I am leaving Food Bank of Alaska this fall. But I will remain in food banking. I am thrilled and humbled to have been chosen to be the new CEO of the Oregon Food Bank.
I joined FBA in 2001. At that time, FBA was a small nonprofit organization collecting and distributing donated food and distributing USDA commodities through the TEFAP program. FBA served mostly Anchorage agencies with few partners in rural Alaska.
I am so proud of what the FBA team has managed to accomplish together since then. FBA now runs three USDA commodity programs and serves meals through two child nutrition programs. We advocate for federal and state legislation that will help reduce hunger. Our donated food program has grown in size and complexity and is connected to food banks across the nation. We have a sophisticated and growing purchased food program. We have expanded our collaborations throughout the state and now serve more than 300 partners in 90 communities.
Of course, none of this was possible without the smart, collaborative staff and Board at FBA, as well as our community partners, donors, volunteers and advocates. Many thanks to all of you for how you have helped advance the cause of ending hunger in Alaska.
I am privileged to be able to take this experience to Oregon Food Bank and continue to pursue my passion for ending hunger. Oregon Food Bank (OFB) is a leader in a statewide network of 20 food banks that collectively distributes 80 million pounds of food to more than 900 partner agencies. OFB has a fascinating focus on the eliminating the root causes of hunger through advocacy, education, community engagement and other innovative projects. OFB is well known and highly respected with tremendous community support. OFB’s staff is super knowledgeable and deeply committed to its mission.
I am devoted to ensuring that FBA remains strong during this leadership transition. I will stay personally engaged in FBA’s holiday collaborations this year. I leave FBA with a strong Board and a strong staff team. And I will stay in contact and lend my collegial support across the miles.
Food is medicine.
University of California San Francisco released a study recently tracking the health status of 347 HIV-positive patients living in San Francisco. The food insecure patients, defined as a regular inability to obtain enough healthy food, were roughly twice as likely to have visited the ER or been hospitalized over a three-month period, compared with patients who had enough to eat. Food insecurity was more likely than homelessness, drug abuse or depression - or just about any measurable problem associated with poverty - to lead to trips to the hospital.
This confirms what those of us working in the anti-hunger field know firsthand: that food is a key to good health, and that food has the ability to aid healing and promotes vitality.
This study suggests that greater investment in food and nutrition may be a relatively inexpensive method for cutting healthcare costs by keeping people in their homes and out of hospitals.
My family took a vacation on the Maine coast this month, and I was able to sneak away from the kids long enough to visit the Good Shepherd Food Bank in Auburn, Maine. I make an effort to visit food banks in other parts of the country because I always learn something.
I arrived in the office to find a sign saying “Welcome Susannah Morgan”. Their warm and capable staff promptly whisked me off for a 90 minute conversation about the issues they were facing; I was honored that they treated me as an expert consultant.
The Good Shepherd Food Bank, which serves organizations statewide, is about twice as large as Food Bank of Alaska in every respect – warehouse size, staff, and budget. They have some warehouse equipment that greatly improves efficiency in food sorting and packing CSFP boxes; I promptly added that equipment to my wish list.
It was also clear that Good Shepherd Food Bank is just at the start of building an advocacy program to track anti-hunger legislation; they are in the position Food Bank of Alaska was in five years ago. So we really were able to learn from each other – and hopefully hunger folks in both Maine and Alaska will benefit.
My older son Rhys, 3, has the genetic disorder Williams Syndrome. One of the many effects of this syndrome is difficulty chewing and swallowing.
Recently, at dinner, Rhys rejected gorgeous Alaska salmon, which touched his tongue before going over his shoulder to the waiting dogs. He rejected steamed carrots, carefully placing them on my plate without tasting. He stuffed so much bread into his mouth that he couldn’t swallow and pulled out a soggy, doughy mass. He finally settled for small slices of medium cheddar cheese, crackers, and pureed green beans that I patiently spoon-fed him.
I am lucky that I am able to afford good foods for Rhys, enough food to keep trying until we find something successful. I am lucky that I have health insurance that covers a therapist to help Rhys with feeding behaviors. It would be a nightmare to parent Rhys without enough money for food – imagine budgeting carefully to provide fresh vegetables that your child promptly rejects!
Rhys is one of the reasons that I believe so strongly in providing food assistance in a manner that encourages clients to choose their own foods. We simply don’t know how many of those families have children like Rhys at home – or what other challenges they may be facing.
I had a tooth pulled recently – an old root canal finally failed. Eating soft foods after the dental surgery reminded me of the jello story. The jello story is an early lesson in my conversion to client choice food distribution practices. It is also a seminal moment in the history of Catholic Social Services St. Francis House, one of Anchorage’s largest and best food pantries.
Nearly ten years ago, no food pantries in Anchorage were aware of client choice practices – that is, allowing clients seeking food assistance to select their own food based on their own nutrition needs, cultural background, preferences, etc. Every food pantry in Anchorage distributed a pre-made box of food.
At a conference for food banks, I learned of client choice practices and its inventor, John Arnold of Feeding West Michigan Food Bank. I invited John to come to Alaska and talk at an anti-hunger summit. John captured our attention with stories about the benefits – nutritional and emotional – of client choice practices. He urged food pantries to access all sorts of foods, not just the traditional canned foods, and to allow clients some choice in selecting their foods.
The manager of St. Francis House was particularly inspired. While he couldn’t change their processes overnight, the very next day he came down to Food Bank of Alaska and selected foods that he would not have otherwise, including cake mix and several boxes of jello. He took this food back to St. Francis House, put it out on a table, and invited clients to select an item or two along with their pre-made box.
That day, a woman came to St. Francis House seeking food assistance who had just had dental surgery. She had nothing at home that she could eat and no money. She nearly burst into tears when she learned she could have the jello on the free choice table. For her, that day, jello was exactly what she needed.
St. Francis House was one of the earliest food pantries to adopt of client choice practices, although many other pantries across the state have made the transition as well. And the jello story continues to remind me of the overwhelming importance of empowering our hungry neighbors to make their own choices.
Most Alaskan school districts are wrapping up the school year this week or next. But too many Alaskan kids don't look forward to summer. Why? Because school is out, they don't have access to free or reduced price lunches and breakfasts.
The goal of USDA's Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) is to provide meals to low income kids during the summer time. However, because most schools are not open, these meals have to be served by another community organization, such as a tribe, a church, or a nonprofit organization. SFSP's heavy paperwork load can make this an intimidating project.
FBA has been 'sponsoring' SFSP sites since 2007. As a sponsor, FBA assumes the legal and financial responsibility for SFSP sites as well as most of the paperwork. This makes it much easier for smaller organizations to serve meals to kids. In rural Alaska, FBA also provides shelf-stable meals for distribution.
Despite our best efforts, and those of dozens of other organizations feeding kids in the summer time, SFSP is still severely underutilized. For every 100 kids receiving a free or reduced price lunch during the school year, only 10 kids get a meal through SFSP.
Here at FBA, we are committed to expanding SFSP — through our own sponsorship, by encouraging other organizations to sponsor sites, through public education, and through advocacy for simplifying the program. It is simply unacceptable that children should be hungry during the summer.
Congress is working on the Farm Bill, that huge piece of authorizing legislation which includes Food Stamps and USDA commodity programs. Naturally, we are paying close attention. But we aren't the only ones.
Bread for the World, a Christian anti-hunger organization, is incensed at statements made by members of Congress saying that feeding people is really only the work of churches. The House Budget and Agriculture Committees recently proposed huge cuts in Food Stamps. Based on the estimate that there are 335,000 religious congregations in the United States, Bread for the World calculated that every single congregation — big, small, tiny — would have to dedicate an additional $50,000 to feeding hungry people to make up for the cuts in Food Stamp spending. This would be in addition to the resources that churches are already committing to the ministry of feeding hungry people.
We love working with the faith community; they are vital partners in ending hunger in Alaska. But we agree 100% with Bread for the World. The U.S. Government should not be cutting food stamps during this prolonged economic recession, when so many households are counting on food stamps to feed their families. Our daily work tells us that, despite everything we are doing right now, we are not meeting the need for food assistance. We need MORE help, not less, from the government if we are to ensure that no Alaskan is hungry.
"All around the dining hall, you can feel the rejuvenating effect that a good meal can bring on. The way it can make people kinder, funnier, more optimistic, and remind them it is not a mistake to go on living. It's better than any medicine."
This sentiment is from Mockingjay, the final book in Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games trilogy. This is riveting, if depressing, reading. The main character of these science fiction books is Katniss, a teenage girl who taught herself to hunt to keep her family from starving in a cruel future.
Katniss may be a fictional character, but children who look out for the nutritional needs of their families are not. I met a fourteen year old girl named Susie in Muldoon several years ago at Thanksgiving Blessing. Susie was standing in line for a turkey and all the fixings for her family. Susie had a folder full of documentation showing she lived with her disabled grandmother and 9 year old brother. I watched Susie walk off into the November night carrying bags full of food, burdened but happy.
The entire national food bank network is in mourning. John Arnold, long time Executive Director of Feeding West Michigan Food Bank, passed away on March 22, 2012. John was a pioneer and an inspiration.
John was passionate about ending hunger. He simply could not believe that, in the land of plenty, anyone should worry about their next meal. And in a lifetime of service in food banks, he developed some very simple yet powerful programs that continue to change the anti-hunger network.
John invented the Mobile Food Pantry, a beverage truck loaded with fresh food that goes to a low-income neighborhood. It meets a group of volunteers who pull tables off the truck and distribute the food right then and there. The Mobile Food Pantry takes food to those who need it most, prevent waste of highly perishable and nutritious foods, and eliminates the need for capital investment in more permanent food pantries. This brilliant approach has been adopted throughout the country.
John also first proposed the concept of client choice — the idea that hungry people should be able to choose their own food instead of being given a pre-packed box of food that might include items that they don't know how to cook, don't meet their cultural or dietary requirements, or just don't like. Client choice is dignity and efficiency, elegantly combined.
John's legacy lives on. But in addition to being a giant in the world of food banking, John was also my mentor and my friend. I think of him and miss him every day.
Our second son, Frey Morgan-Krebs, was born on February 16. Three thousand cheers!
While Frey's birth mother Jocelyn Krebs gets most of the credit for this feat, we relied on a lot of kindness and favors from friends and family. As FBA's Executive Director, I spend much of my time committing acts of charity, not receiving them. It was really good for me to be reminded that very best charity is easy to accept because it is so clearly an act of love.
Friends Oya and Robin and Jocelyn's mother Ellen all watched our first son Rhys during this process — which involved staying at our house through the night. Oya and Ellen both stayed with Jocelyn in the hospital for hours so I could keep up some semblance of Rhys's routine. Trevor and Steve picked up a glider chair from South Anchorage, delivered it to our house in Eagle River, and helped me assemble it. Shannon and John combined forces to bring one of our cars from our house to the hospital. Several friends brought us non-hospital food. Lots of friends visited us in the hospital, bringing us cheer and the comfort of telling the birth story again and again. We were enveloped in love.
The best food distributions also are clearly acts of love. Thanksgiving Blessing, for instance, is explicitly a food distribution focused on love and faith that joins humans together. That must be why the families served at Thanksgiving Blessing tell us again and again that they leave with turkeys AND the feeling that their community cares about them.
I got a severed chain link the mail the other day. Here's the story behind that odd gift — and why it made me burst into tears.
John Arnold spent his life in food banking. Most recently he spent two decades as the Executive Director of the Feeding America West Michigan Food Bank but he previously served at the food bank in St. Louis as well as working at Feeding America, the national food bank network.
John and I met while serving on a Feeding America task force in 2002-2004. John is a visionary with an all-consuming fervor for fighting hunger. John invented the Mobile Food Pantry. He developed the concept of Client Choice food pantries, in which hungry people have the dignity of being able to choose their own food. He is forever thinking, analyzing, advocating and inventing. Drawn to his passion, his compassion, and his intelligence, I soon looked to John as a mentor and then a friend.
So where does the chain link come into this? Well, back in 1986, the St. Louis Area Food Bank chained their dumpsters closed to prevent any access to potentially harmful food waste - food banks don't throw away food that is good to eat! John arrived at work one day to find that someone had cut the chain and rifled through the dumpster. John carried this severed chain link in his pocket every day since as a reminder of the desperation that hunger can cause.
However, even John's boundless energy has been drained by a particularly virulent cancer, and he is dying. John mailed me the chain link with a note asking me to accept "a reminder of what is at stake in our efforts to get food to needy people. It isn't 'nutritious' food vs. 'junk' food. It is food vs. things we don't even want to think about! As my days of combating hunger are coming to a close, it seems like that reminder should live on, and I would be honored if you would be the caretaker of it in my place."
Reading those words, I started to cry. I am touched beyond words that John should choose me to carry this talisman. And I will really miss my friend.
I started the New Year thinking about food safety. Or to be more accurate, I was thinking about food safety during my lucid moments in an extremely unpleasant bout of food poisoning that struck at 4 am, January 1, 2012. Ugh.
At FBA we take food safety very seriously. After all, the worst thing that can happen when you are trying to help someone is to make their life worse, right? Here's what we do:
- We keep our facility and equipment clean
- We train our staff in handling food safely
- We make sure that food is inspected as we receive it and that it is stored at the proper temperature
- We train our partners in handling food safely. With lots of help from the wonderful folks that Municipality of Anchorage Health and Social Services Department and the State Department of Environmental Conservation, we developed and implemented a food safety training course that meets state and municipal standards while targeted to the needs of food pantries.
- We are inspected. A lot. We are inspected by the Municipality, by five different administrators of federal nutrition programs, and by Feeding America, the national network of food banks.
Most importantly, though, we keep trying to improve. Our Director of Operations Larry Smalley attended a special two-day training on food safety this past fall. We recently revised our training for our partners.
And yes, I'm feeling much better, thank you!
Driving from site to site for Neighborhood GIFT to check on the progress of the project, I stumbled across an angel, literally. Angel, a mother of four, was sitting despairingly outside Clark Middle School. She could not carry her turkey, festive foods, and toys the 10 or 12 icy blocks home by herself, and her ride had deserted her. So I gave her a lift.
Angel was a lovely, cheerful woman, full of gratitude for this easy favor. She told me about her children and how hard it was to find an appropriate toy for her 11 year old daughter who has outgrown dolls and likes to play the bass. The state of her home in a Mountain View alley made me gasp; it was so ramshackle and pieced together from odd bits of plywood and metal sheeting that it resembled something out of a South American shanty town. It was abundantly clear that that the food and toys Angel received through GIFT were desperately needed.
Merry Christmas, Angel. I am so happy we could help your family enjoy the holidays. May 2012 bring you greater prosperity!
Tuesday, December 20 is Neighborhood GIFT, the holiday food and toy distribution for low income Anchorage families. Food Bank of Alaska provides the turkeys and festive groceries, The Salvation Army and USMC Toys for Tots provides the toys, and the faith community and the Anchorage School District provide the facilities and the hospitality.
This is a huge project; we expect to serve 6,000 families. As an attempt to communicate this experience, I will be tweeting on Monday and Tuesday about GIFT. Follow me at susannahinak or foodbankofak.
Through Thanksgiving Blessing this year, the faith community supported by FBA provided turkeys and all the fixings for a festive meal to 1,402 families in the Mat-Su Valley and 6,733 families in Anchorage and Eagle River.
Susan, who received help at Crosspoint Church in Anchorage, said "This means everything to me. It means whether I have Thanksgiving or not."
Traci, looking for guidance on with Blessing site to visit, wrote, "This year and these last few months in general have been some of the most hard times we have had in a long time. I'm afraid that I'm not going to be able to give my family a thanksgiving dinner like they deserve. I don't want to have it to be just another holiday that we cannot afford. I would love to be able to make my family a great thanksgiving meal to show how much we have to give thanks for."
Thanksgiving Blessing was my brainchild. Carol Warren, then Executive Director at Lutheran Social Services, and I rallied the faith community into creating the first Anchorage Thanksgiving Blessing in 2004. Blessing is much bigger than me or any one person now — it takes thousands of volunteers across southcentral Alaska to implement the Blessing project.
But when I hear from Susan and Traci and folks who Blessing helps, I feel proud that Blessing will be part of my legacy to the community.
Thanksgiving is the busiest time of the year for Food Bank of Alaska. In collaboration with the faith community we sponsor the Blessing project, a community-wide distribution of turkeys and all the fixings, in the Mat-Su Valley on Saturday, November 19 and in Anchorage on Monday, November 21. We expect to provide food to 8700 families those two days. This project was my brain child and is still my personal 'baby'.
So of course my actual baby, my two year old son Rhys, falls sick. His weekend bad cold turned into goopy eyes that the pediatrician diagnoses as an eye infection. So at 10:30 am on Monday, November 14 I found myself in Fred Meyers with Rhys waiting to pick up prescription eye-drops. Despite a runny nose and eyes, Rhys is full of energy.
Rhys is running around through the Christmas section and I am trotting along behind with a cart when my cell phone rings. It is Senator Menard's office; Senator Menard would like to participate in Valley Thanksgiving Blessing. ("Wonderful! Don't eat that! No, sorry, I was talking to my son.") I have great respect for Senator Menard as a woman of compassion and integrity, and I'm delighted that she is available to join our Thanksgiving project.
We progress to the cards and balloons section. As Rhys hums along with a musical card, I call Kay Peterson, the site coordinator for the Blessing Wasilla site, to inform her that Senator Menard will be coming by. ("Senator Menard will want to help thank the volunteers and welcome clients. Don't tear that! Sorry, Kay, I was talking to my son.") Kay informs me of changes to the trucking arrangements to transport turkeys and food from FBA to Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Wasilla.
Rhys is now rolling around on the floor, arms and legs wrapped around a Princess and the Frog balloon. Hoping it is a strong balloon, I call Larry Smalley, FBA's Director of Operations, to fill him in on the logistical changes for Valley Blessing. ("Yes, the first truck will arrive at 11 am - Rhys, watch your head! — and the second at about 3 pm.")
The phone calls are done. The balloon survives Rhys's adoration. The prescription is finally filled, and Rhys and I are off to a meeting with a potential new Board member, who thankfully turns out to have a two-year-old herself.
It must be Blessing week!
Federico Garcia Lorca said, "The day that hunger is eradicated from the earth, there will be the greatest spiritual explosion the world have ever known. Humanity cannot imagine the joy that will burst into the world on the day of the great revolution."
I know that joy. Every year at Thanksgiving, I am utterly blessed to participate in the Thanksgiving Blessing Project. FBA and the faith community in Anchorage and the Mat-Su Valley share Thanksgiving with our hungry neighbors by distributing turkeys, stuffing, gravy, vegetables, pies and all the groceries necessary for a festive meal.
We named this project Thanksgiving Blessing because the faith community would have the opportunity to bless our neighbors with food. But I believe that each of us involved with Thanksgiving Blessing feel that we receive many more blessings than we give. We have the opportunity to feel the joy of knowing that none of our neighbors will go hungry on Thanksgiving.
Valley Thanksgiving Blessing will take place on Saturday, November 19 from 10 to 4 pm at sites in Wasilla, Willow, Trapper Creek and Talkeetna. Anchorage Thanksgiving Blessing will take place on Monday, November 21 from 3 to 8 pm at six sites in Anchorage and one in Eagle River. Please see the calendar of events for more information on Thanksgiving Blessing - this massive, and massively joyful, project.
Should we tell people what to eat?
I led a very spirited discussion at the Alaskan Families Come First Conference earlier this month, organized by the Department of Public Assistance. We debated whether food banks and food pantries should distribute all food that is donated, whatever its nutritional content. We pondered whether the use of food stamp benefits should be limited to 'healthy' foods.
I have strong feelings on this subject. I believe that food is about more than nutrition — it is also about family, culture, comfort and personal identity. I believe that neither food banks nor the government should tell people what to eat or deny people any particular kinds of food.
However, there is no denying what we eat matters. Most Americans — me included — could eat better. FBA analyzes the nutritional content of our food annually, to make sure that we are distributing a good mix of foods, including protein, vegetables, produce, dairy and grains. FBA is working hard to obtain and distribute more fresh produce, as one of the best ways to improve nutrition. And we are exploring the possibility of providing nutrition education to food pantry clients in partnership with the great folks at the UAF Cooperative Extension Services.
My hope is that, without ever telling people what to eat, FBA can encourage everyone we touch to make healthy eating choices much of the time.
I had one of those rare and glorious "all is right with the world" days yesterday, thanks to Adam Boyd and his family and the Anchorage East Rotary Club.
Adam Boyd owns Mat-Su Potato Growers and is a long-time donor and friend to Food Bank of Alaska. Adam welcomed 40 members of Anchorage East Rotary Club and their friends to his Palmer farm yesterday to glean a potato field.
"Glean" means to gather the produce or grain left in the field after the harvesters have passed through. Adam uses a mechanical potato harvester and a five man team to harvest his potatoes. The Rotarians and I were set loose on a field with burlap bags to find whatever potatoes were missed.
It was a perfect day. The sun shone and the Talkeetna and Chugach mountains glowed all around us. Adam and his fianc@eacute;e Kari went above and beyond to make us welcome. The team of Rotarians and friends, including a couple from New Zealand, were both great company and hard working. We all learned something about potatoes (did you know they last longest at refrigerator temperatures?). And in two-and-a-half hours, the Rotarian team gleaned 4,001 pounds of potatoes to help feed our hungry neighbors.
And when I got home, dirty and happy, my two-year-old son climbed all over me, giggling with delight. Maybe he could sense that I'd had a wonderful day.
Please join me in honoring the life of Jim Oliver.
Jim Oliver was a long-time Board member of Food Pantry of Wasilla, the largest food pantry in the Mat-Su Valley and one of Food Bank of Alaska's most valued partners. Jim served as their Volunteer Coordinator — a critical position for a food pantry that relies on more than 100 volunteers each week to receive, sort, stock, and distribute food.
Jim lost a long battle with cancer last week. But Jim left behind him a legacy of caring and commitment that are the foundation of the work of the Food Pantry of Wasilla.
I'm already thinking holidays.
Food Bank of Alaska is key collaborator in the Thanksgiving Blessing program in Anchorage, Eagle River, and the Mat-Su Valley. We provide the facilitation; turkeys, potatoes and apples; and logistical support. We love working with members of the faith community who raise the rest of the food for a festive meal, recruit thousands of volunteers, and distribute this food with love, respect, and faith.
FBA is also a leader in the Neighborhood GIFT program, the holiday food and toy distribution in Anchorage. FBA provides the facilitation and the food; The Salvation Army and USMC Toys for Tots provide the toys; the Anchorage School District and the faith community provide the facilities; and the community provides the thousands of the volunteers needed to manage the distribution.
We started meeting on Blessing and GIFT in the spring, but we are really settling down now to the serious business of a happy holiday season for all.
I'm often asked how FBA incorporates nutrition in our work. What do we do to ensure that hungry people eat well?
I have two answers to that question. My first concern is sufficient calories. Alaskans utilize food pantries, soup kitchens and other sources of food assistance because they don't have enough income to provide food for their families. FBA's most important role, therefore, is to make sure these folks get adequate energy from food to be able to hold down a job or pay attention in school. To that end, we concentrate on getting as much food as we can of all different varieties — so we can be sure that the food we distribute will include food that these families like, know how to cook, and meets their cultural and dietary needs.
My second concern is to acquire and distribute as much fresh fruits and vegetables as we possibly can. Fresh fruits and vegetables are the best source of most critical vitamins and minerals. So, without dictating anyone's eating habits, FBA can support nutrition by providing healthy foods.
How do you fix a mistake?
A few weeks ago, a food donor gave five pallets of milk to one of FBA's best partner agencies. This was more milk that our partner could hold safely, so the partner called us to pick up three pallets. But there was a condition — one of those pallets needed to be distributed to the Mat-Su Valley through the Tuesday food distribution.
Our driver carefully labeled the milk to be held for the Valley distribution. Unfortunately, he used a new labeling system that was not well-understood by other FBA staff — and the milk was, as is our policy, distributed as quickly as possible. In Anchorage. Oops.
We quickly realized that we had made a mistake. At a warehouse meeting, FBA's crew discussed the new labeling system so that everyone was properly trained. The driver who accepted the donation came and told me about the mistake and the training. However, the Valley was still short a pallet of milk.
So what did we do? We called on our friends at Safeway and purchased a pallet of milk, which we then delivered to a Tuesday Valley distribution.
I'm proud of our team. We made a mistake, owned up to it, fixed the underlying problem, made it right with our partner agency — and ended up distributing more healthy food to hungry Alaskans.
I've got my jeans and boots on, a knife in my pocket, and I'm ready to work.
Food Bank of Alaska's year-end inventory takes place this week. While we regularly track and check our inventory, at the end of June we count every box, bag, and can in our building.
Why? We owe it to our generous food donors to carefully track their donations. We owe to our generous financial donors to be accurate in tracking our food, which has a significant financial value (nearly $10 million in FY10). And we owe it to ourselves to do our job right.
So this week, along with shifts of FBA staff, I'll be in our warehouse a lot - identifying, counting, and restacking food. It will be hard physical work but I'll have fun with my colleagues as we get up close and personal with our mission to end hunger.
And the knife, by the way, is used to slit shrink-wrap that holds pallets of food together!
Food Bank of Alaska (FBA) is the 'wholesaler' of the charitable anti-hunger system — we collect food by the truckload and distribute it to hundreds of food pantries, soup kitchens and other agencies through Alaska. The USDA Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) reimburses organizations for healthy meals for low-income children during the summer. So since FBA does not serve children directly, and since FBA does not have a kitchen or make meals, what does FBA have to do with SFSP?
The answer is: 'wholesale' paperwork and 'wholesale' food purchasing.
Because USDA has to be accountable to US taxpayers (i.e. you and me) for their programs, SFSP is quite paperwork intensive. Each site that wants to serve SFSP meals has to be pre-approved and submit an average of 16 pages of information. The meals must be very carefully prepared to meet USDA meal pattern requirements. The meals must be distributed in a certain way in certain times. The good folks at the State of Alaska Department of Education and Early Development Child Nutrition Services, who administer SFSP in accordance with USDA guidelines, are friendly and helpful but SFSP is still... complicated.
That's where FBA comes in. FBA has staff specially trained in SFSP regulations. We can 'sponsor' SFSP sites and take on most of the regulatory burden. We can arrange for meals — by contracting with nonprofit kitchens like Children's Lunchbox in Anchorage or by purchasing premade shelf-stable brown bag lunches. We can organize the transportation of the meals to the site. The site, then, is responsible for handing out meals to kids and sending us a weekly report of the kids who received a meal.
All in all, FBA's involvement in SFSP frees up sites throughout Alaska to concentrate on teaching and engaging kids with an SFSP meal as a component of a good summer day.
Christina, 3, loved climbing on our forklift. Anthony, 11, was absorbed by the map of Alaska stuck with pins indicating all the food assistance programs served by Food Bank of Alaska. Samantha, 1, liked shaking my hand.
I gave a tour and interview to the Irsik family this morning. Anthony, 11, is doing a home school project about food assistance programs in Palmer; he wanted to ask me about the Valley Blessing project. Their questions and eager interest was the highlight of my day.
I love showing people around Food Bank of Alaska, because I'm proud of the work we do fighting hunger in the Great Land. Please reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you'd like a tour, anytime.
This month we celebrate the 5th birthday of the first Alaskan Mobile Food Pantry.
In 2005, Anchorage East Rotary was seeking to redefine its community involvement. The Club invited me and a number of other charities to come talk about possible projects. I remember giving a presentation on Anchorage Thanksgiving Blessing.
Afterwards we sat around talking — because I'm a Rotarian and a member of Anchorage East Rotary. Someone asked me about my long-term goals, and I told them I was dreaming of the first Mobile Food Pantry, modeled after the West Michigan model. This would be a reconditioned beer or soda truck, with roll-up doors on the sides. FBA could fill the truck with perishable, healthy foods; deliver the truck to a low-income neighborhood; meet a volunteer group, who could do the distribution right off the truck. This would solve the problem of transportation for low-income people and solve the problem of distributing produce donations quickly. But, I said, Rotary doesn't have enough funds for a truck, right?
In May 2006, a reconditioned beer truck, gloriously painted with the Rotary logo, rolled into Town Square. In the five years since then, we have distributed 4.2 million pounds though the Mobile Food Pantry. Anchorage East Rotary manages a distribution the second Saturday of every month, and the club has been recognized internationally for this success of this project.
Some dreams do come true.
In my family, just for the fun of it, we celebrate Beltane, or May Day — the Celtic New Year.
The word 'Beltane' means 'bright fire'. Historically people of Ireland and Scotland led sheep, cattle and people between two fires for a ritual purification before the start of summer growing season. In Edinburgh, the Beltane Fire Festival on April 30 recalls this tradition. In my family, on April 30, we have a very simple meal of fruit and nuts (outdoors if possible) and then light a bonfire. We celebrate the first day of May by a merry feast with friends.
The first of May is a good time to start a new year in Alaska, as winter finally comes to an end. On our first Beltane in Alaska, ten years ago, we huddled outside under our tree in our yard, the only ground not covered with snow. This year our deck is completely clear, a very good omen for the coming year.
So, from my family to yours, Happy Beltane!
I am buzzing with ideas.
I recently attended the Feeding America Network Summit — Feeding America is the national network of food banks, so at this conference I got to spend three days with my peers, learning from food banks around the country.
For instance, Feeding America has recently created a SNAP Impact Calculator, to help us measure the effectiveness of our Food Stamp Outreach program. And the food bank in Kansas City has a very innovative method to measure positive community communications; we'll adapt that to improve our public outreach.
Jim Collins, author of Good to Great, gave a very thought-provoking talk. One of his questions was "Do you have a stop doing list — a list of things that you or your organization should NOT continue doing in the future?"
My father, David Morgan, is sitting at my desk right now; I've been bumped to a laptop on a nearby table. Dad is developing an Access database to track information for the Summer Food Service Program.
This is the third database that Dad has built for FBA, starting in 2004 when we needed a better method to track CSFP food box client information. Dad does this work as a volunteer, donating hundreds of hours of time each year. He mostly works from his home in Connecticut, but twice a year we bring him up to Alaska to interact with FBA staff face-to-face to better understand our needs. (He doesn't mind the opportunity to see his grandson, either...)
Dad wasn't a computer programmer by trade; he retired from a career as a History Professor at Wesleyan University. But he started building databases for fun twenty years ago, and I was shameless enough to drag him into FBA's business when we had a need.
I am grateful for Dad — and for the 1,500 other folks who volunteer their time and expertise to FBA each year. We couldn't feed our neighbors without volunteer help!
Food Bank of Alaska's good friends, the Anchorage East Rotary Club, is holding a rose sale to benefit Food Bank of Alaska, AWAIC, Covenant House, and Blood Bank of Alaska. For $25 you can have a dozen red roses delivered to your favorite person AND help our less fortunate neighbors.
Don't tell them, but I ordered a dozen roses for each teacher at my son Rhys's preschool, the Jewish Education Center. They all do such a great job at teaching and loving our boy that they deserve some love back!
If you've got people in your life needing a little extra love, shoot me an email (email@example.com). I'll send you the rose order form.
We are only just beginning to understand the links between nutrition and life success. But a study from the University of Texas Health Science Center has demonstrated that decreased nutrition early in pregnancy can have a lifelong impact on the child.
These researchers tracked two groups of baboons — one group was allowed to eat as much as they wanted while the other group was fed 30% less. By feeding these animals consistently less food, they mimicked the conditions that many hungry Americans face — eating less than they need on a regular basis.
The researchers found that nutrition plays a major role in fetal cell development — that is, the way cells grew and DNA behaved was different in the fetuses of hungry baboon mothers. These changes can lead to lifelong effects, such as lower IQ, higher rates of heart disease and diabetes, and possibly developmental syndromes such as autism.
So hunger doesn't just hurt this generation; it can impact the lives of the next generation. For more information on the study, visit http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2011-01/uoth-rde011411.php.
"I give to Food Bank of Alaska because I've been hungry in Alaska on occasion, too."
This note was included with a substantial check from a donor. He asked us to ensure that his donation was anonymous; he didn't donate to receive any recognition but rather to help other Alaskans who are struggling with hunger.
I am frequently humbled by our donors but the beautiful, simple compassion in his note brought tears to my eyes. And it reminded me that many of us are just a paycheck or two away from experiencing hunger ourselves.
Do you remember eating lunch at school? How about breakfast?
42% of Alaskan children are eligible for free or reduced price meals at school, which means their family incomes are below 185% of the federal poverty line (about $52,000 for a family of four). Nearly every school in Alaska offers lunch but 20% of schools (79) do not offer breakfast. Why not? Because the federal reimbursement for breakfast is too low to make it economically feasible for many schools to provide breakfast.
Here at FBA, we believe that one of the most efficient ways to end childhood hunger is to ensure that all low-income children should have the opportunity to receive lunch and breakfast at school. That is why we are supporting SB03, sponsored by Senator Wielechowski, and HB132, sponsored by Representative Munoz. These bills would dedicate state funds to match federal funds for school meals, increasing the reimbursement per meal and making it possible for more schools to provide breakfast.
This is a relatively inexpensive way to provide more food to children — leveraging federal dollars and an existing federal program infrastructure. Many school districts and school boards are supporting these bills. Won't you join us? Email your legislators and tell them to support SB03 and HB132.
Our son Rhys's second birthday was January 27. (Yes, it has already been two years!)
At two years old, typical children are eating a wide range of adult foods — not too spicy, perhaps, but in the standard range. Rhys, however, is anything but typical. Rhys has Williams Syndrome, an accident of nature in which 25 or so genes on the seventh chromosome are missing. Williams people are rare (1 in 10,000) and have a unique combination of strengths and weaknesses — musical and linguistic talents combined with a very social, loving disposition as well as developmental delays, lower IQs, and medical complications.
Rhys has a sensitive gag reflex that has made learning to eat solid food a very slow process. As the cook in the household, I still make most of Rhys's food with a blender — pureed pears, avocado, spinach, squash, peaches, etc. And because he continues to have a very low body weight (5th percentile), I am extremely careful about balancing his nutritional intake.
We can afford to get Rhys organic, high-quality food — and I'm fully aware that many parents are not so lucky. That's why Food Bank of Alaska exists. We are also incredibly lucky to have sunny, loving Rhys in our lives, despite the challenges of Williams Syndrome, and we wouldn't trade him for twenty typical children.
Food Bank of Alaska honors Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. every day in our work to end hunger. As we observe his birthday, I give you his stirring words on poverty from his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech:
" Why should there be hunger and privation in any land, in any city, at any table when man has the resources and the scientific know-how to provide all mankind with the basic necessities of life? ...There is no deficit in human resources; the deficit is in human will. The well-off and the secure have too often become indifferent and oblivious to the poverty and deprivation in their midst. The poor in our countries have been shut out of our minds, and driven from the mainstream of our societies, because we have allowed them to become invisible...
"The time has come for an all-out world war against poverty. The rich nations must use their vast resources of wealth to develop the underdeveloped, school the unschooled, and feed the unfed. Ultimately a great nation is a compassionate nation. No individual or nation can be great if it does not have a concern for "the least of these". Deeply etched in the fiber of our religious tradition is the conviction that men are made in the image of God and that they are souls of infinite metaphysical value, the heirs of a legacy of dignity and worth. If we feel this as a profound moral fact, we cannot be content to see men hungry, to see men victimized with starvation and ill health when we have the means to help them. The wealthy nations must go all out to bridge the gulf between the rich minority and the poor majority.
"In the final analysis, the rich must not ignore the poor because both rich and poor are tied in a single garment of destiny. All life is interrelated, and all men are interdependent. The agony of the poor diminishes the rich, and the salvation of the poor enlarges the rich. We are inevitably our brothers' keeper because of the interrelated structure of reality."
Happy New Year!
I've been musing about the many ways we involve food in our holiday traditions; here are some examples of New Year foods around the world.
• In Denmark, they eat kransekake, a series of concentric rings of cake, layered on top of each other in order to form a steep-sloped cone shape. It is made with almonds, sugar, and marzipan.
• Guatemalans, Mexicans and Spanish people down a grape with each of the twelve chimes of the bell during the New Year countdown, while making a wish with each one.
• In the Philippines, most households stage a dinner party named Media Noche in their homes. Roasted pig is usually the centerpiece of the dinner table.
• In the southern United States, many people eat black-eyed peas to bring prosperity in the new year. Interestingly, this custom seems to have its origins in the Jewish tradition of eating black-eyed peas on Rosh Hashanah.
Whatever you eat to celebrate the hope and promise of a new year, we at Food Bank of Alaska wish you health and happiness in 2011!
It is late afternoon on December 23 as I write this. It is quiet at Food Bank of Alaska — not a creature is stirring not even a mouse (thank goodness!). Staff have gone home. The trucks and forklifts, which are constantly in motion, are still. The phones have stopped ringing.
Food Bank of Alaska and The Salvation Army, along with many other partners and thousands of volunteers, provided food and toys to nearly 5,300 families in Anchorage earlier this week. We are so proud of our community that came together to ensure that everyone has a happy holiday.
So we're heading home, tired but happy, for a long weekend to enjoy Christmas and Kwanzaa with our families. We wish all the best to you and yours this holiday season!
I am frequently asked at this time of year, "Why does Food Bank of Alaska put so much effort into the holiday distributions, Thanksgiving Blessing and Neighborhood GIFT?" The answer is that food is about more than nutrition — it is about celebration, family and community. Think of your own life; isn't there special food at every special occasion, from holidays to birthdays to weddings? Human beings celebrate with food.
So going without food during the holidays not only means you are hungry — it means you are excluded from the joy of the season, isolated from your neighbors, depressed and alone.
By going the extra mile to make sure that ALL our neighbors have festive food for the holidays, we at Food Bank of Alaska are nourishing our neighbors' bodies — and doing our part to build a strong, welcoming community.
FBA has been lucky to attract some fabulous staff over the years — staff like Reg Buchanan, FBA's Food Resources Manager.
Reg retired earlier this year, moved near Seattle to be closer to his children (and soon to be grandchild), and get control of some health issues. Reg carefully trained a replacement... who left unexpectedly six months later. We immediately called Reg, who agreed to work part-time and long distance for FBA this fall.
Reg has been responsible for all our holiday food — ordering, arranging transportation, tracking, and so on. There are turkeys and all the fixings for Thanksgiving Blessing and GIFT due to Reg's efforts and connections.
I thanked Reg by email recently and his response was, "My legs are shot but my brain still functions just fine and good people and a worthy cause are the best medicines of all."
FBA will try again in January to fill the Food Resources Manager position with an Alaska resident — but Reg will forever have a home at FBA.
At Thanksgiving Blessing, whole communities come together to bless families that are struggling with turkeys and all the groceries needed for a festive meal.
In the Mat-Su Valley, 1,156 families were served at the first ever Valley Thanksgiving Blessing. The sun shone through the chilly air but it was warm and welcoming at the sites in Wasilla, Willow and Talkeetna.
In Anchorage and Eagle River, in the midst of a horrendous ice storm that nearly brought the city to a halt, 6,136 families were served. I am so proud that we were able to serve more families this year despite the awful conditions.
Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!
Mahatma Gandhi said, "to a man with an empty stomach, food is God."
The faith community in Anchorage and the Mat-Su Valley will be sharing God with their neighbors this Thanksgiving in the form of turkeys, stuffing, gravy, vegetables, pies and all the groceries necessary for a festive meal. Please see the calendar of events for more information on Thanksgiving Blessing - this massive, and massively satisfying, project.
Valley Thanksgiving Blessing will take place on Saturday, November 20 from 1 to 6 pm at sites in Wasilla, Willow and Talkeetna. Anchorage Thanksgiving Blessing will take place on Monday, November 22 from 3 to 8 pm at six sites in Anchorage and one in Eagle River.
"We believe that providing food to the hungry is one of the greatest acts of love human beings can show one another."
Food Bank of Alaska's Board of Directors held their annual retreat on October 16. As one of the exercises, I challenged Board members to state FBA's core beliefs as sentences starting with 'We believe'. Their responses took my breath away — they demonstrated such compassion and depth of understanding of our mission.
Here are some of my favorites:
• We believe food is for sharing.
• We believe that adequate nourishment is essential to a sound mind, body and soul.
• We believe our partners are an integral part of solving Alaska's hunger issues.
• We believe it should be easy to give and to receive.
• We believe in the power of food.
• We believe in a better future.
• We believe that communities should be empowered to develop local solutions to hunger that are consistent with their values and traditions.
• We believe that food is not only a physical need but of significant personal, family and cultural value.
• We believe that we have a responsibility to advocate for systemic changes that address the root causes of hunger.
• We believe in creative yet practical solutions.
• We believe in the high value of all people.
Did you know? While FBA responds everyday to the slow yet life-destroying disaster that is hunger, we also provide food in the event of floods, fires, earthquakes and other natural disasters.
I was pleased to participate recently in a Disaster Preparedness Conference at the Egan Center. I had the opportunity to explain FBA's role in disaster response — we collect food by the truckload (from the government, from other food banks, from the food industry, from the community) and we distribute it to food sites, either congregate meal centers or emergency grocery distributions. In other words, we do what we do every day, but at light speed!
FBA is an active member of Alaska Volunteer Organizations Active in Disasters, a coalition of nonprofit and faith-based organizations that conduct disaster response or relief. This coalition includes American Red Cross, The Salvation Army, Adventists Community Service, United Methodist Church, and Samaritan's Purse.
There is termination dust on the Chugach. There are less than 12 hours of light each day, shrinking by minutes each day. Autumn is upon us. And for us at FBA that means — madly prepare for the holidays!
FBA is proud to partner with the faith community and many other organizations in three major holiday programs: Thanksgiving Blessing in Anchorage, Neighborhood GIFT in Anchorage in December, and, for the first time this year, Valley Thanksgiving Blessing in the Mat-Su.
FBA participates in these community-wide collaborations because: (1) we believe no one deserves to be hungry ever, but it is particularly lonely to be hungry at the holidays; (2) we believe that we can do more, and do it better, when we all work together; (3) we believe that we can make a tangible difference in people's lives by distributing food in a loving manner. Our faith partners do an outstanding job of conveying the message to every client: "Today you are receiving and I am giving, but tomorrow it might be the other way around. We are both members of the human family and sons and daughters of God."
State legislators care about hunger in Alaska. They proved it with gusto and flying cans recently.
Legislators Care Day was September 16 — a food sorting activity at FBA sponsored by Senators Ellis and McGuire. Senators Ellis and Wielechowski and Representative Peterson participated along with staffers from the offices of Senators Bunde, Davis, Ellis, French, McGuire, and Wielechowski and the offices of Representatives Doogan, Gara, Hawker, Lynn, and Peterson.
Food from the United Way of Caring Food Drive on September 10 was waiting to be sorted for food safety prior to being distributed to anti-hunger agencies. The legislators and their staffers worked with a will and sorted 4,000 pounds of food in about an hour. The three Anchorage TV stations showed up to cover this event and help publicize the fact that September is Hunger Action Month.
Senator Ellis, a longtime supporter of FBA and anti-hunger work, hosted the event and kept us all entertained with a series of stories and jokes. Senator Wielechowski, who sponsored the nearly successful bill to expand School Breakfast last legislative session, almost missed another meeting because he was so involved in food sorting. Representative Peterson worked quietly and diligently, getting more done than any two people. A huge thanks to these busy folks for giving their time to feeding our neighbors!
Alan Budahl, Executive Director for Lutheran Social Services, and Susan Bomalaski, Executive Director for Catholic Social Services, both participated in the food sorting. LSS and CSS have both been part of the Hunger Action Month planning team — we are grateful for their partnership.
FBA serves hungry people through our partners — we provide 'wholesale' distribution of food to food pantries, soup kitchens, senior centers, youth programs, shelters and other agencies that feed our hungry neighbors directly. I always leap at the opportunity to visit our partners who conduct much of the critical anti-hunger work in this state.
I had the pleasure of visiting Chugiak-Eagle River Food Pantry this week. A leader in client choice distribution methods, Chugiak-Eagle River Food Pantry is organized much like a small grocery store. There are tables with fruit, vegetables and bread. There are shelves with canned and dry goods. Behind the counter are refrigerators and freezers with milk and meat.
Families in need of food assistance can visit Chugiak-Eagle River Food Pantry nine times a year. The number of clients they serve has increased from an average of 220 people in 2008 a month to 282 people each month in 2010 — a 29% increase.
FBA supplies most of the bread, produce, dairy and meat for the Chugiak-Eagle River Food Pantry — and we are proud to be their partner.
Here's to Valley Harvest!
FBA partners with Mat-Su Valley farmers and growers through the Valley Harvest program. We count on these generous folks to help provide fresh, healthy, beautiful produce to our hungry neighbors. Last year, FBA received nearly 200,000 pounds of Alaska Grown produce through Valley Harvest.
The rainy, gray weather has slowed down the produce this year, and we've been anxiously hoping that enough vegetables would sprout to allow the farmers to share with FBA. Today, to our great delight, we collected our first two truckloads of gorgeous produce, including lettuce and broccoli from our friends at Point Mackenzie. Our heartfelt thanks!
Anyone can end up in a situation in which they are hungry. This is simply the truth.
National Public Radio ran a story on July 27 about hungry and homeless college students at UCLA that brought tears to my eyes. They told the story of Diego, a student at UCLA, the first in his family to attend college. Diego comes from a blue-collar, working class family and has always had a job to pay for his education. When he lost his job at Subway, he could no longer afford to pay rent. He relied on friends, the sofas in the UCLA library, and the showers at the Student Activities Center. He utilized a newly created food shelf down the hall from UCLA's Community Programs Office.
Diego is not on a street corner with a sign saying "Will work for food." He is a determined young man who is utterly committed to getting an education.
"Nothing is going to stop me," he says. "I'm going to reach my goals no matter what people say."
Go, Diego, go! I'm glad that there is a food pantry there to help you; it makes me proud of the work I do every day.
The great African American educator Booker T. Washington wrote, "I have learned that success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles which he has overcome while trying to succeed."
Mr. Washington's wisdom came to me as I was reading a summary of the research on the impact of hunger on children. I was particularly struck by a 2003 study by Winicki and Jemison which tracked outcomes of kindergarteners from food insecure homes. This study found that these hungry kids entered school with lower math skills — and they also learned less math than their peers over the course of the year.
So, due to inadequate nutrition, these young children started behind and fell even further behind through the school year. What significant obstacles to success these children will have to overcome!
Happily, the research review also concluded that, in many cases, nutrition assistance — including the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs, Food Stamps, and charitable food programs - can reverse the trend and allow hungry children to catch up to the peer group.
"Brochures don't work."
I gave this message to Camp Fire USA Alaska Council this morning. The fabulous folks at Camp Fire are trying to figure out how to better connect their families to social services, including Food Stamps.
I explained that FBA has had a Food Stamps Outreach Coordinator for nearly three years now, working to encourage potentially eligible families to apply for the Food Stamps Program. The Food Stamps Program is an absolutely wonderful resource for low income families, as it provides on average benefit of $168 per month per person — or $672 for an average family of four. This benefit comes in the form of a debit card that can be utilized at grocery stores.
The application process for Food Stamps is complicated and rather daunting, however. And it is our experience that many clients need lots of help with the application process. This is why I told Camp Fire staff that brochures don't work. However, Paul Watson, FBA's Food Stamps Outreach Coordinator, is available to man a table at a parent's night, answer phone calls, or make house calls. Paul can and will provide the one-on-one assistance and encouragement needed to help families access Food Stamps — and thus obtain reliable nutritional support for their families.
At FBA, we love our partners — the food pantries, soup kitchens and other organizations that serve hungry Alaskans directly. And occasionally we get to express our adoration directly — by hiring a former partner.
Kylie Clark co-managed the Paddleboat Café in Goose Lake Park in Anchorage. Kylie and her family were one of the first to leap onto the concept of the Summer Food Service Program — free meals for kids while school is out — even though Paddleboat Café is a for-profit company. They arranged to provide free meals from 11 am to noon, before their regular food service began.
We recently managed to lure Kylie to join the FBA team as the Child Nutrition Coordinator. In that position, Kylie will be responsible for overseeing our Summer Food sites; she will have many opportunities to share her hard-won wisdom managing a Summer Food site.
Welcome aboard, Kylie!
FBA's fiscal year ends June 30. For most organizations, fiscal year end is a time for paperwork. But at food banks, it is also time for year-end inventory, in which we count every box, bag, or pound of food in our warehouse.
I personally lead FBA's year-end inventory process. This is "partly because of your position but mostly because of who you are", according to FBA Managing Director Merri Mike Adams. She knows I'm a hands-on, do-it-once-and-do-it-right kind of person. It is also true that, at FBA, year-end inventory is an all-staff event — and it is easier to manage an all-hands-on-deck situation if the captain is in charge.
For the most part, I look forward to year-end inventory. I am eager to have a solid reason to spend much of week in our warehouse. I love FBA's warehouse as it is the heart and soul of our mission. And I love getting the chance to spend some more time with the good folks who work in FBA's warehouse, caring for our food and our partners every day.
I read in the Economist recently that the number of orphans in North Korea is increasing. Why? Their parents are dying of hunger and malnutrition. I closed my eyes and sent up thanks that hunger in Alaska results in misery and underachievement — but rarely death.
Today, I learned today that a common, polite Chinese phrase of welcome and comfort is "Have you eaten today?" These two incidents reminded me that hunger is a cross-cultural yet profoundly isolating experience.
Here are some multicultural perspectives on hunger, for your consideration:
• A person who has food has many problems. A person who has no food has only one problem. — Chinese Proverb
• To a man with an empty stomach, food is God. — Mahatma Gandhi
• Feeding the hungry is a greater work than raising the dead. — St. John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople
• Lord, to those who hunger, give bread. And to those who have bread, give the hunger for justice. — Latin American prayer
• Hunger defies imagination; it even defies memory. Hunger is felt only in the present. — Elie Wiesel
• To be a poor man is hard, but to be a poor race in a land of dollars is the very bottom of hardships. — W.E. DuBois
Army. Navy. Air Force. Marines.
Many of FBA's staff are veterans of our armed services. Eddie was in the Navy in Vietnam and has since retired. Tomeka honorably served in the Air Force, as did Devin. Claudia's father, husband and son were or are all in the military.
This Memorial Day, I honor my colleagues. These men and women served our country and then came home to serve our community by feeding our hungry neighbors. They are true heroes in my eyes.
In our anti-hunger work, I regularly run across references to FDR's concept of 'freedom from want' — meaning no person can truly be free until their basic needs are met.
I got curious and went looking for the original speech, which inspired me so much that I'd like to share with you. President Franklin D. Roosevelt said, in his State of the Union Address to the Congress in January 6, 1941:
"In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms. The first is freedom of speech and expression--everywhere in the world. The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way--everywhere in the world. The third is freedom from want--which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants--everywhere in the world. The fourth is freedom from fear--which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor--anywhere in the world.
"That is no vision of a distant millennium. It is a definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our own time and generation."
This is the time of Annual Fund at FBA, when we send out a mailing asking for the vital donations we count on to provide food to our hungry neighbors. One woman took the trouble to send a donation envelope back, empty but for the following message:
"Parents should be responsible for feeding their children. If they can't feed them, they shouldn't have children."
I was taken aback by this critical, judgemental message, and I've been thinking about it ever since. I'm a mother myself. I know how difficult it is to raise a child — how much work and care it involves. My partner and I thought carefully before having a child, and taking care of our son is our top priority.
But what if one of us got sick? Or lost her job? What if we got in a car accident? Life happens. Circumstances change.
I don't think any child should be hungry. I don't think any parent should suffer the torment of not being able to feed his or her children. I don't care what circumstances or choices led them to the Mobile Food Pantry or food pantry or soup kitchen. I am so grateful that I personally, through my work at FBA, have the opportuntity to help these families get enough to eat.
Feeding America, the national network of food banks, held its annual conference in Austin recently. I always attend, because I learn so much from my food bank colleagues about how to end hunger in Alaska.
At this meeting, I saw some pretty bleak statistics on the state of the economy. Several current projections show that the unemployment rate will not return to 2007 levels until 2019. Poverty levels are also up to 13.2% of the population nationally and are likely to stay high for the next decade. Most depressingly, child poverty rates were 19% in 2008; they are projected to be 24% in 2011 and gradually decrease, reaching 21% by 2019.
All of this means that the recession has made more people poor and poor people even poorer. The food that FBA provides will be needed more than ever over the next decade.
I was in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada recently — with my 14-month old son and my partner, who was giving a seminar at the University of Victoria. We were strolling around the student union on the university campus when something caught my eye.
An arrow, pointing down the stairs, read "Emergency Food Bank".
When most people think of hungry people, they think of a homeless man on a street corner with a sign. They don't think of college students — young people struggling to feed themselves so they can stay in school and have a brighter future.
I felt an instant connection with the UVic Emergency Food Bank — we are in the same 'business', after all, even though we are in different countries. Moreover, FBA is currently working on establishing a regular mobile food pantry at the University of Anchorage to help Alaskan students in a similar way.
Oddly enough, through a 'six degrees of Kevin Bacon' sort of association, FBA and Uvic Emergency Food Bank are also formally connected. FBA is a member of Feeding Amercia (the national food bank network), which is a member of the Global Food Banking Network. Another member of the Global Food Banking Network is the Canadian Association of Food Banks, to which the UVic Emergency Food Bank is connected.
It is a small world, after all.
I was reminded again recently that food is about more than nutrition — food can also be about love.
At the Mobile Food Pantry recently, an African-American mom and her young daughter were standing in line waiting for the food distribution to begin. The girl was dressed in a flowery pink dress and coat, but she wasn't wearing mittens even though it was bitterly cold. She kept warm dancing and spinning around her mother, as if her mother was the sun.
The distribution began, and this mother-daughter pair reached the tables covered with fruits, vegetables, yogurt and bread. The mother picked up a bag of red grapes and handed them to her daughter with a smile and a soft "Here you go, sweetie."
The daughter's face glowed, and she hugged that bag of grapes to her chest, as if they were a Christmas present. She was so happy that she stopped her constant movement and stood entranced. The grapes, it seemed, were either a special favorite or a special treat.
At that moment, for that girl, those grapes were not only food — they were a symbol that her mother and her community cherished her. What a wonderful, serendipitous gift Food Bank of Alaska, our partners, and our generous donors were able to provide that day!
I just wrote a letter to Alaska legislators in support of expansion of Denali KidCare, the government funded health system for low income kids and pregnant women.
Why, you ask, does Food Bank of Alaska care? Because hunger and health care are inextricably linked. It should not surprise you to learn that people who are hungry are frail and frequently ill — if your body does not get good nutrition, you get sick. And if you are sick and you have no health care, then you will get sicker, and less able to work or learn at school, and ultimately more hungry.
It is also true that hunger is an income issue — people are hungry because they don't have enough money to buy food. These same folks likely do not have the money to buy health insurance or pay for medical care or medications.
Consider these facts from the Hunger in America 2010 Alaska report:
• 30% of food assistance clients have no health insurance
• 58% of food assistance clients have unpaid medical bills
• 35% of food assistance clients choose between paying for food and paying for health care or medication
Providing health insurance to more Alaskan children would mean that fewer families face the agonizing choice between feeding their kids and taking them to the doctor. It would also help ensure that these kids receive preventative health care, giving them the best possible chance to break the cycle of poverty and succeed in life.
"So, what surprised you?"
Feeding America (the national network of food banks) released Hunger in America 2010 recently. Food Bank of Alaska and the Alaska Food Coalition collaborated to conduct nearly 300 interviews with food assistance clients in Alaska so, in addition to the national study, there are Alaska and Anchorage reports as well.
I have been talking about this new data a lot recently, and I have been frequently asked what surprised me about the data. Since hunger in Alaska is my area of expertise, I wasn't expecting to be surprised... but I was. Here are some of the findings that caught me off guard:
• Average annual household income is $15,180. I honestly did not believe that many households could exist on such a tiny income in Alaska, of all places.
• 58% percent of clients have unpaid medical or hospital bills. I have been saying for years that one of the best ways to reduce the need for food assistance would be to fix our health care system — but I was taken aback by the depth of the problem.
• 45% had to choose between paying for food and paying rent or mortgage. When we last conducted this survey in 2005, only a third reported making this difficult choice.
• 38% of households are currently receiving Food Stamp benefits, although in 78% of households, at least one person had applied for SNAP benefits at some time. This tells me that Food Stamps are still dramatically underutilized, most likely due to the challenging application process.
Here's a toast to School Breakfast!
The Alaska Food Coalition, of which Food Bank of Alaska is a member, has been working for three years to expand the School Breakfast Program in Alaska. While theoretically every school in Alaska could offer federally subsidized breakfasts, the federal reimbursement is low enough to make this economically infeasible. The result is that 104 schools and 8 districts in Alaska do not offer breakfast at school. 15% of the students that qualify for free or reduced price school meals attend schools that do not offer a breakfast program -- that's over 7,000 missed meals each day, over 1.2 million a year.
Senator Wielechowski introduced SB213 into the Alaska Senate. This bill provides state funding to match the federal reimbursement for school breakfast, making it possible for more schools to offer breakfast. It is also provides a small match for school lunches, to help maintain lunch availability and quality. Senators McGuire, Ellis, Paskvan, Menard, and Thomas have stepped up to cosponsor this legislation.
I, unsurprisingly, think no child should be hungry and every child should have the opportunity for a health breakfast. But in addition to my moral stance, there are also some very compelling rational reasons as well. School Breakfast:
Improves Student Performance: Serving breakfast to kids at school significantly improves their cognitive or mental abilities, enabling them to be more alert, pay better attention, and perform better in reading and math.
Increases School Attendance: Schools breakfast programs can lower absence and tardiness rates and improve standardized achievement test scores.
Decreases School Violence: Research shows corresponding decrease in discipline problems directly related to participation in the breakfast program.
Fights Obesity and Improves Nutrition: Adolescents who eat breakfast tend to have a lower body mass index (BMI); higher BMI's can indicate overweight and obesity
I admit to being a numbers person and a data freak. Nothing makes me happier than to see solid information on anti-hunger work. So when I attended a Food Pantry of Wasilla Board meeting recently, I was thrilled to receive a copy of their client statistics for federal fiscal year 2009 (October 2008 to September 2009).
2,700 families visited Food Pantry of Wasilla nearly 11,000 times in that year, or about 900 visits a month — wow! But here are some very interesting facts:
• 68% of those families visited less than four times in that year. To me this means that most folks are only asking for food assistance when they really need it. Only 1% visit more than once a month.
• 44% of the people in these families are children 18 or younger. This confirms what I already knew: children suffer most from hunger in Alaska.
• On average, 11 families each month have a newly unemployed family member.
Homeless folks on street corners are indeed hungry, but they make up a small percentage of our hungry neighbors. Food Pantry of Wasilla's statistics paint a picture of the 'average' hungry Alaskan family — with an adult working or trying to work and with childen.
I wish you a Happy New Year!
My family celebrated the New Year with an Irish tradition this year. My parents, my partner, our 11 month old son, and my 101 year old grandfather stood in the snow outside my parent's house in Connecticut. I took a loaf of bread and beat it against the house, chanting: "May there be no hunger in this house, this community, this country or this world in the coming year."
Tom and Jim were hitch-hiking, bags of food and toys at their feet. They had just left the Neighborhood GIFT program at Anchorage City Church and were making their way home.
Don't tell my mother, but I picked up Tom and Jim and drove them several miles closer to their home. 68-year-old Jim, as he loudly declared to me, is "crazy and a Vietnam Vet." Jim moved to Alaska after three distinguished tours in Vietnam, fished and raised a family. It was apparent that Jim was indeed 'crazy' from his wild speech but he was also gentle and kind.
Tom and Jim live with Jim's adult son. Tom is in his forties, cheerful and bright. As we talked, Tom mildly corrected Jim's most outrageous statements and made intelligent conversation about education. It wasn't clear to me what Tom's life story was, but it was obvious that he was currently looking out for Jim.
I'm proud to think that Food Bank of Alaska, Anchorage City Church, The Salvation Army and our partners in the GIFT project made life a little easier and the holidays a little brighter for Tom and Jim.
He cried, "Susannah!" and gave me a huge hug.
This kindly gentleman "William" is a regular client at the Anchorage East Rotary Mobile Food Pantry distribution. I hadn't seen William in a couple of months, because I've been staying home with my new baby on Saturdays instead of coming to the Mobile Food Pantry. But when I finally did show my face, William was there to welcome me.
William, who will celebrate his 76th birthday next month, and his wife live on a fixed income that doesn't cover all their basic needs. So he comes to the Mobile Food Pantry to stretch their grocery budget. He has white hair and twinkling blue eyes, and his back is slightly bent from a lifetime of fixing machines. His buoyant nature lifts the spirits of everyone he meets.
William brushed off my questions about his well-being and wanted to hear all about my 10-month old son and preparations for his first Christmas. As I watched William climb into a neighbor's car, I thought that, while we may have given William food, he gave me the much more precious gift of community.
Christmas is coming! The goose is getting fat!
Please put a penny in an old man's hat.
If you have no penny, a ha-penny will do.
If you have no ha-penny, then God bless you!
I grew up singing this tune in the holiday season, but I was an adult before I fully realized that the 'singer' is an elderly man begging on the streets. The song also ends with the compassionate acknowledgement that other people besides the old man have no resources for Christmas. But the tune is sprightly and cheerful.
FBA is preparing to help our hungry neighbors this Christmas or Chanukah or Kwanzaa or other joyous holiday occasions. FBA is one of the leaders of the Neighborhood GIFT program, a food and toy distribution on December 22. We are thrilled to join The Salvation Army, the US Marine Corps Toys for Tots program and the faith community to bring light into our neighbors' lives.
"...And I do further recommend that the day thus appointed be made a special occasion for deeds of kindness and charity to the suffering and the needy, so that all who dwell within the land may rejoice and be glad in this season of national thanksgiving..." Chester A. Arthur, Thanksgiving Proclamation 1882.
Blessing is the hardest, longest day of the FBA year. But it is my favorite, too. I love the difference we are able to make in the lives of our neighbors - providing festive food in a respectful, joyous manner.
At the Blessing site at Central Lutheran Church, volunteers discovered a pregnant woman in line who was in labor. She had to pause every few minutes for a contraction, but she saying that she knew she'd give birth and be home by Thanksgiving - and her family really needed the food. The good folks at that site hurried her to the front of the line.
It tears my heart out to think that some of our neighbors are so desperate for food assistance. But I am incredibly thankful that we are in a position to help.
'How' sometimes matters as much as 'what'.
Thanksgiving Blessing is founded upon, supported by, and enlivened by faith.
For each of the past five years, the faith community in Anchorage has come together to say: "It matters that our neighbors are hungry, and we are going to do something about it. But most importantly, we are going to do it well — drawing on our faith, with respect for people of other faiths, and above all with love."
The day of Thanksgiving Blessing is my favorite day of the year.
I delight in the opportunity to serve so many of my neighbors on a single day.
But even more, I am utterly enraptured by the festival atmosphere the faith communities create for Blessing.
Walk into a Blessing site, and you will find expressions of love.
There may be espresso drinks, or homemade cookies, or live music, or a big bouncy tent for children.
You will also find folks waiting to get their turkey and fixings, but the overall feeling is generally of a carnival or community event, not a charity give-away.
It is the 'how' — the way in which the faith community provides food and love — that makes Blessing such a special day for me.
Half of all children will be on food stamps at some point before they are eighteen.
Professor Mark Rank of Washington University in St. Louis has been poring over reams of Food Stamp program data. His conclusions include the fact that 49.2% of all American children will, at some point, live in a household enrolled in the Food Stamp program.
These households are likely to utilize Food Stamps for short periods — a few months or a year.
But they are also likely to re-enroll a couple times during the childhood years.
Think about this for a minute.
Families can only receive Food Stamps if their household income is below 135% of poverty (about $30,000 for a family of three) and they meet a number of other criteria.
So if one out of two children will receive Food Stamps, then every other child on a school bus will live in a family on the edge of poverty.
But it also means that, thanks to Food Stamps, these children have a better chance of getting adequate nutrition.
We are entering the holiday season, in which Americans are extraordinarily generous.
This holiday season I challenge you to take an extra step.
Give locally to help your hungry neighbors have happy holidays.
But also sign up to receive our Advocacy Alerts and start contacting our legislators to support the Food Stamp program and other safety net programs that protect our children from hunger.