Friday, November 30, 2007

Saving the Life that May Be Your Own

My readers are an activist bunch, and I'm sure many of you have stories about food pantries near you that are struggling to keep going. Or maybe you volunteer with fuel assistance programs, which are also in dire straits with the rising costs of oil and natural gas. But the news is very, very bad. There are an increasing number of people who need food and fuel assistance, and a decreasing supply of money and goods.

"The Vermont Food Bank said its supply of food was down 50 percent from last year. "It's a crisis mode," said Doug O'Brien, the bank's chief executive.

For two weeks this month, the New Hampshire Food Bank distributed supplies reserved for emergency relief. Demand for food here is up 40 percent over last year and supply is down 30 percent, which is striking in the state with the lowest reliance on food banks.

"It's the price of oil, gas, rents and foreclosures," said Melanie Gosselin, executive director of the New Hampshire Food Bank.

Ms. Gosselin said household budget squeezes had led to a drop in donations and greater demand. "This is not the old 'only the homeless are hungry,'" she said. "It's working people."

Lane Kenworthy, a professor of sociology and political science at the University of Arizona, agreed, saying: "The overall picture is that household incomes are kind of stuck. There's very little way to increase income, and most people have a very heavy debt load. Any event that increases your costs is really, really troublesome, because you're already stretched thin."

All of this is particularly disturbing because right now, most food banks are in their biggest donation period of the year - now is when the food drives and holiday charity is going. If things are so bad now, how will they be in February?

For those of us who are long emergency aware, we know where the future is going - towards more hungry families and harder times. And so, I would ask all of us who have a little extra right now, who aren't feeling it yet, who still have our jobs and our houses and a good enough income to do so to pick up a little extra slack.

I hope all of us will bring a little of our stored food or our precious savings over to the food bank, or consider sponsoring a family for a tank of heating oil or some precious insulation this year.

Right now, 11% of the US population experiences food insecurity. Overwhelmingly the hungry are children, single women and the elderly. They are also the most likely to be cold - at Community Solutions I described an article I read recently in the Boston Globe, about pediatricians reporting more and more families caught in an endless bind - they cannot afford to heat their houses adequately, so their children are freezing. But the high cost of even minimal heating energy means they cannot feed their children adequately, so these kids lack even enough body fat to maintain their body temperatures, and suffer illness and hypothermia in their own homes.

This is most likely only going to get worse. But while we can we must mitigate the worst of this - we must tend our neighbors, check in on elderly family members, neighbors and friends and make sure they have heat and food, give our time, our garden surpluses, our spare money and food to the poverty support programs and people around us. Not only because it is the right thing to do, but because one of these days, it may be us.

The food bank in Manchester delivers provisions to a housing project each week, and on a recent Monday, Matthew Whooley, 26, of Manchester, was waiting in line with his wife, Penny, and their four children.

"Every week there's less and less food," Mr. Whooley said. "It used to be potatoes, meat and bread, and last week we got Doritos and flour. The food is getting shorter, and the lines keep getting longer."

We're already at the "flour and doritos" stage, folks.



daharja said...

More bad news:

I don't know if you have seen the talk from Naomi Wolf (author, The Beauty Myth) titled "The End Of America") that is on YouTube at the moment.

If not, please take the time to see it. Here is the URL:

Wolf outlines that 10 steps that move a democracy to a fascist dictatorship, and argues (convincingly) that the US Government (Bush Administration) is about to embark upon the 10th step, having already accomplished the first nine.

All world citizens concerned about the security of democracy across the world and the risk of its loss in the USA (which we are currently watching with horror in Australia and Europe) should watch this lecture. And be afraid, very afraid.

If climate change and peak oil weren't enough to worry about, the United States is possibly about to become the largest fascist state to ever exist in the history of the planet. That scares me, and should scare anyone.

Please view, and forward to anyone and everyone you feel should see this. And discuss with your neighbours, your friends, your relatives, your workmates...

Ani said...

Yes, it is a real problem. Here in VT as was noted in the NY Times article, the Food Bank is running low on supplies, and the commodity program has shrunk. We have a wonderful local Food Shelf here though and our community has been active in supporting it thus far. Our local grocery store, although a large multi-national chain type, tries to assist whenever possible and really works with us. We have taken advantage of their register receipts and turkey points programs-people drop off their receipts and "points" for the food shelf and we are able to use these to "shop" at the store for the food shelf. The store really works to maximize what we can do with this as well.

In addition we have the usual food drives as well as special promotions such as those run by the local "CURVES" which bring in amazing amounts of food.

So far it's working reasonably well-we also have an award winning system at our food shelf which is set up like a grocery store so instead of filling bags snd handing them to our "customers" as we used to which resulted in people getting food they didn't like or wouldn't use, we have a set-up which allows them to select their own groceries off the shelves and out ofthe fridge/freezer according to a card which specifies how much each family size gets. It works so well and we don't waste food this way-the Lucky Charms cereal goes to the folks who like that stuff and the organic mac n cheese to others!

Anonymous said...

How shameful to be a citizen of a country (USA) whose government has no viable system for feeding its hungry and disenfranchised.

See this chart:

With more than 50% of our income tax going into the military-industrial complex, it's not surprising that feeding the hungry is left to private donations.

Daharja, great link. Thanks! I'm reading her book, "End of America: Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot."

Another great book that helps us connect the dots is Naomi Klein's "Shock Doctrine" where she demonstrates how public services in the US are intentionally being dismantled by our predatory capitalist system.

~Vegan/Leaving So. FL

Maeve said...

You know, I'd never considered the impact a "junk food" donation to the food bank would have. I've always tried to mostly donate canned veggies, or tuna, or dried beans- healthy good things. But I've also included boxes of jello, or a bag of chocolate chips, and other things that could be considered "junk", because I figured people might be too strapped for cash to afford the occasional "treats".

If it's coming to the food banks doling out only a couple items, maybe people should be making sure that ALL of their food donations are healthy good things. Because while flour is useful, Doritos really can't be considered "Food".

I've been putting change in all the bell ringers buckets this year, which is something I normally don't do because we have charities we support. But when I can still afford to pay for a frivolous web hosting, I can afford to put my change in the bucket to help someone else.

Tough times we live in, indeed. :(

Tina said...

We are trying this year to figure out how much to send to Heifer International (our usual charity) and how much to give to the Akron/Canton Food Bank. Thanks for the post Sharon. As the need grows, making ethical choices will become more and more difficult.

Thanks too for your post Daharja. I was not aware of Noami Wolfe's latest work. We have been aware of the scary path our government is on, but had not seen the dots connected in such a stark and persuasive manner.

Ani said...

Actually, at the risk of boring those of you who already know this, I'd love to just provide a few basic comments on donations to food shelves.

They can always use cash so feel free to donate money which they will use to purchase food, often at the Food Bank.

If you choose to give food, it is best to donate items that people really use and need such as: tuna, peanut butter, canned soup, pasta, tomato sauce, canned fruit and vegies, cereal.

If you are donating food from your own shelves, please check the expiration date. If it's past date, don't donate it.

While you may have specific belief systems about food be they vegan, organic or whatever, the majority (although not all) of food shelf recipients, as are people everywhere in the US, just into basic stuff. So in other words, keep the quinoa and couscous and whatever for your own home and donate ordinary pasta, mac n' cheese, Cheerios and Tomato soup.

If you want to donate "extras" and if the food shelf can handle perishables, consider orange juice and cheese-both in short supply. Also, plain ole coffee- cans of Maxwell House or something are a major hit.

And while I know that beans, canned or dried, are a good cheap protein source, they are not in demand at our food shelf. This may be different in another locale such as the Southwest, etc, so think about what people eat in your region when you donate.

If everyone who was able to even picked up an extra can of something every time they went food shopping, and donated it, that would really help.

Cindy said...

I was talking with my mom today by phone, trying to convince her not to spend much on my partner and I for Christmas. I said I would like food from the local natural grocer. I think I will ask for items for the food pantry at my church. I know my mother will feel she has to buy me a gift; this way we both get what we want.

Rosa said...

I've done strictly cash with my food shelf donations for the past several years (when I started working full time I bumped up my charitable giving to match, and I put it all to our local food shelf).

The thing I continue to struggle with is that the emergency funds - emergency housing, emergency heating help, emergency food - don't do anything to change the system that causes the problem.

So starting next summer I'm doing a CSA box to the food shelf, too (actually, I think when you donate a box it goes to either the women's shelter or the kids' summer food program in the neighborhood - the CSA handles it).

But in the meantime I'll second the "give regular food" plea and add "give convenience food." What I see in my neighborhood is that the food shelf serves elderly people and working families - often working extended families with all adults working outside the home and older kids doing the cooking and child care. Canned soup, box meals, instant rice, canned beans, prepared masa, canned (or frozen if your food shelf takes them) veggies, canned fruit (a lot of our neighborhood kid are starved for fruit) - think about a 12 year old watching a clutch of 2-8 year old siblings and cousins while making dinner for the family.

Ani said...

Rosa- yes- the convenience factor is huge. Even though it isn't the way I choose to eat and I know it isn't especially economical, many people really do want Tuna/Hampburger Helper, and even Lord help me, those cans of ravioli! No accounting for taste I figure and it's not my place to be the food nazi! So I try to provide what people will eat, especially at times of stress in their lives and while pressed for time. And yes, most of our food shelf clients are either elderly/disabled or working parents with much on their "to do" list as it is...

We have a great statewide organization that works with low-income families in housing projects to teach cooking from scratch and other ways of healthy and cheap eating so hopefully this will make some progress. In the meantime, I'll just send in the cans of soup!

Anonymous said...

I just watched the Naomi Wolf talk, and while we're on the subject of startling and depressing documentaries, I thought I'd mention that I just saw Sicko last night.

I was wondering if you've written anything specifically on health and health care in the past, Sharon, and if not, if you'd consider sharing your thoughts and maybe advice on this subject in a future post.

Richard said...

I had a real struggle with a food donation recently. Every year right after Halloween, the kids' school sponsors a Operation Candy Drop for less fortunate kids who are food insecure and do not have the opportunity to do the trick-or-treat thing. This year, with a bumper haul (the kids get to keep a moderate sized bag worth and donate the rest), I stared at this 10-pound back of candy while listening to an NPR radio show about the skyrocketing rates of diabetes in kids, most definitely including the poor. Despite hating to waste any food, in the end I just threw it out. I could not see pushing such unhealthy food on these kids. But to this day, I don't know if my choice in the end was right. Anybody with food bank experiences care to comment?

Of course, we also donate less junky food, but now I'm thinking sending money is better. I am not in a good position to determine what is in greatest need. Perhaps a call to my local Second Harvest.

Ani said...

Hi Richard-

I think you did the right thing. It is hard as while there I am saying you need to leave your own food beliefs at the door I also think that donations of candy are not a good idea. For awhile we used to get large quantities of baked goods from the local grocery store-this was the first thing that many people grabbed when they entered. I had mixed feelings about handing out goopy cakes-are the muffins ok but not sheet cakes? We just provided it and left it up to the people to choose what they wanted but that said, I never donate junk food. I try to donate food that has some nutritional content and will be eaten. Money is also good as the Food Shelf can purchase just what it needs.

Anonymous said...

Hi Sharon,

this article is a reminder that hunger is a national tragedy here in the US. That and health care. Our church has a food pantry that we are trying to keep up. Our Pastor said that the food goes out almost as fast as it comes in. I asked him if there would be any benefit in teaching a class on "scratch" cooking or bread making, but he told me that many, even most, of the people who come to the food bank don't even have a means to cook, or to refrigerate anything. That's why they need things they can eat cold, out of a can. A popular brand of beef stew is much in demand because it tastes good unheated. How sad.

Mary in Central Florida

BoysMom said...

Our local food bank is largely funded by their thrift store, and aside from getting too much stuff donated, it seems to work petty well. But we are in an anomolous economic area, a boom town. The thrift store tends to have a glut of perfectly good refridgerators and stoves, and about one two-to-three year old computer a week. I don't know how well the thrift store will funtion to support the food bank when the natural gas runs out someday, so I can't say that it's a good way to do things. It does have the advantage of providing one stop shopping for those who need both food and second hand goods, and it's quite the gathering place for those of us who balk at paying new prices for things.

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