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Cooking Matters Michigan

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

Filtering by Tag: Hunger

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:

Cooking in Schools

jhartrick

As noted in our post, "Battling Childhood Hunger," the ability to serve good, healthy meals in schools is compromised by the amount of federal funding provided. When you're on a $2.70-per-child budget, what is the incentive of providing fresh food?

The New York Times published an article on Tuesday that talks about schools' inability to cook healthy meals with the equipment they have. Here is an excerpt:

Many advocates for better, healthier school food have begun to believe that the only way to improve what students eat is to stop reheating processed food and start cooking real, fresh food.

But little actual cooking goes on in the nation’s largest public school system, largely because little of it can. Barely half of New York’s 1,385 school kitchens have enough cooking and fire-suppression equipment so cooks can actually sauté, brown or boil over open flame.

Even in those that do, aging ovens sometimes don’t heat properly, equipment is hidden away in storage rooms or broken, and the staff isn’t trained to do much more than steam frozen vegetables, dig ravioli out of a six-pound can or heat frozen chicken patties in a convection oven.

New York is not that unusual. More than 80 percent of the nation’s districts cook fewer than half their entrees from scratch, according to a 2009 survey by the School Nutrition Association.

The slide didn’t happen overnight. As many American families stopped cooking and began to rely on prepared and packaged food, so did the schools. It became cheaper to cut skilled kitchen labor, eliminate raw ingredients and stop maintaining kitchens.

“In school food 30 or 40 years ago, they roasted turkeys and did all of these things,” said Eric Goldstein, the chief executive of the Office of School Support Services.

“We all recognize we want to be scratch cooking again, but we have some challenges to get there.”

You can read the rest of the story here

When we see what kinds of foods students are allowed to eat in school, it's no wonder that we have an obesity problem amongst children and adolescents. More to be said on that in future posts.

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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