Ending Childhood Hunger or not…thoughts from the frontlines

Like many people, I have a complicated relationship with food. Our relationship for the past decade has been especially tenuous as I have worked hard to unlearn a lifetime of bad eating habits and adjust to the metabolism that I really have and not the one I wish I had. As a result, I buy very little of my food at the grocery store instead opting to buy as much as possible at the local farmers market and direct from local farmers. As much as I would prefer to nosh on unlimited bags of Ruffles Sour Cream and Cheddar Chips and follow it up with swigs of ice cold RC, I know that such eating habits simply don’t work for me. However I am still a work in progress when it comes to food. Of course having an extremely picky eater keeps me humble when it comes to food since her list of what she won’t eat is three times longer than what she will eat. Whenever there is a food that she likes to eat, and will really eat it, I pretty much go with the flow.  I just keep reminding myself that my 21yo vegetarian son used to be the king of ham and chicken wings before he adjusted his views on food several years ago.

In addition to having my own issues with food, I am one of those rare people who literally sees food insecurity daily in my professional life. Currently at the agency I run, 95% of the kids registered in our programs come from food insecure households and on any given day upwards of 20% of the kids that drop into our programs, will not be going home to eat dinner because there is no dinner available to eat.

I started my social services career over 15 years ago in a program that offered meals to women in need and as hard as it was to see adults without food, I struggle deeply seeing so many kids going without. Kids in our center talk as casually about eating at the local soup kitchen with their families as middle class kids speak about the newest apps on their iPads.

Maybe it’s because of my professional background that my interest was piqued when I saw the hashtag #endchildHunger and #ConAgra a few days ago on Twitter. From what I gather there was a conference and attendees were asked to spread awareness about the issue of child hunger and apparently ConAgra would be donating resources to end child hunger. In theory this sounds great and many well-meaning folks were doing their part to spread the word…after all no one wants to think of hungry kids.

The problem is that ConAgra is not exactly going to end childhood hunger and if in this current US economy the idea of childhood hunger is not something you have heard about it, it’s because your head has been in the sand. Food stamp use has been up and while the economy is slowly turning around, for the millions of folks that were already close to the bottom of the economic ladder this supposed growth is about as real as unicorns.

ConAgra partners with Feeding America which is the largest hunger relief charity in the US and they do awesome work. They have a lot of great programs; some that I have worked with directly through my work and they make a huge difference in the lives of a lot of kids. They are also a supplier to a fair number of food banks in the US.

So what is the problem you may ask? ConAgra is helping out Feeding America and Feeding America is helping feed folks including kids, so how are they not ending child hunger? See, this is where it gets tricky. In most communities no matter how small they are in the US, there is a local food pantry. A place where people can get a bag or two of food if they have nothing to eat. In theory, the food pantry in your community should be able to get food from the food bank in your area but in many cases that is not the case. Ever notice how food pantries often have food drives? See, the reason they are asking people to donate food is because they can’t afford to buy the food from the food bank. Here in Maine, the food bank is Good Shepherd and if you run a food pantry, if you want to get food from that food bank that is getting support indirectly through ConAgra you have to pay. No money means no food for the hungry people in your town including those hungry kids that Con Agra is using social media to say they will be supporting.

Now I knew from my 1st job back in Chicago a lifetime ago that feeding programs that used the food banks had to pay. Actually part of my job at that agency was overseeing our meal program so I knew there was a cost. However at that time I worked at an agency in Chicago, which is only the 3rd largest city in the US at an agency that had a million dollar plus budget. So for us buying the food was a no brainer and affordable.

I didn’t learn until almost 5 years ago when I took over as the head of a small agency in a rural state that the economics of using the food bank means being poor and hungry in rural America sucks balls. In the county I work in, many agencies use a food rescue service (yep, its exactly what it sounds like) rather than the state’s lone food bank because they cannot afford to pay the food bank for food to give to people who cannot afford to buy groceries at the grocery store. In many small towns and villages in the US, the local food pantry is a volunteer run affair often operating in donated space with donated food and a shit load of good will.

When I learned a few years ago just how skewed social services are in rural states, it was a wake-up call for me. It meant unlearning much of what I understood about poverty and reframing it in a rural framework. In this case, if ConAgra were making direct donations and contributions to small pantry operators across the nation rather than the food bank network that exists through Feeding America, I would say hell yeah they are ending child hunger. The truth is they are nothing more than a band aid solution to ending child hunger on a wide scale in a social services system that favors larger agencies over smaller ones despite the fact that in many communities it’s the small agencies working tirelessly to meet needs in locations that sometimes are untouched by the larger agencies.

Am I saying ConAgra is evil? Not really, though I prefer to buy my food directly from folks who if there are problems with my food, I know where they live. I will say though that campaigns such End Childhood Hunger are not being as honest as they can be and that is what bothers me. Because the sad reality is even in the helping word much like the corporate world, the large folks are the winners. How many resources were spent on a campaign to increase awareness when those same resources could have actually fed folks?


PS: If you want to make a difference, donate directly to the food pantries in your community. Call them and ask them what they need, and if you have the means donate often. Real change only requires real people making a difference.

Let’s talk about economic justice

Yesterday was a big day here in the United States as we officially welcomed Barack Obama into a second term as commander in chief of this great though fractured nation. It was also Martin Luther King Jr. Day also known as MLK Day. A day where we pay homage to the memory of a great man and over the years we have made it a day on and not a day off by being of service to the less fortunate among us. I have a few thoughts about that…so grab a drink, sit back and relax, while I babble.

My father grew up in the rural south as the son of sharecroppers; I have grown up hearing the tales of what life was like in the cotton patch. My father went to segregated schools, drank from the Blacks only water fountain and was almost a teenager before his folks had indoor plumbing. When you consider that my father is just turning 60, that is absolutely mind-blowing to me. It also means that he was alive and old enough to recall what the living Martin Luther King Jr. was about and while the focus in modern times is on the “I have a Dream” speech and racial equality, the truth is that was only part of King’s overall vision of justice.

Towards the end of King’s life he started working more and more for economic justice, King’s last book was Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community and one of the major ideas he espoused was the idea that everyone should have what they need to live. Think on that for a moment. In fact at the time of his assassination, King was working to organize the Poor People’s Campaign.  I won’t bore you with the details, but needless to say, I think there is a reason that King’s legacy has been boiled down to service to others and racial equality. Make no mistake, these things are very important but without recognizing how insidious economic inequality is and working to level the economic playing field, injustice still exists on a mass scale. Sure, we now have a Black president but Black unemployment rates are astronomical. We have allowed a few people of difference access to the gains that allow us to feel good and pat ourselves on the back and think “gee, the world is better” but is it really? I am not so sure that it is.

An uneven economic playing field means that some of us will have all the tools we need to live fully rounded and fulfilled lives whereas the rest of us are limited in reaching our potential. For some of us the struggle just to keep a roof over our heads and food on the table will consume all our waking hours, for others the despair that comes from crushing debt will keep us from actualizing our dreams and hopes as we are tethered to jobs we don’t like because we see no other way out. Though we will pacify ourselves with the thought that it could be worse, after all we do have a house, food, etc. Never mind that the cost to our souls and psyches is staggering.

Oddly enough it was the realization this morning that all forms of self-improvement are out of reach for many and that for so many in this country, they can only dream of a better life with no hope of making it a reality. We have told so many that a college education is the key to a better life, that schools using free market principles are out of reach or create crushing debt so that this so-called better life isn’t a dream but a nightmare.

In the past several years as I have embarked on my own personal campaign to create a better me, I have been stunned at how much the tools cost to create that better life can be. A much needed retreat equals hundreds of dollars. Conferences that might allow me the networking opportunities I need to grow my writing into something more, also hundreds if not thousands of dollars. Sure, I am not starving and these things are not true necessities and while I am more than aware of that fact and thankful for all that I have especially when my daily work reminds me that so many have it much worse, it doesn’t take away from the fact that an uneven playing field is limiting to all of us.

Granted, we are in so deep in this culture that realistically I don’t know if true economic justice is even possible. However on the eve of my birthday, one of the few constants in my being is that I believe change and dreams are necessary. I want to believe that a world can exist where people are capable of more than just living but thriving and reaching their full potential. Where access for those who want more is not limited by their lack of financial resources, crazy? I admit though that closer to home; I am heartened by groups such as Justice in the Body in Portland, Maine where their mission is “Justice in the Body is a socially responsible education, training and movement center devoted to integrating well-being, love, justice and liberation with individuals, groups and social movements.”  They do this by offering yoga and related classes all for $5. As anyone who has ever attempted to practice yoga knows, class costs are often a barrier for many, so even seemingly baby steps within a community such as $5 classes have the ability to plant the seeds for change. This is the type of change I would like to see on a larger scale, more access with the so-called small things might lead us to larger systemic changes.

PS: It seems today marks 5 years of blogging; my first blog post was on January 22, 2008. This blog might be my 3rd longest relationship ever excluding my family of origin. Yikes!

Hungry kids and why they exist

Despite the fact that one in five kids in America lives below the poverty level and that one in 45 kids are homeless, it has become increasingly clear to me that the average American doesn’t believe that they see poverty despite the fact that poverty is all around us. Media images of poverty, tend to show a face that is brown or Black or faces that are faraway. I think this creates a situation where it is  is hard for us to imagine that our kids may actually go to school with poor kids. Or that we may even know people who are skipping meals to make their food stretch longer, and who meet the technical definition of food insecure.  Poverty in 2012 is hidden if you don’t know what to look for, in my case, 15 years of working with the poor in several states and for me, the poor are everywhere.

Last week Frontline aired a piece called “Poor Kids and for many people it was an eye opening experience. I had a chance to engage online with a few people during the airing who were literally blown away, unaware of the depth of what poverty really looks like in 2012 and who its victims are.

I had a chance to watch Poor Kids and any of the kids featured could have been the kids I see daily in my work. Kids who are all too aware of what lack and scarcity means, kids who have a familiarity with food pantries and other assistance programs that no young child should have to have. Kids whose firsthand knowledge of poverty and scarcity has taken away their youthful innocence and belief. Poverty’s scars start early and last a lifetime.

A few days after the airing of Poor Kids, I saw the question asked “How does a child in the US go hungry.” Until this afternoon, I didn’t have the words to answer that question, but after today I may be closer to an answer.

Rarely do I work directly with kids in my program anymore; as our staffing has grown and my duties have increased, there simply isn’t time. However local parents know that my door is always open to them if they have a request or simply need to talk.  Today one of the local moms came to ask my assistance in creating a budget. I have made no secret of the fact  that I grew up working class and in my early days as a young wife and later single Mama, I didn’t have much money. I have always thought my experiences brought me a certain amount of street cred since unlike many social service providers, I thought I knew about being broke…I learned today that I know jack. Really.

Long story short, this young single mother of three kids including a pre-teen has a monthly income of $1234 and gets SNAP benefits. After we went through her basic living bills like rent and lights, she has a whopping $274 a month left to cover the toilet paper, tampons, toothpaste, gifts for kids, aspirin. Turns out the SNAP benefits don’t cover all the food costs, so she regularly must go to the food pantry to make her ends meet. This strong beautiful woman has no car, and walks everywhere sometimes upwards of 3-4 miles in one direction to get the best deal on foods with kids in tow.

It hit me that when we look at the actual amounts of money that people are living off of, it is very easy to see how a child can go hungry in this country. For starters, social service providers vary from area to area. In larger cities such as my hometown of Chicago, there are lots of social services and allied agencies ran by professional staffs and are typically better funded than their counterparts in rural or less populous states. I have joked; it really is much nicer being poor in a large city.  In state’s like Maine and similar sized states, social services is often a hodge podge of services often with overworked and really underpaid staff and well-meaning volunteers and frankly not enough services to assist all that need help. I learned today that there is no assistance for security deposits in the town I work in. This young mother who is moving out of a bedbug infested building into a clean and safe place will have to spend every single dollar she has for the next two months to cover her first month’s rent and security deposit which her new landlord is so generously letting her pay in installments.

Think about that. For the next two months this woman will have no money to pay even her light bill (but once she gets a disconnection notice then she can apply for help with the lights) or buy tampons, all so that she can have her kids in a safe and clean place.  That means these kids are at an even greater risk of going without a meal, sadly this story isn’t unique, it’s the story of millions trapped in poverty.

Kids go hungry in America because the resources that exist are not equally distributed. The social safety net is a string and private charities are not equally funded and the needs outweigh the means. It means that I can serve 400+ kids on an annual budget of a hair under $100,000 and with lots of prayers and dedicated volunteers and a staff that believes in the work as much as I do so much that we all work for far less than market value to assist. Yet in larger cities like Chicago, Philadelphia, etc. an agency that serves the same amount of youth will operate on a budget 10-15 times the size of mine.  Until we see all kids and people as equal regardless of location, race, etc. we won’t stop seeing hungry kids.