Hunger Relief vs. Poverty Relief: I Vote For More of Both

Last Saturday I came home from the farmer's market, made mega-veggie eggs for me and Mr. Z, and blogged about it.  Zuskateer Kea commented

All very well if you can afford it.

And she's right.  I am extremely fortunate both to be able to afford nutritious fresh produce, and to have good sources of it readily available to me. In parts of Philadelphia with high poverty rates, there are no grocery stores at all, and corner bodega shops may carry little or no fresh produce.  A recent series of articles in the Philadelphia Inquirer about efforts to support community gardens and teach young children about gardening and good eating habits revealed that many young kids in the city don't even know what fresh fruits and vegetables look like, and can't identify them by name when they are shown them.  This is an abominable situation.  Our young children, and the parents struggling to raise them, deserve better.

Sharon at Casaubon's Book notes that keeping our nation's people from starving is not only a morally right thing to do, it's part of national security.

The point is that food stamps are more important than Defense, for a fundamental reason - it is because we subsidize food stamps that we aren't having food riots like the middle east. Without food stamps, poor Americans would be starving - period...Let's run the numbers. One in seven households in America receives food stamps, and one in six would qualify. Nearly 1/2 of all American children live in households that receive food stamps. One in eight food stamp households cares for an elder, one in five cares for a disabled non-elderly adult. One out of every five recipient households has *no* other countable income - more than 7 million Americans total.

Cancel food stamps and 7 million Americans drop to zero income. More than 2/3 of those households include children. The average food stamp recipient household owns $101 of goods and savings - total.

In another long post (I recommend reading all of it), Sharon talks about WIC On The Chopping Block. WIC is Women, Infants, and Children, and provides "good nutrition *along with* nutritional education, lead screenings, anemia screenings and other basic medical supports."  So of course it's set to be drastically cut.

This part of Sharon's post especially made me gnash my teeth in despair.

While WIC does have a farmer's market program - the Farmer's Market Nutrition Program, it represents a comparatively tiny portion of WIC's budget (and is potentially at risk given current cuts) at only about 20 million to cover 46 States, Indian Nations and Territories. It is not available everywhere, and only fresh fruits and vegetables can be purchased - not milk, cheese, dried beans, grains or juices - even though these items are permitted under WIC.

The impact of the FMNP has been quite good - more than 70% of WIC participants who received coupons had never been to a farmer's market before, and at least one study found that even after their WIC participation ended, more than half of the participants who received farmer's market coupons continued visiting. Families that received farmer's market coupons consumed significantly more fruits and vegetables than families that did not. It is a program worth expanding - for both the benefits of a viable food system and for the participants, but this is unlikely in a budget-cut scenario.

Even with the limited availability of the farmer's market program, and the limit on what things could be purchased at the market, there was a clear positive impact.  But instead of expanding this program it is likely it will disappear.

People:  if you are used to thinking of donations to food banks as something you only do around Thanksgiving, think again.  Food insecurity is a year-round issue, and it is on the rise.  Food banks across the nation report that individuals who were donors in previous years are now showing up in need of help themselves.  We are all one accident, one major illness, one lost job away from being in that situation ourselves. A Philabundance survey showed that "more than one third of households that access emergency food have one or more adults who is working".

Philabundance is the major hunger relief organization in the Philadelphia region.  They do the usual things with collection and dispersal of donated canned goods (through a choice food pantry), but I am really enamored of their Fresh For All program to bring fresh produce to low income communities.  Philabundance also has programs providing food to seniors, emergency food boxes, and runs a food help line. Most or all of these programs might fall under the heading of hunger relief, or the "give them a fish" category.  The Philabundance Community Kitchen program, however, is Philabundance's poverty relief program, or the "teach them to fish" category.

PCK is a hands-on culinary arts vocational training program that includes everything from basic knife skills and food preparation to job placement assistance. The career-targeted 14-week program provides nearly 500 hours of culinary arts training and also offers exposure to guest chefs, catering opportunities and off-site internships. The result is an 85 percent job placement in the food service industry. In addition, retention services are offered for two full years to ensure that students maximize their training and maintain positive work ethics.

This program creates true success stories.  My favorite isn't featured on the web site, but came to me in a letter update from Philabundance - Bonita, who came to PCK from a neighborhood women's shelter, took classes while transitioning to recovery, graduated and got a job with one of the largest catering companies in Philadelphia.  And then...she realized she wanted to own her own business.  A year later, she established her own catering business, has catered church affairs, corporate events, and large weddings, and has even employed two former PCK students. So PCK can change each person's individual situation, but also contribute to the economic vitality of the larger community.

Take some time to explore the Hunger 101 section at Philabundance. It makes things real in the way that a recitation of facts and statistics can't quite do.  Or read Jackie Yenerall's story SNAP Judgments on the Philabundance blog.  It really is a wonder anyone manages to obtain SNAP assistance at all. And an even bigger wonder that the miserly bit of hunger relief we as a nation do provide to our fellow citizens in need, after making them jump through flaming hoops while juggling knives, is enough to stave off rioting in the streets.




26 responses so far

  • Kea says:

    Thanks, Zuska! I believe you are a wonderful person, one who really makes the world a better place.

  • A. Marina Fournier says:

    It's true--when school is out, kids of poor families get even less food, because the subsidized meals they get at school are closed off during the summer.

    Donations of cash to foodbanks such as Second Harvest, in the Bay Area (and likely other places) is better spent than any of us could manage--they stretch those dollars until they scream for mercy. They have contacts that allow them to buy so much more with the money they have than any of us could!

    I do periodically buy food items at Costco that are specifically for donating. Last November, I had four uncut pumpkins in good condition, and called one of the charitable food pantries. They were happy to take them. What about food in glass? As long as it was commercial. Tea? Uh, sure. Pet food? I guess so.

    I went through my stuffed pantry one night and pulled out all the unnecessarily duplicated items, interesting foods I meant to try, but never did, food we weren't using anymore since my FiL's death...and did I ever find duplicates, because the pantry was so jammed it was hard to find things. I reorganized as I cleared things out and we had several bags and boxes of foodstuffs (and pumpkins) the folk they serve would enjoy.

    I called this particular place because they are one of the four charities my favorite radio station solicits donations for every autumn and winter. I don't normally donate to religious charities, but in this case, they were more a community service than a religious one.

  • "one accident, one major illness, one lost job"


  • Carolina (@braziliancakes) says:

    This is a great article. I wish more people would think about this, our collective minds would be much better at solving these issues and improving them.

  • Zee says:

    At my university they having a 'teaching' garden that elementary school kids come to visit for the day to learn about where food comes from. I used to volunteer there. We had a strawberry patch and I always had to explain multiple times that strawberries did not grow on trees to the kids. It was quite sad.

    Also a friend of mine works with this Philadelphia organization that you might be interested in if you haven't heard of it already (

    Mission. The Philadelphia Orchard Project plants orchards in the city of Philadelphia that grow healthy food, green spaces and community food security.

    • Kristian Whetstone says:

      It is scary when you learn the simple things that some people just are simply naive to. I went to public schools and I learned these things and I feel that the educators in those poorer communities should be teaching the same things to all. They are depriving these children of basic education. There should be no assumptions made whether or not these tools will be useful to them. The tools should be taught and then the choice can be made by the individual which best suits them or fits their lifestyle.

      • Zee says:

        Most teachers now are forced or highly pushed towards teaching what is going to be on the state's standardized tests. It is these test scores that often determine the money that a school gets and what the teachers are evaluated on.

        So I don't blame them for maybe not having the time to teach where food comes from when they have 35+ kids in a class and ticking clock of standardizing tests looming. Teachers in my state have it very tough, I have a lot of respect for them, and I don't necessarily blame them for the gaps in students knowledge. The system sucks and sadly teachers are treated as cogs in it. I wish teachers had more autonomy and that we weren't so hung up on quantifying the 'learning' that has happened in a given year.

  • Ed says:

    Yes, a fundamentally important issue to bring up. But I can't help but be the raincloud over the picnic again:
    Being in the extreme poverty category (less than $1000 per month income) I have tried to use food banks, and looked into other such options. They have major issues.

    For food banks for instance, you don't simply show up and get food - low quality but useable. No, you have to go through a mini audit to prove "need". You cannot be anonymous. Worst of all, while all banks are different, for all the ones in my area (pretty large city of 800k people) you cannot pick the food up - they insist on delivering it!

    Uh.... people might notice. And you can't let people know you are using the food bank, that goes without saying. You can't. In short it would cost far more than it saved. So these barriers have prevented me from using food banks.

    In a society as wealthy as ours it is frankly disgusting that so many people are forced to live in such poverty when it costs such peanuts to avoid it.

    • Kristian Whetstone says:

      I believe that I was in need and starving I would care less about what the neighbors think. In this situation you have to suck it up and put your pride aside. Accept what is being offered to you. Then if you are physically and mentally capable of doing so, work hard and use the embarrassment as a motivator to get yourself out of this situation.

    • Zuska says:

      I am pretty sure that Philabundance's food bank does not work this way, at least the food choice pantry certainly does not - people go right in as in any supermarket and choose what they want and need off the shelves. People who use it (and others like it in other places in the country) talk about how much better it feels to use a food choice pantry than to be given a box of food you have no say over. Of course, with the emergency food boxes and deliveries to seniors, it would be different. But Philabundance also runs low cost farm markets to bring fresh produce to low-income neighborhoods, and those are most certainly at the individual's choice.

    • Zuska says:

      Ed, I don't mean to deny your experience. I just wanted to point out how Philabundance does it differently, and what a difference that makes for the people who use their services. It's beyond cruel to make people beg for food - which, imho, is what the bureaucratic nightmare of food stamps comes down to, or asking people to "qualify" for food banks. As if Paris Hilton is going to start grocery shopping at food pantries, if we don't institute strict means testing.

      • Ed says:

        Well, I was reading The Pump Handle and this post was linked to again so I came to check the comments... Yes, I bet the philabundance people know how it's done better, so that is good and I hope other food bank type organizations will learn from them so more people can benefit from a more sensible approach.

        Kristian, you betray an deep but unsurprising lack of knowledge of how poverty works. I do work hard. In fact probably harder than most middle class working people, never mind people who are retired or otherwise have a light or zero workload but are still relatively well off. In fact, most people in poverty work harder in fact than people in the middle class.

        Also, I am disabled, which also is a major problem.

        And you need to take closer note of what I said: It costs more than it saves. Social stigma has a very real cost, including in monetary terms. People who think you are poor or getting free stuff figure you are lazy or whatever (as you just demonstrated) and are more apt to complain about you or disrespect you. That has real costs. The landlord will assume you are not as likely to pay the rent, so they value you less as a customer for instance, which has costs.

        In fact, I once had a landlord who found out I was on public assistance and broke the contract and harassed me into leaving on short notice because they were just *that type*. That was enormously expensive both in terms of time and money (including a court case), being viciously attacked tends to be. Vulnerable people are more likely to be attacked by such bigoted people, and one thing that helps is not letting them know you are vulnerable. Losing the protection of privacy has costs.

        This is a small glimpse of how the poverty trap tends to work.

        You need to step away from the erroneous assumption that people in poverty can somehow "afford" a cost like social stigma more than others can. People like me do not have money, or time, or social capital to spare. That is how poverty goes.

  • Kristian Whetstone says:

    I think that sometimes the decision to eat healthy and unhealthy are two-fold decisions. I understand eating unhealthy because those are the only choices that the situation allows in a particular neighborhood but here in Los Angeles even the most significantly poor communities do have the choice of selecting healthier items they just don't make the correct choice. I feel that this may be because of a lack of education and/or the fact that fatty/unhealthy food simply tastes better. It does take more education and concern which the rest of society is always not willing to give or the other side is not willing to take. You do however have to take some responsibility for your future and your health and not depend upon others. These are basic education facts. I have sat in on WIC education meetings in the past and people seemed to just not care about the diet education facts. They are just in the class because they are forced to be there in order to receive their benefits. People have to be open and willing to receive the education and guidance.

    • Zee says:

      Eating healthy also requires time. You need time to cook, time to chop veggies, process fruits, boil pasta etc. When you are working more than one minimum wage job, have to waste hours traveling by public transportation, and have kids there really isn't the time do a lot of these things.

      I have a good paying job, a husband who chips in, a short commute, and only one child but I still regularly run out of time to cook. I can take short cuts like purchasing pre-chopped veggies or pre-made fresh salads etc, but someone living at the poverty line obviously doesn't have these options.

      People need the education and the access but they also need the time to put those things into action.

    • Maybe the reason they don't sit in on the classes is because they DO know the difference between healthy and unhealthy food choices, but can't afford to eat well. When you go to the food pantries and get a dozen eggs, a single can of tuna, and all the bread and sweets you can carry out (which is what I've seen in panties in 5 states) then you can't afford to know what to do with asparagus and broccoli, you're going to get mac and cheese in a box (with no milk or butter to make it) and a whole bunch of artisan breads.

      I've been to pantries in LA and Long Beach, and I haven't seen a lot of options for choice. Now amongst all the bread, pasta and rice the poor are given, we do get a can of green beans, corn, and peas. But that doesn't last terribly long with a family to feed.

      I've actually asked for powdered milk and a can of veggies at a Florida shelter (in Clearwater) which had, for several visits, given out nothing but bread, and was told that I should be happy to have anything at all to put in my children's bellies. Sadly, I find attitudes like that more often than not... although not to that extreme.

      Also, I've been to very few pantries that the food wasn't expired or, in the case of canned goods, had damaged containers. In Buffalo one pantry I frequented was closed down when a number of people (mainly seniors) became hospitalized and the it was found that they all ate from that pantry... and that the food there was so far expired. Just because people are poor doesn't mean they should have to take chances with the food they're given.

      And those programs that have gardens associated with them? LOVE THEM... but only in season, sadly. The rest of the year it's mac and cheese, pasta, and bread.

      • Ed says:

        "...Poor doesn't mean they should have to take chances with the food they're given. "

        Exactly. Because we can't afford it. In fact, far more so, not less, than the relatively wealthy. Poor people can afford everything less, everything.

        "was told that I should be happy to have anything at all to put in my children's bellies. "

        Yikes, but not a surprise to me. Apparently they don't know anything about nutrition or human health and development either - also not a surprise.

    • Ed says:

      Maybe a more appropriate way to solve this is to educate the wealthy on the realities of poverty instead. Oh but you can't really do that as well because they simply don't have to know - they have the luxury of ignorance. That is what it is, isn't it. The luxury of ignorance.

      I propose an experiment:

      Take some people in poverty and give them a middle class income for a couple years. Observe how the diet changes.

      Some people like yourself can volunteer to live with under $1000 a month for a few years. Observe the diet.

      You'd be surprised.

      • Zuska says:

        Sometime back I wrote in a post about Philly chefs who took a challenge to create nutritious meals on a food stamp budget. (There was an article in the Philly Inquirer about it.) They did manage to create a nice menu of meals...but...some of them "cheated" by going slightly over budget...which wouldn't be an option in real life. And they assumed ownership of some "basic ingredients" that people may not be able to afford to keep stocked in the pantry. And, they assumed a reasonably well stocked kitchen in terms of utensils, cookware, etc. - even access to cooking facilities, a fridge to store leftovers in, etc., which may not be the case if your utilities have been shut off, or your living situation is dicey. There's a whole bunch of basic background stuff they (and many of us) take for granted when we think about setting out to prepare a meal. Even having the time and energy to cook is something you can't always count on. With all that I am blessed with, in terms of having a good home, a kitchen, the utensils I need, and being able to buy the food I need, I can still spend the whole day in bed with a migraine and not have the energy to cook. People who work all day, have a long commute on public transport to get home, have kids to take care of - it's a lot to summon up the energy to cook on top of all that.

        • Kaz says:

          With all that I am blessed with, in terms of having a good home, a kitchen, the utensils I need, and being able to buy the food I need, I can still spend the whole day in bed with a migraine and not have the energy to cook.

          Do I ever hear you - I'm pretty well off financially (well, as grad students go), have a pretty well-stocked kitchen in terms of basic supplies, appliances and utensils, am very well situated regarding grocery stores, farmer's markets and fresh food supply... and yet food remains such. An. Issue. Because of disability. Eat healthily? My main focus is on making sure I manage to eat at all. And of course this intersects massively with poverty issues because disabled people are disproportionately living in poverty.

  • Zuska says:

    An example of "one illness away" - a child's two-month hospitalization leads to the loss of the mother's job, crippling the family's finances, resulting in impending electricity shutoff, which means the child's nebulizer can no longer be run.

    Contains the following candidate for understatement of the year: "The monthly average food stamp benefit in Pennsylvania is just $258 per household...Often, that's not enough to feed a family for 30 days..."

  • Zuska says:

    This post, Empty Plates for Low-Income Seniors, describes the growing problem of food insecurity among seniors.

    In 2009, about 19 percent of households with a low-income person over age 60 faced this problem — meaning that the older adult was uncertain of having enough food or unable to acquire enough. In elderly households below the poverty line, nearly a third suffer food insecurity, the G.A.O. found, and in 17 percent of them an older person had to eat less at some point in the past year because he or she simply couldn’t afford food.

  • skeptifem says:

    I am not sure if anyone commented this yet but the US has a ridiculously high infant mortality rate compared to other industrialized nations, and part of that is the lack of nutritional support for women before/during pregnancy, and the lack of medical support for poorer mothers. Cutting WIC will no doubt lead to more dead babies. More poverty leads to more dead babies. It isn't mentioned enough when discussing poverty- most people can somehow justify the treatment of poor people, by thinking that they deserve it or whatever, but very few people are able to offer a reason for why wanted babies deserve to die. It should be the headline of stories about cutting social services because it is almost always a result (the lack of socialized medicine makes it the reality for americans).