Saturday, September 17, 2011

Surprises from an Iowa Farm

Most of our visits for Facing Hunger in America have focused on supplemental food for those who are hungry or on programs to bring healthier fresh produce to everyone.  But what’s happening on modern, main-stream farms and how does that contribute to the provision of healthy, sustainable food in America? 

For one example, we drove through the lush corn fields north of Des Moines to the Couser Cattle Company in Nevada, Iowa.  There we met owner Bill Couser, who operates the farm with his wife Nancy, son Tim, and about 6 other full-time employees.  Couser Cattle encompasses all of the steps in modern livestock production: raising corn and soybeans, selling much of the corn for use by the locally-owned ethanol plant, finishing cattle, collecting and storing the manure, and using it to fertilize the fields for the next crop season. 

Bill Couser (left) with Graeme Quick
The Couser Cattle Company’s feedlot operation won the 2011 national Environmental Stewardship Award from the National Cattlemen’s Foundation.  Because this full-circle operation is innovative and based on cutting-edge science at each step, students at Iowa State University (which is only about 10 miles away) find this farm an educational place to work; Bill hires 5-7 as interns each year. 

Bill may not be an average farmer, but when he talks to the public he is very clear that he’s a spokesman for the whole modern farming community.  He regularly hosts scientists, industry representatives, and visitors from 47 different countries.  Our tour group included Dr. Graeme Quick, an agricultural engineer visiting from Australia.

Bill grows corn, in fact, he grows A LOT of corn—5,000-7,000 acres of his own, as well as 5,000 acres of seed corn for Monsanto.   He uses the latest technology to assure that he’s using resources wisely. 
  • The manure from his feedlot provides all the potassium and phosphate his fields need, and about 25% of the nitrogen.  It’s spread using a GPS-equipped tractor that monitors where the manure’s already been spread and ensures that the proper amount is everywhere in the field before planting. 
  • Bill uses special equipment to “read” the amount of additional nitrogen needed at every spot in the field while the corn is growing, so that he only applies additional nitrogen where it’s needed.  This prevents excess from leaching from the field into the water supply.  Bill explained that, although this equipment cost $45,000, he paid for it in ½ a season with the reduction in applied fertilizer.
  • Several scientists from the University of Iowa are conducting a research project with Bill to monitor the levels of nutrients in his fields as a function of rainfall and other factors.  Bill also works with industry to try out new materials that may decrease the evaporation of nitrogen compounds from the manure and thus decrease the need for additional nitrogen fertilizer.
  • Bill collects about half of the cornstalks from his fields to use as bedding for his cattle, as a component of the cattle feed, and to decrease the amount of nitrogen that binds to the cornstalks still in the field.
Lincolnway Energy ethanol plant
Much of Bill’s corn crop is used to manufacture ethanol.  Nearby Lincolnway Energy is one of many ethanol plants in Iowa, sprinkled about the countryside in areas of corn production.  Corn is purchased through the nearby farmers’ cooperative, and the plant is located on a direct rail line for easy shipping of the ethanol and other products.

The ethanol plant was built in direct response to President Bush’s call to reduce our dependence on foreign oil following the 9-11 attack.  It is owned by 937 individuals as a limited liability corporation, and was designed to be particularly environmentally friendly.  Currently, it’s powered by coal, but was designed to burn any solid fuel, including garbage, corn cobs and stalks, construction debris, tires, etc. once the EPA grants the appropriate permits. 
From the 20 million bushels of corn it uses each year, the ethanol plant produces four main products: 
  • Ethanol comes from the starch in the corn kernels.  It’s distilled, the last of the water is removed, and a small amount of gasoline is added to make it undrinkable.
  • The carbon dioxide from the fermentation process is recovered and sold.  Two local uses are to flash freeze pizza toppings at a local manufacturer, and to provide the bubbles for the local soft drink bottling plant.
  • The oil is spun off from the remaining corn mash.  It is used in hog or cattle feed, or to make biodiesel. 
  • The rest of the corn, at this point called distillers’ grains, consists mainly of protein and cellulose, and accounts for about 1/3 of the corn grains.  It makes a very good component of animal feed, and is sold back to livestock producers in the US and internationally.
Bill likened this use of corn to “cracking” crude oil to produce gasoline, diesel fuel, asphalt, etc. He thinks it’s a waste to feed cattle straight corn, when that corn could be used more fully by making it into ethanol and other co-products.

If Bill doesn’t feed his cattle straight corn, what do they eat? It’s a combination of ingredients – distillers’ grains from the ethanol plant, soybean hulls, shredded cornstalks, corn syrup, sugar beet mash, straw, bean straw, corn oil, etc. (all waste from other products), plus a small amount of corn. Since the cost, nutritional quality, and availability of all of these products varies, he has a computer program that tells him how much of each to mix to get the least expensive food mix that contains the best combination of cellulose, starch, protein, vitamins and minerals to get the greatest gain and conversion of feed. It turns out that this feed is closer to the cow’s natural diet of grass than corn is, with more cellulose and less starch, and is easier for the cow to digest. No more liver abscesses or digestive issues! 
Traditional feed corn, corn in today's feed, today's complete ration
According to Bill, a farmer using traditional feeding methods would use about 75 bushels of corn to finish out a 1300 pound steer.  With today’s methods, the farmer would use only 16-30 bushels of corn per steer.   Augmenting the feed with co-products allows farmers to produce 13% more beef with 13% fewer animals, 30% less land, 14% less water, 9% less fossil fuel, and have an 18% decrease in emissions of methane, nitrous oxide, and carbon dioxide. 

No, his cattle are not grass fed.  Bill said that it would take his whole farm (5,000 acres) to raise 5,000 cows on grass, they’d only reach 900 lbs, and the cost of the meat would be more than most consumers want to pay.

We could have spent days learning about modern farming methods from Bill, but we had to leave for an afternoon appointment at the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation, just outside of Des Moines, to interview economist (and farmer) Dave Miller, Director of Research and Commodity Services.
Dave Miller

One of the major questions we had for Dave was how the production of ethanol has influenced the cost of food in this country.  We’d heard that the cost of feed corn rose from about $2 to over $7 in the time that the production of ethanol ramped up.  Did diverting some corn to ethanol production cause the rise in corn prices?  Dave says no, that the US increased its corn production more than enough to supply the ethanol plants, when the recovered distillers’ grains are factored in.  Specifically, corn production increased from about 10 billion bushels to more than 13 billion bushels.  Of that, about 4.5 billion bushels are used to produce ethanol, from which about 1.5 billion bushels of feed are recovered. 

Dave sees the cause of the price rise to be a large increase in the demand for US corn worldwide due to droughts in Russia and Australia and production problems in South America.  Dave believes that corn could be grown economically for about $5/bushel today, and if the worldwide production of grains increases again, the price of corn could drop to that level.

Some say that we should use cellulose as the starting material for ethanol production, not starch from corn.  Currently, this technology is still in development.  Dave pointed out that to the extent that it would mean growing, say, switchgrass on fields that are currently used for corn, it would be counter-productive.  If, however, the source of the cellulose were corn stalks, wood waste (sawdust, bark, small limbs, etc), or switchgrass grown in areas that cannot be used for producing other crops, it would increase our capacity to produce ethanol and leave more corn for export.

What place do farm subsidies have in the cost of our food?  Right now, surprisingly little, according to Dave.  Farmers who take part in the subsidy program for corn receive approximately $20/acre in subsidies, while the revenue for their corn crop is more than $1200/acre.  Thus, the elimination of subsidies for corn would have little impact on the cost of corn.  The subsidies are higher for cotton ($40/acre) and rice ($60/acre), so eliminating subsidies for these crops may influence their cost or availability more than it would for corn.

In sum, we were pleasantly surprised to learn about the technologically advanced and environmentally responsible modern farming practices that Bill Couser showed us.  We were reassured that ethanol production is not the cause of price increases in corn, but instead is consistent with improved diets for cattle.

At the end of our interview with Dave, when we asked what he’d like to see changed in the US food system, he instead described its good features.  He has traveled all over the world examining food systems in other countries and found the US food system to be unparalleled in safety, efficiency, productivity, and relative low cost to the consumer.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Nebraskans Bike for Hunger

Bill Ritter
Rev. Bill Ritter, Senior Pastor at First United Methodist Church in Columbus, Nebraska, is tall, blond, and trim.  You might see him arriving at church or traveling to visit his parishioners on his bicycle, for Bill is also an avid cyclist.  When not attending to his pastoral duties, Bill may be bicycling around the vast agricultural fields of Nebraska, sometimes participating in multi-day organized recreational rides such as the Bicycle Ride Across Nebraska (BRAN).
If this were June 25-29, 2011, however, you’d see Bill riding in the event he started 16 years ago and still directs – the Nebraska United Methodist Bike Ride for Hunger (NUMB). 
The idea for NUMB grew from at least 3 separate experiences:
  • Bill and his cycling friend, Greg Bakewell, numb with rainy, 37-degree weather during one multi-day bicycle event, took shelter in a hog barn and talked about how a bicycle ride could be conducted to better care for cyclists.
  • David Jefferson, then chair of the Hunger Committee of the Nebraska Conference of the United Methodist Church, expressed his frustration to Bill that the church had such great programs in place to help those who are hungry, but they were under-publicized and under-funded.
  • Bill heard a talk in which the speaker said that every time we take a breath, someone dies of hunger.  Bill told us, “Biking is kind of a meditative activity.  You’re very aware of your breath.  Here I was biking along in the middle of abundant corn fields and cattle, and every time I took a breath, someone died of hunger!  Jesus said, ‘For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat.’  [Matthew 25:35]  I knew I had to do something to help.”
So Bill enlisted the help of Greg and told David he wanted to start NUMB to raise funds for hunger. Since the first ride in 1996, NUMB has been sponsored by the Nebraska Conference of the United Methodist Church; it is now listed as an ongoing project of the Risk-Taking Mission and Justice Team.

Each year’s ride is laid out by Greg (now the official NUMB Route Director) in a large loop among 4 towns roughly 65 miles from each other. NUMB 2011 was located in the western panhandle of Nebraska. There, the area around the North Platte River is known as the “Valley of the Nile.” Hence, NUMB 2011 took on an Egyptian theme. 

Cyclists apply for NUMB with Regina Bergman, NUMB Registrar, and are accepted on a first-come, first serve basis up to the maximum number that Bill feels maintains the intimacy of a single community and is manageable for his team of volunteers.  In the first year, 36 cyclists from Nebraska took part in NUMB.  In 2011, 157 cyclists from at least 10 states participated.

Cyclists each pay a registration fee of $50, which covers all the costs of the ride, such as insurance and renting the truck to transport personal tents and gear.   Cyclists also pledge to raise at least another $100 in private sponsorships, all of which is donated to hunger relief. 

Briana Ritter, Regina Bergman, Greg Bakewell
Each registrant is told about the rigors of NUMB and how to train so they’ll be most likely to have an enjoyable ride.  Each registrant also indicates the type of bicycle they intend to use.  This allows Bill to make sure that NUMB’s mobile bike shop will have all necessary repair parts.  It also allows him to gently suggest an upgrade if the bike is unlikely to be suitable for this event.

At the start of NUMB, cyclists gather in the first town on Friday night and Saturday. They cycle to the next towns Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday, and return to the starting town Wednesday.

To make sure cyclists have water, food, and opportunities for short breaks along their routes, Kathy and Wayne Minikus, SAG (Support and Gear) Directors, find good stopping points about each 10 miles along the route and volunteers to staff them. These volunteers also keep track of who passes each SAG site and don’t leave until the last cyclist has passed.

Meanwhile, teams of volunteers have been working on all the other tasks needed to house, feed, entertain, and care for all the NUMB cyclists. Bill recruits sites (typically churches) in each community that will arrange for meals, a large field in which the cyclists can pitch their tents, bathrooms and showers, and an evening meeting hall. Nina Clark, NUMB Social Director, plans entertainment for each evening.

Each day, Bill is among the last to depart – he stays long enough to make sure the NUMB volunteers have fully picked up the grounds so the town “can’t tell they’ve been there.”  Then he sets out.  On the final day of the ride, he again departs last, but with his 3 grown children ahead of him taking turns as wind breaks, he attempts to catch up and pass each other NUMB rider so he can personally thank them for riding and contributing to hunger relief this year.
Where do the NUMB funds go?  It’s important to Bill that the funds support hunger relief in 3 different ways:  Hand-out, hand-up, and advocacy.   Specifically, of the funds raised:
  • ¼ goes to the two food banks serving Nebraska, the Food Bank for the Heartland in Omaha, and the Food Bank of Lincoln for food relief through food pantries and feeding programs.
  • ¼ goes to Heifer International for its work dealing with root causes of hunger by helping individuals and communities in the US and around the world raise their own animals and become self-sufficient.
  • ¼ goes to an UMCOR (United Methodist Committee on Relief) Nigerian Agriculture Development Program to help women battle malnutrition through sustainable agricultural practices.
  • ¼ goes to Bread for the World, a Christian organization that lobbies US government elected and appointed officials on behalf of hungry people in our country and the world.
Initially, Bill thought NUMB might raise something like $10,000.  But publicity around NUMB has been enthusiastic, NUMB riders have worked hard to raise funds, and supporters have been generous. 

So far, the funds raised by NUMB total $519,000! 

That sounds like a lot of money, but Bill’s goals have risen.  Now he’d like to see NUMB raise $1M before he turns the reins over to others. 

We think NUMB can do it!  If you’d like participate next year, the dates are June 23-27, 2012. 
NUMB 2011 Riders

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Nurturing Laramie’s Local Food System

Firehole Canyon, WY
Wyoming is our least populous state.  As we tented at Firehole Canyon and crossed southern Wyoming on Interstate 80, we saw vast views of sparsely-populated, high, wind-swept, dry country. 

How do things grow here?

Imagine our delight when we arrived in Laramie to find the LaBonte Community Garden, the most beautiful and lush community garden we’ve yet encountered. Wandering on the freshly wood-chip covered paths through the garden, as many Laramie residents do each day, we saw about 16 neat plots of various sizes. There were even 2 crescent-shaped plots arranged outside a beautiful mature tree. A large L-shaped portion housed the Children’s Garden, complete with butterfly garden and small greenhouse.
LaBonte Community Garden, Laramie, WY

The garden was proud with a huge variety of produce from asparagus to zucchini, and just about everything in between. We saw beans, beets, broccoli, and Brussels sprouts; cabbage, carrots, chard, corn, and cucumbers; kale, lettuce, mustard greens, onions, peas, potatoes, tomatoes, squash, strawberries, sunflowers, and a few things we couldn’t identify precisely, although it was very clear that they weren’t weeds. Oh, and there were plenty of flowers, too.

Gayle Woodsum soon arrived to tell us the story of this garden.  Gayle is a community organizer who heads a project called Feeding Laramie Valley.  This project is a loose coalition of groups involved in the lively sustainable foods movement in Laramie and the surrounding Albany County.  Laramie Local Foods hosts an interesting set of workshops and resources for people interested in eating local, growing their own food, and creating a sustainable local food system, and Laramie Mainstreet hosts the Laramie Farmers Market. 
Gayle Woodsum

But starting the LaBonte Outdoor Learning Center and Community Garden last summer required a large effort from many sources.  Laramie Rivers Conservation District education coordinator Trish Penny, who runs outdoor learning classes for children at the park in the summer, wanted a full-fledged teaching garden.  Trish worked with the Laramie Parks and Recreation Department and the Laramie City Council to obtain permission to locate the garden in this city park and to work out all the details of garden size and layout, plot steward agreements, and legal releases.   

Once the garden was approved, funding from the city, local businesses, and grants enabled fencing, a shed, and a small greenhouse to be constructed.  The Laramie Garden Club provided top soil, and the University of Wyoming’s Student Farm ACRES provided compost.  Dozens of volunteers came together to rip sod and lay the new soil.  The Wyoming State Forestry Department provided apple, plum and cherry trees.  The Laramie Beautification Committee provided an ADA accessible pathway through the garden. 

Gardening in Laramie is challenging.  The growing season is very short (only 51 days), the rainfall is scarce, and the temperature shifts are extreme due to high altitude (7200 feet).  We were told that experienced gardeners here say, “Every year gardening in Laramie is an experiment.”   At the LaBonte Garden, mentors help newer gardeners plant and tend their plots successfully.

Feeding Laramie Valley coordinates many other projects in addition to the LaBonte Community Garden.  Gayle told us about helping to establish several other gardens, including a “production garden” and a community garden at the First United Methodist Church.  Feeding Laramie Valley also makes sure that excess produce from these gardens and the Farmers’ Market is distributed to food pantries, shelters, and the senior center.  Gayle’s role is to loosely coordinate all of these projects, to advocate for sustainable local food wherever she can, and to gather stories about what works and doesn’t work so well in building a strong community food system.

Will this energetic local food movement be enough to make significant improvements in the quality of food in Laramie, to ensure the ability of the community to feed itself, and to provide access to food for all, regardless of their economic situation?  How can we all learn from their successes and challenges in order to better support this move toward healthy food for all? 

Interestingly, there’s a research project sponsored by the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture asking just such questions.  Dr. Christine M. Porter, Assistant Professor of Public Health at the University of Wyoming, is principal investigator on a 5-year, $5M grant entitled, “Food Dignity: Action Research on Engaging Food Insecure Communities and Universities In Building Sustainable Community Food Systems.” 

Dr. Porter and her research associates are partnering with 5 very different communities, each of which will be a case study in efforts to improve their community food systems.  Feeding Laramie Valley is one.  The others are
  • The Whole Community Project of Cornell Cooperative Extension, Tompkins County NY.  This project focuses on providing healthy food and active play for children.
  • East New York Farms! of United Community Centers in Brooklyn, NY.  This project is based on an urban farm that is promoting local food justice and economic development.
  • Blue Mountain Associates, Inc. of Wind River Reservation, WY.  This organization provides health and human services to the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho living there.
  • Dig Deep Farms & Produce of Alameda County, CA.  This farm is a project of the Deputy Sheriffs’ Activities League, meant to provide fresh affordable produce and also to foster a healthier community with more paid employment and less violence.
Dr. Christine Porter
Each site will receive a small amount of money ($30,000 over 3 years) to pass along to the community in the form of mini-grants to support new gardens or other initiatives important to growing their sustainable food system.  Some of the funding will also pay for a half-time community organizer who will document the case studies by interviewing and conducting focus groups to gather the stories about successes and challenges.   Representatives from all the sites, as well as the partnering universities and other organizations will meet at least once a year to share their experiences and learn from each other.

Dr. Porter describes her approach as “community-based participatory action research.”  At the same time as this grant is supporting each of the partner communities to build healthy, local sustainable food systems, the Food Dignity team is documenting the progress.  The results will help inform these and other community food system efforts and demonstrate how dovernment and academic institutions can best support communities in this work.

We think Dr. Porter's approach will go a long way toward inspiring just and healthy access to food for all.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Create Common Good

Last week in Oregon we learned about the importance of ending hunger before it begins, through increased job opportunities and training. This week, we visited Create Common Good in Boise, Idaho, which is doing just that for a particularly vulnerable population – refugees.

Show, don't tell
According to the UN definition, you are a refugee if you are unable to return to your country because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.  Only about 1% of those in refugee camps are resettled into a host country, and then typically only after many, many years.  If selected for resettlement to the US, you are assigned to one of 10 voluntary refugee resettlement agencies, each of which places refugees close to one or more of about 40 cities across the country.  That agency is responsible for finding you a place to live, finding a health care provider for you, and arranging for other support services such as English classes and training classes.  The US government provides financial support to states for this process.  However, within 8 months, you are expected to be self-sufficient!  That’s a tall order, and many refugees need additional help. 

Tara Russell, CEO (Chief Experience Officer) and founder of Create Common Good, explained that refugees come to the US with a huge range of backgrounds.  Some were professionals in their home countries, have resources and connections in this country, and know English.  These refugees usually adapt quickly, and have a support network to help in times of trouble.   But on the other end of the curve are those who have few skills that translate easily to this culture.  They may not know any English.  They may not know how to read or write (in any language) or use numbers, and may have a second-grade education or less.  They may not know how to interact with others in employment situations.  And they may have been severely traumatized by their past life experiences.  These are the refugees that Create Common Good targets with their programs.

Create Common Good’s programs are divided into four areas:

This is the heart of the program.  Their job skill and language training courses work on job-specific simulations in which the instructors show how to do the actual tasks that would be expected in specific jobs, along with site visits to employer partners in the area to try them out.  Tara said, “We believe in show, don’t tell, which has been shown to be the most effective way for our clients to learn.”   Therefore, all classes teach by showing and working alongside the instructor, teaching the English words appropriate to the job as they go along, and then reinforcing the skills and language as the clients practice.  For example, if a group were working on janitorial skills, the instructor would show the participants how they’d be expected to mop a room, but would also teach them the words “mop,” “pail,” “detergent.”  The clients would mop the room and practice “this is my mop, this is my pail” with the teachers as they worked.  They might then go to a worksite to try out their new skills.  Also included are social and job skills, such as showing up on time every day, suitably dressed, making eye contact, and interacting appropriately in the workplace.  As clients learn, their confidence and resilience build, which helps in other areas of their lives.

Create Common Good’s teaching approach is very systematic, so they can track what each client has learned.  Classes have a maximum of 12 students and 2-4 instructors, and were developed in-house to fit their clients’ needs.  As clients progress, the instructors determine where they excel and what jobs would best fit them.  They take students to interviews, and are able to say things like “In 8 weeks, she’s gone from being able to do only this, to now being able to do these new things.  Just think what she’ll know after a few weeks of working here!” 

Everyone in the organization rejoices each time another client gets a job.

Devi Kharel, Head Farmer
Washing fava beans we'd just harvested
Create Common Good operates a beautiful organic farm on 5 acres of land donated by Eastwind Community Church. This provides another venue to help refugees with training and paid work opportunities.

We spent a morning at the farm, where Devi Kharel, Head Farmer, an agricultural expert and refugee from Bhutan, put us to work harvesting cilantro and parsley, and helping others harvest fava beans and mustard greens. Trainees were harvesting tomatoes, red, white and purple potatoes, basil, and other fresh produce. All produce was washed and prepared for delivery. Today, some went to CSA members (people who’ve bought shares of each week’s fresh produce from the farm) and some was sold at a stand at Dunia Marketplace.

All sales and deliveries are handled by Tyler Smith, Director of Farm Sales, Food Culture and Outreach, with the assistance of one of the trainees working on the farm. Other produce from the farm is sold to a wholesale partner and local restaurants, used in Stir and Create programs (see below), given to those in need including the refugees in the programs, and donated to the Idaho Food Bank and other partner agencies. 

Tyler Smith, Director of Farm Sales, and assistant
deliver baby bok choy to a customer
Create is the newest of Create Common Good’s programs.  Its goal is to create products to sell, providing training and job opportunities for refugees.  The current focus is on what Create Common Good has at hand, which is food.   Last fall, they made a variety of products such as pickled beets, hash brown potatoes, pureed pumpkin, and vinaigrettes made with herbs from the farm.  Now they’re refining their offerings to be more culturally-infused, including artisan foods such as kasundi and mustard-green pesto.

Create Common Good is hoping to expand to broader local and regional markets in order to provide additional employment opportunities.  To reach a large enough size to make these efforts viable, they would like to expand to a commercial kitchen.  

The fourth area of Create Common Good’s training programs is culinary training. Tara took us to The Cathedral of the Rockies First United Methodist Church , where we entered the large kitchen that they’ve made available for Create Common Good to use full time at no charge. There we met Create Common Good’s Executive Chef, Brent Southcombe, and Apprentice Chef, Awot Haile, a refugee from Eritrea. What a great pair these two make! Brent is an award-winning chef from Australia who heard about Create Common Good at a church meeting just when he was feeling called to reach out and train immigrants in culinary skills. He was able, through the efforts of Create Common Good and volunteer legal help, to move to Boise in short order this past spring. He’s running the culinary program to train refugees. They’ve had 3 classes so far, and have a 75% placement rate for their graduates.

Brent Southcombe, Executive Chef (left)
Awot Haile, Apprentice Chef
Tara Russell, Chief Experience Officer
To help raise funds, they cater special events.  And on most Wednesdays they put on an international dinner inspired by the food cultures of the refugees in the training programs.  They use food from the Create Common Good farm as often as possible.

What difference does Create Common Good make?  In the words of Tara, “We believe that economics is often the first domino that leads to holistic transformation in the other areas – more kids in school, domestic violence decreasing, and emotional and mental health improving.  Employment brings dignity, security, peace of mind, and safety to the family, so we see a lot of other great things happening, once there is a stable job that is building a runway to self-sufficiency."

Create Common Good is definitely helping refugees make this transition!

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Improving Local Food Systems -- Mosier, OR, Farmers' Market

From Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon, we heard about a great example of an organization that is cultivating a strong regional food system.  The Gorge Grown Food Network states on their website “We envision a healthy, self-sufficient Columbia River Gorge where our food is produced with integrity and is valued, abundant, and accessible to all.”

How do you go about promoting both the supply side and the consumer side of local eating?  One way is to promote local farmers’ markets.   But small communities can struggle to attract a critical mass of vendors that will bring enough customers to support the market.  So the Food Network bought a truck, outfitted it with a refrigerator, tables, and other equipment, and created George, the Mobile Farmers’ Market!  Each week, the driver buys produce and other products from local farmers and producers at a discounted rate to fill the truck.  She then takes George to 4 different small market sites over the weekend to augment the offerings by local vendors and add enough variety of produce to attract the local residents.  Once a farmers’ market is self-sustaining with its own local farmers, the goal is for the mobile truck to move on to other towns that need its support.

One of the mobile market sites is in the small town of Mosier (population 460).  We visited to see how their market is promoting community and healthy, local eating.

The Mosier Farmers’ Market is held on Sunday afternoon, from 4 to 7 PM.   We arrived early to help set up in the parking lot of the 10 Speed East Coffee Shop and the adjacent vacant gas station lot, where the market is held.  The merchants started arriving and setting up their displays and canopies about 3 PM.  Then the local fire truck arrived to block off the street between the two parking lots and filled a small pool with water for kids to cool off in.  

We met Suzi Conklin who explained that this is the first year they’ve had a farmer’s market.  She and some friends had taken a study course from the Northwest Earth Institute called “Menu for the Future” and decided that Mosier needed a farmers’ market.  They investigated the neighboring Hood River Farmers’ market, talked with the managers there, learned about the Gorge Grown Food Network and the mobile farmers’ market, and started planning.  Thus, the Mosier Farmers’ Market came about.  The first market day was July 3, 2011.

When the market was all set up, it was a bustling and busy sight: 
There were about 10 fruit and vegetable vendors.  The most common vegetables were tomatoes, green peppers and summer squash, but we also saw eggplant, hot peppers, cucumbers, potatoes (red, yellow, blue).  Fruits for sale included blueberries, strawberries, peaches, and melons. Theo, the son of one of the vendors was selling “natural bird feeders” (sunflower heads).

There were other food items, too.  Various vendors offered honey, jams, preserves, pickled beets, baked goods, eggs, pork and beef.  One of the vegetable vendors was making vegetable juice smoothies.
The mobile farmers’ market truck and its stand offered some items others didn’t have, such as sweet corn, cherries, bread, kale and shallots, as well as many of the vegetables that the other vendors had.  The driver appeared to know all the other farmers and was quick to refer customers to them.

Additional booths included the Seniors of Mosier Valley, who were selling lawn ornaments, weather vanes and raffle tickets for a quilt to help purchase a new refrigerator.  The local volunteer fire department was selling t-shirts and sweatshirts and recruiting for additional volunteer fire fighters.  The mayor had a table to sell her hand-made jewelry.  Another woman was selling candles, plants, cutting boards, and glass ornaments.  One young girl, with her mother’s help, had a few games for the kids and was also selling water and muffins to raise funds to go on the 6th-grade school class trip to England.
The information booth, manned by one of the organizers, gave out information about the market, sold some posters and some consignment items such as granola and small numbers of red, yellow and purple cherry tomatoes.  They gave away house plants in exchange for donations for the school garden.
As you’d expect, there was much buying and selling going on.  But there was other commerce, cooperation, and community-building happening, as well.   A local grocer arranged to pick up a flat of tomatoes from one of the vendors the next day to sell in his store.  Vendors informed their customers of other farmers’ markets and stands where their produce was available.  Vendors also referred customers to other vendors if they didn’t have what the customer wanted, and one vendor told us that she didn’t bring certain items to this market in order to give others a chance to sell theirs.   Customers chatted and caught up on the news with each other.  There was live music provided by a guitar and drummer combo.   A local circus performer entertained the crowd by magically handling balls.  This inspired a young boy to run home and return to perform with hula hoops.  Other kids played in the water and danced to the music.  There was even an “Ask Your Farmer” session based on the Dating Game.  
We were told that five years ago, only 1% of the produce consumed by people in the Columbia River Gorge was produced locally.  This vibrant new Mosier Farmers’ Market is already improving its local community food system and helping reach the goal set by the Gorge Grown Food Network of 20% local produce by the year 2020. 

The Power of a Plan – Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon

Picture a hot, sunny Saturday in August.  Picture festive canopies and tables set up in a large corner of a Fred Meyer store parking lot in East Portland, OR.  This is Portland Monthly magazine’s “Beer ‘n’ Burgers” fund-raiser, where generous patrons pay $20 to sample and vote on hamburgers and beer from local vendors.  And picture us helping by augmenting the beer and burgers with water, soda, and cookies, and by encouraging people to vote before they exit. 

Why are we doing this when we’re supposed to be studying hunger in America?  Well, we’re working alongside the staff of the organization that we had visited the day before and who will receive the funds raised today -- Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon. 

Patti Whitney-Wise, Executive Director (right)
and Jessica Chanay, Deputy Director
We’d heard that Oregon has a particularly forward-thinking, state-wide approach to ending hunger.  The Oregon Hunger Task Force was formed by the Oregon state legislature to advise on issues related to hunger and to advocate on behalf of Oregonians at risk of hunger.  Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon is their non-profit support organization, dedicated to ending hunger in Oregon. 

To learn more about Oregon’s approach, we met with Patti Whitney-Wise, Executive Director of Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon, Jessica Chanay, Deputy Director, and Nancy Weed, SNAP Outreach Coordinator.

Patti and Jessica explained some of the history.  In 1986, Hands Across America, a publicity and fund-raising event meant to highlight the problems of hunger and homelessness in America, shocked Oregonians when they learned that their state had high rates of hunger.  In response, the state legislature created the Oregon Hunger Task Force in 1989, the first body of its kind in the nation.  Members included a broad coalition of lawmakers, state agencies, and non-profit organizations. 

The initial work of the task force fostered many successes, such as highlighting the problem of hunger in the state and improving the emergency food system.  However, in 2000, Oregon was ranked as the state with the highest percentage of its citizens experiencing hunger, according to a new measuring tool that measured food insecurity and hunger in all states.  Clearly something more was needed.

As the Task Force worked to expand Food Stamps and summer food for children, they created an initial 5-year strategic plan, Act to End Hunger.  As of 2009, progress had been achieved on 30 of its 40 specific recommendations, and the percent of hungry Oregonians had declined relative to other states.   According to USDA statistics, in 2003-2005, Oregon had greatly decreased the number of its residents experiencing very low food security, now ranking 22nd.

Then the latest recession hit, and Oregon was more strongly affected than other states.  The rates of very low food security for the years 2006-2008 once again placed Oregon as the second worst overall.  Pained but undaunted, Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon, with the assistance of a grant from Northwest Health Foundation, built on the earlier plan, incorporated large amounts of new input from people across the state, and created Ending Hunger before it Begins – Oregon’s Call to Action 2010 - 2015

Patti said, “Make a plan and it will happen.”  She firmly believes that having a well-founded plan is a powerful tool to guide action and make positive change.  We are very impressed by the clear focus on root causes of hunger and the specific recommendations and highlighted strategies included in the plan.  Here are the three top-level goals.

Goal 1:  Increase economic stability for people, communities, and the state.

This first goal most clearly addresses the root causes of hunger.   As Patti says, “Hunger is an income issue.”  When people have sufficient income, they can feed their families and also accrue savings to help them weather tough times.  The same is true at the state and federal levels.

The plan includes specific strategies such as expanding the earned income tax credit so that Oregonians making less than the federal poverty level would have more income to feed their families, expanding affordable healthcare and childcare, and preserving TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families). 

In addition, to make the state more fiscally resilient, the plan calls for actions such as repeal of the Oregon kicker law, and allowing the state an adequate rainy day fund so that important services can be preserved during difficult times.

Goal 2:  Cultivate a strong regional food system in Oregon.

It’s ironic that a hungry state with a large agricultural component keeps little of that food for itself.  Farmers often struggle economically and many areas lack access to healthy, affordable food.  People with limited means are often forced to choose foods based on cost rather than nutritional value.  So this second goal includes recommendations to better balance the food system and make healthy, locally grown produce more available to everyone, including those who are food insecure. 

Examples of strategies to improve the regional food system include improving the viability of small grocery stores in underserved urban and rural areas, expanding community and school gardens, and increasing funds for voucher programs that allow WIC participants and seniors to obtain affordable produce at farm stands and farmers’ markets.  (See the next posting in this blog for another example.)

Goal 3:  Improve the food assistance safety net.

In the short term, people who are hungry need to obtain food.  For some, this is a temporary circumstance until they can get back on their feet again.  For others, such as seniors living on a low fixed income, it is a persistent need.  The strategies under this goal offer ways to ensure that everyone has access to the services they need.
Nancy Weed,
SNAP Outreach Coordinator

Nancy Weed told us about a great example in this category.  In 2000, only about 56% of Oregonians who were eligible for SNAP (food stamps) actually received that benefit.  The Oregon Food Bank and Oregon Hunger Task Force, in focus groups with clients and through visits to local food stamp offices, found that there were many barriers to participation.  Sometimes applicants had to wait up to 3 hours or arrive at 7:00 AM.  Some applicants had misinformation about their eligibility, considered the benefit “welfare,” or were daunted by the 32-page application packet.

Through a partnership with the Department of Human Services, systematic improvements have been put in place (e.g., scheduled appointments, same-day service, 2-page application, targeted information for seniors) so that today the participation in SNAP is above 80% of those eligible, according to the USDA.  This means not only that more people were able to purchase the food they needed, but also that Oregon now receives an increase of over $1B per year in federal funds, a significant stimulus to the local economy.

We came away from our visit with Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon feeling hopeful that meaningful change will actually occur.  Why the optimism?

Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon and the Oregon Hunger Task Force are collaborative, dedicated, and deeply experienced in sorting through what works and what doesn’t work.  They keep going regardless of setbacks, adjusting the plan and approach to be more and more effective, more and more focused on root causes.

Their approach brings partnership among ALL stakeholders, from those who are hungry themselves to politicians, service agencies, ecumenical groups, social scientists, healthcare insurers, foundations – anyone and everyone who can help leverage positive change.

Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon uses its own staff of 10 to work in areas where the need and the potential impact are high, but areas that other organizations are not covering.  Currently, that means that Patti and Jessica do a lot of lobbying and coalition-building at the state level based on the goals and recommendations in Ending Hunger Before it Begins, and others work on specific strategies such as bringing better nutrition services to children and seniors.

Finally, the website is a rich source of thoughtful, practical, and clearly-presented information, freely available to anyone who’d like to help eliminate hunger in their community.

Thank you, Oregon, for showing the way!

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

SeaShare -- Leveraging the Generosity of the Seafood Industry

In our visits to food banks and food pantries, we’ve noticed that the supply of food available for distribution to hungry Americans is often not what you’d call a balanced diet.  There is typically enough shelf-stable, processed food such as cereal and pasta, canned fruits and vegetables, and dried beans.  But often sorely lacking are fresh produce and high-quality, nutritious meat and fish.  These foods are difficult for the supplementary food system to provide because they tend to be expensive, to require special storage and timely distribution, and to be available only in seasonal cycles. 

We’ve reported earlier on numerous efforts to bring more fresh produce into the emergency food supply, but what about fish?
Jim Harmon and Mary Harmon

To find out, we traveled to Seattle, WA, the major commercial processing location for salmon, pollock, and halibut caught in the seas off the coast of Alaska.  From Seattle, we boarded a ferry for the short ride to Bainbridge Island and climbed the hill to the small offices of SeaShare, where we had a lively conversation with Jim Harmon, Executive Director, and Mary Harmon, Business Manager.
SeaShare is the only non-profit organization dedicated to getting seafood into the emergency food network.  It began in 1993 with a successful effort to amend the fishing rules so that fish inadvertently caught along with the target species could be distributed through hunger-relief agencies rather than being tossed back into the ocean.  [This Federal Register page includes details of the Prohibited Species Donation Program.]

SeaShare has grown far beyond salvaging inadvertently caught fish. Today they facilitate large donations of seafood from commercial fisheries and arrange for appropriate processing, packaging, shipping, storage, and distribution to food banks through the Feeding America network.

Here’s one example, quoted from their website:
“… in our canned salmon program, SeaShare received donations of salmon from several salmon fishermen and seafood processors. These processors donated the salmon processing and canning at a reduced rate to SeaShare, the cans were supplied by a can company, freight companies shipped the canned salmon to the lower 48, label suppliers provided special SeaShare labels, labeling and inspection companies checked the cans and labeled them, and local warehouses stored them until they could be distributed. Our financial support helped to pay for those services that we could not obtain for free, which were donated at a substantially discounted rate.”

Other donations may require a different set of steps.  For example, manufacturing fish patties from blocks of pollock requires breading and frozen distribution.

What makes SeaShare’s approach so impressive to us is the coalitions they put together to leverage the generosity of over 130 companies in the seafood industry.   SeaShare captures the donation as close to the fish nets as possible, stringing together donations and reduced costs at every step of the processing necessary to provide Feeding America with appropriately packaged, healthy seafood.  This approach means that SeaShare can produce a final donation that no single company could do on its own – high-quality seafood for an average of just 30 cents a pound.  They’re on target to supply 1.5 million pounds of seafood this year alone.

But it's not easy.  Jim and Mary described some of the challenges SeaShare faces: 
  • Many people are not used to eating fish.  They may eat canned tuna, but they are less familiar with salmon and other types of highly nutritious U.S. seafood.  It’s very difficult to change people’s eating habits.  To help, SeaShare prints recipes on their cans of salmon, distributes a fabulous salmon cookbook, and conducts fish preparation seminars and demos with celebrity chefs. 
  • Funding is an on-going concern.  We find it amazing that just 2 people (one of whom, Mary, works half-time) and an energetic board of directors can engage the seafood industry to make such generous donations each year.  But that still means they have to raise the 30 cents a pound to cover their costs.  While most non-profits receive much of their funding from individuals and foundations, SeaShare has limited public face and has typically relied mostly on monetary donations from within the same seafood companies that support them with donations of fish and processing.  Broadening their financial base is an upcoming priority for SeaShare.
  • Finally, SeaShare finds that donations of seafood may not be appropriately valued by food banks.  We agree.  Food banks typically measure their success in pounds of food distributed per person in poverty.  Their inventory tracking systems are not yet sophisticated enough to measure nutritional adequacy of the food they distribute.   That means that at some level, a pound of salmon and a pound of potatoes have equal value.   And it also means that supplemental food providers may not be doing as much as they could to help improve the health and nutrition status of hungry Americans. 
As Jim says, “There are lots of societal problems that you can’t solve until people have the right food to think clearly, to work well, and to make better choices.” 

We think SeaShare is a great example of a small organization leveraging a whole industry to improve the nutrition of hungry Americans.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Ensuring that No One in Alaska Goes Hungry

Alaska is a grand and beautiful state, with mountain range after stunning mountain range!   Its land area is huge compared to the size of the Lower 48.  The population of Alaska is the 4th lowest of any state, at 710,231 people.  That’s only 1.2 people per square mile, compared to the US average of 87.4. 

Travel here is a challenge.  There are roads, as long as you want to arrive from the Alaska Highway and drive around Anchorage, Fairbanks, or a few other places.  About 80% of Alaskans live on the road system, or in Juneau, Kodiak Island, or other places served by ferries.  But the remaining 20% live in the rural west or north, where there is no interconnected road system.  The small villages provide conveniences such as schools, a store, a post office, a generator for electricity, and an airstrip.   

Both overall cost of living and food are pricey in Alaska.  A limited growing season and large areas of mountains and tundra mean that local agriculture is scarce.   Most food is transported here, and the harder it is to reach an area, the more expensive groceries are.  According to the University of Alaska Fairbanks 2010 food cost survey, food in all Alaska locations was more expensive than in Portland, OR, where it cost $106.66 per week to feed a family of four adequate nutrition at the lowest possible cost.  Of the communities listed in Alaska, food costs were lowest in Fairbanks at $129.87 per week and highest in Bethel (where everything is shipped in by air) at $272.77 per week.  Costs are even higher in the more remote villages.

Food insecurity rates in rural Alaska can rise as high as 30.4%.  But wait!  Aren’t Alaskans able to rely on subsistence hunting and fishing to meet their dietary needs?  No.  In 1999, rural Alaskans only acquired 35% of their food from subsistence hunting and fishing.  It’s very important to ensure that for the “western” portion of their diets, they have access to healthy foods instead of just the highly-processed and over-sweetened food that tends to be available in small stores. 
From left to right, Food Bank of Alaska's Mariko Churchill, Shipping Manager, Susannah Morgan, Executive Director,
Jim Mackenzie, Director of Development and Communication, and Robin Stilwell, Director of Advocacy
We were particularly interested in learning how supplemental food reaches people who need it in all parts of Alaska, so we visited the Food Bank of Alaska.  We talked with Susannah Morgan, Executive Director, Jim Mackenzie, Director of Development and Communication, Mariko Churchill, Shipping Manager, and Robin Stilwell, Director of Advocacy, to learn how they’ve solved the complex challenges they face.  

The Food Bank of Alaska is located in Anchorage, a logical placement since more than 60% of Alaska’s population lives nearby.  Smaller partner food banks serve areas around Juneau, Fairbanks, Soldotna, and Kodiak, so altogether about 80% of the population of Alaska is located relatively near a food bank that can be used by local food pantries, soup kitchens, and shelters to obtain and distribute food to those in need.

But getting food to the rural villages is more of a challenge.  In most cases, it needs to be delivered by air.  Luckily, there’s a system that was put in place specifically for Alaska, called Alaska Bypass Mail, (See  Chapter 8 in Intra-Alaska Mail Service by Air, USPS, 2000).  Shipments of over 1,000 pounds can be sent to rural post offices for about $0.40 per pound.  As Mariko explained, when a shipment is ready, she calls the post office, and the post office tells her which airline will take it and at what time.   She delivers the shipment directly to that air carrier, bypassing the post office completely.  Bypass shipping costs are much less than regular air freight rates or parcel post, but still much higher than the $0.07 that most food banks in the Lower 48 pay for truck shipping.  For shipments that cannot go by Bypass Mail, Mariko maintains a large spreadsheet to keep track of what carriers can deliver shelf-stable, chilled, or frozen food to each agency and village.

Another complication in rural shipping is that IRS rules require that only 501(c)(3) non-profit  or religious organizations can distribute donated food.  Why is that an issue?  Well, in rural Alaska, often the regional or village Alaska Native Corporation would be the most appropriate or only organization capable of managing food distribution.  But, these native corporations are for-profit corporations created as part of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act in 1971.  Therefore, instead of food donated or collected through food drives, all the supplemental food sent to most rural Alaskan villages is government-funded USDA food.

The Food Bank of Alaska runs three USDA commodity programs and two USDA child feeding programs for the state of Alaska:
  • The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) for low-income Americans.  Commodity foods come to the Food Bank and are given out to agencies in quantities dependent on the number of people in poverty that they serve.
  • Commodities Supplemental Food Program (CSFP) for seniors, post-partum women and children to age 6.  The food bank assembles 1600 boxes per month containing cereal, juice, canned vegetables, canned fruits, peanut butter or dried beans, canned meat, pasta or rice, evaporated milk, and powdered milk.  These boxes are only sent out to agencies where they can be trucked, and to Kodiak and Wrangell, where they have negotiated free shipping.
  • Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR).   Even though Native Alaskans don’t live on reservations, they may be eligible to choose between SNAP (food stamps) and this program designed for Native Americans who live great distances from a store.  FDPIR is seen as a larger component of the family’s diet and includes larger quantities and more variety (perhaps 60 items) than the other commodity programs.  Nevertheless, FDPIR is the smallest of the government programs because, as Susannah explained, in small villages that do have access to a reasonable store, SNAP provides a much better option – not only does it allow the client choice of foods to purchase, but it also supports the store and helps the local economy.
  • Child and Adult Care Feeding Program (CACFP). This program reimburses day care, after school, and recreational programs for food they provide to people in need. CACFP will also be growing, since the US Child Nutrition Act authorized payment for dinners at child care sites, and the increased reimbursement rate makes it financially feasible to ship food to rural Alaska locations. 
  • Summer Food Service Program (SFSP), which reimburses programs for either lunch or dinner and breakfast or snack for eligible children or sites during the summer.  According to Robin, SFSP is a proud recent addition and the fastest growing program run by the Food Bank of Alaska.  The food bank is currently supplying summer lunches to 70 sites.  For local sites, they contract with various vendors to supply freshly made lunches.  For rural sites, they provide shelf-stable, bag lunches from JA Food Systems that meet all USDA requirements and can simply be handed out to each child. 
Before an agency can receive food from any of the above programs, it must agree to follow the USDA guidelines for record-keeping.  This isn’t a problem in the more populated areas, since the agencies tend to have stable staff who can take on this task.  However, in the more rural areas where the agencies are very small and often run by one dedicated volunteer who may not be stay very long, the paperwork becomes more of a burden.  Therefore, the Food Bank of Alaska does almost all the administrative work itself and only requires the sites to keep track of how many meals they serve or how many commodities they hand out. 

In all, last year the Food Bank of Alaska provided about 6 million pounds of food to food-insecure Alaskans.  This year, according to Jim, they’re on track to provide 6.5 million.  That sounds like a lot, but according to Susannah, that’s only about half the amount required to provide adequate supplemental food for those in need in Alaska. 

Beyond acquiring and distributing enough supplemental food, perhaps the biggest challenge is supplying fresh produce.  The Food Bank of Alaska has tackled this issue for neighborhoods in Anchorage with their Mobile Food Pantry.  Five days a week, the pantry takes produce out to low income communities.  Produce that would go bad if held in the warehouse for another day can be on the table of a hungry person instead. 

Susannah’s dream is to have a mobile food pantry with wings so some of that produce could reach sites off the road system. 

Anybody got an extra airplane?

Thursday, July 7, 2011


Approach Missoula, Montana, from the east and you experience the thrill of watching the mountains emerge in the west as you cross the high, open plains.  This thriving city of about 67,000 on the banks of the Clark Fork River is the home of the University of Montana.  From their campus, travel 2.5 miles or so north into the beautiful Rattlesnake Valley.  See lovely level fields ringed by even lovelier mountains. 

Notice the small “PEAS Farm" sign.  Enter the parking lot beside the little straw-bale barn and see the rich fields, two to the north and two to the south, filled with lettuce, greens, strawberries, and radishes ready to harvest, and with all manner of other plants (squash, pumpkin, corn, etc.) lustily growing in preparation for a later harvest.  If it were the morning that we were there, you might notice us working alongside a dozen or more young men and women, weeding these 10 acres of organically-farmed fields.  You would feel their enthusiasm, their sense of community, and their vision for a healthier way to feed America and the world.  PEAS stands for “Program in Ecological Agriculture and Society,” a program of study within the University’s Environmental Studies Department
Josh Slotnick and Jason Mandala

We spoke with Josh Slotnick, Lecturer for Program in Ecological Agriculture and Society, and PEAS Farm founder and Director. Josh told us that the idea for the PEAS Farm (and the other farms under the umbrella of Garden City Harvest) came in 1996, when a coalition of far-thinking Missoulians came together to address a broad set of intersecting needs:
  • Some were anticipating the effects of the Republican Contract with America, specifically the changes in the welfare laws that limited who could receive government assistance and for how long.  This would vastly increase the number of people in need of emergency food assistance.  Could that food be healthy and include adequate fresh seasonal produce?
  • Simultaneously, others were seeing a need to teach students at all levels, from pre-school through graduate school, about gardening and healthy eating.  Do we know where our food comes from, what's healthy, and how to produce it?
  • And still others were alarmed by statistics showing that local farming could not currently feed the community.   More than 85% of the food dollars spent in the state of Montana go for food produced and trucked from elsewhere, and the average age of farmers is increasing (as of 2007, the average age of a farmer in Montana is 58).  Could these trends be reversed and local farming again be seen as a community resource, bringing food security and better health to everyone? 
All these needs are addressed at the PEAS Farm. 
Interns operate the farm throughout the year, learning to farm organically, and taking that knowledge with them when they leave the University.   Of the interns we worked with, at least one was actively looking to begin his own farm, one was hoping to take over his father’s farm, others mentioned careers in soil science or international sustainable agriculture, and all were at least destined to be acutely aware of what they eat and where it comes from. 

In addition, interns learn the value of working together on humble tasks, solving problems as a team, and serving their community.  Some of the produce is sold as shares in the farm’s Community-Supported Agriculture program or mobile farmer’s markets.  Some is used each day by two interns who prepare a hearty lunch for the crew.  The remainder is donated directly to the Missoula Food Bank) and the Poverello Center, which distribute it free of charge to those in need.

It’s not just the interns who demonstrate the priority that the PEAS Farm gives to education.   The Farm also operates an extensive education program for kids in preschool through high school.  Jason Mandala, Community Education Director, said that last year the Farm brought over 2500 children here for field trips.  Many children are amazed to find out where their food comes from before it gets to the grocery stores.   Jason lets the kids pick and taste whatever is ripe; he excites them about healthy eating and says he’s more successful than most parents are at getting their kids to eat vegetables.  He told us one story about a kid coming back to the Farm for a second trip and asking hopefully, “Are we going to eat kale today?”  Parents tell him, “We’re now eating this [fresh produce item] because our child said she wanted it.”  And Josh said that he overheard a girl at the farmer’s market telling her mother, “If you have a bad day, eat kale.”

Will the PEAS farm help end hunger in America?  Josh thinks it’s a piece of the puzzle, but that much more is needed.  We need communities in which everyone can earn a living.   And we need education and cultural change.  "You can eat well on little money.  But you can’t do it on highly processed, cheap food." 

Friday, July 1, 2011

South Dakota Feeds Kids in the Summer

During the school year, most children have a reliable source of lunch through the National School Lunch Program.  In fiscal year 2010 over 20 million children received those lunches free of charge or at reduced rates because their family’s income is low.  That’s over 65% of all meals served under the National School Lunch Program.

But what do those 20 million children do during the summer when school is out?  Many are at risk of hunger.  Families struggle to stretch their food dollars and food pantries often report increased demand during the summer months.  One program meant to fill the summer gap is the Summer Food Service Program, established by congress in 1975.
Julie McCord, South Dakota
Child and Adult Nutrition Services
How does it work? 

To find out, we interviewed Julie McCord, who manages all of the state's summer feeding programs through Child and Adult Nutrition Services, South Dakota Department of Education.  Here are the highlights of this national program:
  • A site may qualify for the Summer Food Service Program (or related programs such as the National School Lunch Program’s Seamless Summer Option) if at least half the children they expect to serve are eligible for free or reduced-price school meals (family income below 185% of the poverty line).  This means that “closed” programs, such as day camps or school programs for which children register, qualify based on the eligibility of the individual children.  “Open” programs, in which any child ages 1-18 can come to eat, qualify based on the eligibility statistics in their geographic area.
  • Once the site is eligible, all of the children can eat for free.  This greatly simplifies the bookkeeping for program directors and allows children who might just miss the eligibility criterion to eat for free.
  • Sites can choose to serve breakfast, morning snack, lunch, afternoon snack, or dinner (but not both lunch and dinner, for which the reimbursement rates are higher).
  • The USDA regulations for staff training, food quality and safety, meal plan options, and rules such as the meal components that all children must be served are very similar to those in place for the National School Lunch Program.
Pearl Haux prepares lunch
The Summer Food Service Program we visited is located at the Mobridge-Pollock School in Mobridge SD (population 3465).  This beautiful new facility educates students from upper elementary through high school, all approximately 700 of whom are fed during the school year by Food Supervisor Pearl Haux and her staff.  During the summer, Pearl continues to feed breakfast and lunch, to all children in the community who come.  Adults can also eat here by paying the approximate cost of the meal.

Pearl said that it’s very hard to predict the number who will come – this year lunch has been served to between about 90 and 160.  The day we were there, lunch was served to 127 children and 12 adults (including us!)  Pearl estimated that she sees about 400 different children over the course of the summer.

We really liked this program, and here are some of the reasons:
  • This is a community program.  The school superintendent believes that the community was generous in building this beautiful school, so the school should give back to the community.  In addition to breakfast and lunch, the school hosts open gym for kids and various camps such as a wrestling camp.  Kids from those programs and the nearby town pool and practice fields also eat here.
  • The school is located in a pedestrian-friendly neighborhood, so most kids appeared to walk over for lunch.  We talked with one set of 6 kids, older ones babysitting younger ones, who told us they ate here most days and were walking over to Grandma’s house after lunch.  Parents or daycare providers came with some of the younger kids. 
  • Pearl knows the children she feeds, knows what they like, and truly loves feeding them well.  The day we were there, the menu was soft tacos filled with beef and a variety of toppings that the kids could add themselves, corn, watermelon, and skim milk.  We thought it was delicious, and so did the kids, though they told us that their favorite meal was what Pearl calls “super nachos.”  Pearl had attended training the previous week on the new USDA nutrition guidelines so she could begin implementing them before they're required in 2012.
  • This program runs for the entire summer, unlike many that do not, due to financial or staffing limitations.  In SD, only 46% of the summer food service programs this year plan to operate for the entire summer.
  • The availability of the program and the menus are well-advertised in town.  Kids told us they checked the menus on the local cable TV station or in the newspaper.
Probably the biggest problem with summer food service programs is that there are not nearly enough to meet the need.  Julie said that when school is in session, more than 56,000 South Dakota children receive free or reduced-price meals through the National School Lunch Program.  During the summer of 2010, only about 10,000 children were fed. 

This summer, there are 115 locations for summer feeding in South Dakota, operated by 66 sponsors – 35 sponsors operating Summer Food Service Programs are schools, Boys and Girls Clubs, YMCAs, and other local agencies; 31 sponsors are schools that are using the Seamless Summer option to continue their regular National School Lunch Program for some or all of the summer. 

In each of the last few years, Julie has succeeded in increasing the number of Summer Food Service Programs operating in South Dakota.  Each winter, she identifies areas that would qualify and contacts schools and other organizations to try to recruit them to sponsor summer food service programs. Sponsors may be most any school or governmental or non-profit organization.  She asks food pantries to help identify local organizations that might be suitable sponsors.  And she helps all applicants through the lengthy application and program planning process, including offering training in the details of the program for any applicant.

Nevertheless, more sites are needed if all hungry kids are to be fed during the summer. What are the obstacles? 
  • Cost.  Many organizations and schools that would be eligible can’t afford to offer summer food.  USDA does reimburse at a congressionally-set rate per meal, but that reimbursement rarely covers the entire cost of the program.  Even if the reimbursement covers food and labor costs, it may not be sufficient to cover additional costs, such as utilities, facilities rental, or transporting children to the meal or meals to the children.
  • Staff.  Sometimes qualified food service workers are difficult to find.  Regular staff may not want to continue working through the summer, and other potential staff may lack the training or readiness to follow USDA rules.
  • Facilities.  Meals don’t have to be hot or prepared in professional kitchens, but even so, sometimes appropriate, food-safe facilities are not available in a community.  For example, in some small communities, there is no school; the children attend boarding schools or are bused to school during the school year, but are home during the summer.  If a school kitchen is not an option, Julie looks for another site that meets the requirements.  It might be a church, a community center, a Boys and Girls Club, or a tribal building.  But often these facilities in poor communities are in disrepair, have water or sewer issues, or are otherwise unsafe for preparing and serving food to children.  Julie told us about one program sponsor that is busing kids to another facility until it can bring its own facility up to code. 

    There’s no federal money available to help with expenses such as facility repair.  But we have heard that other hunger relief organizations, such as Share Our Strength and ConAgra Foundation, may be trying to help in this area.
It’s disappointing that more children aren’t being reached with the Summer Food Service Program.  Apparently, the USDA agrees.  In addition to encouraging more use of the program, they’re considering another idea, adding additional money to a family’s SNAP or WIC benefits in the summer to cover their increased expenses for school children’s meals.

We think that the Summer Food Service Program offers a very good program for feeding kids.  Pearl agrees.  She said she’d actually like to see the National School Lunch Program run more like Summer Food Service Program.  “Many of the middle class families in Mobridge are really hurting, but they make too much money to qualify for free or reduced price lunches (or other benefits like SNAP and heating assistance).  So I wish that I could serve all students breakfast and lunch during the school year, just like I do in the summer.”