Good News for a Change!

There have been times lately when the daily news feed has just been depressing to the point that I will go several days with minimal monitoring of the news.  To continue to follow the news cycle only serves to deepen the malaise that I feel and at times has almost caused me to throw up my hands and say what’s the use.  These past few days have been no exception.  So when I received two particular emails yesterday containing good news my lunchboxspirits were immediately lifted.

The first email came from the Director of Food Services in my local school district, notifying me that the school district’s application to provide free summer lunches to students in our school district had finally been approved.  The school district had applied to serve reimbursable meals under the federally funded Summer Food Service Program.  Any child under the age of 18 will be able to come to the designated location and receive a meal at no charge.  Adults are also able to eat a meal as well for a nominal fee.  The school district will be serving lunches at a convenient, walkable location, 4 days a week from June 20-August 18.

This is the same program that I had been researching last year, with the hope of convincing the school board to authorize the district to apply to be a sponsor of this program for this summer.  When I contacted the Food Services Director for the district to obtain some information for my group’s presentation, she told me the district was already considering this program.  At the time she was just beginning her research, so I was able to provide her with the contact information of the person with whom I had been speaking at the PA Department of Education.  I was very relieved to learn that the school district was already considering this program.  I had been thinking that our group was going to have to do quite a bit of convincing to get this program implemented.  I need to get my background check completed, but once I have accomplished that I plan to volunteer with this program once a week  as well.

The second email I received that buoyed my spirits was the monthly newsletter from thevegetables Food Bank of Delaware.  The Food Bank of DE has received a 3 year grant from Giant Food’s Our Family Foundation.  This grant allows the Food Bank of DE to partner with Delaware Pediatrics in a pilot program entitled “Produce Prescriptions”.  The pilot will allow participating Delaware Pediatrics offices to identify up to 120 families they feel are at risk for food insecurity and diet related health conditions, such as cardiovascular disease, obesity and diabetes.  Those families will then be given a “produce prescription” which allows them to receive a monthly allotment of 15-20 pounds of fruits and vegetables from the Food Bank.  These fruits and vegetables will be able to be picked up by the families at the pediatric clinic they attend.  What a great idea!  I have read about doctors and hospitals writing prescriptions for fruits and vegetables, but this is the first program I have heard about that provides the produce to those who are otherwise unable to purchase the produce themselves.

These emails came at just the right time for me.  Periodically I get very discouraged and pessimistic about what can be accomplished, and in particular, what I can ever hope to accomplish.  While I do not take any credit for the summer lunch program in my local girls eating watermelontown, I am happy to know that I helped connect the Food Service Director with the right person at the right State agency to move the process along.  I’d also like to think that keeping in contact with her over the past few months and letting her know that people in the community supported this action strengthened the district’s resolve to see this process to fruition.  Either way, it matters not.  The most important thing is that kids, who would otherwise be hungry, are now able to get a nutritious lunch 4 days a week over the summer.

 

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Reflection & Projection

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Freedom from Hunger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Progress

Startup Stock Photos

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I wanted to form a committee to help me work on issues affecting those who are food insecure.  That group met for the first time this past Monday evening, and the experience, for me, was very uplifting.  First, I was just excited that people had shown up!  As I chose people to approach to be on the committee, I tried to select members based on skills, contacts or specialized knowledge I thought they might be able to bring to the group.  That evening, as each person introduced herself, I was further encouraged to hear that each of them seemed committed to helping the food insecure.  Furthermore, I learned that some had personal experiences that brought them to the table and some had additional skills or contacts I hadn’t known about that could prove to be helpful.

Our first plan of action is to do something about the scarcity of summer feeding programs in ourlunch community.  We discussed what would be entailed in starting a large program that would require the involvement of the school district or some other parent organization like one of the local churches.  We also discussed starting a smaller operation that we could handle on our own.  Each option had pros and cons and would require the logistics to be arranged.  As we discussed the hurdles of each option everyone participated in the dialogue, offering insight and possible solutions.  Each member of the group eagerly volunteered to make inquiries or gather information, and we all left the meeting with something to do before the next one.

Throughout the meeting I was inspired by the eagerness of the group to move this project forward and willingness of people to volunteer to help.  I am so glad I decided to put this group together.  They will keep me encouraged and moving forward, provide points of view previously unconsidered and share insights I do not possess.  We will be meeting monthly, and as we clear hurdles and make progress, I will report on those successes.

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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Lights Out!

power lines bIn June, Chester and surrounding counties experienced a line of thunderstorms that produced strong winds, resulting in the disruption of electric service to more than 130,000 people.  Some people were without electricity for several days.  I know in my community power was not restored for 50 hours and we were not the last ones to have power restored.  To save the contents of our refrigerator and freezer, both of which were full of food, my husband bought a generator.  We lost very little food.  Some of my neighbors, who did not have a generator lost several items in their refrigerator.  While buying a generator or replacing food is an expense for which we had not planned, my family and my neighbors were be able to absorb the cost of the new purchase or the replacement milk, eggs, mayonnaise and other lost items.

For my family and my neighbors, this power outage was mostly just a nuisance.  For others it was a major setback.  While volunteering yesterday, I met a lady who had lost most of the contents of her refrigerator during the storm.  This was her first time to the food pantry since the storm, as clients can only come once in a 30 day period, and she was desperate to get some food.  Mypower lines a heart went out to her as I counted up the days and realized the storm had happened 3 weeks earlier.  She said she cooked up as much of her food as she could, but for how many days had she been scrapping by with almost nothing?  We were as generous with her as we could be, giving her a few extra items from our donated food and making sure she got plenty of fresh vegetables.

I had not stopped to consider how potentially devastating a prolonged power outage could be for some folks.  How costly it would be to have to replace partially used condiments or precious eggs, milk or meat.  Also concerned with the inability of some to replace food items lost in the power outage was 4 year old Dylan.  I found out about Dylan from a post on The Chester County Food power lines cBank’s Facebook page.  They were giving him a huge shout out of thanks for his effort.  He collected 474 pounds of food for the Food Bank after he learned that not everyone could afford to replace all the food they lost during the power outage.  I imagine Dylan, like myself, will never just groan at the inconvenience the next time the power goes out.  We will be counting the hours and thinking about the folks out there who are hoping the power comes back on before food they can’t replace is lost.

Follow up to a previous post

In an earlier post I wondered if the food pantries would see increased use during the summer, especially among families, because kids who received free or reduced lunch at school, did not have many options to get meals due to a lack of summer feeding programs in our community.  Yesterday I got confirmation that the lack of summer feeding programs in our area does take a toll on struggling families.  One of our clients said she was having a hard time feeding her kids over the summer.  Although she did not ask for help or extra food, we were generous with her as well, focusing on items for the kids like a large jar of peanut butter, donated bread and snack items, and fresh vegetables.

I am always a little conflicted after volunteer days like yesterday.  On one hand I feel bouyant because I know I definitely helped people in need.  That is a satisfying feeling.  On the other hand, I get frustrated and saddened that people, in this country of abundance, have to face these hardships.  In the end, I have to remind myself that these are the days that keep me committed and drive me to keep working to find solutions, both large and small.

 

 

Summer

summerSummer break is almost here!  I always view the approach of summer break with a mixture of excitement and relief, but also with a sense of apprehension.  It is great not to have all the deadlines of school hanging over the household.  To have the freedom to take in a movie, spur of the moment, on a Wednesday night or go on an adventure or just not have to worry about whose assignment is due when.  The apprehension comes from past summer experiences.  Knowing someone will say, usually within the first week, “I’m bored”, which is usually followed by sibling bickering.  Or the dread of the daily battle over the amount of electronic use.  One thing I have never had to worry about, though, is whether my kids were going to be hungry over summer break.

According to the Feeding America website, 22 million children receive free or reduced priced meals in schools.  What do those kids do in the summer when the school doors close?  The Feeding America website also reports that only 2.7 million children receive free or reduced priced meals through the USDA’s Summer Food Service Program (SFSP).  That is a huge difference in the number of children receiving assistance during the school year and the number receiving assistance in the summer.  Some children probably receive meal assistance through other summer feedingsummer feeding programs that are not operated through SFSP, but the number of American children that are likely to go hungry this summer is still staggering.  Here in Pennsylvania 80% of  the children who qualify for summer feeding programs are not receiving assistance, according to a report by the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC).  In my own community, where approximately one third of children in our schools qualified for free or reduced meals, I can only find one program that offers meals for children.  It is a Christian-based youth group facility, that offers an afterschool meal during the school year, which they continue during the summer months as well.  I have to admit I was a little surprised by the lack of options available, locally, for children on summer break and I find it troublesome.

To be honest, until recently I had not given much thought to what the families of kids in the free and reduced breakfast and lunch program did during the summer to replace the meals provided by the schools during the school year.  Now that I know how large the percentage of kids participating in this program is in my local school district and the lack of summer feeding programs in my area, this problem weighs heavily on my mind.  Since my eyes are now open to this problem, I’m sure I will see these kids everywhere–in the library, on the playground, passing pbjby on the sidewalk.  I wonder if our food pantries see an uptick in the number of families coming in over the summer months, either new clients or previous clients who have not needed to come for a few months.  The Chester County Food Bank is currently partnering with the United Way of Chester County in a Peanut Butter and Jelly Drive, so I can only assume they are preparing for this increased need.

While we are talking about kids and lunches, I want to mention the equally troublesome story of Della Curry, an elementary school cafeteria manager in the Denver Metro area, who was just fired.  She was fired for giving a first grade student, who didn’t qualify for the free or reduced lunch program, lunch when she didn’t have the money to buy lunch.  In an interview she admits this isn’t the first time she has done this and does not regret her actions.  In the past few days some questions have arisen about the actual reason Ms. Curry was terminated, but regardless of the reason, this story brings to light the real plight of numerous school children across this country who do not qualify for the free or reduced lunch program, but do not have money for lunch.  To be clear, I am not referring to the child who occasionally forgets lunch money.  These are children who regularly do not have enough money to purchase lunch or bring one from home.  Ms. Curry feels the law governing the free and reduced lunch program needs to be changed.  She believes lunch should just be a part of public schooling and available free to all students and has vowed to work to bring about this change.

One school district that recently made this change a reality is Baltimore City Public Schools.school lunch  All schools in this school district will now offer free breakfast and lunch to every student.  Their ability to provide these meals to all students is the result of a federally funded program for school districts where at least 40% of the population is considered low income.  This program removes the stigma associated with getting free lunch or breakfast, but more importantly, it will also ensure more children get fed, eliminating the problem Della Curry faced.  Finally some good news out of Baltimore!  Baltimore City Public School district isn’t the first district to make this change.  The program is part of the Healthy, Hungry-Free Kids Act of 2010 and has been made available in certain states since the 2011-2012 school year.  This school year just ending (2014-2015) is the first year the program has been made available to all qualifying schools nationwide.

I don’t have any answers or solutions to offer for any of these problems.  I just encourage you to be aware.  These are kids and they are hungry through no fault of their own.  If you are in a position to help, do so.  Even if it is only to donate a jar of peanut butter and jelly to your local food bank or pantry.