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Monday, May 18, 2015

Finding Treasure

*Its been close to 6 months since my last post. I apologize. Life kind of got away from me for a bit and I kept reminding myself that I hadn't blogged in while, yet no post.*

I couldn't even read my last post. I remember the emotions so vividly and I can't revisit that time for a while. I was so frustrated; so down on myself, feeling like I would never be employed and certainly not in any meaningful way. I was in a rut and kept on digging. The hole was getting deeper and deeper and the only thing I was digging up was insecurity.

Well, when you dig that deep and search for treasure- sometimes you find it. I found it. After months of looking I found a great opportunity for gainful, meaningful employment! Could it be true? Despite my procrastination (I sent my resume and cover letter hours before the deadline) I landed a job at Virginia Poverty Law Center and I haven't looked back. 

VPLC is a non-profit legal aid center staffed mostly by lawyers and some 'civilians,' as I like to think of us. VPLC provides advocacy, legal research, training, and litigation support for justice issues concerning low-income Virginians. Its a small staff of dedicated people who want to help their fellow Virginians fight the good fight against things like predatory lenders, Medicare/Medicaid and elder care malpractice, landlord/housing issues, divorce, sexual and domestic violence... the list goes on.
I work for the public benefits lawyer and our focus is on SNAP and school meals. 

Currently our big project is promoting a grant, Breakfast in the Classroom (BIC), and the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP). 
BIC is a grant to help school bring school breakfasts into the classroom after the bell so that all students, regardless of income, can eat a healthy meal together and start the day ready to learn. We meet with principals, attend conferences, and contact school nutrition staff all in the name of providing kids with a nutritious start to the day. We have found that schools are interested but crossing over from interest to implementation is a rarity. Somewhere between point A and point B interest fizzles out, there's an administrator who wants to be a stick in the mud, or a school decides the program isn't for them. It can be discouraging but we have a few tricks up our sleeve for the coming school year. When schools see what kind of events we have planned for next fall, we might have some schools knocking on our door. 
CEP is a provision in a piece of 2010 congressional legislation aimed at helped low-income area schools to provide universal school meals. After meeting a few criteria a school can enroll in CEP and provide the entire student population with breakfast and lunch. School meals are reimbursed at certain rates depending on free and reduced meal status of the students. A meal eaten by a child who qualifies for free or reduced priced meals is reimbursed at a higher rate than a meal eaten by a full price student. I won't bore you with how this is figured out and accounted for- there's a formula and mounds of paperwork. The great thing about CEP is that it takes away the applications and paperwork needed for traditional reimbursement. With CEP the universal meals are self sustaining thanks to a higher rate of reimbursement for a larger percentage of students (and cost cutting via no paperwork). 

I was told that my time in Boston working on food justice issues, especially living on SNAP, made me more grounded in the sorts of challenges VPLC wanted to tackle than any other candidate. Despite a bit of floundering and some missteps, my experiences in Boston armed me with a skill set beneficial to my passion for a more wholesome food system. 

I was in a bad place 6 months ago. I'm in a much better place now. 
When you're in a hole, you never know, you may find treasure.

Keep digging.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Water, Water Everywhere But Not a Drop to Drink

As someone who is passionate about sustainable food, urban farming, nutrition, and many of the various aspects of the food justice work I sometimes find the amount of organizations and resources in the field to be overwhelming; mostly in a good way as the food system we currently have could be much improved. However, on occasion I'm overwhelmed in a negative way.

I've been looking for a job in the field for 6+ months now- depending on what your opinion of really looking is- and I've applied to quite a few jobs. I have yet to be gainfully employed. I'm not trying to have a pity party for myself on a public forum (I've had many in a private setting) but I do wonder what my future holds. I was interviewed by a wonderful organization but ultimately the position was given to someone else- the luckiest of the over 60 applicants. 60! Let that sink in. 60 applicants for a entry level position in my local area with a growing but relatively small organization.

Many organizations have high aims, well intentioned goals, and caring staff and volunteers. These are all great qualities but I wonder if there is a weak link. A link that could make efforts more effective, streamline the movement, and accelerate the momentum. The link? Too many organizations combating the same evils (hunger, poverty, obesity, malnutrition... the list goes on) without partnering with already existing organizations or institutions.

Like trying to work on a cluttered desk, its a little choatic, underdeveloped, and things get in the way. Usually the things getting in the way are funding, volunteers, and community support. The community might be suffering from whiplash as they don't know which project to support as so many pop up in a short amount of time.

Being a steward of our resources means using them wisely so they make the greatest impact. As stewards of time, money, green space, real estate, knowledge and more, shouldn't we be concerned with using these gifts effectively?

My aim here is not to stifle progress; quite the opposite really. I want ensure that progress has the strength to effect the populations and issues we target. But if we're spread out too thin, the string could snap. The tension lost.

How can we be generous with out gifts but clever in the ways that we use them so that the tension isn't lost? This is a wonderful thing we have- the capacity to care for others and their health. That capacity can change the world.

In my search to find a job in what is a vast market, I have been overwhelmed by visions of a better future but also saddened by the inability to use my passion for gainful employment. It makes me wonder how many under/un-funded projects have to slip away before we realize that working together in a smaller, but more targeted, way can deepen our impact.

Am I out of bounds? Am I the only one who feels like they're a little boat lost in a sea of opportunity?

Friday, November 14, 2014

ThanksGIVING: Share the Bounty, Cut the Waste

Thanksgiving is a time to be thankful for the bounty we receive due the hard work of farmers and ranchers. Much of that bounty, however, is wasted in uneaten food, dumped leftovers, and disposable table settings. Americans will waste 25 million additional tons of food and materials during the holiday season. That is a staggering 1 million tons per week! Take simple steps to reduce your waste and respect the harvest this Thanksgiving.

Food is key component of all holiday celebrations. With so much good food, here’s how you can make sure that favorite comfort food is good for the planet too.

·       Support a local farmer! Buy your holiday staples from local, sustainable farmers and ranchers who grow and raise healthy products.
·       Before heading to the store, inventory your fridge and pantry to see what you have already. We all have cans hiding in the back corner we forgot were there. There’s not reason to buy more of what you already have.
·       Plan your menu and have a head count. Planning your holiday menu and building a grocery list based on that menu cuts waste by lessening tempting purchases that don’t make it to the table. A head count will help you increase or decrease recipe measurements to the correct proportions, making it easier to buy just the right amount of ingredients.
·       Repurpose turkey giblets, stale bread, and other “waste.” Remember Grandma’s to die for gravy? Chances are she used turkey giblets to flavor the family favorite. Using parts of the bird that normally go in the trash is a great way to pump up flavor while reducing what ends up in a landfill. Stale bread makes great croutons and breadcrumbs. That mound of veggie tops and roots? Make homemade soup stock and freeze for an easy addition to any recipe.
·       Ask your guests to help you! If your guests are bringing sides, desserts, or are helping you prepare the meal, ask them bring those oh so good cookies on a reusable plate or bring their casserole in a recyclable container. In return, send everyone home with a plate of leftovers so they can continue to enjoy a delicious turkey sandwich and mashed potatoes days later.
 Some people donate their leftovers to community food programs but this can be tricky. While a wonderful gesture your leftovers may end up in the trash instead of on someone’s plate. Food safety, allergies, and storage space are all concerns of programs, which may mean your donation goes uneaten. While working at A Place to Turn, I personally had to sort through countless boxes of expired canned goods that were given to us through donation drives and holiday collections. Tossing well meaning, but 5 year old canned cranberry, is heartbreaking. That food shouldn't end up in a dumpster, it should end up filling the belly of someone in need. Be thoughtful with your donations. You don't want your rusting can of pumpkin and nor do our clientele and their families. If you wouldn't eat, don't donate it.
 Good intentions don’t prevent food sickness. I caution donating prepared foods but if you would like to provide for those in need, make a monetary donation. The organization you donate to will know how to use your gift in the most effective way.
There are many more ways to revamp our holiday traditions to make them even more delicious, less wasteful, and enjoyable for everyone. Do you have a creative way to reduce holiday food waste?

Monday, September 8, 2014

Plant the Seed

The Boston Food Justice YAV program ended 3 weeks ago and since its end I have been doing some soul searching and job searching. I'm back at home readjusting to life in my hometown and trying to figure out where I go from here. Part of me knows what I want to do and is ready to get started. Another part of me is holding on to my old ways, my apprehensive ways.

I want to build gardens. I want to build gardens that provide produce to those in need. I want these gardens to be a place where communities come together and neighbors help neighbors. I also want those on SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) to shop for produce at farmers markets because the market has a matching program. But where do I start?

During our time in Boston I really appreciated the social programs the state and localities sponsored. We went to farmers markets almost every weekend to buy our groceries, even while on SNAP. We were able to buy nourishing produce for our bodies which then became nourishing to our souls as we spent time in fellowship around the table.
I want to provide this same experience for families who need a little extra help making ends meet.
*Just because they need help making ends meet does not mean that they should have to eat less wholesome, unhealthy food and not have fellowship at the dinner table over a delicious meal. We are all children of God and deserve to be provided for in God's bounty.*

Last week God had a message for me. I went to church hoping to hear something special. I got what I asked for. Our pastor's sermon started with Moses and the burning bush. God spoke to Moses through the burning bush and gave Moses a message he had to deliver to Pharaoh. I feel a little bit like Moses. I have a message to deliver.
The sermon continued and our pastor mentioned that you never know who you might affect when you go out into the world. Something as small as a kind word or deed can really affect those around you. He made a metaphor that made me think God has his sights right on me that morning. He said its like being a farmer and planting seed. That seed is going to grow into something and you never know who you're going to help. Farmer. Seed. Growing. Helping. Its exactly what I needed to hear. We also sang one of my favorite hymns, Here I am Lord.
The lyrics "Here I am Lord, is it I Lord? ... I will go Lord, if you lead me. I will hold your people in my heart" strike me every time I sing it.

Here I am Lord, I will go where you lead me. Lead me like you led Moses. Help me grow fruits of the Spirit.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Rotting in the Crates

I work at a food pantry that supplies fresh produce and non-perishables for countless individuals and families. Just today we had 18 clients visit us in just an hour and a half! These clients range from individuals and couples to families of 6 or more. They are all shapes and sizes, ethnicities, personalities and so on. There is rarely a dull day at our pantry.

That is even more true now. A local grocery store chain, embattled in a family feud, has had managers walk of the job (and some have been fired subsequently) and workers protesting outside stores. Produce deliveries and stock shipments have either been delayed or haven't arrived at all in some locations. No one to stock the shelves and produce means that fruits and vegetables that has been cultivated for weeks, likely harvested by migrant workers, and trucked to these locations are now rotting in the crates. CRATES full of produce going to waste- all over a family feud. (Now, I'm not part of the family and I'm not a native loyal customer so pardon me if it feels like I'm dismissing a family's clearly troubled relations. I don't discredit that its not a pleasant situation for anyone.)

Through divine intervention, I'm sure of it, local gardeners and other pantries have dropped off their unused abundance. We have huge zucchini, loads of summer squash, lettuce heads, kale leaves, and 4-5 bunches of both radishes and turnips. We already had the very last of our dwindling supply of tomatoes and potatoes out so we ended up with a nice assortment.

We, as a society, have let so much get in between us and our food. Our clients rely on our pantry to supplement their groceries and we can't provide our best service to them because of a third party. How many more family feuds will result in crates of produce wasted? How many miles do peppers have to fly just so we can have bell peppers whenever we want, whether they're in season or not? When we start to become so dependent on our broken food system we put ourselves in a sticky situation.

Instead of flying bell peppers in from Holland (I checked the stickers on the peppers at one of the local grocery chains), maybe we eat seasonally. (Holland- they are flown in from Holland!) Instead of relying on grocery store chains, maybe we can have little backyard gardens that supply a small portion of our weekly produce. The food system, that has become so distant to Americans, would seem a lot more humble and personal.
Let us, as a spiritual discipline, begin to take back our food system and make it personal again.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Hear Me Roar!

One of the biggest lessons I've had to learn this year is how to deal with difficult people, uncomfortable situations, and how to be a self-advocate. My dad calls this "letting the tiger out."

You see, my mom wasn't one to shy away from confrontation and she had an opinion on almost everything... and you heard it, asked for or unwanted. My dad is much more gentle and subdued. This is not to say he doesn't have opinion or that he is a door mat. He's just more docile. The apple didn't fall far from the tree- if it fell at all. I usually err on the side of being reserved and sometimes even passive.

Through various interactions and situations this year, I've been forced to grow pretty drastically in this very specific way. Whether its because of a miscommunication or elements completely out of my control it has shown up time and time again. Its been an issue I've been struggling with, knowing I need to be more firm and direct, and this year has been a down and dirty express lane.

After my mom died my dad let the tiger rage. He took amazing care of her for 5 years. He was a faithful and dutiful husband. A true care giver. But that also meant that he had to give up or compromise on a lot of his needs and wants. When he had the freedom to decide things for himself, her grabbed the reigns and was off to the races. His inner tiger was out of the cage and roared loudly. There was no mistaking how he felt. In the process of regaining his autonomy he alienated a few people and we got into a few good spats. Luckily that has all calmed down, we've had multiple heart to hearts, and the tiger is back to manageable ferociousness.

Get used to me letting my tiger growl more and a bit more loudly. Its all about balance though. The key is to keep the tiger from becoming to aggressive but I don't want it to return to being caged up either. I nice leash is appropriate. This new found voice has given me more confidence and I feel much more empowered. Putting peace ahead of my own personhood is not helpful in all situations. Being part of a team or a group doesn't always mean that the team's needs mean I have to sacrifice my wants. Honesty can greatly improve group dynamics. Also, not speaking your truth repeatedly in the name of peace isn't actually peaceful. Its allowing another person to act in certain form of violence toward you. That's not peace. That's keeping your tiger caged.

I'm going to let my tiger roar. Let yours roar too. Maybe we can all start doing this hard but beautiful work called being true to ourselves and with each other.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Mission Through Polity

The idea of this blog post is a bit overwhelming so it'll be a continual work in progress.
I spent last week in a confused, yet happy, yet exhausted state. I was all sorts of emotions at all times. Presbyterians know this week as General Assembly- and it's a force to be reckoned with.

The biannual national gathering is a meeting of some big Presbyterian players and a lot of us little guys. I describe it as "the church's Congress." There are committees, lobbying, plenary sessions, interest groups of sorts, and overtures (the church's version of bills).

As the "Food Justice League" we were there to follow some food justice overtures concerning the first 1,000 days of pregnancy and a child's life. This window, from conception to the child's 2nd birthday, is the most vital for development. If there is any sort of malnutrition or famine, the child can be stunted for life *without ability to regain lost development.* Other overtures concerning food sovereignty and precautionary principal were all on the docket. Luckily these measures are all pretty self explanatory and are non-controversial. They don't instigate the bickering that comes with other issues that are more hot topic and in the news. For that I am grateful. But with the "over there" mentality we also loose a chance to be educated and affected on a deep emotional level concerning the atrocities that are happening on a daily basis.

These atrocities are happening in our cities and in our nation, the richest nation on earth.

GA met in Detroit this year. Yes- broke, almost abandoned, crumbling Detroit. Through discernment and thoughtful planning our church decided to invest our 2,000 person strong gathering and all the finical benefits that come along with it into a city that has been struggling for some time. This was a conscience move. Mission through church polity if you will.

Our small but tenacious Justice League decided to do our own mission through polity. Days at GA are full to the brim of committee meetings, organized lunches, making the rounds through the exhibit hall, and plenary sessions. 12 hour days are a blessing, 14+ hour days are the norm. To break up the constant sitting and to get some sun, we volunteered at an urban farm. Earthworks Urban Farm was right down the road from where were staying and had an open volunteer time on Wednesday mornings. You just show up ready to help, no questions asked, no need to RSVP. Its a great idea.

Without any sort of introductions or orientation the farm staff rounded everyone up and we walked to their urban farm, a few blocks from the wash station, greenhouses, and warehouse space that acted as home base. As our group moved through the neighborhood we talked to some of the staff and volunteers. The produce that is harvested from the variety of growing spaces is used primarily in meals at the soup kitchen that is under the same parent organization. A small portion of the produce is sold at farmers markets.

Most of the workers are members of the community and come from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds. Many of the workers are recovering from addiction, finding their way out of homelessness, and some have criminal records. Those things don't matter. Well, not in the sense that they would matter to most outside their small community. These folks have been working at the farm and are constantly learning life skills through farming. (As someone who has worked on a farm, I can attest that you learn life skills on a daily basis- not just farming skills.) They are helping those who are currently experiencing what they have experienced.

Harvesting collards, scallions, baby beets (for the greens), chard, and sugar snap peas with such a diverse group was so much fun. Everyone was enjoying themselves, honest conversations were being had, and there were lots of smiles and laughter. Picking snap peas was my favorite. Not only do I love to eat snap peas but we got to pick them with an African-American man who was easily over 6 feet tall and wasn't shy about voicing his opinion. He was a riot. We got to talking about states since we're from all over the country and he offers up "You know whats wrong with Kentucky? Their grass in blue." That got everyone laughing.
We, white upper middle class young adults, picked peas with a guy who was our opposite on almost every accord. Now that's urban agriculture. That's community.

Mission through church polity brings you into community with folks who are hoping to grow a better Detroit. Who knew?