It Takes Two Feet

fall-woodsRecently I was reading through a Facebook conversation about whether someone who paid his or her fair share of federal income tax was less intelligent than someone who was able, through aggressive use of loopholes in the tax code, to avoid paying any federal income tax.  (Don’t worry we aren’t going there.)  One of the responders asked the original poster if he thought it would be better to keep as much of his money as possible so that he could personally give to organizations and causes he wanted to support, instead of having the Federal Government spend his money for him.  The implication in his query is that our current Federal Government it too large and operates in an inefficient, even corrupt manner, wasting our hard earned money.  The questioner believes the solution to this perceived problem is a smaller Federal Government, which can operate more efficiently, with less waste and corruption.  This smaller Federal Government is able to exist because much of the services provided by the larger Federal Government have been delegated to the states, private sector or charities.  Shrinking the size of the Federal Government is exactly what Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan, is trying to do when he advocates using charity as the solution to poverty.  Using charities alone to solve a problem as large and as complex as poverty, is fraught with complications, however, and will never succeed in bringing about the desired result of lowering poverty rates.

The first reason charities alone will be unable to eradicate poverty is that charities often focus on the symptoms of the problem, not the causes.  In the case of poverty, charities address the symptoms of poverty by providing those in need with food, affordable housing, clothing and utility assistance to name a few areas of assistance.  This assistance provides the recipient with immediate relief from the problem at hand, which is beneficial, however, the charity has only provided a temporary fix for the person in poverty.  In all likelihood the person in need will be back the next month to get another shopping cart full of food or utility assistance.  The act of charitable giving has done nothing to address the reasons the person in poverty is in the situation s/he is in and in a way has encouraged that individual to remain dependent on the temporary aid provided.

Another complication with relying on charities to solve the problem of poverty concernspumpkins the inequities that inevitably arise from using this approach to solving a complex problem.  These inequities are, for the most part not intentional, but nonetheless, exist and are very problematic.  Donations will vary from geographic location to geographic location or for that matter from season to season.  Consequently charitable organizations in one part of the country may be much better able to assist those in poverty than organizations located in other areas.  Additionally, the amount of aid a charity can provide may vary throughout the year as giving fluxuates.  Furthermore, donors elect to donate to causes that interest them, often times giving to the organization that has the more effective advertising campaign or hook, but that is not always assisting the greatest need.  What results from relying on charities to solve the problem of poverty is an approach that is unequal on many levels and may even serve to exacerbate the problem in certain locations.

Part of the reason for the inequality created by relying on charities to address the problem of poverty is the reduction in accountability and public review that results from moving from a governmental approach to a charitable one.  When any government spends funds it is accountable for where and how the money is spent.  Furthermore, the funds are distributed nationwide, better ensuring pockets of extreme need, caused by lack of charitable resources, do not exist.  These agencies have to keep administrative costs low and make sure the funds they use benefit the most people.  With charities, sometimes the proportion of a donation that is used for assisting someone in need versus the amount used for administrative or fundraising costs is unclear.  Additionally, charities are beholden to their donors for the necessary funds to operate.  Consequently, to ensure a steady stream of donations, charities must be aware of their donors’ expectations for the desired results of their donation.  This desire to please donors may cause charities to inadvertently tailor their operations to gain the approval of their donors rather than address the needs of their recipients.

wine-leafThe final and perhaps most important reason it is ill-advised to use charities to solve a problem as large and complex as poverty is that charities hinder or delay the social change and justice that must happen before any real progress in diminishing poverty can be seen.  Donating to a charity fighting poverty distracts donors from fighting the inequities in society that cause poverty in the first place.  The donor feels good, like s/he is making a difference in the overall problem, when really all s/he is doing is providing temporary relief.  Furthermore, the act of providing temporary assistance often masks the true depth of these inequities.  Those in need receive just enough to allow them to become complacent with their situation and to lessen the outrage they as well as the rest of society might otherwise feel.  When you couple the complacency of the person in need with the sense of having helped of the donor, society fails to realize the true depth of the problem, and therefore, does not demand action to correct the inequities that allow the injustice to continue to exist.

Lest anyone be confused, I am not building a case against charity.  I volunteer with a charitable organization and they do wonderful, necessary work, as do most charities.  The point I am making is that charitable anti poverty organizations can not be expected to do the heavy lifting needed to solve or even lower poverty alone.  Charities working alone to lower poverty present an unworkable solution that is unfair to both the needy and the charities which seek to help them.  Even the United States Conference of Catholic Bishopsgourds understands that charity alone will not solve the problem of poverty.  The bishops have created “The Two Feet of Love in Action”, stating one needs two feet to walk the path of love.  In the flyer explaining their philosophy, they discuss what the two feet represent:  one assisting with charitable organizations to help meet immediate basic needs and the other to work for social justice which will serve to remove the causes of poverty and strengthen societal structures.  Charities are extremely adept at alleviating individuals’ immediate needs, but to grapple with the enormity of social injustice requires the broad, impartial reach of the Federal Government.  The struggle also requires you to help propel BOTH feet of love, charity AND social justice, forward.

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Snow Day Fun

snow cardinalTuesday I found myself with some unexpected free time.  Due to a weather forecast of 4-8″ of snow, food pantry clients had been rescheduled to another day, so I did not have to volunteer.  I assumed, however, because of the forecast that my kids would be home from school for the day.  It did snow all day, but the temperature never dipped below freezing, so nothing stuck to the roads.  The kids only had a two hour delay (sorry guys!) and I didn’t have to volunteer.  What to do with this unexpected gift?!  I decided to spend the day going through a cookbook my brother and sister in law gave me for Christmas, entitled Smokehouse Ham, Spoon Bread, & Scuppernong Wine:  The Folklore andscuppernong Art of Southern Appalachian Cooking, by Joseph E. Dabney.

When I initially started thinking about food insecurity and how to assist people who were hungry, one of the first ideas I had was to look to the past to see how folks used to cook, especially during hard times, like the Great Depression.  Prior to the Great Depression the United States also lacked the societal safety nets we have today, so people suffering from poverty really were on their own to survive.  After a bit more research, I learned that not everyone cooked and ate the way I assumed.  My notion of how women 100-125 years ago cooked and provided food for their families was based on a rural society, where there were little work opportunities for women outside the home and most families had enough land on which grow produce and/or keep some livestock.  After reading How the Other Half Ate, by Katherine Leonard Turner, I learned that urban dwelling women approached cooking and feeding their families very differently than rural women, and as the title suggests, different social classes cooked and ate differently as well.

Additionally, I came to realized that cooking like rural women from the past requires a great deal of time.  Initially I didn’t think this would be a problem for most of the people today who suffer from food insecurity, as I believed them to be unemployed.  After all, that is what many politicians and people in the media would have you believe.  I have since learned from my reading and volunteering, that many people who are food insecure are also employed, sometimes working two and three jobs, and therefore do not have an abundance of time to cook from scratch.  Cooking from scratch also requires certain implements and appliances that the food insecure may not own, like large pots and pans, a multiple burner stove or an oven.

With all that said, I do still think there are lessons to be learned from old cookbooks and food traditions of the past, which is why I read old cookbooks and historical accounts of how and what people ate.  This particular cookbook, although not old as it was originally published in 1998, contains the result of research and numerous interviews with old timers conducted by the author.  It is perhaps more an historical account with recipes than it is a cookbook.  The geographical location this book discusses, southern Appalachia, has historically been and still is, one of the poorest areas of the United States.  I was very curious to see what these hardscrabble people ate and how they prepared it and to determine if I could learn something from their practices that I could pass on to people in my community who are struggling today

One of the first themes that struck me was that they ate what was available wild in their environment, when it was available.  Some of this practice will not be very practical today.  We live in more populated areas with less open spaces, so foraging off the land will not work as well today.  Additionally, we have mostly lost the knowledge of what is edible, growing wild in our wild-strawberrybackyard or local woods, but it is there.  There is a group in Philadelphia, The Wild Foodies of Philly, whose members forage in the city and there is a global organization called Falling Fruit, whose website contains an interactive map of where people are urban foraging.  Similarly, I can remember as a young girl picking wild strawberries and blackberries, winter cress, persimmons, beach plums and black walnuts, all of which were eaten by my family.  Recently someone gave me some paw paws from a nearby tree growing in a nature preserve and my husband has picked and we have eaten morels and other mushrooms growing in our woods. (A note about gathering wild mushrooms–I am not advocating for anyone to pick and consume a wild mushroom without first taking a class in mycology or going foraging with someone very knowledgeable in wild mushrooms.  Some varieties can make you sick, but others can kill you quite quickly.  Unless you can tell the difference with certainty do not consume foraged mushrooms!)  And almost everyone has dandelions growing in their yard!  I often wonder if the people who spend money on herbicides to get rid of dandelions are sometimes the same people who spend money to buy dandelion greens in Whole Foods.

In addition to wild plants, the mountain people of Appalachia supplemented their diet by hunting wild animals, like rabbit, deer, raccoon, squirrel, opossum and turkeys.  Not everyone today is interested in hunting or has the land available to them on which to huntwild turkeys.  Likewise, our tastes have changed so that few could imagine eating opossum, but I know many families locally, who still supplement their diet with venison, rabbit, wild fowl and small birds, like dove.  The Chester County Food Bank participates in the Pennsylvania program, Hunters Share the Harvest, where hunters can share extra venison with food banks.  I just had a client ask me last week if we had any venison.

With regard to produce, they ate or preserved to eat later what was in season, growing in their garden.  Not many people can or preserve food today, but it was a necessary way to stretch the summer bounty into the winter, when produce was scarce.  Today, eating seasonally is still just as wise as it was in the past, even if you do not have a garden.  Produce in season is going to be cheaper, but also will taste better and be healthier, since it was allowed to ripen fully before being picked.  Even if you do not know how to can produce, many fruits and vegetables can easily be frozen, so if one has access to freezer space, freezing summer produce can be an economical way to enjoy summer’s bounty in the middle of winter.

In conjunction with eating what was available, the people of Appalachia wasted very little.  When they slaughtered an animal or killed wild game, they used almost all parts of the animal in one way or another.  Additionally, many plant products we commonly dispose of today were in the past used in recipes, like corncob jelly and pickled watermelon rind.  While I understand that many of these historical cooking practices are not practical for today, we can take away the lesson of reducing waste in our cooking.  For instance, I just recently purchased a rotisserie chicken for a dip recipe.  Once I had picked the meat off the bones, I put the bones into a pot with a quartered onion, covered it with water and simmered it for about an hour.  When it was done I removed the chicken bones and onion and strained the remaining liquid.  This produced 4 cups of chicken stock, which only cost me my time (mostly unattended cooking) and a few cents for the onion.  Abaconnother easy practice, which reduces waste and creates cooking stock, is to save parts of produce you are not going to eat, like the end of a carrot or broccoli stalks, in the refrigerator.  Once you have a decent amount of this vegetable matter, follow the same steps as with making chicken stock. This process will result in vegetable stock at no extra cost.  Finally, I save most of the fat rendered from frying bacon.  I put it in a container in my refrigerator and use small amounts not only for frying foods, like potatoes, but also to flavor braising water for vegetables when I don’t have any stock on hand.

I thoroughly enjoyed my snow day on Tuesday, sitting with a cup of tea and a cookbook.  While I did not grow up in Appalachia, I did grow up in the country and the people and food ways described in this book spoke to me and reminded me of my childhood.   Unfortunately so much of what I was remembering from my childhood is gone.  The wild strawberries and hedgerows of blackberry canes are not there anymore.  Very little, if any, winter cress grows inblackberry the fields due to herbicides or planting practices.  My grandfather, sharer of persimmons, has long since passed away.  Like the memories of my youth, passing down the practice of cooking from scratch and cooking methods used to stretch the meager food resources of a family have largely disappeared too, especially as busy parents rely more and more on processed, already prepared, packaged food.  Unfortunately, we are losing more than we realize when we give up these practices.

Come Together, Right Now, Over Hunger

 

conference-save-the-date-2015This past Monday I had the opportunity to attend an anti-hunger conference, entitled Coming Together: A Community Response to Hunger, sponsored by the Food Bank of Delaware in partnership with Brae’s Brown Bags and the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC).  The organizers of this conference took an interesting approach and invited both adults and children to attend, so in addition to all the adult attendees, about 200 students representing several Delaware school districts were in attendance as well.   The speakers included a nice mix of local and national figures.  Panel discussions included speakers from the state government, state and federal governmental agencies, the American Academy of Pediatricians, and local and national organizations working to raise awareness of and put an end to hunger.  The attendees, including the students, were given numerous opportunities to ask questions of the panelists.  I left this conference with a renewed sense of hope and optimism for the future as a result of the genuine concern and eagerness to help displayed by the attending students.  I also was reenergized to continue my journey to assist the food insecure.  Additionally, I received validation for my assertion that teaching cooking skills to those experiencing food insecurity will provide them with a necessary tool to use in their struggles against hunger.

The person who inspired me the most was 11 year old Braeden Mannering, who is responsible for Brae’s Brown Bags.  In 2013 Braeden attended the Kids’ State Dinner in Washington, D.C.  This luncheon was also attended by First Lady, Michelle Obama, who asked Braeden how he was going to “pay it forward.”  He didn’t have an answer for her that day, but out of his search for an answer to that question Brae’s Brown Bags was born.  Through his3B foundation Braeden distributes brown bags, containing a water bottle, 3 healthy snacks, and a brochure listing contact information for shelters and other aid organizations, to homeless people in the area.  To date Brae’s Brown Bags has delivered over 3,000 bags to those in need.  He hopes to include specialty items, like toiletries, gloves in the winter and books for children, in the future.  It was inspiring to see what could be accomplished by a single person with an idea and the will to see that idea realized.

http://www.braesbrownbags.org

Not only was I impressed with Braeden, but with all the young people who attended.  One panel discussion was geared specifically for them.  Two State Senators and the Committee Chairman of the DE GOP sat on a panel and answered questions posed only by students.  The students asked well thought out questions on topics including what they could do to best help those who are hungry or whether the legislators would support certain items, like locating a food pantry in every Delaware high school.  Perhaps the bravest question came from a young lady who asked what help and advice they would offer to her and her family.  She stated that even though her mother works 7 days a week, it still isn’t enough to keep them from being hungry.  She completed her question with composure, but broke down after returning to her seat.  The legislators were visibly moved, as was everyone in the room.  It is easy to talk about hunger abstractly, but much harder when you can put a face on it and that face is standing in front of you.

Numerous topics concerning hunger and food insecurity were discussed during the course of the conference, but a considerable amount of time was given to the discussion of childhood nutrition, probably due to the upcoming opportunity to enact a child nutrition reauthorization bill.  On the topic of childhood nutrition, panelists discussed school lunch and breakfast programs, afterschool and summer nutrition programs and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC).  Additionally, Dr. Sandra Hassink, President of the American Academy of Pediatrics, spoke about the medical implications of poor childhood nutrition.  She remarked that this is the first time in our history that we have both an obesity epidemic and significant incidence of food insecurity occurring at the same time, with the distinct possibility that people could be experiencing both problems.  Dr. Hassink also stated that it is impossible to eat healthy if you do not know how to cook and rely on prepackaged, processed foods for your meals.

Dr. Hassink’s comment about cooking wasn’t the only time that topic was brought up during the conference.  Other speakers and attendees mentioned either the importance of cooking from scratch or the unfortunate loss of knowledge in how to cook from scratch while discussing the importance of good nutrition or the task of helping people with limited resources stretch those resources.  Additionally, the importance of cooking from scratch was discussed at the table at which I was sitting.  Joining me at the table was a registered dietician from Nemours and  a group of women from the University of Delaware Cooperative Extension who staff the Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program (EFNEP).  This program provides nutrition, cooking and budgeting information to residents of DE who qualify for SNAP, WIC, Head Start or free or reduced school meals.  After listening to all the discussion about the importance of cooking from scratch, I believe now more than ever that my concern over the loss of cooking skills is well founded and warrants further exploration into ideas to help people learn cooking and other related skills to stretch their food dollars and eat healthier.

ghandi change quote

 

America’s New National Pastime

baseball

No, I don’t mean baseball!  I have just started reading a book entitled Sweet Charity?:  Emergency Food and the End of Entitlement, by Janet charity bookPoppendieck.  In this book she contends that so many Americans participate in the fight to end hunger by donating to or volunteering in soup kitchens or food banks and pantries that it has become a national pastime.  Poppendieck chronicles the increased reliance on charity as a response to poverty and hunger in the United States, while noting the erosion of government provided assistance.  She contends that this resurgence in charity is a Band-Aid approach to ending poverty and hunger and is not the positive force it appears to be at first glance.

Her argument is two-fold.  First she states that America soundly rejected this form of poverty remediation over half a century ago.  Private charitable organizations, Poppendieck suggests, are inefficient and vary from location to location in the amount of assistance they provide.  She further states that serving meals and distributing groceries is inadequate assistance and serves to separate and segregate those in poverty from the rest of society.

The second point in Poppendieck’s argument is that participating in a charitable response to hunger and poverty diverts our attention from an actual solution to poverty in America.  Volunteering in and donating to charitable food distribution organizations, she contends, makes many Americans feel good and gives them a sense that the hunger problem is being addressed.  Poppendieck suggests that all this goodwill Americans feel prevents us from working to implement national policies with the goal of truly ending poverty and hunger in America.

As someone who has just committed a large amount of my time to volunteering in food pantries and working to fill some of the gaps that exist in assisting the food insecure, I was taken aback by the notion that I might be doing more harm than good.  I am, however, intrigued by what she has to say.  I have a feeling in the end we will not be too far apart on our assessment of the situation and what needs to occur to eliminate food insecurity in the United States.  That said, I do think this book will at times challenge my beliefs and opinions.

I think it is healthy to challenge the beliefs we hold, be they religious, political, or philosophical.  Part of the problem we face in the United States today stems from the fact that people surround themselves with information and people that reinforce their belief structure.  But that is a whole other discussion and one I don’t plan to undertake on this blog.   As I stated, I have just started reading the book, but I will share with you my thoughts on the topic and the book when I am done.  I am curious to see how or if it will alter the course of my journey to assist the food insecure.

I would be interested in your initial response to Poppendieck’s premise, or if you have read the book, what you thought about it.

Fuzzy Logic

One of the reasons I felt so compelled to act to help the food insecure is to combat the troubling attitude in the United States that people are in poverty through some fault of their own.  Too often I hear, “What’s wrong with those people?”  I guess the thought is that people are poor because they are lazy or have some other flaw causing their situation.  Many Americans reason that if the poor only took responsibility for their lives or learned a good work ethic they could find work and their situation would change.  All too often this set of beliefs is propagated by the media or our politicians.

suburban poverty2My personal experience with those in poverty, however, is that most of them are at the point of needing assistance through no fault of their own.  Many of them have lost a job or had to take a lower paying job.  Several have been bankrupted by crippling medical bills.  Then there are those who can not work–the elderly, disabled and children.  The new face of poverty can be found in America’s suburbs where since 2000 the poverty rate has skyrocketed by 64 percent.

Believing that it is the poor’s fault that they are poor leads to further flawed fact vs myththinking and myths.  The other day a graphic showed up on my Facebook feed showing SNAP myths and realities.  The realities seemed correct to me, but I decided to fact check them,  since no sources were given.  I found credible sources for all of the stated realities. According to the USDA, SNAP fraud is about 1% of benefits and this is an all time low, down from 4% over the last 15 years.   My experience with people receiving SNAP benefits is that most who can work either are or are SNAP households workdesperately looking for work, and this graph substantiates my experiences.  The figure of 8-10 months that the average person receives SNAP benefits comes from USDA data.  Finally, Mark Zandi, chief economist for Moody’s Analytics, states that every dollar spent on SNAP benefits creates $1.76 in economic activity.  He states that SNAP benefits are the fastest way to infuse cash into the economy because those benefits will get spent immediately and that spending will ripple into other sectors of the economy like paying clerks’ salaries.

The other night my family was watching the movie, Witness, from the early eighties, and depicted in this movie is an Amish barn raising.  One of my sons turned to me and said, “See what can be accomplished when people work together.”   He then asked, “Why don’t we (as a society) do that?”  I didn’t have an answer for him.  With regard to poverty, I think it might be easier to blame to the poor for their situation.  To accept that they are in their situation due to circumstances beyond their control means that our system does not work.  Since our system theoretically comes from the people in the form of voting, that puts some responsibility on us.  We allowed the system to get broken and we are not doing all we can to fix it.  It also means that maybe people in poverty aren’t too different than those of us who are not, suggesting we, too, could wind up in the same situation.  That is a pretty scary thought for most people, so it is easier to believe that people in poverty are there because of something they did wrong.

Last summer I was listening to a Radio Times program about hunger in the suburbs.  One of the guests being interviewed suggested that instead of looking at those in poverty and saying, “What’s wrong with those people?” we change our inner dialogue to, “What happened to them?  What is their story?”  I like that shift.  Most people in poverty have a reason they find themselves in that situation.  They are not in poverty because they are bad or lazy.  If as a nation we can listen to the stories of the poor, we might come to understand their struggle and how we can help them, help themselves.