Nothing For Us, Without Us

The title of this blog post makes reference to a Latin phrase, Nihil de nobis, sine nobis (Nothing about us, without us) that has its origins in Central European map polandpolitical traditions.  This motto aided in the creation of Poland’s 1505 constitutional legislation, which transferred political power from the monarchy to parliament.  It also sounds very similar to, and perhaps inspired the creation of, the American Revolutionary War demand “No taxation without representation!”  More recently the phrase was used the 1990s in the disabilities rights movement.  The ancient phrase expresses the equally age old notion of self-determination, that people want to control their own lives.

I just recently encountered the phase in a report entitled, Special Report:  American’s Food Banks Say Charity Won’t End Hunger.  The report is the result of a collaboration between WhyHunger and food access organizations that participated in the 2015 biennial Closing the Gap “Cultivating Food Justice” Conference.  This conference, started by the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona, brings together emergency food providers, who currently engage the entire community, including clients, to solve that community’s specific hunger problems.  The Closing the Hunger Gap network’s stated purpose is “to engage food banks and their constituents in expanding their efforts beyond food handouts, toward community based empowerment initiatives that effectively network with broader food security work.”  They envision a time when:

  • food banks measure success, not by the increase in the number of people they help or the amount of food they distribute, but in how many people no longer need a handout.
  • people, who now view themselves as recipients of food handouts, will be able to determine their own futures.
  • low income people, food banks and community leaders work closely together to establish food security efforts that are not only national, but local and regional, in scope.

To accomplish their vision, these emergency food providers seek to move beyond being an organization that just distributes food (charity), to an organization that engages all of the community, including the poor, to work toward reducing poverty by addressing its root causes (social justice).

To aid in this shift, we must understand that the narrative we use when we speak about poverty is flawed.  Mia Birdsong, in her TED Talk entitled, The Story We Tell about Poverty Isn’t True, actually suggests it is false.   Toward the end of her talk, which highlights the innovative ways several people who are poor have solved problems facing them, Birdsong states,

I’m tired of the story we tell that hard work leads to success, because that allows…those of us who make it to believe we deserve it, and by implication, those who don’t make it don’t deserve it.  We tell ourselves, in the back of our minds, and sometimes in the front of our mouths, “There must be something a little wrong with those poor people.”  We have a wide range of beliefs about what that something wrong is.  Some people tell the story that poor folks are lazy freeloaders who would cheat and lie to get out of an honest day’s work.  Others prefer the story that poor people are helpless and probably had neglectful parents that didn’t read to them enough, and if they were just told what to do and shown the right path they could make it.

Neither story is correct and both prevent us from tapping into what Birdsong calls our “most powerful and practical resource. . .people who are poor.”  Poor people are the experts on their problems and they probably see a solution to fix those problems.  What is missing are the seed accelerators or venture capitalists, found in Silicon Valley and other places, who are willing to invest in the ideas of poor people.  And I don’t mean just money.  They need mentors, collaborators and people to open the right door.  They need someone to listen to them and believe in them.

Let’s circle back to food banks and apply the new narrative that poor people quite often can create solutions to their own problems, provided they are offered the same help and encouragement that is offered to other segments of the population.  What if the people helping handswho run food banks invited some of their clients in to talk with them and other community leaders about the problems they are facing?  And not just food related problems, but all of the problems they face.  What if emergency food providers and other community leaders listened to them as they discussed their problems and believed they were the experts on their problems, including the solutions?  What if after that meeting, clients, emergency food providers and community leaders collaborated, using the ideas of the clients coupled with the resources of the community, to address some of these problems?  I think all parties involved would be surprised at what might be accomplished.  I also think we would see stronger communities, as divisions decrease and understanding and respect grows.

Hunger Walk

hunger walk bannerThis past Sunday I couldn’t get the 10cc song, Things We Do For Love, out of my head.  (I know.  I’m dating myself.)  That’s because of this line in the song, Like walking in the rain and the snow, and that is what we were doing, walking in the rain and the snow to help those who were hungry.   My sons and I participated in the inaugural John H. Ware IV Memorial Hunger Help Walk to benefit 4 local organizations that help combat the problem of hunger in our area.  In past years this walk has been part of the CROP Hunger Walk, sponsored by World Church Service.  The local organizers in my town decided to break with that organization and sponsor the walk on their own for two reasons.  First, the local entities receiving the funds raised by this walk did not see those funds for several months, often almost a year after the walk.  Secondly, only 25% of the funds raised in our town came back to the local organizations.  The remaining dollars stayed with the World Church Service, presumably to cover administrative costs and assist with efforts abroad to combat hunger.

Over 150 people turned out in spite of a dramatic dip in temperatures to participate in the walk, which included 3 different loop options–a 1 mile, 5K or 10K walk/run.  Participants included people of all ages.  I was especially pleased to see a large group of teenagers, many of whom were walking in support of a local youth organization that wasme hunger walk receiving a portion of the money raised by the walk.  The chilly wind and clouds did not seem to dampen spirits and as we started off, we were greeted with a brief snow shower, followed by a couple of light showers later in the walk.  The inclement weather only seemed to add to the sense of camaraderie among the walkers.

I applaud these local organizers for deciding to take on the sponsorship and organization of this walk and keep the funds raised in the community.  At the opening ceremonies when this change was discussed, those gathered vocalized their approval as well.  Unless people are making a donation to a specific disaster or tragedy relief effort, most people want their donations to stay in the local community.  Furthermore, I think this walk helps to make people, who may not be, aware that a hunger problem does exist in their community and that there are resources within that community trying to assist those in need.  When I talk to folks about my endeavors and volunteering in the local food pantries, I have been surprised how often the response I receive is one of astonishment that we have food pantries in town.  I hope this new model works for the organizers and future years walks will be able to operate in the same manner, with all the proceeds remaining in the local community.

hunger walk sticker

The Journey Continues

back to schoolSummer is coming to an end.  My kids went back to school Monday, and I am left wondering where the time went.  This summer didn’t quite go as planned, but not many have and it’s not necessarily a bad thing.  At first I felt like I hadn’t made any forward progress with this endeavor of helping those who are food insecure.  I didn’t write nearly as many blog posts as I had hoped and I wanted to catch up on a backlog of reading, which did not happen.  But as the end of summer approached, I realized that progress sometimes doesn’t feel like progress, because you don’t always move forward in a straight line.  Sometimes you move forward by zig zagging or meandering.

meandering pathThis summer was about meandering.  At first I felt like I was slacking, but I came to realize that I needed to take some time to be still and look at what I had done thus far and assess what I wanted to accomplish going forward.  Luckily for me, the circumstances of summer gave me that time.  I determined that I wanted to change my approach to my blog.  I had started to look at my blog as my mission, and while it is an important part of my mission, it is not the mission.  I also decided that I work better with people, if only to have someone to whom to be accountable.  Consequently I have decided to assemble a group of people in my area who share my interest in assisting those who are food insecure.

Concurrently with my decision to form this group, two local women who read my blog about the lack of summer feeding programs in our town approached me to express their concern over this issue and their desire to work to remedy the situation.  Eureka, my first two committee members!  I have spoke to a couple more people I know are committed to the cause of assisting the food insecure and have a couple more people I want to invite to participate.  Over the coming year I hope to work with this group on a summer feeding program and on developing others ideas.

One thing I never stopped doing this summer was volunteering, which was a different experience than volunteering when I first started.  I can’t quite say why.  Maybe because I am more comfortable with my fellow volunteers and the clients.  But I also think it had something to do with the availability of fresh produce, which changed from week to week and became more plentiful as the summer progressed.  Sometimes I felt like Santa, handing out presents to a room full of 5 year olds.  Just this week while volunteering, I picked 54 pounds of tomatoes.  Clients were waiting for them when I put them with the other produce.   When I left 2 hours later, only a few pounds remained!  Supplying this produce and having the clients eagerly take it fills me with a sense of joy and helps keep me invigorated to continue my journey.

My Tomato Picking Buddy!

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Produce in the Parking Lot

On March 26th I had the opportunity to attend a program sponsored by the Delaware Historical Society entitled Forks in the Road.  This panel discussion, addressing contemporary food issues in Delaware, was the first in a series the Historical Society plans to present over the next year and a half.  The talk was moderated by Ed Kee, Delaware’s Secretary of Agriculture and the panel included two farmers, Larry Jester and Georgie Cartanza; former Chief Planner for the DE Department of Agriculture, Michael McGrath; Director of Marketing for the Kenny Family Shoprite, Dan Tanzer and Produce Director for Urban Acres Produce, LLC, Michael Minor.

While all the panelists were engaging and I had interest in all the topics that were discussed, I was particularly interested in Mr. Minor’s discussion of Urban Acres Produce.  Urban Acres operates 4 produce stands, Urban Acresselling locally grown produce when possible, in Wilmington’s East Side, a community lacking easy access to healthy food.  The term used to describe communities that lack convenient access to healthy food is a food desert.  A governmental working group comprised of members from various agencies including the USDA defines a food desert as a “low income census tract where either a substantial number or share of residents have low access to a supermarket or large grocery store.”  Food deserts exist in every state, in urban locations and rural settings surrounded by growing produce.

Several aspects of this venture appeal to me.  First, Urban Acres’ produce stands are an innovative way to introduce healthy food to residents in an area that has limited access to fresh produce.  These stands operate from May through November in 4 different locations.  (For days, hours and locations click on link below)  The stands are situated in convenient places that significant numbers of residents frequent, like apartment building parking lots or churches, in hopes of reaching more residents. In addition to just selling produce, Mr. Minor discussed the necessity of educating people about the importance of eating healthy food whenever possible.

https://centralbaptistcdc.com/

Urban Acres welcomes volunteers but also utilizes paid staff members from the community to run its produce stands.  Urban Acres was started not only as a means of getting produce into a food desert, but as a way to provide a community resident with a job.  By engaging the community, either through employment or as volunteers,  Urban Acres is empowering the citizens of the East Side to create a better situation for themselves.  With Urban Acres as an employer, the community will also have a vested interest in the success of these produce stands in order to keep those jobs in the community.

Finally, these produce stands provide access to local produce during the growing season.  The nutrient content of produce begins to decrease once it is harvested.  Local produce is likely to be higher in nutrients because there is a shorted time between harvest and consumption.  It is better for the environment since it has less of a distance to travel to get to market, using less fuel and creating less pollution.  Finally, by purchasing local produce Urban Acres is also assisting smaller, often family farming operations and supporting the local economy.   But perhaps the best reason to provide local produce is that it just tastes better because it is picked at the peak of ripeness!

local produce

Some may wonder why I am spending a blog post discussing urban produce stands.  Hunger, food insecurity and food deserts are all pieces to the same puzzle.  These problems speak to larger issues in our society like wage inequality, unemployment and poverty.  They are also intertwined with what the government subsidizes, large agribusiness growing corn and soybeans, and what it does not, smaller farming operations growing a diversity of produce.  These subsidies help make heavily processed food cheaper and produce more expensive.  Finally, making produce available in communities which have had limited access to it connects with my discussion of cooking from scratch and stretching food dollars.  You can’t cook what you can’t purchase due to lack of access.

I am encouraged when I see a community coming together to create a solution for its specific problem.  As I told friends and family that I was planning to assist the hungry and food insecure, several people told me this was an issue of concern for them, but they were overwhelmed by the size of the problem and felt immobilized with helplessness.  I was too initially, but decided my mission was to work within my community to bring awareness to the existence of food insecurity and other food scarcity issues and to help find solutions to lessen the numbers of people experiencing these problems.  I am using this blog to chronicle that effort, but also to educate others on the larger, national issues and hopefully build a community to grow ideas and create solutions to these problems.  Some of the best catalysts for change have come out of local, grassroot operations.