Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Food Security - A Thrift Store Fronted Food Pantry

Underneath the Happy Talk, Is This As Bad as the Great Depression?
Depression-Era Photo (but what
should we call ourselves?),
Australia (I think)

My grandmother grew up during the Great Depression. Her father, fortunately, was a doctor and people always figured out a way to pay--or barter--for his services. They got chickens, or pies, or fresh bread in exchange for services. I'm sure it made my great-grandfather's life difficult from time-to-time--medical supplies, after all, cost money. But people were going hungry and my great-grandmother, as family legend has it, couldn't turn the people who came to her door asking for food away. We're all familiar with pictures of the long lines of men (and families and schoolchildren) standing, waiting for a bowl of soup. There was a system in place to help them that was much more public than the system in place now (namely, "food stamps," SNAP). But if someone came to most of our doors now and asked for food, we wouldn't think twice about turning them away. And possibly calling the police. There are exceptions of course, and I met one of these exceptions over the summer at the National Hobo Convention in Britt, Iowa, a woman--this year's Hobo Queen--who goes by the name Minneapolis Jewel. Yes, there are still hobos. Most are rubber tramps, it seemed, but there were a few leather tramps and a few who still ride the rails. MPLS Jewel apparently hosts hobos at her home, provides them meals, looks them in the eye when she passes them on the street. In other words, she allows herself to see people--and to help those in need, particularly those who are hungry.

So the fact that people are going hungry isn't exactly news to most people. The math is pretty simple: the economy is down, more people are unemployed or underemployed, food costs have been going steadily up thanks, in part, to increased gas costs, and a multitude of other factors. 1 in 5 American children live in poverty.  Globally, the number of children living in poverty is 1 in 4. We have more people who are going hungry now than a few years ago, no real surprise there, either.

At the Coronation Ceremony, 2011 Hobo Convention
That's a lot of hungry people (about 925 million, about 3x as many people as live in the US), especially in a world that produces more than 2,700 calories per person per day. And to be honest, there aren't a lot of options for hungry people in most parts of the world (for various reasons, chief among them food distribution and food equity issues). Some areas of the world have been deforested for corn and soybeans, displacing local agriculture. Some places, communal land has been bought by large multinationals which "are putting the land to better use"--at least in their humble opinions. And in some places, people now live in areas they didn't historically either because of social/political strife (we've done that in the US as well) or because of overcrowding.

In the US, soup kitchens and the like can supply a lot of calories to the hungry--but many are forced to supply very empty calories by way of highly processed foods (ding dongs, fruit cocktail in heavy syrup, and American cheese anyone?). A friend who volunteered at a soup kitchen in Austin, Minnesota (home of Hormel) bemoaned the lack of fresh food--of non-processed food in general--during his stint volunteering there. But figuring out how to change a system that's already in place isn't easy either, especially when you only have a limited amount of time per week to dedicate to the process--and a limited amount of time to spend in a particular community.

I've had the opportunity to volunteer in food pantries and soup kitchens across the United States. One large food pantry I volunteered in as part of a corporate-style "team building" exercise surprised me (and not just because it was the first time I'd volunteered in a food pantry) due to the sheer quantity of junk foods and severely damaged products that were being given out. This particular pantry relied primarily on canned and non-perishable goods supplemented by bread and other carb-intensive goods. I did my time, got my hands grimy on dirty/dusty/leaked on canned goods, and got out.

As an adult, my friend Rachael guided me to a local soup kitchen she'd volunteered at in the past. The chef that day, a regular volunteer for the previous 4 years, made me want to come back. I watched as he, and another regular volunteer, greeted the guests by name, used fresh ingredients, and navigated  around the church kitchen like pros. And I did go back, several days a week, for most of a year (until moving). I started to fall in love with  being there--being part of a community of people that cared about making a difference--even as I felt frustrated by seeing the same people week after week, people who weren't being given the resources to help themselves. How, a friend and I wondered, could we give people the tools to get them out of the cycle of poverty? We researched and talked about soup kitchens that provided various types of OJT. We talked about soup kitchens partnering with people in the community who could help out (let's review your resume, let's work on building your resume together, oh you do handy work? Funny, I have a leaky...) in various ways. And we volunteered under a woman who reminded us that sometimes what a person really needed was just someone who would listen. We didn't need to problem solve all the time. Sometimes we just needed to sit, to hear a story, to say "thank you for sharing."

Organic produce from a CSA share I inherited earlier this year
Later, at a Catholic Worker Farm (which donates most of the food it harvests to people and organizations in need) in central Iowa, Mustard Seed, I had the opportunity to go through this exercise again. We had one minute to talk with another person and our partner wasn't allowed to say anything, except "thank you" at the end. We could talk about anything we wanted. The experience, because I felt safe in the environment, was liberating. We should, perhaps, listen to each other more. A lot more. But part of what I loved about this exercise was that it came after sharing a meal together--with some people who started off the evening as strangers to one another. We ate together, we built a community of trust over food--and some of the food came straight off the farm. This experience, and experiences like it on this farm, made me more interested in the Catholic Worker movement (which began during the Great Depression) and in interning or volunteering on organic farms, perhaps by WWOOFing.

When I moved, I wanted to stay involved with local food, with food accessibility, with food security. I mentioned this to one of the first people I met in my new town and she connected me with a thrift store/food pantry. The thrift store helps support the food pantry and people can sign up for a very low bi-annual fee. In exchange the person who signs up is given at least 40 pounds of food each month, often more. There's a mix of canned and fresh goods, with a couple of local companies making major donations (and getting, I'm guessing, major tax write-offs a couple times a year). My first day volunteering at the thrift store, two people came in to pay their dues to join this organization and receive food. When you join, you take home a box of food--and when one of the dock-volunteers brought out the goods, one of the recipients started crying--out of joy.

This doesn't solve the problem of people who can't afford food in our country, not really. But maybe it's a start. For about $4 a month, the recipients get 40 pounds of food minimum, food that would otherwise be thrown out. Americans, just for the record, toss about 25% of domestically produced food. This, of course, says nothing about the food we import--and we do import a lot of food.

I also got involved with the local growers market, helping a friend who has a pie-business, and by talking to the local producers to find out not only what they produce, but how they produce it and when things in my new part of the country come into season. Part of the key to understanding food issues in a community is understanding how food moves within a community and how people do (or don't) have access to this food. Urban foraging happens a fair amount in this area and many people have chickens or roosters in their yards, not to mention produce-bearing lawns and trees. And it's not hard to find local and organic here, which is nice--but not true in many places.

And that's--the difficulty in finding local and organic food--where part of the problem lies. There are mixed messages about whether it's better to buy local or organic, given the choice of only one or the other for a product. I mentioned this in a recent post as well, but have since read more of Anna Lappe's Diet for a Hot Planet. Lappe outlines how much carbon dioxide--not to mention methane, ammonia, and other chemicals/gases--is released through the current food system (by the way, news to me, Cargill not only turned a profit when the 2008 food riots were going on around the world, but continues to turn a profit now, even as many are going hungry. A huge profit. The second quarter of this fiscal year their earnings tripled. I could rant longer--I could actually start to rant, but that's a different post, and maybe on my other blog.) and how the changes proposed by many of the major food companies (in which Cargill ranks high) that would, in theory, better the environment are actually little more than spin. Local, but non-organic, can still leave a large footprint according to Lappe--maybe larger than we think since we've been trained to focus on the transportation aspect of our food system (which Lappe argues is smaller than many of the other segments as far as environmental degradation is concerned). Organic but shipped from elsewhere? Well, you then factor in the (probable) decreased freshness, the transportation costs (immediate and deferred), and everything else that goes along with non-local foods. And don't even start on meat. Meat's a story all it's own--and Lappe spends plenty of time telling that story, if you're interested. It can leave a person overwhelmed.

Serving Stew for the Masses
If we factored in more of the deferred costs, yes, eating would be more expensive. Maybe fewer people could afford it than can afford it now. That's certainly what major players in the food system would like you to believe. "America feeds the world." I can't tell you how often I've heard this from farmers and students of agriculture. But what about all that food we throw out? What about the people going hungry right in our own neighborhoods?

That's where we need to get innovative. Maybe it's not a food pantry fronted by a thrift shop. Maybe it's a non-profit restaurant. Or restaurants and grocers giving leftovers and overstock/run to soup kitchens. Maybe  its like the stories my grandmother told me of being a girl during the Great Depression--when hobos would come to her parents' house looking for food because my great-grandmother always had something for them, even if it was just a sandwich or stone soup. Maybe it's remembering what it means to be a good neighbor. Or just remembering to leave everything a little better than we found it.


  1. Great post, Liz! I think one very positive potential outcome of the current economic crisis might be a return to this creative thinking, which you rightfully associate with past times of need.

    There was a cool article in th NYT today about time banks that made me think of your post. Not food exclusively, but certainly the same idea of creative exchanges of goods -- that often become about creating a personal relationship, more than receiving something tangible.


  2. Hooray! Thanks Marissa -- I look forward to reading that article when I get home from work this evening. Hope all is well (aside from you being "Melissa" to certain students).

  3. I agree with Marissa - excellent post! Such strong writing on an important topic. I particularly appreciate this statement: "Part of the key to understanding food issues in a community is understanding how food moves within a community and how people do (or don't) have access to this food." It's remarkable how America is so widely (if still sometimes resistantly) moving into awareness of these issues and how, despite sluggish, corrupt, and/or dominant systems, change is really pressing to happen. Thanks for writing and contributing to it. Looking forward to hearing more about what you're seeing, thinking, and doing.