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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Passing the Baguette

bread okThis past Tuesday, rather than do my usual volunteering task of packing food for clients, I went and picked up the Panera bread and sweets that get donated to our pantry, since the lady who regularly makes this run is on vacation this week.  I think a while ago I mentioned the bread we get from Panera, but for those who have not read that post let me explain.  Once a week on Tuesdays the food pantry receives a delivery of breads and sweets that Panera Bread would otherwise throw away because they had not sold within Panera’s allotted time.

I have been curious about how these items get to us, so I was happy to make the run to pick them up.  Instead of heading into the pantry on Tuesday, I drove to an office park near Wilmington, DE, where I met the person who is the first leg of the relay.  After picking up the bread and sweets from Panera in West Chester, PA, she brings them to work with her.  I asked her how this relay came to be.  She said that she saw Panera employees throwing away the bread products one day and asked them about what they were doing.  She was told it was bread that hadn’t sold and if she couldbagels find someone to come and take the bread, Panera would let her have it.  She called all around the West Chester area and no one needed bread.  While conducting this search, she made contact with the person who is the second leg of the relay.  This lady knew about our pantry through one of our volunteers and asked us if we might be interested in this Panera bread if she brought it to us.  Absolutely!  And the relay was born–from a West Chester Panera to a business park in Wilmington, DE to a food pantry in rural Southern Chester County.

We usually get 1-2 grocery carts full of all sorts of bread products-baguettes, boules, rolls, bread bowls and bagels-in white, wheat and seeded form.  In addition to the breads, we get panera sweetssweets as well, from Danish and scones to cookies and brownies to muffins and cinnamon buns.  We get whatever didn’t sell.  Once the bread and sweets get to us we package them for storing so they can be distributed throughout the week.  I usually help with packaging the sweets.  These we wrap individually in plastic wrap.  We don’t get enough sweets to give to every household, so we save them for treats for clients who are experiencing an unusual hardship, like caring for someone who is ill or a grandmother raising her grandchildren.  Most of what we receive is bread and the bread products get bagged to be frozen.  A retired couple comes in on Tuesday afternoons to volunteer to do this task.  The amount of bread we get each week determines how we distribute it.  Usually we have enough to distribute something to each household, but sometimes when the delivery is small we use save the bread for large families to help augment their allotment.  We also use this bread for our homeless clients when we can.

I love this arrangement for several reasons.  First, I love that this perfectly good food is not going to waste and into a landfill.  In addition to our group getting the bread from this Panera on Monday nights, other groups pick up unsold bread on other nights.  Secondly, I love that our clients, who’s lives are full of struggle and stress, are getting a treat.  Who doesn’t love a loaf of good bread or some nice bagels?  Finally, I love the humanity exhibited by all the people who go out of their way to make this happen week after week.  Being a part of this relay of bread, and now understanding what each person does to keep bread out of the trash and get it delivered to people who need it, helps to restore my faith in the generosity and kindness of the American people.

 

Think Nationally, Act Locally

The research for and writing of the past three weeks’ blog posts has been stimulating and thought provoking for me.  I immersed myself in articles, passages from books, reports on webpages and interviews with people speaking on the causes and results of poverty, some sharing first-hand experience.  I could tell I had hit a homerun with the topics, as the response I got from readers was some of the best I’ve had since I started blogging.  Unfortunately, everything I read or listened to when conducting my research was pretty bleak and depressing.  Consequently, as I started to think about what to write about this week,  I wanted to focus on something positive, some small success for those who are food insecure.  While I have to believe those successes are out there, I struck out and could not find any to report.  The result of all that research and the inability to find a single positive story to share this week has left me feeling overwhelmed by the magnitude of the problem of poverty and disheartened that the causes of poverty will ever really be addressed in any meaningful way.  I find myself asking, “How can one person ever hope to make a difference?”

baseball                       CDub jersey                       bats

When I first started on this journey I would often become paralyzed by this sense of despair, but now I have learned to recognize its approach and shift my perspective in order to deflect the feeling of hopelessness brought on by studying the full scope of the problem of poverty on the national level.  When I am ready to throw my hands up in the air and declare my efforts futile, I think about a quote from Mother Teresa that a friend from high school sent to me when I first encountered this paralyzing sense of despair.

If you can’t feed a hundred people, then feed just one.

When I reflect on that quote I remember that the problem of poverty is not mine to solve, nor could I if it were, but I can work locally to try and make a difference in my community.

With that said, I have decided to take the next few weeks to focus on actions I can take to assist the food insecure locally.  I will continue volunteering in the food pantry, as well as spending time planning the initial steps for starting a non-profit.  During this time I will probably post very little, if at all, to the blog, but I have a favor to ask of you.  Take a look in your pantry and let me know what staples you have that you couldn’t imagine having to cook without.  These staples could be spices or condiments or ingredients used in baking, like flour or baking soda.  Keep them practical.  Items like this are usually not available in food pantries, or even larger food banks, but are necessary in order to prepare healthy food that tastes good.  As always, I appreciate your feedback!

This week’s blog pictures brought to you by Baseball!  Sorry for the baseball puns.  I couldn’t resist.

 

 

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.

Barely a Drop in the Bucket

The food pantry where I volunteer operates on an appointment basis.  One client is scheduled every half hour.  This method of operation ensures a manageable flow of clients receiving food and keeps the waiting area from becoming too congested.  Unfortunately it also creates a backlog of clients waiting to receive an appointment for food, sometimes as long a two weeks.  When a client is unable to keep an appointment, they go back into the line of clients waiting for an appointment.

day-planner

The past two weeks, during my time volunteering at the food pantry, something unusual has happened.  Clients scheduled to come and get food have not come in for their appointment.  I volunteer from 9am-12pm, so usually only 6 clients can come in during that time to receive their monthly allotment of food.  Often we have one client out of the six not show up, but this past week only one client came in for food.  During that time we were also able to assist someone who came in without an appointment, but was eligible to receive food.  The previous week only half of the scheduled clients kept their appointments.

At first glance clients not coming in for food may seem like a good thing.  Maybe their situation has changed for the better.  Maybe they are no longer food insecure.  But after almost a year volunteering in food pantries I have learned this is probably not the case.  In the past clients influenzausually fail to keep appointments to get food because their ride fell through or their car broke down.  They have missed appointments due to illness, either their own or another family member.  During the winter months weather is a factor, particularly for the clients who walk.  Sometimes clients schedule their appointments to coincide with a break from work, but for whatever reason that break doesn’t happen as scheduled.

My point in sharing my concern with clients not showing up for their appointments is not to complain about wasted time or denigrate our clients.  My intent is to show how this situation perfectly illustrates one of the “Seven Deadly ‘ins'” of the emergency food system, as posited by charity bookJanet Poppendieck in her book Sweet Charity.  The “deadly in” to which I am referring is inaccessibility.  This particular food bank is open from 9am-4pm, 3-4 days per week, but only on week days.  Furthermore clients must have an appointment to receive food.  They must remember to call two weeks before their eligibility date because of the roughly a two week waiting period for an appointment.  If they find at the time of the appointment they can not make it, as stated above, them must start the process all over again.  Calling to cancel is helpful for food pantry staff, but usually the cancelation, if it comes at all, is last minute as the reason is usually unforeseen.  Consequently, staff is rarely able to reschedule another client on such short notice; therefore, not only has the originally scheduled client not received food, but s/he has also kept someone else from getting an appointment.  All of these clients are in need of food, but due to the limitations of the emergency food delivery system it is inaccessible to them.

This example of food pantry clients missing their appointments also highlights another of Poppendieck’s “Seven Deadly ‘ins,'” the inefficiency inherent in the delivery of emergency food.  Not only does this method of delivery require a sizeable three tiered system (federal, state and local agencies) to distribute the food, but it duplicates the food delivery system already in place in society–the grocery store.  In our rural community there are at least 3 large grocery storessupermarket which are open seven days a week, two of which are open 24 hours a day.  Additionally, there are several markets in and around town and a weekly farmers’ market during the growing season.  Wouldn’t it be more efficient and cost effective to just increase the monthly SNAP allowance and make sure all those who are eligible to receive those benefits are getting them, instead of funding this inefficient, parallel food delivery system?  This option would allow those who are food insecure and need assistance to use the system already in place in society when it is convenient for them, given their daily commitments, instead of relying on a parallel food delivery system that is much less convenient to access.

In a chapter from A Place at the Table, the companion book to the documentary of the same name, Joel Berg compares the emergency food delivery system to the fireman’s bucket brigade of the past.  Prior Fireman_brigadeto the mid 1800s, when there was a fire in a city or town, bucket brigades would be formed to combat the fire.  Citizens would line up from the town well or another water source and pass buckets full of water to the fire, with empty buckets returning down another line.  The problem was that these bucket brigades, although well intentioned, rarely put out any but the smallest of fires.  To remedy the inefficiency of the bucket brigades local governments stepped in to create fire companies with better fire fighting equipment.  Today we would never think of trying to fight a house fire with a bucket brigade.

Hunger in the United States is a fire that we are currently trying to fight with a bucket brigade.  Local citizens in food banks, pantries and soup kitchens across the country are trying to put out the building sized fire of hunger with a bucket sized solution.  Just like when the government of yesteryear stepped in to create a more effectivefire truck solution to the problem of fires, the government of today needs to reorganize how assistance for those who are food insecure is delivered into a more efficient, effective method.  I enjoy volunteering in the food pantry and the good feeling I get from knowing I am helping someone, but I look forward to the time when the emergency food delivery system of food banks, pantries and soup kitchens goes the way of the bucket brigade.  Once that happens, maybe the fire of hunger in America will begin to be extinguished.

 

Community Meal, With a Side of Dignity

Pinpointing the first example of meals prepared and distributed to the needy proves an impossible task, as societies through the ages have recognized a moral obligation to feed those of it’s citizens who were hungry.  Evidence of providing free meals to the needy can be found GD soup kitchen linethrough out history in most countries.  Organizations providing these meals, often called soup kitchens, were in wide use in the United States during the Great Depression.  According to Janet Poppendieck in her book,  Sweet Charity?  Emergency Food and the End of Entitlement, most societies, including the United States, rejected the idea of soup kitchens as a solution to feeding the hungry, because they stigmatized users by demeaning them and segregating them from the rest of society.  Consequently the use of centrally prepared and served meals, like those found in soup kitchens, fell out of favor until the emergency food epidemic of the 1980s, when their numbers begin to increase dramatically (Poppendieck, 14).

Today, organizations providing a prepared meal for those in need take steps to reduce the stigma that receiving a free meal can cause.  One popular way organizations attempt to maintain the dignity of those receiving a free meal is to have volunteers function as wait staff and serve dinersplace setting2 on real dishes.  Efforts are taken to eliminate waiting in long lines.  Some larger agencies have moved to a café style operation, where diners can place an order after choosing items from a menu (Poppendieck, 247).  Another way organizations providing a meal to those in need reduce the stigma associated with receiving that meal is to invite the whole community to partake of the meal.  These meals are often referred to as community meals and everyone is welcome to dine.  Usually a donation is suggested, but not required.

Once a month the Presbyterian Church in our town holds a community meal.  The meal is served at dinner time on the last Sunday of the month and is open to anyone.  In keeping with most community dinners, a donation is suggested, but not required.  The idea for this meal originated with the Church’s youth group in the spring of 2011 and is now overseen by the outreach committee.  In the Church’s Fellowship Hall, several rows of long tables are set with placemats, silverware and glasses.  As diners arrive they may sit where ever they choose and are Chicken Parmaserved the meal by volunteers on real plates.  The meal consists of a meat, starch, vegetable and roll.  For beverages, there is a choice of water, iced tea, coffee or hot tea.  Once most diners have arrived and been served, those who wish can receive seconds, provided there is enough food left. When diners finish their main meal, several desserts from which to choose are available.  Approximately 120 meals are served to diners each month at this community dinner.  During these meals, the Church’s Fellowship Hall lives up to its name, as friends, family, neighbors and strangers from all socio-economic levels sit down to eat together.

Twice this past year I have had the opportunity to help at this community dinner by serving the meal, bussing dirty dishes and participating in the final clean up once the meal is finished.  The experience, for me, has been a thoroughly enjoyable one.  I enjoy the camaraderie of the fellow volunteers, the exchange of pleasantries with those I know and the satisfaction I receive from helping others, both the church’s outreach group and those eating the meal.  Of all the tasks I do, I particularly enjoy serving the meal and clearing the plates away when diners are finished.  Regardless of one’s life circumstances, being served is a treat.  As a mother, I know how much I truly appreciate when someone in my house volunteers to wait on me.  So by serving someone who may be food insecure a warm meal with a smile, I feel like I am treating them and giving them back some of the dignity that gets stripped away when a person has to struggle on a daily basis to obtain enough food to feed themselves or their family.

 

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.

 

 

Sunny Side Up

egg faceI took a couple of weeks off.  The news of the robbery at one of the food pantries in which I volunteer, coupled with the realization that most of the kids in my school district, who receive free or reduced lunch, will potentially go without some meals over the summer due to a lack of summer feeding locations in our area, caused me to become very discouraged.  I felt overwhelmed by the size of the problem and my inability to make a noticeable difference.  Rather than spread my pessimism, I decided to take a break from writing over the past couple of weeks.  I am happy to say that the tide has turned on my negative attitude.

Even though I was not writing, I continued to volunteer.  Last week I volunteered at the food pantry that had been robbed for the first time since the robbery.  I was inspired by a couple of things.  First, in spite of everything, the pantry was still operating as normal and had been since the robbery.  Somehow they had managed to find a way to compensate for the equipment they lost and were still able to give out the items that needed refrigeration–milk, eggs, cheese and frozen meats.  Additionally, the staff and volunteers had not let this crime dampen their spirits or commitment to those in need in their community.  Our area has had a very hot, humid start to summer, and one of the items taken in the robbery was the air conditioner.  Without air conditioning, in a building without windows, sitting in an unshaded parking lot, on a day the temperature was expected to climb into the 90s, the doors were thrown open to those in need and clients were welcomed with smiles and hugs.  I was buoyed by their unshakable commitment to provide assistance to those in need in spite of the hardships their organization faced.

This past Tuesday I volunteered in the other food pantry and had different, but equally uplifting experience.  Perhaps you have read or heard on the news recently about various states wanting to ban junk food from the allowable items that SNAP beneficiaries can purchase.  The reasoning behind this proposed regulation is the belief that people receiving assistance choose to purchase less nutritious food over more nutritious options.  I read a great article  in Mother Jones magazine by Tom Philpott that sheds light on why SNAP beneficiaries often purchase less healthy items, and also makes a claim that their purchases are not very different from those receiving no assistance.  I now have first hand experience showing, that given a choice, people receiving assistance will happily take the more nutritious option.  The food pantry on Tuesday had received a huge shipment of  produce cauliflower broccolifrom the county food bank in it’s weekly delivery.  They had fresh cauliflower, broccoli, collard greens, lettuce, red and green cabbage and corn on the cob.  Additionally there were frozen blueberries, diced carrots and pureed tomatoes.  We had no trouble getting clients to take this produce.  Many eagerly took some of everything.  It felt like Christmas and I was Santa Claus!  Incidentally, the previous week the other food pantry put out some beets and lettuce from their garden, and they too were being readily taken by clients.

The problem of hunger in America is much greater than one person or organization can hope to solve, and it is very easy to allow that reality to weigh one down and bring despair.  I am grateful for the my experiences volunteering.  They lift my spirits and inspire me to continue doing what I can to help.  I have seen the difference that these food pantries and the people who run them make in the lives of the clients who use them.

happy sun

 

Plenty of Food for Thought

I just finished Janet Poppendieck’s book Sweet Charity?: Emergency Food and the End of Entitlement, and as I expected, in the end, we were not too far apart on our assessment of emergency food and the role it plays in assisting the food insecure.  That said, she did introduce issues I had not previously considered and challenged the way in which I had thought about certain aspects of providing emergency food.  Poppendieck contends that emergency food organizations, like soup kitchens and food banks, are run by caring and compassionate staff and volunteers who are committed to providing food to those who are hungry.  In today’s world such people and organizations are a necessity, but she also argues that these same organizations enable the cycle of hunger to continue.  By participating in providing emergency food, either through volunteering or donating, Americans may feel like they are solving a problem.  In reality, providing emergency food diverts our attention from larger societal problems like poverty and inequality and keeps us from working toward solutions to these problems for which hunger is just a symptom.food pantry open sign

In one of the most interesting chapters of the book Poppendieck discusses what is wrong with emergency food.   As someone who recently became a volunteer in two food pantries and who has felt positive about my experiences and effort, I was curious about what she would identify as shortcomings.  Listed below are the “7 Deadly ‘Ins’” of emergency food Poppendieck has identified.

  • Insufficiency—Emergency food organizations often have to limit the frequency with which clients can come to the food pantry, whether there is a waiting list for service, and the amount of food distributed to each client.
  • Inappropriateness–Emergency food organizations can not possibly have enough items to satisfy the preferences or special dietary needs of every client.  Both pantries in which I volunteer stock vegetarian beans, a commodity from the Federal government.  Very few clients take these beans and most universally say they taste terrible.  Additionally, emergency food rarely is appropriate for diabetics or sufferers of high blood pressure, obesity or heart disease.
  • Nutritional Inadequacy–As touched upon above, many food offerings through emergency food agencies are high in sodium, fats, and sugar.  There is very little fresh produce available and often several of the meats offered are processed items like hot dogs, chicken tenders and lunch meat.
  • Instability–The provision of emergency food relies on surplus food from the government and sometimes businesses, donations from the public and a volunteer workforce.  All of these components are subject to fluctuations, causing instability in providing emergency food.
  • Inaccessibility–Emergency food offerings differ with location.  For instance, urban areas tend to have more emergency food options, like food banks and soup kitchens, where more rural areas may have only one or no options.  Additionally affecting emergency food’s accessibility is the emergency food organization’s hours of operation and proximity to public transportation.
  • Inefficiency–Distribution of emergency food duplicates the food delivery system already in place.  Often as emergency food distribution agencies increase, inner cities experience a decline in the availability of markets and grocery stores.  Additionally, emergency food may seem efficient, but these agencies do not count as an expense anything that is donated, including food, equipment, storage buildings, and labor from volunteers.
  • Indignity–Distributing emergency food through food banks, pantries and soup kitchens forces those receiving assistance to be segregated from the rest of society.  They must go to a place different from where the rest of society gets their food. soup kitchen line

As I thought about these “7 deadly ‘ins'” as they related to my volunteering experience I realized I had witnessed every single one.  I believe both food pantries in which I volunteer do the very best they can with what they have to offer.  Without them, the clients would be in a much worse situation; however, I believe the increased reliance on emergency food to assist these clients is an inadequate solution to the problem they face.

In spite of the shortfalls of emergency food, Poppendieck also addresses its success, and more importantly, the price of its success.  The 1980s, when cuts were made in funding public assistance programs, saw a dramatic rise in emergency food providers, an increase that has continued until today.  As these agencies proliferated, they became extremely successful at operating, stretching whatever they got, making it work.  They highlight these successes when they fundraise or ask for donations to assure donors their donations won’t be squandered.  Infood drive turn government can rationalize further cuts in public assistance because emergency food providers are so competent in handling the situation.  Emergency food provision as enabler for further governmental reduction in public assistance is a new and troubling concept for me.

At the very end of her book, Janet Poppendieck asks what emergency food providers are to do.  She outlines a couple of options, but the one that resonated the most with me was to organize and educate, especially the educate part.  I believe we need to talk about hunger within the broader context of poverty and inequality.  While continuing to provide the best assistance that can be provided, emergency food providers need to be honest with the public, that at best, they are a Band-Aid to the problem of hunger and only through addressing the larger societal issues of poverty and inequality can the numbers of people experiencing food insecurity be diminished.

One last point I would like to make is that at no time does Janet Poppendieck disparage emergency food providers or the assistance they provide.  She acknowledges their monumental effort and that without their services the hungry of the United State would be in much worse circumstances.

Oddities, End Dates and Some Dirt

The past couple of weeks both food pantries in which I volunteer have gotten large shipments of donated items from the county food bank.  These items are not TEFAP (Federal) or State supplied food.  They are strictly items donated by the general public to the county food bank through canned food drives or individual drop offs.  These sizeable shipments have been filled with many useful and needed items, like cereals, canned fruits and vegetables, and peanut butter.  They have also contained items for clients with health problems or special diets, like low sodium soups, vegetarian items or sugar and fat free items which are good for diabetics.  I have, however, made a couple disappointing observations that I wanted to share.

expiration dateFirst, most food items are now stamped with a sell by or use by date.  The majority of items are donated well before their expiration date, but at both pantries we have encountered items that were expired.  In several instances the items were several years out of date.  Additionally, we encountered severely dented or rusted cans.  Canned goods that were only a few months out of date or are only slightly dented are put on a table or shelf with an explanation as to why they are there, allowing clients to decide whether to take them or not.  Items that are well beyond their expiration date, heavily dented or rusted have to be thrown away.  My suggestion to people who contribute to a food bank or pantry is to look at the sell by date and the condition of the can.  This is especially important if the item is coming out of your pantry.  I know I have been surprised at how old some items are in my own pantry.  If the food item is either out of date or in questionable condition, please do not donate it.

As I mentioned, most of the items donated are useful and needed, but I have seen some very odd items as well.  Some of my favorites include a can of hearts of palm, Chinese Mabo Tofu Sauce and tamarind sauce.  All of these items may be quite tasty, but they are not something the average cook, particularly in rural Pennsylvania, is going to know what to do with.  Most foodMOST-NEEDED-FOOD-DONATIONS banks and pantries have a list of items they regularly distribute or for which they have a particular need.  I encourage anyone uncertain about what to donate to contact the local food bank or check their website to get that list of most needed items.  Some items that can always be used are canned fruits and vegetables, peanut butter, and unsweetened cereals.  Please do not think of the local food bank as a place to take unwanted items from your pantry.

 And now about the dirt.  No, the dirt has nothing to do with the donated food from the county food bank.  Today I got to play in the dirt a bit.  One of the food pantries where I volunteer has raised beds in which they grow vegetables to be distributed in the food pantry.  The broccoli broccoli seedlingsseedlings we planed today were supplied by the county food bank.  In addition to the broccoli we planted today, volunteers had already planted onions, radishes, cabbage, lettuce and carrots.  To augment the vegetables grown in the raised beds, some staff members of the food pantry will plant other vegetables at their homes to be harvested for the pantry.  I love this idea of the pantry growing their own produce and this pantry is fortunate to have the space to do so.  I am excited to think of all the fresh produce that will be available to food pantry clients later this summer.