with poverty on a daily basis, as well as from a break from writing.  While I was not conducting poverty research or writing blog posts, I was still moving forward toward my goal of doing what I can to help the food insecurity problem in my community.  During this break I read a very thought provoking book, entitled Making a Life, Making a Living, by Mark Albion in which the author encourages readers to focus on following their passion in life and doing their best to incorporate that passion into their work.  On those pages I definitely found the inspiration and encouragement I needed to take the next step.  While I was reading Albion’s book I was also thinking about what I hoped to accomplish and how I might go about accomplishing those goals by following my passion and using my strengths.  I purposely paired these two tasks because I thought they might compliment each other.  The result of the past couple of week’s work is that I am reinvigorated and ready to renew my efforts to make a difference in my community.

hockey stick puckThe reason for my hesitancy to move forward thus far stems from the fact that I’m not a risk taker, never have been.  For me, as it probably is for most people, I haven’t taken risks because of a fear of failure.  One of the things I really like about the Albion book is that it is peppered with motivational quotes, at least one on every page.  Several of them deal with taking risks or overcoming the fear of failure.  One of the ones that really caused me to stop and think is a simple statement from Wayne Gretzky:

    You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.

Totally obvious, and yet I had never considered inaction in quite that way.  As a result of realizing I was already suffering a failure of sorts by not taking action and moving forward with my long term plans to start a nonprofit whose purpose is to assist the food insecure in my community, I have told myself I have nothing to lose.  I have also come to believe that the only real failure is inaction.  I will undoubtedly attempt things that will not succeed, but these misses, viewed properly, are just opportunities to learn and grow.

Another item I took from the book is a new title for myself, “designated bullsh!t bulldisturber,” which is a term Alan Webber, cofounder of the company and magazine Fast Company, coined to refer to himself.  Albion quotes Webber, who describes his philosophy as such “Telling the truth for me was all about trying to make a difference by being honest about what I saw.”  I plan to take this course of action, telling the truth about what I see and hoping it makes a difference.  I believe that too many mistruths, exaggerations and bald faced lies have been told with regard to poverty, people struggling with poverty, the benefits they receive and the reasons these people are living in poverty.  My intent is to stand up for and with those struggling with poverty, here in this blog as well as my everyday life, and without blame or belligerence tell the truth as I see it or experience it.

So in the spirit of taking risks and disturbing the bullsh!t I am going to move forward.  Over the next few months I plan to talk with a variety of people about my ideas to try and determine how practical they are, how to fund them and how to implement them.  My goal is to have taken action on some of my ideas by the fall.  Wish me luck!

plant vine

In my last blog post I was disheartened because I had been unable to find a positive story about which to write.  Over the past two weeks I continued to look for something positive to report and I am happy to say I found something!  The Chester County Food Bank will be operating a mobile produce truck for the second year in a row.  The Fresh2You Mobile Market will bring fresh produce and healthy food staples, as well as nutrition education, to underserved communities.  The market will accept all forms of payment, including cash, credit and debit cards, SNAP and WIC and Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program vouchers.  The Double Dollars program will allow shoppers who purchase their produce using SNAP/EBT or Farmers Market Nutrition Program vouchers to receive a dollar for dollar match on all purchases of fresh fruits and vegetables, enabling them to stretch their food dollars.  Last year the truck, called Fresh2You Mobile Market, only traveled to Coatesville and a location in rural Honey Brook Township.  This year the truck’s route will expand to include sites in West Chester and Southern Chester County, where my community is located, as well as Coatesville and Honey Brook.  At present the Chester County Food Bank has not released the schedule or stop loctions for the truck.  For more information click on the link above or call Roberta Cosentino, Fresh2You Mobile Market Coordinator at 610.873.6000.

 

Think Nationally, Act Locally

The research for and writing of the past three weeks’ blog posts has been stimulating and thought provoking for me.  I immersed myself in articles, passages from books, reports on webpages and interviews with people speaking on the causes and results of poverty, some sharing first-hand experience.  I could tell I had hit a homerun with the topics, as the response I got from readers was some of the best I’ve had since I started blogging.  Unfortunately, everything I read or listened to when conducting my research was pretty bleak and depressing.  Consequently, as I started to think about what to write about this week,  I wanted to focus on something positive, some small success for those who are food insecure.  While I have to believe those successes are out there, I struck out and could not find any to report.  The result of all that research and the inability to find a single positive story to share this week has left me feeling overwhelmed by the magnitude of the problem of poverty and disheartened that the causes of poverty will ever really be addressed in any meaningful way.  I find myself asking, “How can one person ever hope to make a difference?”

baseball                       CDub jersey                       bats

When I first started on this journey I would often become paralyzed by this sense of despair, but now I have learned to recognize its approach and shift my perspective in order to deflect the feeling of hopelessness brought on by studying the full scope of the problem of poverty on the national level.  When I am ready to throw my hands up in the air and declare my efforts futile, I think about a quote from Mother Teresa that a friend from high school sent to me when I first encountered this paralyzing sense of despair.

If you can’t feed a hundred people, then feed just one.

When I reflect on that quote I remember that the problem of poverty is not mine to solve, nor could I if it were, but I can work locally to try and make a difference in my community.

With that said, I have decided to take the next few weeks to focus on actions I can take to assist the food insecure locally.  I will continue volunteering in the food pantry, as well as spending time planning the initial steps for starting a non-profit.  During this time I will probably post very little, if at all, to the blog, but I have a favor to ask of you.  Take a look in your pantry and let me know what staples you have that you couldn’t imagine having to cook without.  These staples could be spices or condiments or ingredients used in baking, like flour or baking soda.  Keep them practical.  Items like this are usually not available in food pantries, or even larger food banks, but are necessary in order to prepare healthy food that tastes good.  As always, I appreciate your feedback!

This week’s blog pictures brought to you by Baseball!  Sorry for the baseball puns.  I couldn’t resist.