Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Debate Surrounding SNAP Choice

There has been quite lot of talk recently about what SNAP beneficiaries choose to buy with their benefits. The conversation has particularly focused on condemning the purchase of items like soda and sweetened drinks. There is no question that the article - which reignited this debate over whether or not SNAP beneficiaries should be able to buy what they want - manipulated and misrepresented data in order to perpetuate an unfavorable narrative. As a result, many organizations fired back in an attempt to set the record straight, arguing that the findings of the USDA report actually conclude that “SNAP recipients and other households generally make the same purchases.”

It is important that we are aware of these attempts to delegitimize a program that helps keep millions of Americans from going hungry. The debates over SNAP purchases represent the paternalistic nature of our safety net system, and it shifts the public discussion from open access to strict oversight. We cannot support those aiming to escape poverty by dictating what they can and cannot do, and in a society that values free choice that includes allowing people to choose what they want to buy.

SNAP is often one of the most vilified public programs in the country, and this misrepresentation of data is becoming more common with regard to this program. In January of 2017, a report began circulating that claimed $70 million of SNAP money has been fraudulently spent. Even if we accept this premise - which many observers refuse to do, as the article cited a USDA report that apparently does not exist - opponents of SNAP fail to acknowledge that this is a $71 billion program, and with a fraudulent spending rate of 0.09% SNAP would actually be one of the most effective federal programs in existence today. But the numbers resonate, and that is what SNAP critics want. Opponents depend on these misrepresentations to further reinforce the stigmas that haunt people who apply to receive assistance; it legitimizes the “us and them” narrative that opponents rely on to justify draconian cuts to safety net programs.

The problem is that this is not a situation where we should be emphasizing “us and them.” Even if the claims of the article were true why is the first thought that this is an example of SNAP beneficiaries gaming the system? Why is this proof that individuals and families receiving SNAP cannot be trusted to make decisions for themselves? The question we should be asking is why aren’t we subsidizing healthy food options on top of providing SNAP benefits? Why are we okay with the fact that a bag of chips costs half as much as a bag of vegetables? And why are we criticizing people who are making the economical decision to budget their spending based solely on costs? Policy and political rhetoric revolve around the economics of decision-making - that smart individuals will take advantage of the market as it currently exists. Successful business people are often seen as those who cut the deal to get the most at the cheapest cost to themselves. How is that any different than what SNAP users have to do when purchasing food? Why do we judge SNAP beneficiaries on a different scale than we do businessmen?

Part of the mission of the Hub is providing food in a dignified manner; being told what you can and cannot eat is a demoralizing and undignified experience, and it contributes to the persistence of cycles of poverty and food insecurity. We want people to care about the quality of the food they eat, but that should not be done by telling people what to buy - it should be done by making quality foods the economical choice. In a perfect America, we would subsidize healthier options instead of dictating what SNAP beneficiaries can buy, but it is clear that our current environment will make this a difficult goal to achieve. We must be wary of attempts to isolate or differentiate those who find themselves in need of public assistance. The ramifications of legislating our idea of what it means to live in poverty and what people living in poverty should look like would spread well beyond a further entrenchment of the preconceived notions that plague SNAP beneficiaries. If we perpetuate the mentality that there is a specific mold that people living in poverty need to fit, that there is some other way that we can differentiate them from us to make them feel like less than a person, then we have failed as a society.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Moving Towards a More Just Food System: our trip to Detroit

Nothing big happens without advocacy, nothing happens without someone pushing it forward.
--Winona Bynum, RDP PMP  Executive Director, Detroit Food Policy Council

MHC's Stephanie Solomon and Hannah Lenchek
show off their stripes at the Detroit Food Summit
The Hub has been working with Why.Hunger to build a network of organizations across the Midwest who are moving towards a food justice model in their work. We had our first gathering in Chicago, in September of 2016.  We met again in mid March, this time in Detroit. The network is made up of emergency food providers (food pantries), food resource centers, food policy councils and those working with urban farming and community gardens.  The gatherings are a chance to share concerns, resources and ideas around food justice, with a focus on the challenges and opportunities specific to the Midwest region.
We organized this trip in conjunction with the Detroit Food Summit, hosted by the Detroit Food Policy Council. In addition to connecting with like minded organizations across the Midwest, we had the chance to take a food tour of innovative food programs in the Detroit area, and hear from community leaders in the Detroit area about their work in areas such as the Office of School Nutrition in the Detroit Public Schools, or The Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Prescription Program.
We connected as a coalition to explore the dominant narratives around food pantries and emergency food provision, and to begin to draft a new narrative based in principles of social justice. We explored topics such as the difference between equity and equality, what it might look like to move away from a charitable model, and how to envision and support just, sustainable food systems in our communities.

Mark Covington founder of the Georgia Street Community Collective
(photo from the GSCC website)

Georgia Street Community Collective 
Our Detroit food tour took us to the Georgia Street Community Collective. Mark Covington shared the story of returning to his neighborhood after some time away, to find abandoned lots filled with garbage, and neighbors filled with despair. He started by rounding up folks in the neighborhood to clean up some of the lots. Then some folks expressed interest in growing fresh food, something they had little access to in their part of town. Mark and a group of kids and teens in the surrounding houses started gardening in one of the lots. As their website notes, “..Mark began to think in bigger terms...terms like revitalization of the neighborhood, helping the youth of the neighborhood, bringing business to the area, and more…” Now the Georgia Street Community Collective is home to several thriving community gardens, an orchard, beehives, a happy flock of chickens and even a few rambunctious goats. The community center hosts a computer lab, winter jacket give-aways, a program for school supplies and more. The collective organizes Easter egg hunts, harvest festivals and other community gatherings. It’s so inspiring to see such a comprehensive approach, built from the ground up, by the community, for the community!
Mark Wimberly of the Friends Potato Chip Co.
We visited the Friends Potato Chip Co., and heard the story of Mark Wimberly’s vision for his neighborhood. He started by telling us, “We wanted to renew our relationship with the earth, renew our relationship with the community, and renew our relationship with the economy.” So they cleaned up a neighborhood lot and started growing food. Potatoes did well, thus, a potato chip company! Of course, it wasn’t so straightforward. “We Persevered” Mike confessed, “but not without a lot of gnashing of teeth!”  After multiple attempts, their line of delicious, natural chips ended up on Oprah’s Favorite Things list for 2016. Now this innovative social enterprise works hard to keep up with demand. Check out their website to learn more about all the wonderful things going on in their community.
Some of the fresh winter offerings at The Farmer's Hand
The Farmer’s Hand greeted us with delicious samples of locally grown and prepared foods, including a dark chocolate, to-die-for toffee. The Farmer’s Hand is a woman-owned artisanal market, café and kitchen specializing in all-local, Michigan-made food, drinks and gifts. We toured their gorgeous shop, and the site of the future restaurant and heard the founding story from Kiki Louya.
Much of the rest of our visit involved participation in the Detroit Food Summit. Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, Detroit seems to be leading the way in the Midwest towards more sustainable food systems. It is encouraging to see community members taking the lead in making changes that impact their own neighborhoods.

We learned about efforts to change the culture of school food, from Monica DeGarmo from the Office of School Nutrition (OSN). Under the leadership of Betti Wiggins, the OSN has transformed the nutritional standards in Detroit Public schools, doing away with what she calls “carnival food” (hot dogs, corn dogs, fried food) and has increased the amount of fresh fruits and vegetables, including locally sourced produce, and food from their Garden to Cafeteria Program! Bloomington Indiana has a lot to learn from Detroit, when it comes to food in our public schools!

Ben Hall of Russell Street Deli
One of the break-out sessions, Food not Fear, addressed threats to undocumented workers in the food industry. The panel included Ben Hall from Russell Street Deli, a Sanctuary Restaurant in Detroit’s Eastern Market, and other community activists working to protect vulnerable communities from recent immigration crackdowns.

Shane Bernardo sharing a useful organizing tool called Power Mapping
Shane Bernardo walked us through an introduction to Power Mapping, a useful tool for those working in advocacy and social justice. Shane is part of our Midwest Regional network, and we hope to have him visit The Hub for a more complete training in the near future.

The Hub’s own Stephanie Solomon Joined Suzanne Babb of Why.Hunger, Kathy Kelly-Long of the Broad Street Food Pantry, and Emma Garcia of Access of West Michigan in a panel discussion called Moving from Food Charity to Food Justice in the Midwest.
Stephanie Solomon, Emma Garcia, Kathy Kelly-Long and Suzanne Babb, in their
panel discussion Moving from Food Charity to Food Justice in the Midwest

"We put love and energy into every pot and create 
something magnificent." Bianca Danzy 
The women of A Taste of African Heritage put together a delicious lunch on the final day of the summit. Chef Bee (Sisters on a Roll) and Bianca Danzy (Real Food by Bianca) served up some beautifully seasoned collards, one of the many dishes they learned to prepare together in the cooking course focussed on healthy eating through connection to the African diaspora.
Shared dinners and a closing session with the regional network allowed for formal and informal relationship building with folks across the midwest looking to make positive change in our region’s food provision systems. By the end of this exciting and jam-packed week, we left feeling like we had only scratched the surface of the topics we approached, and looked forward to expanding the conversation and deepening the relationships.

We'll have a chance to meet up next in Tacoma, Washington for the Closing the Hunger Gap Conference in September.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Poverty and Incarceration

Blog from Advocacy Intern, Elise Gahan

Most Monday’s, I get to sit around the classroom tables and enjoy a cup of coffee with Hub community members.  We chat about lighter issues like the weather or news but don’t shy away from the big issues of life.  I get to hear about the real, lived experiences of individuals and because of that, better understand the barriers and hurdles they must overcome to fight for what I had always considered basic rights.  I had not realized how difficult it is to secure and maintain safe housing or how there is a shortage of careers that provide a livable income rather than a job that barely allows a family to squeeze by.  But, by sitting around the table and hearing the stories of others, I better understand how exactly oppression is the root cause of poverty.  I see how when we collectively are not working to create a society where everyone has equal opportunity to succeed and thrive, the cycle of oppression will only continue.  In one conversation, I saw how prison is a specific way that this cycle is created.

I knew from the news that people who are incarcerated once are more likely to return to jail, but I never dug into the reasons why this is the case.   By talking to someone, I found out that after jail, some individuals go directly to a homeless shelter because they do not have the money necessary to rent a place of their own.  This does not dignify individuals or give them the resources and skills they need not only to survive but to create the life that will keep them from re-entering jail. Rather, it promotes the cycle of returning to jail.  As one person put it, “It’s a vicious cycle if you’ve been in jail for any length of time.  You don’t know how to live on the outside  It’s (jail) all you really know.”   If the purpose of jail or prison is to provide correctional action, we must evaluate whether or not that is occurring; is time spent behind bars resulting in a successful reentry into society?  I would argue that the lives of individuals who have been incarcerated is evidence that it is not.  

One of the flaws I see in our current correctional system is the lack of mental health care.  A report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics stated that 61% of inmates in State prison and 44% in local jails had mental health problems.  Additionally, 74% of State prisoners and 76% of local jail inmates that had a diagnosable mental health problem also met criteria for substance dependence or abuse.  Despite the high prevalence of mental problems in the prison system, little is done to address them with only 1 in 3 state prisoners and 1 in 6 local jail inmates receiving treatment while in correctional facilities.  While the relationship between crime, poverty, and mental illness is complex, failing to address the known underlying cause of mental health is a fatal flaw; one that is shown to cause re-entry into the prison system.  The rates of recidivism, particularly of those with mental illness, demonstrate the need for more services and treatment than what is currently provided.  Making mental health services a priority would increase the upfront cost of incarceration, but I believe that preventing future crime and equipping an individual to re-enter society successful must be worth that cost.

As I tried to think about what would be expected of me after exiting jail, the list became extensive and overwhelming quickly.  I realized how hard it is to get a job yet there are immediate needs for money, how you might lack a support system, you are expected to live successfully independent constant oversight, yet you may have never had a healthy role model and lack social support.  This is made even more difficult when safety net programs are made inaccessible.  For example, currently in Indiana, there is a ban on receiving the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) if you have had a drug conviction.  However, legislation has been introduced that would opt Indiana out of this federal law, which is much needed forward progress.    

I realized how society has conditioned individuals to pull themselves up from their own bootstraps, yet for formerly incarcerated individuals, we do not give them the opportunity to do so.  If someone has a gap in their resume or a felony on their record, they are often given no serious consideration at jobs that can develop into careers.  When I asked someone about jobs in Bloomington, they said, “After a while it’s hard to get a job unless you want to work for the college or for fast food joints… And if you don’t dress right or look right with long hair and a beard… You gotta look the part if you want the job.”  Not hiring the formerly incarcerated while expecting that they support themselves cannot coincide, so the result is formerly incarcerated individuals being forced to live in poverty.

Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard has seen the negative impact of this cycle in the lives of our patrons. We have seen people who are unable to get back on their feet because of their time spent in jail, and we have witnessed how a lack of jobs, housing, and resources creates insecurity and marginalization. We see that there are gaps in services that need to be filled.

Progress is happening.  The Monroe County Correctional Center is currently building a mental health unit that will provide services to the estimated 50% of inmates with mental illness.  The hope is that the services will continue as inmates transition out of jail to better address the medical needs they have.  This is a step in the right direction, one that will hopefully provide services that prevent recidivism and deal more directly with the root cause. In greater society, we can work together to support individuals with mental illness by advocating for continued expansion of mental health treatment facilities that are affordable and accessible to all.  When we place a higher value on holistic health, health that constitutes body and mind, progress can be made in creating an environment that supports all individuals.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Addressing Food Insecurity with Kids Cook!

by Communications Intern Nicole Lieb

Before interning and volunteering at Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard, I rarely thought about how food insecurity is a major issue in both the United States. Specifically, I never thought about how food insecurity affects children. In the U.S. alone, 13.1 million children are food insecure, in the state of Indiana, 355,410 children are food insecure, and in Monroe County, 4,750 children are food insecure. These numbers are both overwhelming and terrifying, as no child should be food insecure. After learning about how many children are food insecure in the U.S., I realized how hard Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard is trying to fight this issue.

Every Tuesday and Thursday from 4-5:15pm, the Hub hosts Kids Cook. Kids Cook is drop-in sessions that features hands-on cooking projects for children of all ages, healthy food choices tips, and delicious samples. Therefore, at Kid’s Cook, children learn how to cook, how to eat healthy, and how to garden, and on Tuesday, December 6, I attended Kid’s Cook to see exactly what goes on there.

Attending Kids Cook was easily one of the best decision I have ever made. When I walked into the kitchen at 4pm on December 6th, I was memorized by the smell of the kitchen and the excited children anxiously waiting to start cooking. At Kids Cook, the children were making Banana Oatmeal Cookies! The cookies are gluten free, vegan, and sugar free. Before the children started cooking, the Youth Educator, Georgia O’Connor, challenged the children by asking questions such as, “Have you ever made cookies at home? What are typical ingredients in cookies? What does flour add to cookies and why are we substituting oatmeal for flour?” These questions got the kids thinking and made them even more excited to start making the cookies!

All of the children at Kids Cook participated in making the cookies, from mashing up the bananas to mixing the cookie batter to putting the cookie batter onto the cookie sheet. It was amazing to see the children work so hard together to make the cookies. They were following directions, taking turns, and cleaning up while learning how to cook and eat healthy!

From the children being extremely cooperative to being eager to learn how to make the cookies, I had the best experience at Kids Cook. I was reminded of how important it is for children to learn how to cook and how to eat healthy, as knowing how to cook and how to healthy are very important. These children were gaining life long tips and were having so much fun while doing it!

I was so impressed by the impact and difference Kids Cook is having on our youth and how Kids Cook is making sure that less children are food insecure. Kids Cook taught me that the Hub is so much more than a food pantry, that it is an educational spot where people of all ages can go to learn how to better themselves, their communities, the environment, and the world.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

The Vicious Cycle: Untold Stories of Poverty and Mental Illness

by Advocacy Intern Dane Kirchoff-Foster
“It’s their own fault anyway!”
There is a fundamental belief underwriting our individualist culture: each of us succeed or fail based on personal merit.  This belief, for all its attraction, is not gospel.  Let others sing the praises of American individualism--I would rather now weep for its victims.  When we believe wholeheartedly that our life is our own responsibility, we render invisible those fighting desperately to make ends meet; we become skeptical (even afraid!) of those fighting every day against their own minds to do tasks we take for granted.  Furthermore, we forget the obvious--being mentally ill makes making ends meet harder.  We also ignore that which we perhaps never knew--the stress of poverty can turn your own mind into a new enemy.
Let this blog, then, serve as a quick education.  There is a vicious cycle spinning in the background of our society, born of America’s combined failure to adequately provide for the mental health and financial well-being of its citizens.   Those experiencing mental disorders in our country are at an increased risk to fall into poverty where access to mental health resources becomes almost non-existent; similarly, those already caught in the cycle of poverty are more likely to develop mental illnesses that they have no way to treat.  Without recognizing that this cycle exists, we can only ever treat half the problem.
The vicious cycle: mental illness leads to poverty, and poverty leads to mental illness.
In case you’re not convinced of this yet, let’s talk numbers.  A 2014 Gallup poll shows an increasing prevalence of depression the longer one remains unemployed; multiple reports show that about a quarter of the homeless population in America suffers from severe mental illness, compared to just 6% in the general population; finally, a five-year-long study by the CDC concluded that income is inversely related with serious psychological distress (an indicator for mental illness), and those with serious psychological distress are more likely to be uninsured, unemployed, and in physically poor health.  All this summed up: where you find one, you’re more likely to find the other. Furthermore, there is research claiming mental illness as a major leading cause of homelessness in the United States, and more research reporting the unequivocal causal effect of mental illness on unemployment, and unemployment on mental illness.  Not only does mental illness make it harder to keep a job, but experiencing poverty increases environmental stresses that can “activate” mental illness within those that are predisposed, but would otherwise never experience its full expression.
This issue isn’t about numbers--it’s about people.
The vicious cycle between poverty and mental illness, however, is not just a pile of statistics and facts.  It’s a human issue, with human suffering involved.  Here at the Hub, we get to see the human side of the issue every time we open our doors.
At the Hub, I met a gentleman who was kind, polite, and talkative.  He seemed at ease in the space we made for people to enjoy a short lunch, and had the effect of putting others at ease around him.  He was free with his compliments and also with his stories, so I settled down to listen to the ones he had to tell.  As I listened, I quickly realized (armed as I was with all the knowledge afforded me by my undergraduate minor in Psychology and my one class on Abnormal Psychology) that this man displayed all the classic signs of schizophrenia.  This man who was so kind and gracious, and had so many stories to tell, but had no one to help him.  He seemed lonely and quite alone, and about all we at the Hub can do is give him a place to stop by once a week to pick up food and maybe have a conversation.
At that same meal, I met a woman describing her own struggles taking care of her son.  After a long and confusing process, her son came out with five different diagnoses from different mental health providers.  Because of his (and her own) low income, she found it very difficult to find any suitable treatment for him.  She researched, becoming something of an expert on medical treatments for mental illnesses, and traveled to every mental health care provider in the area.  What she found is that there are alarmingly few places to go for mentally ill patients of low income, like her son.  Out of the few there are, all are overburdened and difficult to access--particularly if prescription medicine is needed.  Despite these challenges, this woman is still an advocate for her son, which makes him very fortunate.  Due to the nature of his diagnoses, her son had no insight into his own illness, making him incapable of being an advocate for himself.  This situation is all too common, and all too often there isn’t anyone to step in on a struggling person’s behalf.
Just last week, I had the pleasure of speaking to another woman at one of our Hub coffee talks whom has worked in the mental health industry for over 17 years now.  With sadness in her eyes, she described to me why people like the woman and her son run into the problems they do.  Out of necessity, mental health care providers serving vulnerable communities have started to prioritize profit (from Medicare and Medicaid, mostly) over patient.  This shift makes it all the harder for potential patients, often drowning them in paperwork.
We’re letting down those who need help the most.
These are the stories that come out of the Hub every week, and they are not isolated.  As a society, we need to stop treating mental illness as a problem only for those who can afford and access treatment.  In fact, it’s a uniquely common problem for those who can’t.  Addressing the problem by calling it just a mental health issue, or just a poverty issue, leaves behind the droves of people who experience it as both, and who are not adequately helped by one or the other approach.  We need to make more mental health resources accessible for more people--right now, the people who need help the most are slipping through the cracks.