Monday, February 28, 2011

Angel Food Ministries

Home of Angel Food Ministries
Good food is expensive. So what can be done to get more affordable, high-quality food to people who are trying to stretch their food budget?

Enter Angel Food Ministries. It creates boxes of wholesome food, offers those boxes for order at costs lower than at retail grocery stores, and delivers them once a month to 5383 host sites (mostly churches) in 45 states. When the food arrives, volunteers group the food into orders for customers to pick up.

Pastors Linda and Joe Wingo
Angel Food Ministries is a 501(c)(3) organization that began in 1994 as the ministry of Emmanuel Praise Church. Both were founded by and are the life work of the Wingo family: CEO and Pastor Joe Wingo, his wife Pastor Linda Wingo, and their son Pastor Wes Wingo. The church is located in the front part of the Angel Food Ministries warehouse. Right now, the two organizations are legally distinct entities, but Pastor Joe sees them as one ministry.

We visited the headquarters in Monroe, GA, interviewed Pastor Joe, and toured the facilities with Bobbi Warburton, Heather Waldo, and chief distribution officer Johnny Willis.

We found it fascinating to get an inside look at how Angel Food Ministries operates. The process begins about 3 months before delivery, when the menus are determined. Each month’s offerings are different. For March, there are 13 separate boxes that a customer can order. They range in price from $21 to $51, and include both general meal boxes and specialty boxes, such as an allergen-free box, an Easter box, and 3 boxes especially for kids. The menu committee considers all the food items to which they have access through their distributors and orders items that are as nutritious and high-quality as they can find and still stay within the budget for that particular box.

How to assemble a pallet load
Food arrives at the Monroe, GA, warehouse and is stored in their huge freezer (big enough to hold 120 truckloads of frozen food) and their similarly sized cold-storage area. The week before distribution begins, workers prepack boxes of frozen food items and boxes of fresh produce.

When we arrived, prepack was finished and that part of the warehouse was neat and quiet. But the loading area was a beehive of activity because it was time for specific orders to be assembled onto pallets and the trucks to be loaded. We saw boxes of frozen foods loaded into the trailer first; then a Styrofoam bulkhead was taped into place to keep the frozen food frozen. Next the boxes of fresh produce and eggs were loaded in such a way that they would stay cold without freezing. Last came the dry items, and canned items. This 3-part packing makes sure all items arrive in good shape.

"Bucket Brigade" unloading at the drop site

At the end of each trailer was a box of paperwork detailing the items that belonged at each drop site and at each host site. Early on Saturday morning, the trucks from Angel Food Ministries arrive at between 1 and 3 drop sites per truck. Each drop site then distributes to several different host sites. Volunteers from each host site unload the truck, transfer into their own vehicles the boxes needed to fulfill their orders, drive to their own site, and distribute the orders to their customers.

A customer getting his order
We “followed the truck” to a drop site in Edgewater, FL, helped unload the boxes for the 4 host sites there, and then continued to the host site at the Great Commission Church in Titusville, FL.  Host site director Jill Brand said that this church really enjoys being an Angel Food Ministries site because it provides a valuable service to folks in their area. We helped distribute the orders to the customers who came in to pick them up. Done!  

Fresh Fruit and Veggie Box
Angel Food Ministries food appeared to us to be of high quality and to arrive in excellent condition. All the customers we spoke with agreed, and we heard no complaints other than a few people who said they didn’t use all the fresh produce in time. At Angel Food Ministries, we heard that they have a rigorous quality control process, take customer feedback seriously, and are always attempting to improve their selections. They also regularly compare their prices with prices at discount grocery stores to ensure that they continue to offer lower cost quality food.

Therefore, we think the Angel Food Ministries model provides a great way to stretch your food dollar.

Angel Food Ministries also impressed us with their support of several other ministries and programs. For example:
  • Host sites, all of which are charitable organizations, receive a donation to their general fund from Angel Food Ministries of $1 per box sold. So far they’ve distributed over $32 million.
  • Many of the 250 part-time workers who prepack boxes and load trucks are from local men’s shelters and rehab programs. Workers who are ready to progress with their lives can be trained here in skills such as operating a fork lift, and some have gone on to permanent jobs with Angel Food Ministries.
  • In the past, Angel Food Ministries has not solicited donations and received only a tiny fraction of its funds that way. Last fall, however, they started "Sponsor A Soldier's Family," through which anyone can donate a box of food to a military family, to show gratitude for their service. They’ve established relationships with several military bases which select the families to receive the boxes. So far over 1,000 boxes have been sent. A similar program, called "No Child Goes Without," sends donated boxes of food to schools for distribution to children in need.
  • Angel Food Ministries is working to make it easier for people in need to apply for and use SNAP (food stamp) benefits.  About ¼ of Angel Food Ministries customers use SNAP to buy Angel Food boxes, but they cannot order on-line like most customers. Host sites must place the orders on their behalf because the different benefit processing systems in place in each state don’t currently interoperate well enough to support online ordering. Angel Food Ministries is working with the USDA in an attempt to become a pilot program to allow SNAP recipients to place orders online. This seems like it should work well, since all products offered by Angel Food Ministries are food, and thus SNAP eligible. We hope this improvement for SNAP recipients will occur soon.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

What is an Urban Garden?

Ama Shambulia and R.G. Lyons
Before we came to the West End Urban Garden in Birmingham, AL, we thought an urban garden was simply a garden in an urban location. However, this garden is very much more. As garden program manager Ama Shambulia told us, “People in this community are hungry for much more than food. … Our garden will revitalize the West End community’s life blood, body, mind, and spirit.”

Five years ago, R.G. Lyons, fresh out of Seminary, bought a house and moved to the West End of Birmingham, where 97% of the residents are African American and 47% live below the poverty line. R.G. had been appointed to start a United Methodist church there. He began with programs for youth twice per week, and expanded from there to bible study classes for their parents and others. Now, the Community Church without Walls meets in small groups in one member’s home and in the rooms of Urban Ministry, a mission of the United Methodist Church, with which R.G. works closely.

R.G. buried the parents of three kids, due to complications from diseases such as diabetes and congestive heart failure, which brought home to him the consequences of the diet that many in the neighborhood eat. Non-nutritious food is cheap, but fruits and vegetables are expensive and not readily available. (Only one in four people in this neighborhood have a car, the public transportation system is one of the worst in the nation, and the small local grocery stores carry little produce.) R.G. said, “We always ask, what is the need in this community? And how can we empower people to fulfill that need?” There was an obvious need for more fresh produce and more knowledge of how to prepare it to provide healthy, tasty meals.
West End Urban Garden

So, R.G. and volunteers from the community started a garden near the Urban Ministry building on a couple of vacant lots that previously held burned-out houses. We helped in the garden one Saturday in mid-February. Even at this time of year, there are quite a few things growing in the gardens -- pansies, herbs, onions, and collard greens that had over-wintered.

The garden plots include two large ground-level beds, one very large raised bed, and about 18 smaller raised beds, some of which people in the neighborhood can rent. We also saw fruit trees (4 apple and 1 pear, espaliered to grow flat along wires), a row of blueberry bushes, and a row of blackberry canes. There’s a tidy garden shed to hold the tools, compost piles, and a greenhouse frame.

Myron Pierre
Ama keeps everything orderly and well-planned. She’s a master chef and master gardener. She runs the garden program, helps children in the Urban Kids program (run by Urban Ministry) to garden, holds informal classes at the garden to help people learn gardening skills, and shows gardeners how they can prepare what they produce in wholesome, tasty ways. Ama put us to work weeding, rejuvenating the pansies, fertilizing, and planting onions, beets and carrots. Many more vegetables will be added as the season progresses.

The garden manager, Myron Pierre, also was working hard in the garden, turning soil, mixing the compost, and planting. Another volunteer, Lindsay Whiteaker, is a junior at University of Alabama Birmingham. Last year she made a great film about the garden and still comes back often to help out.

While we were working, we saw a glimpse of what the garden means to some of those in the neighborhood. Olivia and her daughter April stopped by. April wanted to help, so she was put to work watering the collard greens and onions, while her mom talked to Ama. Later, another neighbor stopped by to see how things were growing. He was sent home with onion starts to add to his own garden. There’s a neighbor across the street who tells people not to pick the produce, and generally keeps an eye on the garden.

What happens to the produce? Some is given to the elderly and those truly in need, served at the Urban Ministry lunch program, or given to those who volunteer in the garden. But the goal is not for the produce to be free, because, in Ama’s words, “It’s not a free-for-all. That would create an unhealthy imbalance, and that’s not a very dignified way of interacting with people.” Therefore, much of the produce is sold to a local restaurant or offered at a small produce stand to the neighborhood residents.

Similarly, Ama and R.G. think it’s very important that those who work hard in the garden are paid for their efforts. Both Ama and Myron are paid staff. This summer, they will be hiring two high-school interns to help with the gardening.

April waters collards and onions

And what difference has the garden made in the community? You’ll notice from these pictures that there is no fence around the West End garden. This encourages community members to experience the growing process. And they do! Many members of the community stop and give encouragement to those working in the garden. They may find out a bit about gardening and get a taste of the foods growing there, but more importantly, they see the garden as their own community center. There are summer and harvest celebrations at the garden. On Easter, Community Church without Walls holds their service in the garden, surrounded by the beautiful sight of growing plants.

As R.G. says, the garden meets community needs “in a very holistic way. It’s a place to work and get exercise, to meditate, and to spend time together.” In other words, the West End garden is building community, not just growing food.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

David Holben: A Community Nutritionist's Perspective on Hunger

David Holben
Ohio is the 15th state in our Facing Hunger in America journey. At Ohio University in Athens, OH, we interviewed David H. Holben, PhD, RD, LD, and Professor of Food and Nutrition in the School of Applied Health Sciences and Wellness.

Dr. Holben teaches courses in dietetics, community nutrition, and research methods, and has co-authored (with Marie A. Boyle) the comprehensive textbook Community Nutrition in Action – an Entrepreneurial Approach. (5th edition, 2010, Belmont, CA: Wadsworth) We asked Dr. Holben to share with us how he thinks about hunger and the programs meant to alleviate it. Here’s a taste of what we learned.

Food insecurity is most often associated with poverty. In Canada, the term is “income-related food insecurity.” But Dr. Holben pointed out that not all people below the poverty line are food insecure. Some have developed self-sufficiency skills that keep them food secure -- at least until something happens, such as a job loss, illness, or an increase in the number of people they need to feed.

Food insecurity has very far-reaching physical and psychological health effects. Although not all the causal relationships are clear, food insecurity is highly correlated with factor such as
  • Increased levels of overweight, obesity, and type 2 diabetes, especially in women
  • Increased levels of depression and stress
  • Increased birth defects
  • Lower classroom performance and attendance in children
  • More discipline problems, counselor visits, and suicide attempts among children
  • Loss of family rituals such as holiday meals
The relationship between food insecurity and obesity may appear paradoxical, but Dr. Holben explained it like this. (See also Community Nutrition, page 331).
  • Food insecure families may stretch their food budget and keep from feeling hungry by purchasing foods that cost less, are higher in calories, and are less nutritious. Sometimes such foods (for example, ramen noodles, sweetened cereals, and soda) are more readily available to people living in poverty than are more healthful options (for example, fresh fruits and vegetables).
  • Food insecure families are likely to prefer foods that make them feel full, possibly sacrificing food quality for food quantity.
  • Cycling between times of adequate food and times with inadequate food, may lead people to overeat and gain weight when food is available (such as right after SNAP benefits are received). When adequate food is not available, the person’s body may become more efficient and resist losing weight. This cycling may be more extreme for mothers, who may provide food for their children at the expense of food for themselves. Remember the scene in the movie, Erin Brockovich, when she lies to her children and tells them that she’s already eaten?
Damaging effects of food insecurity like these make it imperative for our country’s overall well-being that we effectively address the issue of hunger in America.

So what are the programs that Dr. Holben prefers?  When we asked him this question, he responded by comparing WIC (the USDA Food and Nutrition Service's Program for Women, Infants, and Children) with SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly Food Stamps). He prefers WIC because recipients qualify partly based on nutritional risk as determined by a healthcare professional, because only certain nutritious foods can be obtained with WIC support, and because WIC carefully measures outcomes such as iron levels and height and weight of the participants. By contrast, SNAP benefits are based mostly on financial need and can be used for all foods.

Dr. Holben said, “While I believe that people have the right to buy whatever food they want, I don’t agree that some of the foods allowed to be purchased with food stamps are appropriate. … If food stamps are meant to be a supplement to your food dollar, I think it would be OK to say you can’t buy foods such as pop with food stamps.”

One promising improvement to SNAP, called HIP (Health Incentive Pilot), is to be tested by the USDA in Hampden County, MA, beginning in December of 2011.  HIP will test whether SNAP recipients increase their purchase of fresh produce if they receive a rebate on their SNAP card for 30% of the cost. If this pilot produces positive results, Dr. Holben hopes it will become a national program.

In addition to federal entitlement programs such as WIC and SNAP, Dr. Holben sees an extremely important role for smaller, more local community nutrition efforts. He demonstrates his belief in producing some of his own food by gardening and keeping bees and chickens. He’s also personally involved in a huge set of community projects such as:
  • Athens Community Food Initiatives
  • Organic gardening courses for Live Healthy Appalachia
  • ECOhio Garden—Everyone Can [in Ohio] Garden plants And Rake Dirt to Enhance Nutrition, a project to help individuals learn to garden, to improve their food access, and to enhance the nutrient density of their diets.
  • With student Lori Gromen, a project to plant fruit trees at community gathering places in Athens. We checked out about a dozen of the trees shown on the tree map and found them looking healthy and ready for spring to come! For more information see these articles in The Post  and in Planet OHIO News.
Dr. Holben concluded our interview by saying, “I think America is very generous. It’s impressive how people do work tirelessly to feed people.”

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Mennonite Mobile Meat Cannery

The temperature was in the single digits the frosty morning when we drove to the Valley View Mennonite Church in Spartansburg, PA. Parked next to the church’s loading dock was the object of our visit, the Mennonite Mobile Meat Cannery. We had come to learn how this long-standing charity of the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) operates, and to help with the day’s canning of turkey meat.

The history of the Mennonite mobile meat cannery began in 1946, when hungry Europeans needed high protein food relief. Today, MCC distributes over 500,000 28-oz cans of meat worldwide each year, all produced by volunteer workers at the 33 stops the mobile cannery makes in 13 states and 2 Canadian provinces. Four volunteer canner operators spend overlapping 2 year terms driving the canner to the sites and working with local volunteers to produce the canned meat. We met operator George Wieler, who was on duty the day we were there.

Chunking turkey prior to canning
We also met Albert Brenner and Susan Bell, who have been coordinating canning at the Spartansburg site for many years, and we spoke on the phone with John Hillegass, MCC Canning Coordinator. Albert showed us the canning process, all of which is done under USDA rules and with USDA inspectors frequently on-site:
  • Meat arrived at the canning site on a refrigerated truck. Spartansburg purchased boneless turkey thighs from Virginia Growers, and it arrived in 20-lb. bags on 1-ton pallets. (Earlier in the canner’s history, most meat was home-grown beef or pork. Now, about 85% of MCC meat is turkey. Reasons include that turkey is lower cost, acceptable in more countries worldwide, and easier and cleaner to can because they don’t have to drain off fat from the already lean turkey meat.) 
  • Next, using a large meat grinder, 4 volunteers cut the turkey thighs into ¾” chunks. Each 60-lb batch of chunked meat was added to the large steam vat at the beginning of the canning line in the mobile cannery trailer. 
    Packing turkey chunks
  • Ten men operated the canning line. First, salt was added and two men used large paddles to pound and stir the meat until it reached a uniform 56 degrees F, warm enough to keep the meat from expanding too much and bursting the cans in the cooker. Then they placed a rack over the vat, loaded it with empty cans from the smaller truck you can see in the picture, and hand-filled each can to the proper weight. One or two men operated the lidding machine, and another put the sealed cans into a huge cylindrical metal basket.
  • When the basket was full (140 cans), George hoisted it into one of the 6 steam pressure canners, tightened the lid, and recorded when the canner reached 246 degrees F. Each lot remained in the canner for 2 hours and 10 minutes to cook and sterilize the meat. While all 6 canners were cooking, workers sterilized equipment, prepared for the next runs, and had a few minutes to take a break.
    George hoistng cans into the steam canner
  • As each lot of cans was done cooking, George hoisted the basket out of the canner and into a cooling water bath for 15 minutes. The basket was then wheeled down to the church basement, where two lines of volunteers washed, rinsed, dried, and applied a label to each can. This is where we helped out.
  • Washing, rinsing, drying, labeling
  • Other volunteers ran each can under an inkjet printer to mark it with the date it was manufactured. They set aside one can from each lot to be incubated by the USDA to make sure the contents were sterile, then packed all remaining cans in 24-can cartons hand-labeled with the lot number and printed “Turkey Chunks” and “Humanitarian Aid.”
At most sites, this whole process is repeated 7 times a day, beginning at 6:00am and ending after midnight. We were told that Spartansburg expected to can a total of 29,000 pounds of meat in three days: 10,500 pounds on Tuesday and Wednesday, with the remainder and cleanup on Thursday. At the end of the 3-day canning event, all the boxes will be loaded onto a truck using a “bucket brigade” and sent to MCC in Akron, OH, for distribution throughout the world.  Some cans go to the US, especially to disaster areas. But most go to places in great need of supplemental protein, such as Haiti, North Korea, and sites in eastern Europe and South America. MCC takes great care to distribute only to relief agencies that directly use the food to feed people in need.

Canned and ready to go

Susan explained the months and months of organizing it takes to sponsor a single 3-day canning event:
  • Raise the funds needed to rent the canner and to purchase the meat and supplies 
  • Arrange for food to feed the workers
  • Arrange all the other accompanying activities, such as collecting donated soap and tying 33 comforters that groups had pieced earlier 
  • Recruit and schedule all the volunteers
Overall, it takes about 40 volunteers at all times to run the canning operation, and often as many as 100 were present. Yet, nobody was barking orders.  Everyone seemed to know their roles, to naturally pitch in, and to keep the whole process running in an efficient, relaxed, and good-natured way.

Who were all those volunteers? When we were there, many were different groups of Amish who had hired vans and drivers to bring them to Spartansburg. Others were Mennonites, either from this church or others in western Pennsylvania or nearby areas of New York or Ohio. Volunteers traveled from as much as 1-2 hours away.

Is the meat cannery cost-effective? We believe the answer is yes. As far as we could tell, the per can cost to the local organizing committees of this MCC meat approximates wholesale prices. Therefore, you might think MCC should just buy cans of meat to ship to those in need. However, could as much money be raised simply to purchase relief supplies? No. People donate both money and volunteer hours partly because their donation includes the direct hands-on experience of caring for other people in need.

Folks at the Spartansburg site and the Mennonite Central Committee impressed us with their clarity of purpose: “The meat cannery allows my hands to better the lives of others around the world.” “You show love through taking care of other people.” “Our number 1 priority is to serve God, and this is a special way to do that.”

Or, as their label says, “Food for relief in the name of Christ.”