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.”