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Tuesday, September 20, 2016

There's No Such Thing As a Free Lunch

“There’s no such thing as a free lunch”

We’ve all had the experience of overhearing a conversation based on inaccuracies and vague statistics. Perhaps its someone in line in front of you or virtually on a comment thread. When the conversation is on a topic you are particularly well-versed in, do you say something? Do you let it play out and make mental log of what “facts” are being thrown out to arm yourself for future discussions?

As I was eating lunch Monday afternoon I overheard two young professionals talking about politics, specifically the national debt and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). I could tell from their body language that they were on opposing sides yet interested in having a dialogue.
The two calmly shot back at each other, point for point, only to really reach the surface of this complicated issue. When one stated there was an increase in people on SNAP during the Obama administration his sparring partner grew quiet.

“The amount of people on food stamps has gone up 42% since 2009 when Obama took office” one said looking at his smartphone. No mention of the source of this number.
His buddy seemed genuinely surprised and didn’t have a swift reply.

The conversation continued while I quietly listened in.

“Obama promised to balance the budget but the national debt has doubled.”
“It cost money to support people who can’t make ends meet. You would balance the budget over helping these people?”
“I care about the budget. I don’t know if you care about the budget.”
“These are people, man.”
“They can get by on what they have…”
“Some of these people work 2 to 3 jobs and still need help. What are they going to get by on?”

These are people, man” keeps ringing in my head. Is there a better point to make? Can anything top the simple, yet powerful claim that we are indeed talking about people? This is not a discussion about disposable objects. These are people with families, jobs, struggles, triumphs, and tight budgets. These are children being raised by parents working multiple jobs to put food on the table. These are seniors who can no longer work, some with health problems, who are living solely on Social Security.

When presented with the opportunity to educate less sympathetic minds about the realities of being on SNAP, the following facts can provide guidance.
·         As of September 2016 there are just under 44.5 million individuals on SNAP. 1
·         The average monthly SNAP benefit is $125.59/individual and $254.73/household. 2
·         The above numbers, both the total SNAP recipients and the average monthly benefit, is a decrease from FY15, FY14, and FY13. 3
·         To be eligible for SNAP you have to be a U.S. citizen, lawful permanent resident, refugee, asylum seeker, or conditional errant based on certain statutory definitions. Documentation is mandatory upon initial application to be considered in any of these groups. 4
·         If a household is deemed eligible benefits are distributed based on a certification period, usually 12 months, and the household has to reapply at the end of this period. 5
·         In 2015 only 10% of the federal budget, $362 billion, went to supporting social programs. SNAP is only a fraction of the 10%. 6 Of that 10%, $75 billion was spent on SNAP in FY15, which is 20% of the social program sliver of the budget. 7

4; Part 7, Chapter F

Monday, August 15, 2016

Yell Together

*This post was written and published for the Presbyterians for Earth Care EARTH e-newsletter. It was sent in the August 12 edition.*

March on the Mansion
by Kathleen Murphy
Kathleen Murphy is one of the newest Eco-Stewards having participated this summer in the Seattle trip. When she returned home, she kept the momentum going by rallying against a corporate pipeline (Mountain Valley Pipeline) to be constructed in her home state of Virginia. 

It’s easy to get bogged down by the enormity of it all. The doomsday predictions, the destruction of our natural resources, conflicting interests furthering stereotypes of supporters on each side, and most of all - the feeling of being so small that you, one individual, cannot make a difference and your voice will be drowned out by all the noise.

When we feel overwhelmed it’s easier to retreat, simply throw up our hands and say the problem is too big. The noise is deafening. Who will hear me, even if I yell?
During my time with the other eco-focused young adults on our Eco-Stewards trip to Seattle, I learned many things that continue to shape my perspective and daily habits. We met with members from the Lummi Nation, a Native tribe living in the far northwest portion of Washington State. The Lummi have been in this area of Washington for generations and are very connected to the waterways in the area, mainly the Salish Sea. These waters are sacred fishing grounds for the Lummi. The immense respect their people have for the water influences the life of the tribe and the life of each individual. This respect, sadly, is not a part of the culture in corporate oil and coal export. Corporate interests have pillaged the Lummi’s sacred waterways for oil and coal. Luckily, the Lummi were courageous enough to fight, and defeat, plans to install another massive export facility.

Corporate interests plan to do similar things here, in Virginia, by building a natural gas pipeline that runs through some of Virginia’s most pristine mountainous landscapes. Our governor has decided to support the pipeline to the shock and disappointment of many citizens. Our disappointment turned into action.

A number of community groups and non-profits organized a “March on the Mansion” to show our opposition to the pipeline. Even on a 98-degree day, with the heat index well over 100, we took to the streets of Richmond in a physical manifestation of resistance. Conservative estimates  say the crowd was 600 strong. I think it was more. We marched from the James River, which is being polluted by the region’s electric utility monopoly, past the electric utility’s headquarters, through Capital Square to the Governor’s Mansion. We were loud, we had signs, we had community.

When you think that the noise is too loud for you to be heard, do not retreat. This is too great an issue to retreat. God’s Creation is at stake. So, when you feel like you will be drowned out, join others and yell together. The sum of all of our voices can, and will, overcome the noise.

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.