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

 

 

 

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Luxury Items

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

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

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

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

Give It to Someone Who Needs It

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

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

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

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

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

If It Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix It.

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

 

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

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

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

Myth:  Individuals receive SNAP benefits for years and years.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Myth:  SNAP dollars can be used to purchase anything.

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

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

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

 

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

Warm Someone’s Heart

coffeeBrrrrr! It’s really cold out, and although the forecast calls for warmer temperatures over the next few days there can be no doubt that winter is here for the next several weeks.  As the temperatures have dipped down I find myself trying to stay warm with a hot beverage, either coffee or tea.  When the kids came in from enjoying the weekend snow, I warmed them up with yummy cups of hot chocolate.  I’m not the only one turning to warm beverages.  Over the past few weeks at the food pantry I also noticed some of the clients, especially the homeless, asking if we happen to have anything on hand with which to make hot beverages–tea, coffee or hot chocolate.  These are items we do not stock, but every now and then someone will donate some to us.  When we are able to include one of these hot beverages in a household’s monthly food supply, it is always much appreciated.

Due to the success of the baking mix drive in December, I have been wanting to sponsorteapot another drive for February.  I always like to look for ways to make February fun.  By the beginning of February, the cold and early night fall that comes with winter have cast a gloom over me.  I always tell myself if I can make it through February, winter’s spell will be almost over.  Plus it’s my birthday month and who doesn’t want to have fun during their birthday month.  So, to help make February fun and break winter’s spell I want to warm our client’s hearts with hot beverages.  For every household coming in for food in February, I would like for the food pantry to be able to give them a canister of ground coffee, box of tea bags or box of hot chocolate mix.  To do this we will need your help again.  I will leave the size of the canister or box up to you.  We have households ranging from one person to nine people.  Even though we all have our own favorite flavor of tea or coffee, please keep donations to either regular coffee or black tea and hot chocolate mixes that require only adding hot water.

hot-chocolateThe trend currently exists in coffee shops to pay it forward, whether it is paying for the coffee of the person behind you at the drive thru or buying a community cup of coffee that someone coming in after you leave can use.  Think of this as another way to pay it forward.  For the price you spend on a specialty coffee at Starbucks or Dunkin Donuts, you could purchase a can of coffee or a box of tea bags or hot chocolate mix to warm someone’s heart.  For my local readers, I am happy to pick up items from you and for my farther away readers, like last time, I am happy to purchase items if you want to send a cash donation.  Thank you so much for your generosity.  Now speaking of hot beverages, it’s tea time!

Reflections

confettiThe year 2016 is coming to and end and what a year it has been.  Before I take a few days off to enjoy Christmas and the New Year festivities with my family and friends, I wanted to reflect a bit on my journey assisting the food insecure this year.  This past year contained some positive highlights.  Nationally, the US Census Bureau reported in September that the poverty rate in the US declined in 2015 for the first time since 1999.  In my community, the local school district started offering free lunch during the summer to all school age children in our community through the Summer Food Service Program.  Online I found the Click and Carry handle, and with a generous discount from the manufacturer, was able to purchase several dozen to provide to our homeless clients, allowing them to carry away more food when they visit the food pantry. And finally this past month, due to the generous response of my blog readers, the food pantry was able to provide every household receiving food with a sweet treat baking mix–cookies, quick breads or brownies–to brighten their holiday.  We were even able to offer aluminum baking pans to those who didn’t have a pan in which to cook the mix of their choosing.  Itcookies-1900558_640 was very rewarding to me and the other volunteers and staff who pack food for clients to see the happiness and excitement elicited by these unexpected treats.  I want to extend a heartfelt thank you to all my friends, neighbors, family and readers who helped make this possible.

2016 also had it’s low spots.  In Pennsylvania, the year started out without a budget negatively impacting a wide range of social services, from school districts to food pantries.  When 2016 began, the state had been without a budget for over 180 days.  Just before 2015 ended, Governor Wolfe announced he would line item veto the budget proposal sent to him by the General Assembly.  Taking this action allowed $23.4 billion to be released, of which $18.4 million went to the State Food Purchase Program, which helps provide food to food pantries.  In early Spring, the House GOP released a budget plan for fiscal year 2017 in which 62% of its proposed budget cuts came from low income, social safety net programs.  Luckily this budget was not approved, but that is perhaps only a temporary reprieve from the ax for these programs, for 2016 came to a close with the election of Donald Trump for President after one of the nastiest Presidential campaigns I have ever witnessed.

I have heard many people say they are glad to see 2016 come to an end and it can’t end soon enough.  I understand what they mean; unfortunately,  I do not share their belief that next year will be better, especially with regard to those in poverty and experiencing food insecurity.  There have been calls for the nation to come together, to work together, to address our nation’s challenges.  I don’t have a problem with that sentiment, as long as that is what happens–both sides talking to each other and listening to each others’ concerns and proposals, then working together through compromise to reach a jointly crafted approach.  I fear, however, that is not what is meant with the call for national unity.  My concern is that what is being requested is for the nation to come together in support of the plans and proposals of the GOP, who will soon control the Legislative and Executive branches of the Federal Government and 33 Governorship (in 25 of those states they also control the State Legislature as well), with little to no dialogue or compromise taking place.  If bipartisan compromise is not what is meant by the call to come together, I think the result will be unfortunate for all Americans.  I guess we will just have to wait and see.

clock-465874_640So as 2016 comes to an end I am trying to remain that same optimist who has always tried to find the silver lining.  Up until now, however, I never realized how close the colors sliver and gray were to each other. My husband keeps reminding me to focus on my sphere of influence–poverty, and in particular food insecurity–so as to not get overwhelmed by the magnitude of change that may be headed our way.  It is good advice and I intend to try to follow it as best as I can.  I will continue to advocate and do whatever else I can for those who are struggling to make ends meet and are experiencing food insecurity.  I will also continue to encourage meaningful dialogue from all points of view with this blog.  Thank you to my readers and to those who comment, either here on the blog or on Facebook or even in person.  I have received inspiration, insight and encouragement from your words.  And again, thank you so much to those who helped us brighten a few families’ holiday by donating baking mixes!

I wish all of you a wonderful holiday season and a happy, healthy New Year!  

garland

 

For the Common Good

ballotSince Election Day I have wanted to write a post which addresses the social climate of the country, but was not sure how to approach the topic.  I wanted my post to be constructive, not destructive or divisive.  Every time I started to write, I felt like my personal frustration with the current social climate and its accompanying rhetoric got in the way of what I was trying to communicate.  I wanted to add positively to the discourse without resorting to name calling and ugliness.  The result was a virtual trashcan full of wadded up pieces of virtual paper.  Part of the impediment was my own disappointment in the outcome of the election and my need to work through those feelings, a process akin to grieving.  (Just call me Snowflake, even though I’m not a Millennial.)  Then one day I heard a segment of a discussion between Van Jones and  Bishop T. D. Jakes in which they were discussion disagreement in this country and I understood what my approach would be.

In this segment Mr. Jones speaks about the importance of disagreement in a democracy.  He gives an example of two people with opposing views on a problem coming together to craft an approach to solving the problem.  He says that through constructive disagreement and compromise they quite possibly could arrive at solution better than the one either side may have crafted alone.  He also admits, sadly, that this process almost never happens in disagreementtoday’s social and political discourse.  Instead, most parties participate in destructive disagreement, where the main point of the conversation seems to be to tear down or obstruct the opposing side at all costs.  The result of this type of disagreement is gridlock and ill will toward fellow countryman.

Hearing Van Jones’ words brought me back to my original intent when creating this blog.  Crafting a solution to a problem as large as poverty and its symptoms, like food insecurity, can not be undertaken by just Democrats or Republicans.  Neither can the solution be borne solely by governments nor the private sector.  Any successful solution to a problem of this magnitude must come from collaborations between Republicans and Democrats, politicians and members of the private sector.  This blog was created in the spirit of that collaboration, as a place where people possessing all viewpoints could present their opinions, as long as they did so civilly and with respect to opposing viewpoints.  I welcome input from all voices at this table, because all voices are necessary in this democracy if it is to be successful.

 When I first moved to where I currently reside it was quite a shock to me.  Prior to this move I had spent the previous decade living in one of the most homogeneously liberal areas of the country.  Practically everyone I interacted with thought exactly like me.  I knew the area into which I was moving was not as liberal as the one I was leaving, but I was not quite prepared for how different the two places would be.  On reporting this difference back to the friends I had left behind, many of them asked how I could tolerate living side by side with people who were so different than myself.  My response to them was that these new people I was meeting were not all that different than myself.  Sure our approaches to certain issues differed, which affected solutions we might wish to see enacted, but our wishes and desires for life were the same.  We all wanted to be happy, provide for our family, live in a safe neighborhood, send our kids to good schools.  I came to find that the things that were similar between us created stronger bonds than the things that separated us.  I would never have known of our similarities if we had not engaged in civil, respectful dialogue with each other.

neighborhoodSimilarly, shortly after moving to my current location, I started volunteering for my political party at the polls during election day.  My political party is handily outnumbered by the other party in my township.  That first election day a veteran volunteer from my party was introducing me to township members of my party as well as the other party.  The atmosphere among all was very convivial and I was a bit confused, having learned at that point to view the other party as the enemy.  This long serving political volunteer explained to me that we live in a small community and at the end of the day we are neighbors.  We rely on each other and must work together if we hope to accomplish anything for our community.  This was a revelatory statement to me, and while I have never stopped fighting for what I believe is the right path or agenda, I am also willing to listen to and engage in conversation with those who have differing viewpoints.

Those sage words have stuck with me and guide my approach to social and political discourse. They have allowed me to gain insight from trying to understand the viewpoint of someone with a differing opinion, whether that person lives in my community or another part of the country.  At the end of the day, we are all Americans and we must find a way to come together as neighbors and countrymen.  We must once again engage in the art of constructive disagreement and compromise, not to the detriment of our political party, but for the common good of our country.  The magnitude of the problems we currently face as a nation is too great to do otherwise, and the success of our democracy demands it.

#Giving Tuesday or Friday or Any Day

donateTuesday was Giving Tuesday and if I had been on the ball I would have written a post urging you to consider giving to your local food bank, pantry or cupboard.  As it was, I took some time off for Thanksgiving and neglected to look ahead.  Thinking I had missed a perfect opportunity I was a bit down when I realized Giving Tuesday was going to pass by without me being able to write a post about it.  As I thought about my missed opportunity I became frustrated that giving was allotted one day out of 365 days in a year.  Consequently, I decided that instead of throwing up my hands because I missed the opportunity to highlight Giving Tuesday, I would urge you to give on a Wednesday or Friday or whatever day works for you and to consider giving at other times of the year as well!

I understand the reasoning behind Giving Tuesday and support the effort wholeheartedly.  People are in the giving spirit at this time of year.  Additionally, for charitable organizations aiding the poor, demand for assistance is particularly high at this time of year.  For food pantries the months of November and December contain two big food holidays.  Christmas means presents and many churches and neighborhood and civic christmas-okorganizations work to provide items for families in poverty to give to loved ones on Christmas morning.  Finally, the cold weather necessitates added clothing, like winter coats, snow boots and hats and mittens, which are often well out of the monthly budget of families living near or below the poverty line.

While the main focus of this blog is food insecurity, I urge you to consider giving to any charity or cause you support.  Making a donation to a charitable organization supported by someone on your Christmas list is a thoughtful gift for them.  Coming together as a family to pool your money for a sizable donation to an agreed upon charity is also a great way to celebrate the season.  If you are able to, spread your donation out over the year by making a regular a monthly donation, allowing your charitable organization to better budget over the year and prevent periods of limited resources.  Finally, if you do not already, I urge you to consider making giving a regular part of your life, giving throughout the year and expanding your definition of giving.  Many organizations in every community do wonderful work, but need volunteers just as much as donations to make their goals possible.  Consider touching someone else’s life by giving of your time.  I guarantee that you will receive a gift in return!

Here is a link to an article by Consumer Reports about ratings for charitable organizations if you are uncertain about giving to a particular organization.

Calling All Elves!

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

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

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

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

Worst, Bad Day

car-crashThink back to your worst, bad day.  Nothing went right.  Maybe you overslept and your car wouldn’t start or you missed your bus.  Maybe you had an impossible task to complete for work or school.  Maybe your boss was a jerk or your company was downsizing or you flunked out of college.  Maybe the test results from the doctor were not good, for you or someone you love.  There are countless ways you could have a worst, bad day.

Now think about how it made you feel.  Did you want to crawl into bed and hide under the covers, cry, yell at someone?  Could you feel the stress crawling on your body?  Was your heart rate elevated?  Did you have trouble thinking about anything but the cause of your toubles?  How did you cope?  Did you treat yourself to an ice cream cone, a glass of wine or a meal out?  Did you take a mental health break and go home and crawl under the covers?  Did you call on your family or friends for help?  Whatever you did, you got through it.  Maybe it took longer than a day, but you were able to put it past you, move on.

Now imagine that worst, bad day as a typical day for you.  Imagine that the level of stress and banana-splitfrustration or uncertainty you faced on that worst, bad day, you face most days of your life.  Additionally, imagine that many of the coping mechanisms you used to get you through that worst, bad day are not available to you.  You don’t have any friends or family who can help you in any way except listen or commiserate.  You can’t afford to take time out for a mental health break.  You do not have the money to treat yourself to ice cream, alcohol or a meal out and if you do decide, “What the heck!  It’s been a really bad day and I deserve a treat.”, you are certain to experience disapproval from someone who does not feel you are deserving of that treat, even after a bad day.  Welcome to the reality of someone living in poverty.

Understanding that people in poverty probably live stressful lives is not very difficult for most people to do.  They understand how stressful life can be with an adequate household income, and know it would probably be worse with less income.  What most people do not realize is that living with that level of stress day in and day out affects one’s brain and impairs one’s cognitive abilities.  In August 2013 researchers published the results of a study, that stated that “poverty imposes such a massive cognitive load on the poor that they have little bandwidth left over to do many of the things that might lift them out of poverty”.   This thinking-mancondition the researchers called bandwidth poverty.  When someone suffers from bandwidth poverty, s/he is spending most of his or her cognitive abilities figuring out how to put food on the table or pay bills and it becomes nearly impossible to think about the future and make long term plans.  The study demonstrated that living in poverty created a mental stress that was equal to losing 13 IQ points, or stated another way, losing a whole night’s sleep.  I have tried to function on little to no sleep and it was not easy.  I can not imagine doing it day after day.

How Poverty Taxes the Brain

As a result of experiencing bandwidth poverty, performing basic life skills becomes incredibly difficult, resulting in faulty choices being made.  When one’s mental capacity to handle a situation is overburdened, he or she is more likely to forget things, like appointments, setting alarm clocks or even paying bills on time.  S/he will have less self control, which may result in that person giving in to temptations.  Parenting skills will suffer,alarm-clock as a person with bandwidth poverty will have less patience and a shorter attention span for their children.  Long-term planning activities, like saving money, getting more education or searching for a new job decome too taxing to continue or cease to even be considered. Of course this pattern of behavior feeds right back into the negative stereotype that people in poverty make bad decisions, and are therefore, soley responsible for their situation.  In reality, however, the effects of bandwidth poverty create an insidious cycle, trapping those living in poverty in a succession of bad decisions, because they are incapable of thinking about and planning for the future.

This is Your Stressed-Out Brain on Scarcity

It is easy to judge the actions of people in poverty from the context of a life where ends meet, even if you have to work hard to make ends meet and they meet just barely.  It is easy to see how you would do it differently, how you would save and plan long term to pull yourself out of that terrible situation.  You can see the possible path out, because you have the luxury of the mental bandwidth necessary to formulate those plans, since you don’t have to spend a majority of your time trying to figure out how to put dinner on the table or keep your lights and heat on and a roof over your head.  Knowing what we now know from this study I once again argue for a strengthened social safety net.  We need one that provides those in poverty with the support necessary to allow them to regain the required bandwidth to plan for the future and enact those plans, so that they can pull themselves out of poverty.

I am including below one last link.  I encourage you to read it.  The author is Linda Tirado, who has lived in poverty.  I have also heard her speak on NPR and she has written a book called Hand to Mouth:  Living in Bootstrap America.  The piece is a little rough around the edges, but it gives a firsthand look into the life of someone who lives in poverty.

Why I Make Terrible Decisions, or Poverty Thoughts