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.

Monday, November 7, 2016

The Importance and Struggles of Voting

An Opinion Piece from Hub SPEA Service Corps Fellow, Kirby Jewell
For the last couple of weeks, our team at the Hub has been advocating for our patrons and community members to register to vote, request an absentee ballot, get informed on the candidates and issues, and ultimately vote in the upcoming General Election. We believe voting is essential to creating the systemic change that eliminates food insecurity and poverty. While raising awareness is a great way to begin, we cannot make lasting and meaningful changes to break the cycle of poverty without legislative action. Our voter registration push was the first step, and we are inspired that so many people have shown an interest in these efforts so far.
While at the Hub many preach the importance of voting, we also acknowledge that there are many barriers to voting, and that many feel disempowered by the current political system.  From finding information on candidates, understanding what the different positions are, figuring out where you vote, or just getting an idea of what you have to physically bring with you to the polls in order to prove your identity, the entire process can be overwhelming. These problems inevitably dissuade many people from going through the process in the first place. But these issues exist for a reason and that reason is to keep folks experiencing poverty from showing up and voting their interests. By suppressing the vote of those who are often voiceless, officials are able to maintain the status quo. Justifiably, this reality makes many feel powerless, and thus less likely to make the effort to vote.
I was faced with a situation recently that tested how much I was willing to push to have my voice heard in the General Election. I experienced firsthand the attempts that government officials make to deter people from voting - the same attempts that subconsciously urge voters to not put in the effort and forgo voting. I have no doubt that officials at my local Board of Elections were trying to suppress my vote, first by “misplacing” my absentee ballot, and then by reissuing my ballot to the wrong address 5 hours in Ohio away from my home in Bloomington. My faith in the system was shaken as a result of this ordeal, and I made sure to write to my Secretary of State twice to ensure that he was going to act on the matter.
But on my drive back to Bloomington after I had finally cast my ballot, I was left wondering how many people out there, faced with the same dilemma as me, simply gave up. I will readily admit that I am not the typical voter, and that I may be one of the few people left who gets genuinely excited when election season rolls around. I am a rare case, which means that if people were facing the same problem as me, maybe they would just “hope for the best” and see if their ballot shows up before the 8th, which was the advice given to me when I called the Board of Elections. Even though I was not going to let anything stop me from voting, there were times when I really wanted to give up, and I questioned whether or not all of this effort was worth it. But I always came to the same conclusion: it absolutely was.
The election system is difficult enough to navigate, and there are barriers at every step to deter people from voting. These barriers are amplified for those who are faced with issues like food insecurity and poverty, because those are the people who, if empowered, can force the systemic change our system so desperately needs. My hope is that your takeaway from this is that you must keep pushing to have your voice heard, and voting is an important step in accomplishing that goal. Maintaining the status quo is what many elected officials strive for, and they do this through making the process burdensome and complex, and sometimes through outright voter suppression. While this realization may cause people to lose all faith in the system, it only reaffirmed my belief that this fight to have our voices heard is worth it. Once I recognized that resigning to my fate of not being able to vote is exactly what was expected of me, I knew what I had to do. If you are registered to vote but have not decided whether you will head out on Election Day, just remember that our fight to change this broken system can only begin with your defying act - so vote!

Friday, November 4, 2016

The Hub Food Cycle Shake Down

Hey Hub folks, Kristen here.  As many of you know I field dozens of questions a week, if not daily about where our food comes from, and generally why we have so little control over our stock. You have likely noticed that lack of control results in periods of low food supply.  In the name of efficiency and transparency, I would like to explain to you the ins and outs of how the Hub food pantry's food distribution works from day to day.  To paint you a broad picture, the history of food assistance is embedded in rerouting “waste” and “excess” food from the market and into charities that serve those experiencing hunger.  As much as we rely on this system, we are critical of it.  We believe that everyone, regardless of income, deserves access to the food they need, and that there are problematic assumptions in the belief that one’s waste is another’s sustenance.

Photo above is a box of food donated by a local grocery store.

We receive approximately 97% of our food from the Hoosier Hills Food Bank, 2% from direct donations throughout the community and 1% from our organic Hub gardens.  MHC pays a small shared maintenance fee per pound of food to the Hoosier Hills Food Bank to access this product.  Each year, MHC budgets upward of $30,000, to pay for food product that has a retail value of nearly 1 million dollars.  There are a handful of items that we do not have to pay a shared maintenance fee for, like bread and produce.  This is why we can easily say that for every dollar donated, we can obtain 10lbs of food.

Pictured above is commodity food from TEFAP

You have likely heard us talk about TEFAP food.  TEFAP is The Emergency Food Assistance Program, which is commodity food that comes down from the government through food banks to organizations like ours.  We are very reliant on this ongoing input of commodity food, and the administration and quantity of this food is controlled by government policies.

The selection of food in our pantry that we are the most proud of is the local produce.  A small amount comes from our onsite food pantry garden and our off site Butler Park garden.  But the majority is funneled through programs of the Hoosier Hills Food Bank: the Garden and Gleaning Program and the Plant a Row for the Hungry Program. There is no shared maintenance fee for any of this produce.

Photo above is a particularly glorious day of local produce in the food pantry.

MHC receives a truck from Hoosier Hills nearly every day of the week, delivering donations from the food bank and from local groceries stores.  What these trucks have on them is entirely dependent on what the grocery stores have marked as “waste” for that day.  We could receive anywhere from 2-8 pallets of food on any given day.  There is no guarantee that there will be any certain item on the truck, i.e. bread, produce, meat, dairy, etc.  
We also do two shopping trips a week at Hoosier Hills Food Bank.  During those trips we try to fill our truck with as much nutritious food as possible.  This is a challenge many times, as there is no way of knowing what will be on the shopping floor of the food bank.  Some days the floor is filled with food, other days there are few items.  Hoosier Hills Food Bank is reliant on donations and the Feeding America network, and cannot control the consistency of their stock.

About 1100-1200 people come through the food pantry each week, and considering those in their household who may or may not be present, almost 4,000 total individuals receive food from the Hub each week.  We have looked into bulk wholesale purchasing multiple times and each quest has come up with the same result.  It is too expensive to make a noticeable difference in the pantry.  For example, we could purchase a pallet of food and it might last 2-3 days in the pantry but use an entire month’s worth budgeted food expenses.  

It would be ideal if our pantry always had a reliable amount of healthy food to supplement a household’s needs.  Unfortunately, that is not the reality of our national emergency food system’s distribution model.

Relying on waste as a method of providing food will always mean uncertainty for food banks, food pantries, and the individuals and families we serve. To add to these frustrations, keep in mind that the disfunction of distribution is just one part of the issue of national and local food security - it doesn’t account for the root causes of food insecurity that we know need to be addressed, like poverty, oppression, stigmatization and isolation. There are no quick fix solutions to the broken system dealing with food insecurity, but being transparent about the issues is a starting point. As a community, let’s keep talking about it.

If you have any follow-up questions, please feel free to talk to me at the pantry, or to email at operations@mhcfoodpantry.org.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

The 6th Annual Garden Gala

On September 24, Mother Hubbard's Cupboard hosted their 6th annual Garden Gala
The Gala is an event designed to promote and celebrate the beautiful gardens at Mother Hubbard's Cupboard and the community it has created. Many guests attended the event dressed in their best formal attire. 

Drinks and food were donated by many local businesses, which helped to get the party started. Some of these businesses included Cardinal Spirits, Kroger, Rainbow Bakery, Malibu Grill, King Dough, and many delicious others.


Garden tours were given out to guests who wanted to further explore the abundance of food, that the hub has growing for their community. Some of the food found in the gardens during these tours included beans, peppers, peas, lettuce, kale, and many more goodies.

Music was played throughout the night, which included an appearance from the local band The Vallures and a live DJ, as people danced the night away.

Guests took the time to purchase raffle tickets throughout the night to try their luck on different prize packages. Some of these prize packages included local date night options, pampering opportunities, a chance to hold the local famous cat Lil bub, a trip for 4 to Disney, and many more. The night was clearly a success.

The Hub wants to thank everyone who put in the time and work to pull off this spectacular night and the generosity of every business that donated many items. We hope to see everyone again next year!

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Exercising Your Right

Many passionate volunteers have gathered in the food pantry over the past couple weeks eager to help the Hub community exercise our right to vote. Stamps and envelopes have been bought, education boards have been made, and signs have been drawn up.

This year the Hub wants to offer an opportunity to vote. In order to do this we are providing voter registration and education. There are two different ways you can register this year. Paper forms are available to be filled out along with envelopes and stamps, in order to mail out completed forms. If you are in a hurry, forms are available to take home.

Not sure who to vote for? Some of the Hub's interns have made a balanced, nonpartisan  informational board regarding the different candidates running in the 2016 election and their platforms. A packet is also available to take home which offers the same information.

Not sure if you are already registered? There is an online website where you can check whether you are already register. This website also provides a lot more information regarding the election. Name and addresses changes may also be made online or through the form.

Not sure if you want to vote? Even if you are not interested in voting in the Presidential election, it is possible to choose to focus your ballot on local candidates.

Not sure if you will be available the day of the election? Absentee ballots are available at the Hub along with registration forms. These can be filled out by anyone who is not able to be present to vote on the day of the election. Information will be provided on where and when you can vote early.

Stop by the Hub and register today!