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Cooking Matters Michigan

Empowering families with the skills, confidence and knowledge to prepare healthy and affordable meals

Filtering by Tag: Food Security

Understanding Our Participants

jhartrick

 

A few weeks ago, the Associated Press reported on a study from Washington University in St. Louis that found that nearly half of all U.S. children (and 90% of African-American children) will be on food stamps “at some point during childhood, and fallout from the current recession could push those numbers even higher.”

Food stamps are a Department of Agriculture program for low-income individuals and families, covering most foods although not prepared hot foods or alcohol. For a family of four to be eligible, their annual take-home pay can't exceed about $22,000.

According to a USDA report released last month, 28.4 million Americans received food stamps in an average month in 2008, and about half were younger than age 18. The average monthly benefit per household totaled $222.

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The lead author of the study, Mark Rank, said that his work suggests that most people know a family that has received or will receive food stamps.

In Detroit, these numbers are not surprising. With a high participation rate in federal assistance programs amongst those who are eligible (92% for food stamps, in fact), it’s likely that you would know more than a few families who have received food stamps.

For Operation Frontline, close to 80% of our participants are eligible for federal assistance programs. This means that every one of them is on a tight budget and is looking for tips on how to feed a family inexpensively.

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My Experience as an AmeriCorps

Before working with Operation Frontline, I (Diana) had never been on any kind of federal assistance. As a kid, my family struggled through tough times – my mom worked six days a week, twelve hours a day. We lived in a slightly conservative area, so because of the stigma associated with food stamps and my family’s pull-yourself-from-the-bootstraps mentality, we refused to receive help from anyone, including the government.

As an AmeriCorps member, however, I’m beginning to experience how difficult it is to budget when there is little to go around. (A note: Because the AmeriCorps year is considered a year of service, we receive a yearly salary of $11,100.)

Encouraged from our national office to apply for food stamps, I finished the application in early September. It took six weeks from the time I applied to the moment I received my benefits. In that time, my car broke down, requiring $800 in repairs. The second most expensive thing I own – my computer – also broke down, requiring $100 in repairs.

I’m lucky to have had friends and family to help me through this time, but I realized how vulnerable those of low income are to any spontaneous change. $900 was almost a month’s income for me, and yet, I was forced to pay it because my job requires it, and the city I live in lacks an adequate public transportation system.

If this situation were to happen to me as a single mom trying to feed my kids, I would not have been able to wait six weeks for assistance. I would need that money for food and depend on it every month.

This is oftentimes the situation that our participants are in. Between rent, utilities, and those spontaneous problems that arise, food can be farther down on the list of priorities than maybe it should be. I’ve heard many people say that they have to choose between paying the utility bill and paying for medications. Maybe one month they’ll worry about eating well, but the next month they have to pay their landlord.

For me, receiving a small salary was a choice. The opportunity to work for Gleaners and to serve the community was something that I valued more than getting a large paycheck. For our participants, it’s never a choice to constantly be in that dangerous balance, where the scale can be tipped so easily.

For those of you who volunteer with OFL or work with an organization that serves low-income populations, this vulnerability may be an important thing to keep in mind. I can’t say that I’m a spokesperson for the poor, so I encourage you to look at these resources to continue thinking about this issue:

Unemployment, Changing the Face of Hunger

jhartrick

It's no secret that unemployment numbers are on the rise. In August 2009, the national unemployment rate rose to 9.6 percent. In Michigan, with the fall of the auto industry and the struggle of small businesses to survive in a beleaguered economy, the jobless rate gained two-tenths of a percentage points last month, hitting 15.2 percent. In Detroit? Well, the unemployment rate in Detroit has hit a whopping 28.9 percent. In a way, Detroiters have become the face of a dispirited America - those hard-working folks who continue to survive in the face of an economic downturn.

How has unemployment changed the face of hunger?

Last week, Assignment Detroit (a long-term feature by CNNMoney.com) put out an article on the changing face of hunger in Detroit. They say, "As middle class workers lose their jobs, the same folks that used to donate to soup kitchens and pantries have become their fastest growing set of recipients." They also point out that Gleaners Community Food Bank, host to Operation Frontline, has experienced an 18% increase in distribution, while the Department of Human Services has seen a 14% increase in applications to such federal asisstance programs as food stamps and WIC.

Like many articles before this one, Assignment Detroit points to urban argiculture as an alternative: "It's not so much that these gardens are going to feed the city, although they certainly help. It's more that they can be used to teach people, especially children, the value of eating right."

What do you think?

We're wondering what you think about hunger in Detroit. Now that more and more people are in the same boat, will we continue to implement more sustainable options like urban agriculture in Detroit? What are those options?

When a nation like ours has an obesity problem, what is the value of knowing where your food comes from, to be able to cultivate accessible fruits and vegetables?

And for those 25 and younger, you can express those thoughts in a film competition called Faces of Hunger in America, a project of Palms for Life Fund. The project is meant to "visually depict in their communities the growing epidemic of hunger in the United States. This national competition for documentary short films... intends to bring the issue of hunger onto the forefront of the nation’s radar screen while at the same time empowering our youth, the future generation of leaders and activists, to facilitate positive change and challenge antiquated principles."

Battling Childhood Hunger

jhartrick

 

Photo Credit: The New York Times. "A meal from the cafeteria at P.S. 89 in Manhattan does not contain processed food."
Photo Credit: The New York Times. "A meal from the cafeteria at P.S. 89 in Manhattan does not contain processed food."

On Wednesday, September 9th, the Detroit Justice, Peace, and Ecology Committee (JPE) of the Province of St. Joseph hosted a national Slow Food USA Eat-In to promote more nutritious school lunches. This event was part of a National Day of Action, where thousands of people across the country shared a meal to demonstrate the need for Congress to pass a better Child Nutrition Act. Among other things, the Child Nutrition Act covers the National School Lunch Program, and an increase in funding would mean healthier food for school lunches. 

Currently, the USDA reimbursement rate per child in public school systems is $2.70, and groups like JPE are asking for an increase of $50 million in funding, equaling to about $1 more per child.

There have been efforts across the country to improve school lunches, including farm-to-school programs, where schools reach out to local farms for a portion of their produce. Similarly, Chef Ann Cooper has partnered with Whole Foods and the Kellogg Foundation to implement a healthy lunch campaign in Berkeley, California; Boulder, Colorado; and Harlem in New York City.

However, there are challenges with implementing these new programs. Because so many schools have been outsourcing their food production (this is where tater tots and fish sticks come in), the only kind of kitchen equipment that's necessary is a microwave. This means that many schools are without traditional kitchens and the tools needed to cook real food.

Along with the additional cost of buying kitchen equipment, schools would also need to hire a larger staff to prepare the food. With an already tight budget, it makes sense why subsidized government commodities look more appealing.

What should we do?

The best and easiest way to introduce healthier food in school lunches is to advocate for the reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act. You can do this by signing the petition or by writing a letter to your congressmen. Slow Food USA also has a few resources that you can use in spreading the word about this issue.

What connects the Child Nutrition Act with hunger?

Ensuring that our children get a healthy meal at lunch is important not only because it will help them to concentrate in school, but also because it might be the only balanced meal that they receive throughout the day. Share Our Strength, the parent organization of Operation Frontline, makes it their mission to end childhood hunger. They recently gathered schoolteachers' stories about the hunger they see in their classrooms. One middle-school teacher said, "The only meals that this little one, Kimberly, was guaranteed were served at school. Anytime we had leftovers, she would always want to take them home. She’d wrap up the leftover food to take home to her little brothers and sisters. She was a second grader trying to make sure her family got fed.”

Here is a video that depicts the hunger that teachers see every day:

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Examining Food Security in Detroit

jhartrick

What is food security?
After hearing the term "food security" used in the news and by different organizations in Detroit, it may be best to define what it means. The Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, a coalition of organizations and individuals interested in battling food insecurity in Detroit, defines the term in a useful, accessible way:
 
Food Security: When all of the members of a community have easy access to adequate amounts of affordable, nutritious, culturally appropriate food.
 
The Detroit Reality: 1. Many Detroiters do not have a grocery store within a mile of their homes 2. "Fast food" has practically replaced home cooked meals in many Black households 3. Detroit's majority African population is dependent on others to feed it

 

Food insecurity, then, would be the situation that many Detroiters find themselves in - without access to a supermarket or to culturally-appropriate, nutritious foods.

Food Insecurity in Detroit: Chene Market. Photo Credit: Nick Tobier

Food insecurity has become a particularly prevalent problem in Detroit not only because of the high unemployment rate, but also because of the lack of chain and independent grocery stores in large sections of the city. Parts of the city have even been called "food deserts" by a study funded by LaSalle Bank, "Examining the Impact of Food Deserts on Public Health in Detroit." Food deserts, it says, are "areas that require residents to travel twice as far or more to reach the closest mainstream grocer than to reach the closest fringe food location." Fringe locations can include gas stations or liquor stores, where fresh produce are not often sold. Larry Gabriel from the Metro Times did an interesting editorial back in 2007 called "Living in the Desert" in response to this study.

Even though the national media has caught on to this "food desert" phenomenon, for Detroiters, it's nothing new. The city lost its last supermarket chain - Farmer Jack - in 2007, and there are still large sections of the city that are not serviced by independent grocers.

The Closing of Farmer Jack. Photo Credit: The Detroit News

What are organizations like Operation Frontline doing to address food security?

In response to this problem, organizations like the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network and Earthworks Urban Farm have worked to address food insecurity in a number of ways, by promoting urban agriculture, policy change, collective action, and community building.

Recently, the Eastern Market Corporation, Greening of Detroit, and Gleaners Community Food Bank have formed the Green Ribbon Collaborative to tackle food access in the city. Together, they have created the Fresh Food Share, which is a neighborhood food distribution program in the near east side. Similarly, the State of Michigan has funded a new program called MI Neighborhood Food Movers, which also delivers fresh produce to the residents of Detroit. This program was profiled in both the Detroit Free Press and the Detroit News.

The Fresh Food Share. Photo Credit: Model D

Operation Frontline, however, is different in its approach to address food insecurity. While DBCFSN, Earthworks, and the Green Ribbon Collaborative are doing the necessary work of increasing access to fresh produce, OFL teaches those with limited resources how to cook nutritious, low-cost meals with the materials they have. The classes also push participants to make healthy choices when faced with junk food and fast food. This is an important lesson for both those with access to a supermarket chain and for those who can only go to the corner store.

We do this with the help of our volunteer chefs and nutritionists, who share their knowledge and skills with our participants. The work that OFL does in the community goes well with the efforts of organizations like DBCFSN, working to both use the resources we have and push for change.

For more on how Operation Frontline works in the community, you can view the documentary, "Dash of Change," that Operation Frontline: DC created:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7IbHLltufzU]