Saturday, March 26, 2011

Rethinking Walmart

We admit it – we are among those who haven’t always had a positive impression of Walmart.

We worry about reports of this retail giant putting local stores out of business and engaging in questionable employment and sourcing practices.

But recently, we’ve noticed headlines like these:
Also, as we visited food banks and pantries in places such as Michigan, Delaware, Mississippi, and Texas, we observed large donations of fresh produce and other grocery items coming in from local Walmart stores. And we heard food bank personnel express deep appreciation for the refrigerated trucks donated by Walmart.

We decided to learn more by going to Bentonville, Arkansas, headquarters of Walmart and workplace of some 16,000 corporate employees. The unassuming home office, remodeled from a warehouse, contains a sea of office cubicles and seems heavily focused on meetings with suppliers. But it’s also the home of the Walmart Foundation, where we had an engaging and informative conversation with two of the people responsible for hunger-related charitable giving, Julie Gehrki, Senior Director, and Maeve Miccio, Manager.

Walmart Foundation's Maeve Miccio and Julie Gehrki
We learned that the Walmart Foundation is closely tied to the rest of the Walmart Corporation. Its 32 employees are “on loan” to the Foundation from Corporate Affairs, their budget is determined like that of any other Walmart department, and Foundation employees are privy to Walmart’s overall commitments and goals. Michael T. Duke, Walmart President and CEO, also chairs the board of the Walmart Foundation.

At Walmart, charitable giving occurs on many levels – individual donations such as payroll deductions and contributions based on the hours an employee works for a non-profit organization, store-controlled grants to local organizations, and state and national-level giving coordinated by the Walmart Foundation.

Julie credits Margaret McKenna, President of the Walmart Foundation since 2007, with leading the Foundation to a more forward-thinking and effective corporate-level philanthropic approach. The focus on hunger as the signature issue for Walmart Foundation emerged because it leverages Walmart’s core capabilities to:
  • close gaps in the emergency food system
  • increase access to nutritious foods
  • help people realize long-term solutions to hunger
Hunger is partly about food, and Walmart has lots of food! Walmart is the largest grocery retailer in the U.S.  Walmart employees are concentrating on zero waste, so it makes sense to ensure that they know how to pull and donate produce and other food before it becomes out of date. Walmart developed a special bar-code system to scan out their donated food to ensure that it could be recalled from food banks in case of any product safety issues. Walmart also developed and gave to competitors and Feeding America a special fast-freeze process to extend the shelf-life of certain donated foods such as milk.

According to Julie, food donations totaled over 250 million pounds last year. Food bank directors have told her that they receive as much as 35% of their food from Walmart, that it’s higher quality food, and that it consists of more fresh produce, meat, and dairy products than they typically get from other sources.

Food banks are the main route through which donated food is distributed to those in need. Walmart’s warehouse and distribution system personnel can (and do) assist food banks in things like warehouse layout, handling of perishable food, and best shelving and cold storage solutions. And Walmart donated over 150 refrigerated trucks to food banks and Meals on Wheels.

But another reason the focus on hunger makes sense for the Walmart Foundation is that Walmart customers may be more likely than average to experience food insecurity. The average income of Walmart customers is below the national average. As Julie said, “Everything the Foundation does is to benefit low-income people. The people we serve are those who are also benefiting from social services at some point, so we take seriously the fact that all the programs we support move people up ladders toward self-sufficiency.”

Among the hunger-relief programs that have received cash donations (totaling over $500M in the last 2 years) from the Walmart Foundation are
Walmart has made a huge public commitment to nutrition, to reducing sodium and sugar, to purchasing local produce when possible, to increasing the availability of organic food, and to making healthy food more affordable. This will benefit all customers and increase the likelihood that people purchasing food on a tight budget will be able to serve nutritious meals.
It appears to us that Walmart has the power, intention, and momentum to truly reduce hunger in America. 

Thursday, March 24, 2011

How Hungry is YOUR County?

Elaine Waxman, Feeding America's
Vice President for Research and Partnerships,
at the Map the Meal Gap press conference

  • Did you know that nationwide, over 50 million people aren't sure that they can obtain the food they need to maintain a healthy lifestyle?
  • Did you know that food insecurity exists in every county in the US, at rates from 5% to nearly 38% of residents.  
  • How about that the 5 counties that grow the most food also are among the hungriest, with food insecurity rates of more than 20%?
  • How about that the cost of food per person per meal for the USDA’s thrifty food plan varies in different counties from $1.87 to $4.42?

These, and many other facts, come from an extensive new study called Map the Meal Gap 2011.  This study by Feeding America was supported by the Howard G. Buffett Foundation and The Nielsen CompanyCraig Gundersen of the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana was the lead researcher.

We attended the press conference via video today to hear the announcement of the results.  The study’s aim is to provide regional data to help food banks and their member agencies determine how best to serve the clients in their areas.  As Howard G. Buffett said at the press conference, “When you have bad information, you make bad decisions.”  He wanted to help Feeding America have the best data possible, so those working on hunger relief could make good decisions.

From Feeding America's new study, Map the Meal Gap
The county food insecurity data for various income levels was estimated from state and county-wide unemployment, poverty, income levels and demographic data, along with state food insecurity data. The meal costs came from actual grocery store data in each county.

You can find YOUR state and county's food insecurity
rates on Feeding America's interactive map

We find it really impressive that this huge set of data is available in such an easy-to use form. It will be a powerful tool for all hunger-relief organizations, community leaders, and concerned citizens to identify what types of programs would best serve the needs of their communities.  Check it out to see where your county falls!



Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Oklahoma City Indian Clinic

We have written before about the health issues often associated with food insecurity in America, issues such as obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. In addition to ensuring that healthy food is available through food banks, food pantries, and SNAP benefits, what should be done to stem the tide of these insidious conditions?

One population that has a very high incidence of these health problems is American Indians. American Indians in the US suffer from food insecurity and poverty at twice the rates of the general population.  But American Indians suffer from disproportionately higher rates of obesity, diabetes, and other related health issues than would be predicted by socioeconomic status alone.


First, there is a genetic component – some tribes appear to be particularly susceptible to diabetes. For example, the Tohono O’odham tribe in Arizona is reported to have the highest rate of adult onset diabetes in the world, up to 70%.  Other tribes have lower diabetes rates, but still higher than other ethnic groups.
A second factor is diet. Today, American Indians are not generally eating the traditional diet to which they had adapted. The Tohono O’odham tribe had no reported cases of diabetes in 1960, when they ate mostly traditional foods rather than a diet high in fat and calories.

In the 19th century, many American Indian tribes were forcibly removed from their ancestral lands and lost access to their traditional foods and methods of acquiring it.  In the mid 1930’s, the US government created the commodity program to distribute excess food, and in 1949 the program was expanded to explicitly include American Indians. Today, the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR) provides commodity foods to low-income Native Americans and serves as an alternative to SNAP in areas of the country where access to grocery stores is limited.

Initially, commodity foods were high in fats and refined carbohydrates (e.g., white flour, lard, butter, cheese). Today, the commodities provided are healthier, but still higher in refined carbohydrates and fat than the ancestral American Indian diet. Partly in response to the available commodities, Indians developed new “traditional” foods, such as fry bread, that provided less than optimal nutrition. 

Steve Barse, shown beside painting
by Thomas Poolaw, Kiowa/Delaware

The state of Oklahoma has the second largest number of American Indians in the country (8.6% of the state's population), and is the home of 39 Indian tribes. We visited the Oklahoma City Indian Clinic to learn about their nationally recognized approach to prevention of these health problems. Our host was Steve Barse, Community Liaison; and we also spoke with Diane Brown, Health Promotion and Disease Prevention Director, David Toahty, Chief Development Officer, and Hazel Lonewolf, Epidemiologist/ Quality Improvement Coordinator. Here is some of what we learned.

The clinic is open to any American Indian with a Certificate of Degree of Indian Blood. It has served patients from 220 of the nation’s 569 different Indian tribes. About 70% of their 16,000 patients have no health insurance, so most of the funding for the clinic comes from the Indian Health Service and grants. About 10% of their patients have diabetes, and 60-70% are overweight or obese. 

Diane Brown serves veggies at Turtle Camp
In an effort to cut their rate of diabetes and obesity, the clinic offers a large number of wellness programs focused on disease prevention for both children and adults. One that especially caught our attention is Turtle Camp (Teaching Urbans Roads to Lifestyle and Exercise) – a diabetes prevention and wellness program for children ages 6-12.

We got a first-hand look at Turtle Camp, which was underway during the children’s spring break at a local camp facility just outside the city. There were about 52 children in attendance, all patients at the clinic. We helped one day to serve lunch, assess the children’s post-camp understanding, and observe their final fun activities.

One aspect of the nutrition education they’d received that really impressed us was the focus on “everyday” foods and “sometimes” foods. Healthy foods that should be eaten every day, such as fruits and vegetables, were contrasted with food that should only be eaten occasionally, such as cookies and French fries. During the post-camp evaluation, we felt that most kids grasped and could use this distinction. (See also the similar 3-part distinction of “Go, Slow, and Whoa” foods from the National Institutes of Health.)

Ropes Course at Turtle Camp (photo by Andii Tittle)
The staff uses Turtle Camp to “get in all the healthy living education they can.” For example, the camp curriculum also included education on resisting drugs, alcohol,and tobacco. The kids also have lots of time for physical activities. We watched them shoot arrows, trust each other on a low ropes course, and have the thrill of sliding along a low zip line. We also heard about canoeing and playing outdoor games. The kids were obviously having a wonderful time! To help reinforce Turtle Camp’s messages, the kids set at-home goals for themselves and parents receive recipes and cost information on the healthy food that the kids ate during the day.

Archery at Turtle Camp
Turtle Camp does seem to have a long-term positive effect. (See The IHS Primary Care Provider, Volume 30 Number 7, 2005, pages 180-181.)  We were told that Turtle Camp kids are monitored and a reunion is held about 6 months later to see how they’re doing on the goals they set regarding activity and nutrition. Only a very small number of the kids who have been to Turtle Camp have developed diabetes as teens. Turtle Camp was among the programs that won an Indian Health Service National Health Promotion/Disease Prevention award for exceptional performance in 2009. (See American Indian Horizons, Spring 2009, page 11.)

In addition to Turtle Camp, the clinic offers a huge number of other facilities and programs focused on wellness for people of all ages. For example:
  • A large fitness center with treadmills, stair-steppers, weight equipment, fitness classes, and personal trainers. About 60 people/day use this center.
  • Get-SET – a 12-week exercise, weight-loss, and diabetes prevention program for adults
  • Moccasin Movers – an exercise program for elders
  • Project POWER (Providing Opportunities for Wellness, Exercise and Recreation) – a fitness program for youth and families
  • A separate WIC clinic for pregnant and breastfeeding mothers and their children up to the age of 5
    Offering nutritious recipes
  • Lunch-time talks on preparing nutritious, inexpensive food, including recipes and the costs of preparation. Participation is usually 40-60 people/day.
The wellness center at the clinic also makes a special effort to improve the nutrition of all patients. To supplement the work of staff dieticians, the clinic hosts dietetics interns from the University of Oklahoma. We helped intern Jenny Graef distribute information at a National Nutrition Month display in the clinic lobby. We offered recipes for “Eating Well on a Budget” as well as handouts on local farmer’s markets, how to incorporate more exercise into your day, and tips on eating more fiber, fruits and vegetables. 

These and other programs run by the clinic are having the desired effects. The clinic exceeded the goals for diabetes control set by the Oklahoma City Area Indian Health Service (as well as all but one of the other medical goals), and individual patients are lowering their risk for diabetes by controlling their weight and eating healthier food. (See American Indian Horizons, Fall 2010, pages 6- 7.)

Multi-media Image by Shan Goshorn
One more thing about the clinic that impressed us:  it’s not just a full-service clinic. It’s an entire community, focused on the overall physical, behavioral, and spiritual well-being of its American Indian members. A powerful symbol of this holistic approach is that the clinic has five partner Native American artists whose work adorns the corridors of the clinic. (See American Indian Horizons, Fall 2010, pages 48-49.) Here’s an example we particularly liked, a work by Shan Goshorn, Eastern Band Cherokee.

As Steve Barse said in describing the broad approach of the Oklahoma City Indian Clinic, “5 fingers make a fist. The fist is more powerful than the fingers alone.”

Thursday, March 17, 2011

SNAP Benefits and the San Antonio Food Bank

SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly food stamps) is the main federal program to help feed people with limited income. But nationwide (as of 2008), only about 2/3 of those eligible actually receive SNAP benefits. In some states, the rate is even less.

San Antonio Food Bank
Why are rates low? Reasons include difficulty in filing applications, suspicion of the process (e.g., some states require very long applications and finger imaging), misinformation (such as assumptions that you can’t own a car and also receive benefits), stigma, and a reluctance to admit that you’re having difficulty putting food on the table for your family.

One state that has been working to overcome these impediments and to increase their SNAP rate is Texas. Partly due to the efforts of the San Antonio Food Bank, the rate in the 16 counties they serve has grown from about 1/3 in 2001 to nearly 3/4 today.

Why would a food bank be interested in increasing SNAP participation? As President and CEO Eric Cooper told us, increasing SNAP participation is a win-win-win proposition: 
  • People experiencing food insecurity are better able to put nutritious food on their tables.
  • Food banks and other feeding programs have a smaller draw on their limited resource of private and government donated food – less fund raising and fewer appeals for food drives.
    Eric Cooper, Yvonne Vaughan, Paco Velez
  • Communities experience an economic stimulus because SNAP benefits are spent immediately, providing income for the grocery stores and allowing SNAP recipients to spend other money on bills such as rent and utilities. Each dollar of SNAP benefits creates about $1.80 in economic benefits.  The $9M that SNAP recipients received in 2001 in Bexar County (largest county in the San Antonio Food Bank’s service area) is today over $32M. That’s a pretty large economic stimulus!

But why should a food bank be assisting with SNAP applications? Shouldn’t the state agencies responsible for administering SNAP be doing this work?  Well, states are experiencing tight budgets and are finding it difficult to handle the increases in SNAP applicants, so it’s very helpful to them to off-load some of the process to authorized agencies such as food banks. And food banks are already partnering with many agencies that provide services to the poor (the San Antonio Food Bank has 525 partner agencies), so it’s natural to assist these same individuals with SNAP benefits, too. 
We visited the San Antonio Food Bank to learn how their SNAP outreach program works. There, we interviewed Eric Cooper, as well as Paco Velez, Executive Vice President of Services, Yvonne Vaughan, Director of Client Services, and Nancy Sanchez, Help Center Manager. 
Nancy Sanchez (R) explains Help Center
For the San Antonio Food Bank, outreach is not just a bunch of flyers or advertisements. Instead, the service it provides for SNAP is analogous to the service a tax preparer provides for filing income tax returns – Make the process easy and ensure that each person receives the benefits to which they are entitled.
  • Outreach workers go to schools, medical facilities, corporations, and member agencies to inform school staff, medical professionals, and case workers how to refer potential SNAP recipients to the food bank. Then, these workers ask their clients if they’d like the food bank to help them apply for SNAP benefits. If the client agrees, the workers send the referral directly to the food bank help center, and the help center contacts the client directly to help them apply for SNAP and other benefits. The food bank has found this method much more effective than giving the client a flier and suggesting they call the food bank for assistance.
  • Anyone who calls the food bank for food is not only told where the nearest food pantry is to get immediate help, but is also interviewed and helped to apply for SNAP and other federal benefits such as Medicaid. Usually, the paperwork is filled out on the phone, then sent to the client to sign. They are also told what other information they need (ID, pay stubs, etc.) to bring or mail in to complete the application.
  • Agency Outreach Specialist,
    Seth Villalobos with a SNAP client
  • Outreach workers also may interview clients directly at member agencies, either on a set schedule, or whenever there are several people who need benefits.
  • The food bank has recently been trained and authorized by the state of Texas to perform the required interview of the clients and issue them their Lone Star EBT card (not yet loaded with any benefits) so they don’t have to go to the Health and Human Services office at all.  The food bank DOES NOT determine eligibility for benefits.  Every application is submitted to the state for determination of benefits. When benefits are approved, they are loaded onto the Lone Star Card and the client is notified to activate their card with a phone call.
During our visit, we observed the help center in operation. We saw help staff filling out applications and making follow-up phone calls, all in a very competent, friendly and persuasive manner. Most staff speak both Spanish and English, and there is a three-way interpretation service if needed for other languages. The help staff handle about 6,000 calls per month.  We also observed direct client interactions, both at the food bank and at an outreach center (the Salvation Army Women and Family Shelter).  In two of the three interviews we observed, the interviewer identified additional benefits that the client might be eligible to receive.

All in all, the San Antonio Food Bank processes approximately 3,000 SNAP applications per month, which is likely up to 25% of the total for their 16-county service area.

We hope more organizations take up this sort of SNAP outreach approach and achieve the win-win-win that comes from getting authorized benefits to those in need.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Crescent City Farmers Market - Local Food for Everyone

The national movement toward healthier, fresher, more local food has spurred a large resurgence of farmers markets. According to the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service, “as of mid-2010, there were 6,132 farmers markets operating throughout the U.S. This is a 16 percent increase from 2009.” Some 886 farmers markets even operate year-round in 47 states and the District of Columbia.

Are farmers markets for everyone?

Today that answer is no. Only about 13% of farmers markets are equipped to redeem SNAP benefits. This effectively leaves out the 1 in 7 Americans who receive SNAP (food stamp) benefits.

Why don’t all farmers markets accept SNAP?  Well, for starters, “food stamps” are not paper stamps anymore. Since 2004, benefits are credited and debited electronically to the recipient’s EBT (electronic benefits transfer) card.  EBT machines are costly, perhaps $800-$1500, plus annual operating fees. If a market decides to purchase one shared machine, then a market scrip or token system and a central staff to manage it are required.

Richard McCarthy

To help make nutritious farmers market food available to SNAP recipients, USDA Food and Nutrition Service has recommended that EBT machines be supplied to farmers markets that lack them today. President Obama agreed and included $4M funding for EBT machines in the 2012 budget. We, along with the Farmers Market Coalition hope this small but high-leverage line item remains.

In spite of the expense and red tape, more and more farmers markets have begun allowing customers to use their SNAP benefits to purchase food. To find out just how that works, we visited Richard McCarthy, Executive Director of, in New Orleans, LA. has an interesting history. Begun within the Twomey Center for Peace through Justice, it is regarded as a success story in fostering socially-inclusive economic development, especially for farmers and fishermen – “public markets for public good.” Now a separate 501(C)3 organization, offers a wealth of advice, measurement tools, and success stories for those interested in public markets.

Kelly Landrieu
Richard was one of those responsible for starting the Crescent City Farmers Market in 1995, and for re-starting it following the Katrina disaster. Today, operates the market 3 times a week in different locations in New Orleans. They were among the first markets to welcome EBT cards (in Louisiana, the cards are called “Louisiana Purchase” cards).

We visited the smallest and newest of the Crescent City Farmers Market locations on Thursday. It’s open from 3:00pm – 7:00pm. We even got to ring the opening bell!

Vendors at the Crescent City Markets accept cash or special round wooden tokens called “crescents.” Anyone who wants to make purchases with credit, debit, or EBT cards, buys crescents at the welcome table. Thus only a single wireless card reader services all the vendors.

At the welcome table, Kelly Landrieu, Markets Community Coordinator, showed us how it works. Kelly swipes the customer’s card in the wireless card reader, enters the amount they’d like, and when authorized gives the customer their crescents worth $1 or $5. The crescents for EBT customers are slightly different because SNAP benefits can only be used for unprepared food, not other items that might be available at the market such as ready-to-eat food, plants, or crafts. Customers then use the crescents just like cash. They never expire and can be used at any of the Crescent City Farmers Market locations. The day we were there, approximately half the crescents were bought with credit or debit cards and the other half with EBT cards.

The market we saw was vibrant, interactive, and fun. All were treated with equal friendliness and respect throughout the market. It was a community of neighbors. Shoppers ranged in age from about 4 months to about 90 years. Vendors, some of whom came into the city from as far as 2 hours away, chatted with each other and were eager to tell their stories and describe their food to customers.

We bought broccoli from two “WWOOFers” from the Oakland Organic Farm in Gurley, Louisiana, and shrimp from Pete & Clara’s Seafood, just beginning a Community Supported Fishery.  We bought hydroponic tomatoes, home-made pesto, the last of this year’s citrus, a fresh baguette, unhomogenized milk, and Creole cream cheese. YUM! 

Beyond providing an inclusive market full of healthy, local food and open to all customers, positive social change was a goal of the Crescent City Farmers Markets from the start. It didn’t happen by chance.
  • At first, farmers were fearful of making the long trip into New Orleans due to high crime rates and misperceptions about whether the market would be profitable for them. But persisted in recruiting vendors needed to make the market meet customers’ needs. Today the stalls are full and the 3 markets have an annual combined economic impact of nearly $10 million on its vendors, host neighborhood, and surrounding region.
  • At first, SNAP recipients were turned away because the systems weren’t in place to accept EBT cards. But, after working through the arduous process of becoming a certified EBT site, instituted “MarketMatch,” a privately-funded incentive program that for a limited time matches SNAP customers’ first $25 with double crescents when they use their EBT cards at the Market. The result was a huge increase in use of the market by SNAP customers, even when the incentive program was not in effect.
  • At first, older customers tended to find the market intimidating. But now, takes “Farmers Market Bingo” to senior centers, uses this fun game as a way to highlight what’s at the market, and then arranges “Meet Me at the Market” orientations so older customers will feel comfortable there.
Richard also told us that the markets have led to increasingly valued relationships between vendors and the whole range of customers. Shoppers are learning about new foods, eating in healthier ways. Neighborhoods have been rebranded as healthy and friendly communities.

People even come to the market just to meet other people!

Appendix: Does YOUR farmers market accept EBT cards?  Here are two new resources to help farmers markets learn how to accept SNAP/EBT:

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

A Place of Grace in Jackson, MS

Leslie Bingham

The Sunday we were in Jackson, Mississippi, we attended Sunday morning worship services at Galloway United Methodist Church, just a block from the state capitol building. This vibrant and generous congregation of about 2,000 is heavily committed to mission and outreach. So, in addition to an inspiring service led by co-pastors Rev. Dr. Connie Shelton and Rev. Dr. Joey Shelton, a lovely after-church luncheon, and a heavenly evening concert, we were invited to experience their day shelter to feed the homeless in their neighborhood. It’s called Grace Place.

Grace Place was founded 4 years ago. Located right in the church, it is open from 8:30-11:30 a.m. on weekday mornings. It serves a hot meal 4 mornings and “provides a place of rest and respite for those that call the streets their home.” On most mornings, about 70 guests are served. And in 2010, the grand total was 22,000 meals.

We arrived at about 8:00 and Leslie Bingham, Missions and Outreach Director, immediately put us to work setting tables. The kitchen staff (who also cook for other events at the church) and other volunteers and former guests had already been preparing the meal. When the doors opened, each guest signed in, went to the coffee room for a hot beverage, and then gathered in the dining room. Many of the guests chatted with other guests they knew and with the staff and volunteers.

When all were assembled, Leslie welcomed the guests, asked whether any guests were there for the first time (there were about 4), and explained the rules (such as to treat everyone, including the volunteers and staff, with respect). She also introduced us and asked us to say a few words about our project; we were pleased that the group vocalized appreciation. Then one of the guests offered a prayer and serving began, first women, then others table by table.

What a meal they received! – Chicken and rice casserole, green beans with bacon, baked sweet potatoes, and dinner rolls. When it was time for seconds, whatever food was left from the first serving was quickly given out, save for a few green beans and rolls.

What impressed us about Grace Place? As with most feeding programs, much more happens here than feeding. For example:
  • Staff help guests with issues such as transportation, clothes for job interviews, physical and mental healthcare, and getting into treatment for addiction. In addition, Galloway has a program they call “Transformation Trail” that provides income and job experience to one or two guests by hiring them as custodians or kitchen workers at the church. 
    Kaleb Thomson on the Roof
  • Grace Place is experimenting with a rooftop garden, currently managed by Kaleb Thomson, a senior social work major from Mississippi College who is doing a practicum at Grace Place.
  • One of the volunteers, Mark Wall, has been interviewing guests about their stories and taking professional portraits of them, a rare treat for guests. The pictures we saw posted on the wall at Grace Place, were truly captivating.
  • We heard many success stories, guests who had turned their lives around after experiencing the love and support of Grace Place.
Leslie has dreams of one day expanding to a full-fledged facility offering housing and even more services to those in need. But for now, Grace Place is focusing on what they do best – feeding people and providing a place for them to experience the love of Christ.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Mississippi Food Network -- Feeding Hungry Children in Mississippi

In Mississippi, the reported rate of food insecurity in 2009 was 17.1%, higher than the national average of 14.7%. And among Mississippi households with children, especially those headed by single parents, rates were still higher, over 20%. (See the USDA’s report Household Food Security in the United States, 2009.) Food insecurity in children is heartbreaking – it can deny them the nutritious food they need to be healthy, to develop their minds and bodies, to learn in school, and to become productive adults.

Food insecurity is often associated with severe health problems, particularly obesity. According to the Centers for Disease control, the rate of obesity in Mississippi in 2009 was the worst of any state, 34.4%, compared to the national average of 26.7%.

Cassandra Guess with OrganWise Guy

The Mississippi Food Network, located in Jackson, MS, is the Feeding America food bank serving most of the state. In the last few years, it has been increasing its role in combatting hunger and obesity in Mississippi. We interviewed Cassandra Guess, Programs Director, about the creative programs she runs focusing on nutrition education and children.

CLUB Nutrition
Cassandra oversees the CLUB Nutrition program (Children Learning and Understanding Better Nutrition), which aims to teach kids about what they can do to keep their bodies strong and healthy. They use materials from the OrganWise Guys program, including a doll that has removable, cartoon-character body parts to talk about the roles of different foods in keeping bodies strong and healthy – enter Calci M. Bones, Madame Muscle, Hardy Heart, and many others.

Kids Café
In 2007, with a grant from Uncle Ben’s, and in 2008, with a grant from the Lincy Foundation, the Mississippi Food Network began feeding children at six Mississippi Boys and Girls Clubs. Once the initial grants expired, Cassandra couldn’t bear to tell the kids that they would no longer receive food, so she continued the programs by providing snacks through the USDA CACFP (Child and Adult Care Food Program), which reimburses $0.74 for each nutritious snack served.  Currently, the Mississippi Food Network is supplying after-school snacks to 12 sites serving over 800 children.

Many programs would like to feed children a full meal after school or in the summer, but this is much harder, partly because many sites for children don’t have kitchen facilities. They can serve pre-packaged food, transport food to their site from a separate kitchen, or transport the kids to a location that prepares meals. Here, too, the Mississippi Food Network helps by providing food, helping to work out the logistics, and handling the details of CACFP.

BackPack Food

BackPack Program
When kids live in extreme poverty, they often have little access to nutritious food outside of school breakfast and school lunch programs. To help feed them on weekends, many food banks and other organizations provide needy children with child-friendly food to take home on the weekends. The Feeding America program is called the “BackPack Program.”

The Mississippi Food Network began its BackPack Program in 2008 by supplying packages of food to programs for children such as after-school programs, day shelters for homeless people, and Boys & Girls Clubs. In addition, some churches have funded the BackPack program for schools in their neighborhoods. The sites identify which children need weekend food, and the Food Network purchases the food using grant money and other donations. Currently, they’re supplying BackPack food to 9 sites and over 300 kids each week.

Food for the BackPack program is relatively expensive (about $3.65 per package) because, in addition to being nutritious and requiring no refrigeration, it must be easy for children to open and eat by themselves, with little or no preparation. The Mississippi Food Network purchases the packages of food they distribute from the Second Harvest Food Bank of Middle Tennessee.  Each zip-loc bag contains 2 bowls of cereal, 1 cup of shelf-stable milk, 2 juice boxes, 2 fruit cups, and 2 entrees such as beef lasagna or chili, all packaged as individual servings.
Robrelle Murray

To get a first-hand experience with the BackPack program, we visited Operation: U.P.W.A.R.D. and met with Executive Director and founder Robrelle Murray.

A few years ago Robrelle started this program for kids who live in an extremely low-income neighborhood in Jackson. She said she got tired of other "Christians" complaining about the kids hanging around in this neighborhood where she grew up, but not helping because they were afraid to go there. So she started with a blanket on the lawn in a park, where she taught Bible lessons, played games, did craft projects, and gave food to kids who came. The program has now grown (with nearly no funding) to serving about 250 kids after school and on Monday evenings in its own building, which also houses a day care center for preschoolers. 

Robrelle described how the various government assistance programs that are meant to help people actually can trap them in poverty. For example, each dollar a person earns at a job means their benefits (food stamps, rent subsidies, etc.) are cut, but their expenses (child care, transportation, etc.) rise way more than they can then afford, making them worse off than they were before getting a job. People then can’t pay their rent, which forces them onto the streets or into even more substandard housing, and often forces their children to change schools over and over again. Robrelle tries to be the stable and loving presence in these children’s lives.

In addition to providing a snack to kids after school, Robrelle participates in the BackPack Program. Each Friday, she picks up the packages from the Mississippi Food Network and adds them to the back packs of the kids at Operation: U.P.W.A.R.D. The Friday we helped, 47 children received BackPack packages for them to eat on the weekend. The smiles were infectious, and many had to be reminded not to open them right now.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Beth-El Farmworker Ministry

According to the USDA, in 2006 there were approximately 1 million hired farmworkers in the U.S.  Some work with livestock, some are migrant (traveling to work where crops are ripe), and some are seasonal (working only when the crops in their home location need tending). Farmworkers are “among the most economically disadvantaged working groups in the U.S.” and “poverty among farmworkers is more than double that of all wage and salary employees.” (USDA Profile of Hired Farmworkers, 2008, pages 1 and iv.)

What an irony that those who povide food for America's tables are so often hungry themselves. To learn about hunger among farmworkers, we visited Beth-El Farmworker Ministry, Inc., in Wimauma, Florida, just south of Tampa. Beth-El is a Presbyterian mission, founded in 1976. It also has locations in Immokalee, Arcadia, and Fort Meade.

Javier Izaguirre
Beth-El Operations Manager
Our visit to Beth-El was hosted by Javier Izaguirre, once a farmworker himself, and now Operations Manager ensuring that all the programs at Beth-El run smoothly. Javier told us his story, and through him we learned of the many hardships faced by farmworkers, hardships such as:
  • Working very long hours in conditions that are often extremely hot, pesticide laden, physically taxing, and dangerous
  • Very low and uncertain wages, typically based on number of items picked
  • No health or dental care, limited or no workmen’s compensation, no paid vacation or sick leave
  • Discrimination, leading to limited advancement opportunities
  • Stress on families due to frequent moving or absence of a parent
  • Interrupted schooling for children
  • Substandard and crowded housing
  • Risk of wage theft
  • Reports of modern-day slavery
And for those farmworkers who are undocumented, the situation is much worse.  They live in fear of jail and deportation, they pay taxes such as Social Security that they can never recover, and many services available to other people living in poverty are unavailable to them. 
Cosmetology Class

Beth-El’s mission is to “help farm workers achieve self-sufficiency through its open opportunities to worship, its extensive educational programs, and the many services it provides to meet basic needs.” Its programs include 
  • Spanish-language worship services, Bible study, and vacation Bible school
  • A wide variety of adult education classes, such as English as a Second Language, General Educational Development degree (GED), Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA), and Cosmetology
  • Pro-bono legal services
  • Caseworkers to help with housing 
  • Programs for children such as back to school preparation, field trips, and summer camp
  • Mission groups who work at the Mission or help restore housing
  • Addiction recovery programs such as AA
  • Food distribution
Also housed on the campus are Head Start program for children of migrant workers and a charter school for at-risk children operated by Redlands Christian Migrant Association

On Tuesdays from 9:00 to 2:00, Beth-El gives out food to those in the area that need it. Food is government surplus food (FEMA, TEFAP) obtained through the Cahill Food Bank, supplemented by other donations.

The day we helped, we arrived at 8:30. About 20 people were already in line.  Many volunteers were in the “bag room,” where large racks held hundreds of bags that had been partially filled last week. Each held dried pinto beans, rice, and some held 2-5 cans of fruit and vegetables or other items such as crackers, corn meal, and tortillas. We helped complete the bags by adding 2 quarts of shelf-stable milk. As we worked, other volunteers were filling small bags of popcorn and coconut from larger bags, so we added those, too.

Signing in

9:00 came, and the doors were opened. Those who hadn’t yet registered this year, gave their information to a volunteer, who qualified them based on residency and USDA income guidelines and gave them a blue laminated card. Everyone showed their blue card, signed in, received a chip, and exchanged it at the door to the bag room for their bag of groceries. Each person who received groceries also was given a large bottle of dish detergent (donated by Matthew 25: Ministries). 

Meanwhile, in the bag room, the prepared bags ran out and volunteers filling bags from scratch were barely able to keep up with the flow.

Who were the recipients of the food? We saw mostly relatively young Hispanic men and women, a great many with small children. We met a man asking if he could have meat and cereal, too, as he had nothing to feed his children. We met a woman raising her 7 grandchildren alone. We hope that these few staple items were a help to all the grateful folks who came.

All told, the crew of about 20 volunteers handed out close to 800 bags of food before the doors closed.