Monday, September 27, 2010

Feeding America Works to End Hunger

Feeding America’s mission is to “feed America's hungry through a nationwide network of member food banks and engage our country in the fight to end hunger.” We’ve written about how the nationwide network operates. But what about “the fight to end hunger” in more systemic ways?

On Friday, September 24, we visited the Washington DC office of Feeding America. There we spoke with George Braley, Senior VP of Government Relations, and Lindsey Baker, Child Hunger Corps Coordinator.
George had a long career with the USDA Food and Nutrition Service, administering programs including SNAP, WIC, and Child Nutrition. He came to Feeding America because CEO Vicki Escarra wanted to increase the ability of Feeding America to influence federal legislation and to better assist eligible people in obtaining federal food benefits. “We see a lot of people who would qualify, but who don’t receive the benefits to which they are entitled,” he said. Nationally, only about 2/3 of those eligible actually receive SNAP benefits (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly called food stamps). Reasons include
  • Difficult application processes
  • Long waiting times due to states being overburdened with applications
  • Limited trust by applicants in government workers or processes
  • Applicants unaware that they (or some household members) qualify for benefits
  • Sense that the benefit is too low to make the application process worth it
  • Unwillingness of some people, particularly seniors, to take what they see as “welfare”
  • Mistaken belief that if they take SNAP it will leave less for others
Food banks try to help qualified people receive SNAP benefits. But simple outreach is sometimes not appreciated by states whose resources to process applications are already strained. So some food banks (George mentioned Northern Nevada, Central Florida, and others) have offered to take over or assist states with the processing of applications for SNAP benefits. There are federal matching grants for states to use in improving their SNAP processes, and in some cases Feeding America has offered to provide the state match, just to help make the improvements actually happen.

Lindsey Baker told us about another area in which Feeding America food banks are increasing their efforts -- improving child nutrition. What do children from hungry households do for dinner, for weekends, for school vacations and summers, when they don’t have access to school lunch and school breakfast?

Feeding America's Child Hunger Corps is working on increasing the availability and nutritional content of food for kids after school hours. Through a partnership with ConAgra Foods, Child Hunger Corps members will work with specific food banks to identify gaps and either expand existing programs or establish new programs to fill those gaps. 

One example of a program that might benefit from expansion is the kids backpack program (giving hungry kids single servings of nutritious food to take home on the weekends). The child nutrition bill (if it passes) would provide some federal funding for backpack food, but currently food must be bought by private donors or through partnerships with corporations.

Finally, as we’ve found to be true of the other national organizations we’ve contacted, Feeding America increases its influence on governmental organizations by actively participating in coalitions with other hunger relief agencies (e.g., the Congressional Hunger Center).  Feeding America actively encourages its 1,000,000 volunteers and 80,000 Hunger Action Center members nationwide to convince friends, foundations, corporations, legislators, and government agencies to end the disgrace of hunger in America. YOU can be an advocate, too.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Child Nutrition Act???

The Child Nutrition Act is set to expire on September 30. That’s just a few days away. What will happen? Will Congress act to expand the school nutrition programs that are funded under this act, and thus help move toward President Obama’s goal of ending childhood hunger by 2015 and toward the First Lady’s goal of reducing childhood obesity?

The Senate has passed its version of the bill (S. 3307 - Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010). After talking with legislative aides for Senator Stabenow (MI), Representative Tsongas (MA), and Representative Upton (MI), here’s our understanding of what the House could do:
  • The House could vote on the Senate bill as it stands. The Senate bill includes an increase in the reimbursement rate for school meals, allows schools nationwide to offer supper to children in after-school care, requires more nutritious meals, and makes it easier for children to qualify for free and reduced cost meals.

    However, many House members and hunger advocates dislike the Senate bill because it partially pays for the increased cost by taking money away from the SNAP program. SNAP is arguably the best program to end childhood hunger, so the Senate bill is seen by many as having the potential to actually make childhood hunger worse in the long run.

    Others defend the Senate bill, saying that the actual dollars removed from SNAP actually wouldn’t have taken effect until 2013. And since Congress is finding it so difficult to come up with funding for any programs, it’s better to use this SNAP money to feed hungry kids than for some other unrelated program.
  • The House could vote on its own version of the bill (H.R. 5504 - Improving Nutrition for America's Children Act), which increases benefits more than the Senate version, and does not take benefits from the SNAP program to pay for any of the increase in benefits. However, if the House bill is passed, it would then need to go to a conference committee to iron out the differences in the House and Senate bills, and come up with a compromise funding mechanism for the bill. Whether this could be accomplished before the end of the legislative session is questionable.
  • Congress could pass a one-year extension of the bill, which would delay any improvements in the current childhood hunger legislation and let the next Congress deal with improving the bill. This option has the risk that the next Congress will be even less willing to work toward ending childhood hunger than the current Senate bill. 
Given no perfect options, we believe (on purely practical grounds) that the House should pass the Senate bill, ideally with an agreement to restore SNAP funding in the future. We’re waiting with bated breath to see if they agree!

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Maryland Meals for Achievement

How can you make a difference in children's learning? Feed them breakfast in the classroom at the start of the day!

This is what Maryland has found, in a program called Maryland Meals for Achievement (MMFA). Although many schools offer breakfast to students in the cafeteria before school, MMFA offers breakfast to every student, right in their classroom. No rushing off to the cafeteria at the start of the day.

MMFA cuts down on the number of tardy students, decreases suspensions, increases the number of students meeting their yearly progress goals, and increases test scores. The teachers find that, although it lengthens the school day slightly, it settles the class down and gets the day off to a good start. The teachers often use this time to speak with individual students about general topics, take attendance, etc. Most teachers wouldn’t want to give up MMFA now that they’ve experienced the difference it makes in their students.

To learn more about MMFA and see the program in action, we visited New Hampshire Estates Elementary School in Silver Spring, MD. This school houses Head Start, pre-Kindergarten and K-2nd grade. We met with Montgomery County Food Services Director Marla Caplon (seated on the right), as well as Bruce Schenkel (seated on the left), Brenda Schwaab (center), and Adrienne Burroughs (second from left) from the School and Community Nutrition Programs Branch of the Maryland State Department of Education, and Principal Marinda Evans (second from right). They are passionate advocates for MMFA.

The students arrived at 8:30, and instruction started at 8:50. During these initial 20 minutes, the students put away their backpacks and homework, washed their hands, and ate their breakfast.

Federal rules say that breakfast includes at least 3 of 4 offerings. The day we were there, the entrée was Bagelfuls (which counted as 2 offerings); beverages milk and orange juice were also offered.

Classroom teachers keep track of who receives breakfast and who doesn’t.  Each student takes a bar-coded card with their name on it, and puts it into the “yes” or “no” envelope to indicate whether they took breakfast or not. The cards are then swiped into the computer by cafeteria staff, because state and federal funding depend on accurate accounting of who receives breakfast.

MMFA has been growing in size and popularity since 1998 when it began as a pilot program in six schools. All those we interviewed would love to see MMFA expanded to cover all schools, but it does cost the state of Maryland money. Today, MMFA is only offered in schools in which more than 40% of the students qualify for free or reduced cost meals. The federal government buys breakfast for those students, and the state buys breakfast for the remaining students who eat breakfast. Today, state funding is only enough to support MMFA in 206 schools of the more than 700 that are eligible.

We left with Brenda’s words forming the theme of our visit: “Education is expensive. If a child is hungry, we’re wasting education dollars.”  We agree.

Research backs up the observations of the MMFA teachers. For example, see “Evaluation of the School Breakfast Program Pilot Project,” “Breakfast for Learning,” and “Classroom Breakfast Scores High in Maryland” for more information on the benefits of breakfast (and breakfast in the classroom).

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Active Service and Prophetic Leadership

Churches have a vital role to play in ending hunger in America. In addition to our experiences in our home congregations, we sought insight by visiting Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington DC. Foundry is a large church (its congregation numbers around 1200) with a very strong commitment to mission programs. Part of Foundry’s "Statement of Call" includes these words: “We at Foundry are called by God to … transform the world through active service and prophetic leadership.” To find out more, we interviewed Jana Meyer, Minister of Missions at Foundry.
Jana comes to Foundry with extensive mission experience, including a childhood in Peru with parents in the Peace Corps, divinity school, work with homeless or abused women and men, and overseas mission work with a hospital in Mozambique. At Foundry, her role is to support the members of the congregation as they live out their calling to service and advocacy. About 350 members take an active part in mission work, from volunteering once for a few hours to serving 10 hours or more every week.

Foundry members serve in 20+ local mission programs. Focus areas come from the passions of those in the congregation and the needs present in the community. Perhaps the strongest focus area is homelessness. As Jana said, “There’s something about working in a church where people are sleeping on your steps at night…“ Foundry is part of WIN (Washington Interfaith Network), which is working hard to end homelessness in the city. They agree with the "Housing First" approach that housing is the need to address first when helping a person to self-sufficiency.

Foundry is also heavily involved with local hunger relief efforts. On the first and third Wednesdays of each month, they make approximately 1000 sandwiches to be distributed by Foundry’s Walk-In Mission and Day Labor Outreach mission, and by McKenna’s Wagon (part of Martha’s Table). They also cook meals every Saturday to help people living with HIV/AIDS, and they participate actively in other great DC programs such as SOME (So Others Might Eat) and Christ House.

We’re continually impressed at the hard work and giving spirit of people of faith who volunteer in so many ways to meet the immediate needs of those who are hungry. But, as Jana said, the economic situation is just doing terrible things to people. More and more people are hungry. Ultimately, people need jobs so they can buy food for themselves. Mobilizing the political will to correct this social injustice should be our focus.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

How USDA Food and Nutrition Service Programs Feed the Hungry

Eliminating childhood hunger by 2015 was one of President Obama’s campaign promises, and the USDA Food and Nutrition Service is working toward that, and many other, goals. We talked to Steven Carlson and Duke Storen (right) of the Office of Strategic Initiatives, Partnerships and Outreach, about the programs addressing hunger administered by the USDA. They outlined three major groups of programs:
  1. Benefits to individuals, such as SNAP (Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program) and WIC (Women, Infants and Children).
  2. Benefits to organizations that supply prepared food to groups, such as school lunches and food in adult feeding programs, day-care programs, etc.
  3. Commodity programs that buy large amounts of food and then provide it to other programs.
In all, there are 15 different programs, each with its own reasons for existence and its own target group.

SNAP is by far the largest food assistance program, with 41.2 million people receiving benefits (June 2010), an increase of 6.4 million in just the last year.  That's more than one out of every eight people.  According to Director Storen, SNAP benefits are the most effective economic stimulus there is. Unlike tax breaks or high-income benefits, 99% of the SNAP dollars are spent within 30 days, and every $5 in SNAP benefits generates up to $9.20 in economic activity.

Yet, only 2/3 of those eligible for SNAP benefits are actually receiving benefits. The federal government pays half the states’ costs to administer the program. But just as the economy has increased the need, state budget cuts make it harder to process the increased number of eligible residents. The Food and Nitrition Service is working hard to improve participation by partnering with various non-profit organizations (e.g. food banks, Catholic Charities, Salvation Army), and government organizations (e.g. VISTA, Senior Volunteer Corps) to help with outreach and filling out enrollment forms. They also give states with low enrollment rates grants to improve their systems.

There are still large holes in the system. Besides the 1/3 of eligible residents that qualify for SNAP and don’t get them, many who get SNAP benefits are still hungry. SNAP doesn’t cover the cost of all the food a family needs, even with the 13.6% increase included in the recovery bill. Less than 20% of students who get free or reduced cost meals at school get food through the summer feeding programs, so something different needs to be available during the summer. Children are hungry over the weekends. Some children get food through a “weekend backpack” program (not funded through USDA, but through private charities). During school breaks, there’s no provision for feeding children.

The Food and Nutrition Service would love to fill these holes, but they can only do what Congress authorizes.

Friday, September 17, 2010

John Hill on Advocating for Economic Justice

Did you know that The United Methodist Building is the only non-government building on Capitol Hill?  It’s right across the street from the Capitol, closer than the offices of most senators and representatives. During our time in Washington, it has been our headquarters – not just because it’s so convenient and welcoming, but because it houses the General Board of Church and Society. GBCS is the public policy and social justice agency of The United Methodist Church. Its role is to implement the Church’s Social Principles through education, witness, and advocacy.

We met with John S. Hill, Director for Economic and Environmental Justice, whose portfolio covers issues of poverty and hunger in the U.S. John left his former position after realizing that the role he played as a lobbyist on Capitol Hill required him to work for issues at odds with his own deep-seated personal beliefs. John is vibrant, energetic, and principled – we’re so fortunate to have him working for issues of social justice.

John described the approach he takes to advocacy. Some of the things that most impressed us were these:
  • Advocacy involves not just lobbying legislators, but also educating people on social policy and equipping them with actions that may transform themselves and the social systems in which they participate.
  • Staff members from all the religious groups in Washington work together to advocate for their common issues. For example, the Washington Interreligious Staff Community (WISC) is a clearinghouse of people in the DC area that work from a faith-based position on issues of social concern. They meet twice a month to share information, pool resources, invite speakers on issue of current concern, and set up joint meetings with house and senate staff members.
  • When you and I contact our legislators with an issue, the most effective method is an in-person visit, either in their Washington or their district offices. Also effective are individualized letters and e-mail messages from individuals and from those who represent a large number of the legislator’s constituents. When sending written correspondence, it’s best to send it to the legislator’s local office, since surface mail to Washington DC offices can take a very long time to clear security.  Remember to thank congresspeople for working on the issues we care about, even if the work is only behind the scenes.
When John works with groups of people, he helps move them from “mercy ministry” toward “justice ministry.” In other words, not only should we feed hungry people but we must also work to ensure that our society provides fair access to nutritious food and adequate income to afford it.

DC Central Kitchen’s First Helping Program

The morning after visiting the DC Central Kitchen, we returned to volunteer with First Helping. Each day, DCCK vans carrying a hot breakfast go to 4 neighborhood sites where people need food.

Our van carried 2 tables, 2 insulated containers that held trays of hot food (today it was turkey and cheese sandwiches), packaged trays of donated muffins, 3 large beverage urns, and condiments for the coffee and tea. We were told that on some days the menu included hot oatmeal and fruit; sometimes there were clothes or toiletries to offer.

It takes lots of volunteers to make DCCK work (a total of 14,000 last year). Today, we served with 3 other volunteers – Elisabeth who volunteers 3 mornings a week at DCCK, Sarah, a recent law school graduate, and Dana, a new volunteer. Our team was led by Outreach Specialists Mike (kneeling on the right), who is on a 1-year Jesuit Volunteer Corps service project, and Kevin (on the left), who has been doing social service work for over 20 years (at DCCK about 6 months).

Our route included 3 stops in urban areas where crime, unemployment, drug use, and mental illness tend to be high. Two were near parks and one near a health clinic. At each site, when the van arrived people had been waiting nearby. The volunteers set up the tables on the sidewalk, unloaded all the food to be served, donned disposable plastic gloves, and wrapped each muffin singly. Then serving began – first two sandwiches, then a muffin, then a choice of coffee, tea, or water. We added the sugar (some people wanted as many as 6 heaping teaspoons of sugar), and folks added their own creamer if they wanted it.

At the first site we served about 33 people, at the second about 31 people, and at the third about 50 people. Some appeared to have medical, dental, substance abuse, or psychological issues. Most were respectful and helpful. All greatly appreciated the food and beverages.  When serving was over, volunteers packed up all the food left, washed the tables, and loaded them into the van.

While we volunteers served the food, the outreach specialists mingled and talked with those who came for food. First Helping is the first rung on the ladder of DCCK’s social programs. It is a “no barrier” program; anyone who comes can receive the food. Over time, the outreach specialists build relationships with the people who come for food, making them aware that when they’re ready, DCCK has various services to offer. They may help with things like getting IDs, housing vouchers, access to veterans programs, and other programs as the person is ready. Thus, again, it’s not about the food – food is the lure that provides an opportunity to help in deeper ways.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

DC Central Kitchen

“You can’t feed your way out of hunger.”

These are the words of Michael Curtin (shown here in the center), CEO of the DC Central Kitchen. At first, you might think that statement a bit disingenuous, given that DCCK prepares 4500 meals a day in their busy kitchens. This figure includes 2600 meals provided to shelters, as well as additional meals prepared for the other DCCK programs, including the First Helping program, the Fresh Start Catering operation, and the Culinary Job Training Program.

But as Mike explained when we toured the DCCK and interviewed him, the approach taken by DCCK’s impressive program is to use food as a tool to empower people to grow out of hunger. Of the many programs run by DCCK, perhaps the heart is the Culinary Job Training Program. Students are recruited from the programs that receive DCCK meals, halfway houses, jails, and prisons. The lengthy application process includes a requirement to be clean and sober for 120 days, to be in stable housing and with stable day care for any children, to complete a long application, to pass an initial interview, to volunteer for 3 days, and to pass a final interview. Once in the program, the class of about 25 takes 12 weeks of classes, about 50% on culinary skills and 50% on life skills (such as employment readiness).

The 80th class is about to graduate from the culinary school. Overall, the graduation rate is about 88%. We chatted with two student cooks who were about to graduate. Both were anxious to begin their lives on a new track. One already has a job with the DC public schools. Mike said that DCCK is usually successful in helping find employment for its graduates, and they stay with the students in case there are issues to work out on the job.

What difference does it make that one person becomes trained and gets a good job rather than going back to prison? According to Mike, it costs well over $40,000/year to keep a person in prison. The national recidivism rate is about 65% within a year of release. In DC the rate is 73%. In stark contrast, since 2007, only about 2.5% of ex-con graduates from the Culinary School have re-offended. The graduates also are making money, raising their kids to avoid unhealthy behaviors, and living full lives in their communities.

The Culinary Job Training Program is just one of many DCCK programs -- learn more on the DC Central Kitchen website.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Senator Debbie Stabenow

Today we were privileged to attend “Good Morning Michigan,” an early-morning coffee hour with Senator Debbie Stabenow from Michigan. We chose Senator Stabenow because she represents Carolyn’s home state of Michigan and serves on the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition & Forestry. This committee, through bills like the Farm Bill and the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, has the largest impact on federal programs dealing with hunger.
We first spoke with legislative correspondent Alex Sheff, who described Senator Stabenow’s efforts in the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 to expand a program of full meals after school from a 10-state pilot program to a nationwide program. This would be an especially good way to improve nutrition for school-aged children, many of whom are already in after-school programs.

When it was our turn to speak with Debbie, we were impressed that she’d read the synopsis of our project and seemed interested in what we were doing. We asked her what she thought the role of government was in ending hunger in the US. She clearly takes a faith-based, principled point of view in her work on hunger programs. But she also appears to be very pragmatic about what can be accomplished and how. She said that the existence of hunger reflects cultural acceptance of the problem. People often think it’s entirely your fault if you’re hungry. Until there’s a change in the cultural mindset, Congress will be slow to act. Instead, once people demand an end to hunger, then Congress will enact programs to truly achieve that goal.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Fall Trip Begins

The 10-week Fall trip for Facing Hunger in America is underway!  The frist stop is Washington DC.

On her way there, Betsy's friend Mary took her to visit the Grounds For Sculpture in Hamilton, New Jersey.  This a world-class collection of outdoor artwork and a beautifully designed 35-acre arboretum. But it also proved to be a great symbol for the beginning of this fall hunger trip.  As we rounded a corner, we were confronted with this very famous sculpture.  It's called Depression Bread Line, by George Segal, 1999. The life-sized men stand in line patiently and invite you to stand behind them, bringing an overwhelming sense of humanity and history to the problem of hunger in America.

Now Betsy and Carolyn have arrived in Washington DC, settled in to our campground, explored the Metro,  attended inspiring services at Foundry United Methodist Church, and found our way to some of the offices we'll be visiting here starting tomorrow.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Summer reading & planning

Summer is over and Facing Hunger in America's first multi-state trip is about to begin!  This trip will take us to Washington, DC and 8 nearby states (MD, DE, WV, VA, NC, SC, TN, KY).  We're scheduled to experience a huge range of types of programs, as well as interview policy officials, so check back for highlights as we go.

In preparation, we read some fascinating books:

Miles, Sara. Take This Bread: A Radical Conversion. Chicago: Ballantine Books, 2008.
This book chronicles the author's painful, challenging, and rewarding experiences as she discovers Christianity, starts a food pantry, and welcomes everyone to be served.  We were moved by words Sara used to introduce the idea to the congregation:  "Because of how I've been welcomed and fed in the Eucharist, I see starting a food pantry at church not as an act of 'outreach' but one of gratitude.  To feed others means acknowledging our own hunger and at the same time acknowledging the amazing abudance we're fed with by God." (p. 116)

Hudson, Helen. Dinner at six: Voices from the soup kitchen. Balgowlah: Wildfire Press, 2002.
This book compiles life stories told to the author (a regular volunteer at a soup kitchen) by people who came to that soup kitchen for meals.  Readers see the diners first through the eyes of the volunteer, and then in their own words.  Their stories are full of tragedy, transience, and physical and psychological challenges.  Yet their humanity shines through and reminds you of the crucial role soup kitchens play in their lives.

Berg, Joel. All You Can Eat: How Hungry is America?. New York: Seven Stories Press, 2008.
The author is a passionate advocate for solving the problem of hunger in America.  His thought-provoking book is full of compelling and instructive statistics, descriptions of the causes and traps of hunger, historical and political analysis, and a specific plan for ending hunger in America.  After estimating that (in 2004) it would cost approximately $24 billion in "food purchasing power" to end hunger in America, Berg says, "...$24 billion equals only about 6 percent of the annual cost of President George W. Bush's annual tax cuts, a little more than one quarter of the annual cost of the war in Iraq, or just a little more than what the nation now spends on crop subsidies."   (p. 242)  Where are our priorities?