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.

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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.

Christmas in July

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

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

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

Make Me Look Normal

This week when I was volunteering at the food pantry one of our homeless clients stopped in to let us know that he had gotten a job.  He was happy and proud of himself and wanted to share his good news, but he also had a request.  He wanted to know if we had any wipes so he could keep himself cleaned up and he wanted some food, especially food he could take to work to make him “look normal” to his coworkers.  Luckily we were able to provide both due to recent donations.  We gave him some wipes and a few cans of Chef Boyardee and stew and a can of Spam.  We even gave him a cantaloupe to celebrate of his good news!  Overall this interaction was positive, but his request to “look normal” tug at my heartstrings.  All he wanted was what most of us take for granted; he wanted to fit in, to be an accepted, productive member of society.

In our society we have a tendency to ignore or even shame people in poverty.  We look pasthomeless-man-free-picture-for-blogs-1[1] the homeless person sitting on the sidewalk or avoid making eye contact with the mother with the child who is asking for something to eat because he is hungry.  Or worse, we look at them with disgust or harsh judgement.  There are many reasons why we behave in this manner.  Maybe we are frustrated because we are working hard and not getting ahead and we worry that one day that could all too easily be us.  Or maybe we look away because we desperately want to be of assistance, but feel powerless to truly help these folks out of their situation.  Some may tell themselves this homeless person or single mother is responsible for his or her situation due to the poor decisions he or she has made in life, and therefore deserves no further consideration.  Whatever our rationale, the result of our actions is to push people living in poverty to the edges of society, to segregate them.

I admit that at times have been guilty of such actions myself.  I admit to looking past a homeless person or pretending not to hear the heartache in a mother’s voice as she responds to her child’s pleas of hunger.  I regretfully chose to look away because, at best, I could only help them in the moment, but do nothing to change their situation.  Initially, when I started volunteering in the food pantry I was worried about how to interact with the clients.  I didn’t want them to feel I was patronizing or pitying them.  In the end I settled my nerves by telling myself to just smile and greet them, to acknowledge them like I would any other person I would meet in my day.  I didn’t quite understand the power of that act until our client’s request to want to “look normal.”  He didn’t want anything special.  He just wanted to be regarded and treated like everyone else.  He is not alone, as I imagine most people living in poverty, in addition to wanting a path out of poverty, want to be treated with humanity and acceptance.

This longing to appear “normal”, I’m sure,  is felt strongly by children.  They may not understand why some children can have so much, but they do not.  Whenever we can we try to make sure a client with children gets the boxed mac and cheese with the Star War noodles or the Frosted Flakes.  We sometimes get donated boxes of Little Debbie birthday-cakesnack cakes or sweets that are out of season, like the packaged peppermint bark we got right after Christmas.  It is always fun slipping these items into a family’s monthly groceries, knowing the joy it will bring to a little one whose life holds few treats.  This past week we were able to ensure a young girl got a birthday party thanks to someone who donated a birthday party in a bag, which included cake mix, birthday candles, plates and napkins. (What a great idea this is!)  This young lady’s birthday party will be on Saturday and I will happily think of her getting to celebrate her birthday like a “normal” kid.

When I think what a food pantry provides I have been defining my answer in the broadest terms.  A food pantry provides food and other supplies to someone who is in need.  After this exchange with our homeless client, I realize what we provide is more than just food.  This gentleman came back to us to share his success, not only because he needed items, but because he knew he would be acknowledged and treated “normally”, that we would be happy for him and celebrate, as well as help him with his request.  One doesn’t have to volunteer in a food pantry, however, to have this interaction with people in poverty.  The next time you see someone struggling with poverty, certainly assist them if you can, but equally important, remember they want to be seen and treated as “normal”.  A smile and a friendly greeting can go a long way in making someone feel that they are accepted and belong.

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.

 

Full, Colorful Bowls

empty bowls ticket

This past Saturday, Feb. 20th, was the Empty Bowls luncheon I wrote about a few weeks ago.  The fundraiser was sponsored by our local arts’ alliance organization and  benefited one of the local food pantries.  Local restaurants and caterers provided several different soups and chili for the fundraiser.  Rolls, beverages and honey buns were 4 bowlsalso available.  Students from a local private school had decorated colorful placemats for the tables and music students from the arts’ alliance music programs provided musical entertainment for diners.

My family arrived about half way through the event and found our bowls among the many other wonderfully decorated bowls.  The event hall was lively with people and music.  A group of senior citizens from one of the local retirement communities had just arrived.  We chose our soups–wonton, chicken noodle and chili–and sat down to eat, while enjoying the music of local budding musicians.  While there we waved to and chatted with some friends and acquaintances and enjoyed the small town ambience.

As we were leaving I spotted the director of the organization in which the food pantry ischick noo soup housed.  I went over to say hello and while we were talking I asked her about the success of the fundraiser.  She said that the arts’ alliance ran out of the 140 bowls purchased for people to decorate.  People who did not wish to decorate a bowl or were not able to because the bowls sold out, were still able to purchase tickets and come to the luncheon.  While at the luncheon, I saw several people using disposable bowls, indicating more than 140 people participated in this fundraiser.  I do not have a definite count of tickets sold or money raised, but the community services director seemed very please with the outcome, indicating it had grown substantially over last year.

Our bowls are currently on display on my dining room table.  I leave them there while we eat dinner as a reminder to be grateful for what we have and to remember that those who are hungry exist in the United States in unacceptably high numbers.

dining room table

Reflection & Projection

anniversary cakeWell I’ve been at this for a year.  A few weeks ago marked my one year anniversary as a food pantry volunteer and one year ago tomorrow I published my first blog post.  Knowing that I had put forth my intentions and objectives in that first post, I recently went back and reread it.  I wanted to see how close to my mission I had remained, or how far afield I had strayed, as I was worried I had.  I discovered that, while I am not today where I thought I might be, I have accomplished what I set out to do.

I stated that I wanted to understand the problem of food insecurity from a national perspective.  In addition, but perhaps more importantly, I wanted to understand what food insecurity issues were specific to my community and work to address those issues.  I spent the past year reading books, articles and reports, listening to speakers on radio programs and in person and watching documentaries on the topic of poverty and food insecurity in the United States, and feel I have a much better understanding of the issues surrounding this problem.  Additionally I have spent the past year volunteering in a food pantry, as well as observing and listening to the real life circumstances of people in my community who are food insecure.

I also wanted to better understand where gaps exist in what is currently provided in my community for those who are food insecure and what is needed and to work on bridging those gaps.  While I do not think I know all the gaps that exist, I have identified a few, most importantly the lack of a summer lunch program.  I am currently working with a group of other concerned members of my community to establish a summer lunch program for children in need in our town.  Another area in which I saw a need was in encouraging clients to take fresh produce with which they were unfamiliar.  Often clients would want to take something and try it, but were hesitant because they had never eaten it or cooked it and didn’t know how to prepare the item.  A couple of times I printedbns bb pinto out simple recipes for some of the less familiar produce we had on hand, like winter squash, in an effort to encourage clients to take the produce.  Offering these recipes did succeed in getting a few more clients to give the produce a try.

Another goal I set out for myself, and my blog in particular, was to become connected with others who are concerned about food insecurity and create a forum where ideas and information could be exchanged.  The forum aspect of my blog has not quite taken off, and perhaps that is okay.  I am not sure how I would stay on top of moderating numerous comments.  I have, however, received some encouraging and helpful comments, directly to the blog, on other forms of social media and in person.  I appreciate every comment someone has taken the time to make and every exchange I thank-youhave had with someone on the topic of food insecurity.  One of the comments that has meant the most to me was a thank you for shining a light on food insecurity issues from someone whom I suspect is or has struggled with food insecurity.  Ideas and information have also been exchanged as readers have sent me links to articles or have told me about local happenings related to hunger that might be of interest to me.

Perhaps the most promising connection I have made with others as a result of my blog, has been the formation of a committee of concerned citizens who have come together to establish a free summer lunch program in our community.  Two local readers came to me after reading my post about the lack of summer lunch options for kids in our town and said they wanted to help fix this problem.  To be honest they gave me the motivation that I needed to form a coalition and tackle the problem.  We are not there yet, but the group is a committed one and we have received nothing but encouragement to pursue this goal so far.  I am optimistic that, if not by this summer then next, a program will be in place.

All in all I am pleased with the progress I have made so far, but I have more goals I hope to accomplish in the future.  First I will continue to work to establish a free summer lunch program in my community.  I also want to build on the idea of providing clients with recipes.  I hope to work with the food pantry to find out weekly what produce will be delivered and to have recipes available each week when the produce arrives.  I would lemonideally like to be able to give out samples of the produce prepared using the recipe.  I would also like to establish a pilot program of providing spices, herbs or other seasonings like lemons, not currently offered in food pantries, coupled with a food pantry staple and a recipe to clients.  For instance, if a client took oatmeal or apples s/he would also get a jar of cinnamon and a recipe for oatmeal or applesauce.  A whole chicken with lemons and/or garlic would be another paring, along with a recipe for roasted lemon chicken.  If the pilot program is successful, my long term goal would be to form a non-profit organization to supply commonly used spices, herbs and other staples, like brown sugar or cooking oil, to the food pantry.

When I created this blog I said I was on a journey and I was jumping in with both feet.  Well I am still traveling that road and both feet are still wet.  I started on the journey wet feetbecause I was fed up with hearing those suffering from poverty being disparaged and blamed for many of society’s problems.  This past year has helped to restore my faith in humanity.  Along my path I have met numerous people who care greatly for those less fortunate in our society and are doing whatever they can to help.  I have also met many who are in need and most of them possess perseverance and appreciation and retain a sense of optimism that humbles me.  This journey has brought me laughter and tears, hope and despair.  It has enriched my life and challenged me to be a better person.  I knew I would be giving of myself, but I never realized how much I would be getting back.

Empty Bowls

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

empty bowls ticket

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

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

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

my bowl from topmy bowl from side

Freedom from Hunger

“Hunger in America is solvable.  People in America are not hungry due to war or famine or drought.”

The above quote is from a report, released January 4th, entitled Freedom from Hunger:  An Achievable Goal for the United States of America, written by the bipartisan National Commission on Hunger.  This Commission is comprised of members from the fields of nutrition, medicine, hunger relief, public policy and poverty studies, who were appointed by Congressional leaders from both political parties.  The Commission was charged with providing recommendations for reducing hunger in the United States using existing programs and funding.  Consequently, their recommendations require a negligible amount of new resources.  The Commission chose to focus on 7 groups who typically experience higher levels of hunger:  seniors, single parent families with young children, people with disabilities, veterans and active duty military, American Indians, people affected by high incarceration rates and immigrants.  After traveling across the country, holding public forumhearings and visiting numerous programs in both the government and public sector, the Commission compiled 20 sensible recommendations to reduce hunger.

After  having read this report, I was encouraged by several things I read.  First, I like that this Commission is bipartisan.  In the polarized political climate of today to achieve anything requires buy-in from both political parties.  Additionally, addressing difficult problems, like hunger and many other problems facing America today,  requires many different points of view and ideas.  Similarly, I think it is important that the Commission members are from several different disciplines and approach hunger from a variety of perspectives.  The Commission highlighted several root causes of hunger in the United States including, labor market forces and job availability, family structure, education, exposure to violence, historical context and personal responsibility.  As a result of the numerous causes of hunger, the Commission states in the report that hunger can not be eliminated solely by food assistance alone.  The root causes of hunger must be understood and addressed before hunger in the United States can be eradicated.

I was similarly encouraged by the sensible recommendations the Commission puts forth in the report.  Of these 20 recommendations there were about a half dozen that I was particularly pleased to read.  Perhaps one of the most important recommendation I believe the Commission makes concerns the phase down of SNAP benefits as recipient income increases.  In an effort to incentivize work, the Commission suggests allowing States to offer households who have become ineligible for SNAP benefits due to gaining employment, an appropriate extension of those benefits to assist them in assuring they have a sufficient amount of income in place before loosing all assistance.  If this recommendation were to be put into effect, SNAP recipients would no longer automatically loose all of their benefits as soon as they earned more than the eligibility threshold, allowing them to accumulate sufficient funds to be able to adequately cover all necessary expenses and lessening their chances of slipping back into a situation where they need public assistance.

A cluster of four recommendations concern summer feeding programs and since I am currently working to establish a summer feeding program in my community I am particularly pleased at the inclusion of these recommendations.  Three of these recommendations concern increasing the access to summer feeding programs in ruralrural areas, which would benefit my rural community.  Most importantly, the Commission suggests lowering the area eligibility for reimbursement for summer meals from 50% of children eligible for free or reduced school meals to 40 percent.  This change would mean that more children, in areas where poverty is less concentrated, would qualify for free summer meals.  The other recommendation concerning summer feeding programs encouraging to me is the suggestion to issue EBT cards for summer meals in communities where barriers to congregate feeding sites, like neighborhood violence or transportation issues related to remote living conditions, can clearly be demonstrated.  In USDA pilot programs issuing EBT cards to children at risk for hunger in these communities has been proven to reduce hunger.

The list of recommendations calls for funding for the USDA to implement and evaluate several new pilot programs, assessing their effectiveness in reducing hunger.  If successful these pilot programs should be implemented nationwide.  Three of the four pilot programs were of particular interest to me because they suggest taking steps to move households out of poverty, instead of just keeping them from slipping further into it.  The first one involves changing the SNAP benefit calculation from the Thrifty Food Plan to the Low Cost Food Plan, resulting in a more generous benefit.  The second pilot program suggests raising the earning disregard from the current 20%, which may help reduce the danger of families losing benefits prior to being ready to transition to self sufficiency.  The third suggested pilot program, which serves as a hand up rather that merely a handout, involves increasing the maximum excess shelter deduction/allowance in SNAP.  Raising the shelter allowance to more realistically account for the actual cost of housing, particularly in markets with high housing costs, could result in a lack in hunger as more household funds are available for food.

Finally, the Commission concluded their list of recommendations with a call for collaboration across governmental departments and between the public and private sector.  The Commission calls for the creation of a White House Leadership Council to End Hunger.  Representation on this Council will include members from numerous governmental agencies, including but not limited to the Departments of Agriculture, Housing and Urban Development, Health and Human Services and Veteran Services, as well as the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services.  In addition to these governmental departments and agencies, the Council would include members from the corporate, non-profit, university and faith-based sectors.  Lastly, community leaders and those experiencing hunger will also have representation on the Council.  The White House Leadership Council to End Hunger will be charged to develop a coordinated plan to end hunger by collaboration across agencies and to integrate funding streams and eligibility and delivery systems.

In this election year, in a highly polarized political climate, I do not know how likely the enactment of any of these recommendations are.  I do take heart in the fact that the Commission is bipartisan and came to unanimous conclusions.  The recommendations they put forth are sensible and require negligible additional resources to implement.  Additionally, they call for action from both government and civic agencies, as no entity alone can solve the problem.  Lastly, the report acknowledges that the root causes of hunger are many and all of them need to be addressed before any action to eliminate hunger can be expected to succeed, but succeed we can.

 “Our country-with all its strength, genius, creativity, and spirit of community-has the ability to be free from hunger.”

Building a Case

When my boys were little I remember teaching them to read or add numbers.  At the very beginning they would look at me with frustrated little faces and ask “Why is it that way?”  Initially I would look back at them, equally frustrated, as say “Because it just is.  2+2=4.”  That’s when I came to the realization that I had to step back and look at it from another perspective.  I had to figure out a way to explain something, that for me was self-evident, to someone who didn’t understand.  I am currently finding myself back in that situation.  As my group moves forward toward our goal of starting a free summer lunch program, I have spent the past few weeks thinking about how best to convince a local organization of the benefits of a free summer lunch program in the hopes that they will agree to come onboard as a sponsor.  To me the benefits seem self-evident, but to others I may have to spend some time explaining why this undertaking is worth their time, money and effort.

Just like when I was trying figure out how to teach my kids concepts which were obvious to me, I decided to do some research and reading on the topic in hope of finding the approach that would successfully convey the concept.  Through this research I uncovered a report entitled, Summer Nutrition Program Social Impact Analysis, from Deloitte Consulting, nokidhungryconducted on behalf of No Kid Hungry with support from the Arby’s Foundation.  This reports addresses both long and short term  benefits of summer lunch programs in the areas of health, education and the economy.  To illustrate some of the resulting benefits of summer lunch programs, the report also includes a case study from Maryland schools.

In the area of health, this report states that students lacking in adequate nutrition over the summer months experience more long term health consequences, like increased levels of weight gain, susceptibility to chronic diseases and hospitalization than student receiving adequate nutrition.  When children, who have access to nutritious lunches provided chicken-nuggetsfree during the school year, lose that access they are more likely to rely on cheap, calorie dense foods which provide little nutritious value.  This switch in diet can lead to a weight gain in the summer among food insecure children that is two to three times higher than their weight gain during the school year.  Providing nutritious summer lunches in place of cheap, calorie dense foods can mitigate this weight gain and reduce the susceptibility to chronic diseases like, asthma, type 2 diabetes and heart disease for these children.  Additionally, decreasing food insecurity can lessen rates of mental illness and risk of hospitalization for chronic diseases.

Furthermore, the report indicates that the lack of enough nutritious food over the summer can worsen levels of cognitive decline in these students experiencing food insecurity.   All students experience some amount of learning loss, called “summer slide” during summer vacation.  Studies show that children from low-income families, who experience food insecurity, experience greater summer slide.  This effect is cumulative and often by the end of 5th grade low income children can be as far as three grade levels behind their peers from higher income brackets.  This gap isteacher most evident in reading achievement.  According to the study having enough nutritious food to eat helps combat cognitive decline which can lessen summer learning loss.  Decrease in summer slide can save schools significant funds, as it is estimated to cost $1,540 per student to re-teach a student struggling with summer learning loss.

The achievement gap, resulting from the lack of adequate nutritious food over the summer months, can potentially lead to higher drop out rates.  This report suggests that providing food insecure students with nutritious food over the summer, there by reducing the achievement gap, will cause an increase in the number of students graduating from high school.  In the Maryland schools case study presented in Summer Nutrition Program Social graduates-351603_640Impact Analysis, schools offering a summer lunch program experienced a 5.3% increase in students graduating from high school.  As high school graduates typically earn approximately $10,090 more per year than non graduates and experience a 4% higher employment rate, these summer lunch programs will not only beneficially impact the student who graduates, but will also serve to strengthen the economy in the long term, as these students are better able to be productive members of society.

Finding this report made me just as grateful as when I found the section of the textbook or a website which provided me the strategy I needed to explain a self evident concept to my child.  This report by No Kid Hungry and Deloitte concretely highlights the short and long term benefits of providing a summer lunch program and saves me from having to say, “Summer lunch programs are beneficial.  They just are.”  I encourage you, especially if you are skeptical about the benefits of a summer lunch program, to follow the link above to the report and read it.