A Budget Built on Myths

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


A Moral Disgrace

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

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

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

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

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

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

Be the Change

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

Trying to Restore Some Dignity

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

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

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

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

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

A Human Face

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

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

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

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

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



A Giving Advent Calendar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cleaning Products:  laundry soap, dish soap, paper towels

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

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



Think Locally When Acting Nationally

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

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

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

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

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

4th of July

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.


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.