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.

Aren’t y’all just a bunch of narcissistic souls?

One of the hardest things about this blogging life for me is explaining the whole concept of blogging to offline friends who don’t blog or who frankly are not users of social media. A common question that has come up in the past year is why? I actually had someone tell me that blogging frankly seems narcissistic and why didn’t I just write in a diary. Funny thing is that I do actually keep an old fashioned journal, I enjoy blogging but let’s be honest do you really think I would share all my business online? Heaven’s no!

However I admit to being fascinated by the idea if all this social media and blogging is making us just a bit narcissistic? Clearly I am not the only one who wonders about such things based off this article in yesterday’s Sunday Magazine of the New York Times. Interesting that the piece is about Facebook but there is actually one tidbit that the writer mentions “The social medium of choice for the self-absorbed appears to be Twitter. The researchers found an association between tweeting about oneself and high narcissism scores.” Interesting, but I disagree.

Blogging and social media use can be narcissistic endeavors if we aren’t careful, but the reality is that as social media has evolved and become fully integrated into all areas of our lives (Jiffy Lube wants you to like them on Facebook…I’d say that is integration in our lives) it’s no longer the space of a select few. Even people who aren’t online regardless of age know about things like Facebook and even blogs, regardless of whether or not they actually use them. My Dad is a prime example; he’s had the same cell phone for 9 years, doesn’t own a PC at home yet is familiar with Facebook and Twitter or the tweeter as he calls it. Yep, social media is here to stay.

Bloggers and blogging though is a different beast since unlike applications such as Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram, Twitter, etc. a blogger is committing to a space. A space that they make their own, I liken it to my online home, when you read this blog or really any blog especially those of personal memoir bloggers, we really are saying “Welcome to my world”. The reasons why one blogs is as different as the individual blogger.

Personally I started my blog in 2008 because I was lonely, hell, being a minority in a very white state gets tiring, I figured maybe I might be able to reach out and find the other Black girl in Maine. I have accomplished that goal. I have found Black girls in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont (the one in VT left though…boo hoo), some have only remained online pals and some have become offline friends and a reminder on those days I am losing it that I am not the only one.

I also started blogging because as writer writing for a local publication, I was hoping to expand my reach. I guess I could say that I have accomplished that too and continue to do so. For someone though whose childhood dream was to be a writer, this space allows me to do just that, I admit turning it into a profit making venture has been a bit trickier for me, but I trust that will come in time if it’s meant to be.

Narcissistic people can be found anywhere, trust me on this. Just because someone shares parts of their life online doesn’t make them a candidate for narcissistic personality disorder. In these fractured times when so many of us are far away from family & friends, blogs can serve as a familiar friend whose there when we need them. Bloggers in the past decade have created very real communities that support one another, in recent years so many bloggers have had life throw those curve-balls and even with offline support, the online support is valuable. So sure we could just write in our journals but those journals may not always help us live our dreams, sometimes people have to know about you and that little book under the bed can’t give you that exposure. It also can’t become a real life friend who you break bread with, the trick is to be mindful and not forget that life is more than these spaces, as always balance is key.

So yeah, I will keep writing my truly messy thoughts in my journal but I will keep plugging away in this space too, but if I get to full of myself, feel free to kick me in my ass offline!

Real life and traveling around the sun

This space may be quiet for a few days as I am busy celebrating another year of life, my actual birthday is on Monday but ya know how it is….a weekday birthday means weekend celebrations. It feels like a big one though it is not, 39 trips around the sun. My last year in my 30’s, I must admit the 30’s kicked me clear the fuck into adulthood, seriously, do not pass go, do not collect $200. I remember when I turned 30 and thought oh wow…30. Little did I know that my 30’s were about to make me realize what being an adult could entail. Never mind, before the age of 25 I had been married, divorced, remarried and had a kid. Nope my 30’s were like that shit was child’s play.

I have shared with regular readers in the past that it was mere months after turning 30, that my beloved mother was diagnosed with cancer. To add insult to injury, she died 6 weeks after my 31st birthday.  If that wasn’t enough my 32nd year brought a second chance at motherhood but also brought the deaths of my grandmother and a dear family friend effectively turning me into the matriarch of my family at 32. And people wonder why I often sound so much older than my actual years, losing the elders in your family and essentially become one of the elders before you are 35 will age you.  Being left with a father who is at times almost childlike when you need a parent, makes you grow up very fast when you realize you are home, that never again will you play the role of child.

Enough with the sad tales though, while I am busy enjoying this weekend and basically being the queen of the manor I was reminded yet again this weekend how the real lives we lead these days while different than 10-15 years ago is very much real life. I am speaking of those online/offline connections or what some think of as real life and online…no more do I confuse the two because at least for me they are all my real life.

Last night one of my very real friends, my dearest and closest friend in Maine surprised little ole me with a surprise party that featured some good twitter pals. I was surprised yet honored, my friend knows that I have a love-hate thing with my birthday and in recent years have talked of doing some special but I never get around to it. So you can only imagine my surprise when I found out what was up….twitter pals, you know the pretend friends actually left their houses on a cold blustery night to hang out with me. I chuckled to myself and thought of those I know who refer to online life as not real. Nope, all those around the table were very real.

The villages that we form in 2012 may not come from the traditional forms of village that we are accustomed to, but the digital village can allow us to make a new village if we are open to it.  A village that is just as real and supportive as the villages of yesterday, sure there may be some fakers in the digital village but the offline village has been known to have a few deceptive souls too.

Anyway time to get back to my weekend, relaxation, relaxation and more relaxation….oh and crafting duty with the six year old tomorrow.

PS: I do accept gifts, or better yet donate to help a blogger catch a few conferences this year.

PSS: No pressure 😉