Kick the Can

mom kids walkingI remember as a kid playing kick the can with my mother.  Usually we played this game on our way back from a walk on a country road.  At this point in the walk I was probably tired and complaining about having to walk, when my sister could either be carried or was already riding in a stroller.  My mother would find an aluminum can (or bottle cap or some other kickable item) on the side of the road and encourage me to kick it, then run after it and kick it again.  And before I knew it, we would be almost home.  My version of kick the can down the road is a very literal one, as well as one that solves the problem at hand–pacifying a complaining child.  There is, however, another meaning to kick the can down the road, namely to procrastinate, or in more political terms, to avoid solving a contentious problem with the hope that someone else will address it.  Politicians often engage in the figurative sport of kicking the can down the road, unfortunately.  This procrastination is not new.  Think about how long in our history the problem of slavery was kicked down the road, and some would argue that remnants of the can are still being kicked today.

The danger with avoiding crafting a solution to a difficult problem is the creation of unintended symptomatic problems, which compound the original problem.  Here is a case in point I remember from a Child Psychology course I took in college.  In this class we were discussing the pros and cons of children attending daycare rather than staying home with a parent.  As part of the discussion, the professor talked about the state of daycare in the United States at the time, particularly for low income working families and single parents.  He said that children being left in the care of someone other than a parent or close family member isn’t harmful to the child per se.  What makes daycarechildcare potentially detrimental to the child are the conditions and quality of daycare the child attends. He explained that quality day care facilities, which provide a good staff to child ratio and are clean and interactive, pose little harm to children who attend.  Unfortunately, he said, this type of daycare facility is expensive and the United States lacks an adequate number of these quality, affordable daycare facilities, especially for low income working families.  He conjectured that if politicians ensured funding for adequate, quality daycare for low income families, the cost of doing so would be cheaper than addressing the more costly unintended problems, like poor academic performance, which awaited these children who lacked quality daycare.

This professor also contended that this reluctance to provide funding to address a solvable problem in favor of waiting until that manageable problem mushroomed into numerous, more complex problems with costlier solutions, is quite commonplace in our country.  I have to admit that I see truth in his argument with regard to poverty.  Rather than address the primary problem of poverty by working to create more jobs, to ensure an adequately trained and educated workforce, and to guarantee a livable wage for instance, our legislators have sought to address the symptomatic problems of poverty like unaffordable housing and healthcare costs or food insecurity.  I would say this approach is better than not smashed canaddressing poverty at all, except now legislators have begun to chop away at the supports that have been put in place to address these symptomatic problems, which brings me back to kicking the can down the road.

Recent proposals from the current Administration and Congress, like the proposed Farm Bill and HUD Secretary Ben Carson’s proposal to impose work requirements for HUD programs, demonstrate the current Administration and Congressional leadership’s lack of desire to now address even the symptomatic problems of poverty.  In other words they are opting to kick the can down the road, and in doing so are ensuring the original problem persists.  Only this time, because they are also removing the supports for the programs which address the symptoms of the poverty,  these legislators are guaranteeing that the primary problem, poverty, will not only persist, but will grown and worsen.  At some point we must stop playing games with people’s lives.

Below I have included some links to sources which provide an overview to the proposed Farm Bill and how it will affect those who experience poverty.

  • For a brief overview of the effects of the proposed Farm Bill on the SNAP click here.
  • For an in depth overview of the effects of the proposed Farm Bill on the SNAP click here.  It is a lengthy, but comprehensive assessment, which is updated as this bill progresses through the legislative process.
  • For a good article on how the proposed reforms to SNAP will perpetuate the cycle of poverty click here.

 

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A Win-Win-Win

farmers marketAfter I published my post last week about the Administration’s proposed changes to the delivery of SNAP benefits and the effects these changes will have, I read an article posted on the Talk Poverty website discussing how SNAP is helping to keep small farmers in business.  I was drawn to read this article, because it touched upon two points I made in my previous post–how easily most SNAP participants can and do access fresh produce with the current benefit delivery system and how that current delivery system helps businesses in the local economy.  This article discusses Double Up Food Bucks, a program funded through the Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive (FINI) grant program, that allows every SNAP dollar spent on produce at participating farmers’ markets and grocery stores to count as two dollars, up to $20 daily cap.  This program has currently been launched in 20+ states and this article focuses on the results of the Arizona program.

While I was not surprised that the article reported on the popularity of this Arizona program, I was surprised at how popular and successful the program is.  The author reports that SNAP spending at participating farmers’ markets rose between 67 and 290 percent since the program began in 2016.  At one farmers’ market SNAP spending increased from $9,000 in 2015 to over $43,000 by 2017 as a result of this program.  Additionally, over half of those dollars were spent on locally grown fruits and vegetables.  As Adrienne Udarbe, executive director of Pinnacle Prevention, the nonprofit that manages the program for Arizona, states, “Double Up is a win-win-win. farmers market2SNAP recipients have access to more fruits and vegetables, local farmers make more money, and more dollars stay in the local economy.”

Pennsylvania is not one of the 20+ states which has a Double Up Food Bucks program, however, some agencies within the state have created their own programs similar to the Double Up Food Bucks program, like Philly Food Bucks created by The Food Trust.   In Chester County, the Chester County Food Bank (CCFB) sponsors a program through it’s Fresh2You mobile produce truck.  Through this program, SNAP recipients who shop at the mobile market with their EBT card will stretch their SNAP dollars with Veggie Bucks.  For every SNAP dollar spent on fresh fruits and vegetables, shoppers will receive that same amount in Veggie Bucks to be used on future purchases, all season long.  The Fresh2You mobile produce truck makes a weekly stop in our town.  Consequently, the CCFB provides our food pantry with some Veggie Bucks to give to clients when they come to get their food for the month.  These clients can then take the Veggie Bucks to the Fresh2You truck when it stops in our town to help purchase fresh produce.

The Administration’s proposed budget, with its restructuring and spending cuts, creates much uncertainty about the Double Up Food Buck program’s future for the over 20 states participating in the program.  The concern over the fate of this program lies in the belief that the proposed America’s Harvest Box signals a shift away from providing funding for SNAP recipients to have autonomy to make their own food purchases, including the purchase of fresh fruits and vegetables.  Unfortunately, by making this shift, the farmers market3Administration will not only be providing less access to fresh produce, but will also be economically hurting local produce farmers who have benefited financially from participating in the Double Up Food Bucks program.

For me, this article provides further evidence of the shortsightedness of the proposed changes current legislators wish to make in SNAP and other programs assisting those in need.  From whatever angle I study SNAP and ancillary programs, like Double Up Food Bucks, I see a very successful programs which accomplish their missions with efficiency and very little fraud.  I fail to understand the reasoning behind the repeated attacks on these programs.  Either those who wish to shrink or alter SNAP have a lack of understanding of who uses the program and how they use it or a wish to impose a punitive element on those who need this assistance.  I want to be generous and believe the reason behind these cuts or restructuring proposals is due to a lack of understanding, but over the years I have seen more evidence that the desire to punish those needing assistance is more likely the reason.  What the current Administration fails to realize is that this proposed change or any change which cuts the budget of assistance programs for the food insecure, like SNAP or the FINI grant program, will punish far more than those who are poor and in need of assistance.  Members of local economies, like these small produce farmers, will also suffer as a result of these changes.

Cut Those Apron Strings

blue apron1As I promised in my last post, I want to take a closer look at the proposed restructuring of the delivery of SNAP benefits from the President’s proposed budget, released last month.  The budget proposes to hold back half of a SNAP recipient’s direct benefit amount, replacing it with a box of pre-selected non-perishable food items, equal in value to the amount of the held back benefits.  These boxes, named America’s Harvest Box, have been compared by Mick Mulvaney, Director of the Office of Management and Budget, to Blue Apron*.  For those unfamiliar with Blue Apron, the online company allows customers to choose meals from a weekly menu.  The ingredients and recipes for the selected meal(s) are then shipped directly to the customers’ doorsteps.  I’m not sure the exact reason for the comparison.  Maybe the Administration was trying to describe the food box concept in a way they thought the general population might understand.  Or maybe they were trying to sell the idea by equating it with something hip and trendy.  Surely the poor will love it!  Whatever their reasoning, this proposal has been resoundingly panned by economists, policy wonks, hunger advocates, and almost every organization tasked with assisting those who are food insecure.

Before I discuss the proposed changes and why they are not a good idea, I want to explain how SNAP currently works and discuss some of the positives about the current delivery system.  Once a month benefits are loaded on to a SNAP participant’s Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) card, which resembles a credit or debit card, and works just like a debit card.   SNAP participants are able to use the EBT card at participating stores to purchase qualifying food items.  That’s it!  That’s how easy it is.  The SNAP EBT card has been in use in all 50 states since 2004 and was introduced to reduce fraud associated with the use of paper food stamp coupons.  These EBT cards have been successful in helping to reduce SNAP fraud to roughly 1%, one of the lowest frauds rates of any Federal program.

The current method used to administer SNAP has numerous benefits, and not just for bluearpon2SNAP participants.  For those who participate in SNAP, the EBT card allows them the control to purchase the food that is appropriate for the make-up of their household.  For instance, if the household has a baby, baby food can be purchased, or if someone in the household has dietary restrictions or allergies, certain items can be avoided in favor of more appropriate ones.  Additionally, using the SNAP EBT card allows participants to shop for their food when and where it is most convenient for them.  For instance they can shop at night or on weekends to accommodate a work schedule or more frequently if they are only able to carry a few items on the bus.  Finally, the current manner in which SNAP functions does not just benefit SNAP participants.  The USDA reports that every $5 of SNAP benefit spent generates $9 in economic activity for the local economy.

From all angles the current SNAP program’s benefit delivery system looks like it functions quite well.  It is easy to administer, experiences very little fraud, and is flexible in meeting the needs of those it seeks to help.  So what would the restructuring do to improve this program?  Absolutely nothing.  As previously stated, the proposed restructure would withhold half of the benefit dollar amount for a SNAP recipient and replaced it with the America’s Harvest Box.  The remaining benefits would be loaded onto an EBT card for SNAP participants to use as they currently do.  The box of food would contain non-perishable foods, such as canned fruits and vegetables, peanut butter and jelly, pasta and cereals, and shelf stable milk.  Each SNAP household would get a food box valued at the amount of their withheld benefits.  The food items would be chosen by the government and will vary from month to month depending on what is available.

blueapron3If you are like me, at this point you are scratching your head and asking why the government would blow up an efficiently functioning program and replace it with one that will be less beneficial to those who use it, possibly more expensive to administer, and a logistical nightmare for all.  According to the USDA the intent of this change is to “improve the nutritional value of the benefits provided and reduce the potential EBT fraud.”  In response to the second half of that statement, what fraud and how is this going to help?  Direct benefits on an EBT card,  which are currently virtually fraud proof (hence a 1% rate of fraud), are being converted into a box of food, which could easily be sold or traded, creating conditions where fraud can more readily happen.

As for the first half of the statement, the America’s Harvest Boxes do very little to ensure better access to nutritional food for those receiving SNAP benefits.  The boxes provide no fresh produce, while taking away half of the SNAP recipient’s direct benefits, which could have been used to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables.  In addition to limiting a SNAP household’s access to fresh produce, the America’s Harvest Box has potential to hamper SNAP recipients’ ability to purchase food items appropriate to the household and may even give recipients food which can not be used by members of the household.  In all likelihood,  the contents of the boxes would be uniform for all households and households would not have any idea what exactly will be inside until the box is opened.  Consequently, a family with a baby would get the same food as the family with older children or no children.  The diabetic or person with heart disease would get the same food as the SNAP recipient with no health issues.  And what about those with food allergies, like peanut butter?  Some households will get food they can’t use, while others won’t get items they need.  The result in either case will be SNAP recipients who will have a reduced ability to purchase fresh produce and food appropriate to their household.

In addition to having the purchasing power of their direct SNAP benefits diminished, these SNAP participants face the likely burden of having to pick up their food boxes.  With Blue Apron, the box of ingredients is delivered to the purchasers’ doorsteps.  I doubt America’s Harvest Boxes will be delivered to SNAP recipients’ doorsteps as the cost would be too prohibitive.  Consequently, food box recipients will need to travel to a distribution location at specific times to receive their food.  One might think picking up this box of food is no big deal, but what if the pick up time is during their work hours?  Or they don’t have reliable transportation?  Or they have a car, but lack enough money to buy gas for this extra trip?  Or they are unable to carry a large box of food on public transportation?  The currently mode of putting direct benefits on an EBT card presentsblueapron4 none of these added burdens for SNAP participants.

SNAP recipients, however, are not the only ones to experience the negatives of this restructuring of SNAP.  States, tasked with the job of assembling and distributing these food boxes, will also face hardships.  The proposed budget says that states will have “substantial flexibility in designing the food box delivery system through existing infrastructure, partnerships, or commercial/retail delivery services.”  But what does that mean?  The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities contends that neither the USDA nor the states currently have the operational capacity and infrastructure necessary to support the distribution of commodities to individual households.  If that is the case, new bureaucracy will need to be created with the possibility that the funds to create this delivery system will to come out of the already shrinking SNAP budget, further reducing the funding available to assist the food insecure.  Additionally, local economies will suffer when SNAP recipients’ ability to purchase their food locally drops by half.  Large retailers, like Walmart and Target, are already speaking out in opposition to this change.

Many of the critics of the America’s Harvest Box proposal agree that this restructuring of SNAP probably will not pass.  Even though this legislation may be going nowhere, I still feel that discussing it is important.  The details of the restructuring, at best, reveal a disconnect between what the Administration thinks will help SNAP participants and what they really need in terms of assistance.  More disturbing, however, some critics believe this proposal is just a smokescreen to cover for cuts and mandatory work requirements for SNAP participation.  There has been a movement by some legislators for the past several years to severely cut the budget for SNAP, and unable to pass legislation to make that cut all at once, they have been chipping away at the SNAP budget year after year.  The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program is one of the few remaining programs of our social safety net.  Every year SNAP prevents millions of Americans from slipping through the net into a level poverty from which they can not recover.  If SNAP is allowed to be restructured or in any other way to have its budget cut, I think the depths of poverty will extend down to levels we have not seen in this country for many decades.  Those of us concerned with the plight of people in poverty must remain vigilant.

*Next time, before the anyone from the Administration makes a comparison, perhaps he should do some research.  Blue Apron has never turned a profit and has actually been losing customers.  It’s stock has lost two-thirds of the value of it’s initial public offering of $10, causing speculation about whether the company will even exist in 5 years.

 

 

A Budget Built on Myths

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Moral Disgrace

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

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

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

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

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

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

One Horrific Accident from a Nightmare

This past year, in addition to paying close attention to governmental proposals affecting the social safety net, I have also followed proposals concerning legal and undocumented immigrants.  For now, most of the proposals concerning the social safety net have not been enacted.  Unfortunately, the same can not be said for proposals affecting the statue of libertyimmigrant population, and although these policies are targeted at undocumented immigrants, the ripples of fear they have caused are moving through the qualified immigrant population as well.

Before I retell the narrative I have chosen this month I want to restate the regulations regarding immigrants and their ability to qualify for social safety net programs.  Most of these regulations have been firmly in place since the late 1990s, but some date back to the inception of the program.  Undocumented immigrants are not eligible for federal governmental assistance, like the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), not now, not ever.   Any children of undocumented immigrants who have been born in the United States, and are therefore US citizens, are, however, eligible for this assistance.  Just the children are eligible and the amount of assistance the household receives is only commensurate to the number of eligible children.  For instance if you have a family of 5: two undocumented parents, two undocumented children, and one child born in the U.S., the household would only receive SNAP benefits for one, not five, members of the household.  With the 1996 passage of Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act (PRWORA), and subsequent legislation passed in 1998 and 2002, documented immigrants are eligible to receive benefits, but only after they have resided legally in the U.S. for 5 years.  There are some some exceptions to the 5 year waiting period for protected classes of documented immigrants, like refugees.  Furthermore, for all who receive assistance from TANF, whether documented immigrant or U.S. citizen, there is a lifetime limit of no more than 60 months of benefits, but that lifetime limit can vary from state to state with some states having a maximum 24 month lifetime limit on benefits.  In all states TANF recipients must get a job within 24 months of getting benefits to avoid reduction or termination of benefits.  The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program does not have a lifetime limit for benefits, except for Able-Bodied Adults without Dependents (AWBADS).

My point in explaining these rules is to convey that immigrants can not come to the United States and live off our government, especially those who come illegally, since they are ineligible to receive any assistance at all.  Even under the best of circumstances, immigrants must reside legally in the U.S. for 5 years to be eligible for any public assistance.  I do not intend to argue the pros and cons of immigrants coming to the United States, legally or otherwise, merely to discuss the reality for those who are currently here, living and working in our communities.  For undocumented immigrants, like the subjects of the following narrative, this is the reality they have been facing forstrawberry pickers years, maybe even decades.

The family whose story  I am going to tell consists of 2 undocumented immigrant parents and their children living in my greater community.  I did not meet this family personally, but a very trustworthy friend did and conveyed their circumstances to me.  While the parents are undocumented, all of the children were born in the United States, and are therefore American citizens.  The oldest child is 17, so that means this couple has been residing in the United States for at least 17 years, almost 2 decades, making ends meet without receiving public assistance, while contributing to our local economy.  They were able to do this because the father worked full-time and supplemented his take home pay by doing additional farm work.  The mother stayed home raising the children.  The kids are good students, and the 17 year old approached senior year with visions of attending college.

For almost 2 decades this arrangement worked for this family, until one day the father was killed in a horrific accident, witnessed by his children.  And just like that their life turned into a horrible nightmare.  Within a week of losing their husband and father, this family lost their housing.  The 17 year old, who had aspirations of attending college, now faced the potential of having to drop out of school and start working.  The mother did not know where to turn.  She feared going to any agency for help in securing the benefits for which her children were eligible due to their status as U.S. citizens.  She worried about drawing attention to her undocumented status, triggering her removal from her children who had just lost a parent, and her likely deportation.  When I decided I was going to write about this family, I went back to my friend to ask what had happened to them.  Sadly, I can not report any update.  My friend, unable to help them personally, referred them on to an agency better equipped to help.  I can only hope they were able to find some assistance.

wildfireUnfortunately, the heartbreaking story of this family is not an isolated event.  Last fall fires burned out of control in large areas of Sonoma and Napa counties in California, including business and residential areas in the city of Santa Rosa.  The countryside surrounding Santa Rosa is lovely wine country, but Santa Rosa itself is a large city, with tens of thousands of residents.  A wildfire in the vineyards on hills would harm the economy, but a wildfire within the city of Santa Rosa would cause devastation for thousands.  At the time of the fires, I didn’t stop to think who would suffer the most as a result of these fires, or that vastly different levels of suffering would even be experienced.  On reflection, I realize the immigrant population will experience a greater loss as a result of these fires.  Santa Rosa, like most California cities and towns, has a large immigrant population, both documented and undocumented.  These immigrants, who lost everything in these fires, can only receive governmental assistance if they meet the previously explained requirements.  Additionally, FEMA assistance, which is vital to help those experiencing a disaster put their lives back together, is only available for U. S. citizens, non-citizen nationals (Somoans), and qualified aliens (those living legally in the U.S. for at least 5 years) .  For the others, there will be no money for them to rebuild their lives after this disaster.

The story of this local immigrant family haunts me as does reading about the hundreds, if not thousands, of immigrant victims of the wildfires in Santa Rosa who do not qualify for public assistance.  Prior to these horrific events, these households were surviving without assistance from the federal government.  Now, ineligible for help, what are they to do?  Immigrants, qualified and undocumented, live in almost every community in our country.  They mostly work in low paying, back breaking or otherwise unpleasant jobs that most American employers are unable fill using U.S. citizens.  They put money back into those local economies and pay taxes.  In return, during a time of need, they receive little to nothing.  What have we as a society gained from this?  And equally important, what have we lost?

Be the Change

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

Trying to Restore Some Dignity

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.