Friday, December 10, 2010

Beef: What the Poor People Are Eating

My father-in-law has a long-standing tradition of every Saturday night being "Steak Night." We've sat down to the table for that meal together, and just before eating, he always uses the same one-liner, "Wonder what the poor people are eating tonight?"

It's a harmless statement, really. Kind of like my own grandfather's favorite way to order coffee in a diner, "Hot and dark like my women!" Cringe.

But, if I ever did really wonder what the poor people are eating tonight, I don't have to wonder. It's "Beef." As in that very generic looking can, so cheaply produced from commodity meat that it has no branding and no label. The ingredients read, "Beef, salt." And the source of that meat is probably one and the same as the "beef" that ends up in the dog dish. I can't say for sure, there was no label.

I do know, however, that THAT can is what the poor people eat because I packed the grocery box along with 20 friends and co-workers at a recent volunteer day at Harvesters Community Food Network. Each box contained 1 large can of meat-ish something; 2 half gallon bottles of juice, tomato and orange to count as fruit and vegetables; 2 boxes of cereal, 1 large canned milk, canned fruit and vegetables, canned soup. Each box was sealed and labeled. Then stacked on a pallet with a hundred others. Each box represented exactly one week's food for a senior citizen who could not afford to eat otherwise.

We made over 1000 boxes. Earlier in the day, our team also packed 1300 "back snacks" for school kids. The kids take the backpacks home over the weekends when there is no school breakfast and lunch. For many, this is all the food they will get the whole weekend.

It is not great food, but pretty similar to what most kids eat. Milks, cereal, canned meals, snacks and bars, fruit cups.

We had two teams working, packing over 4000 of these kits for seniors and kids. Each day, volunteers come and do more. In other parts of the massive warehouse, teams are mobilized quickly to sort and distribute produce that is over-ripe and the day old baked goods. A floor half the size of a football field is an area for receiving, cleaning and sorting food donations.

Mountains of food donated and cost-effectively purchased are stacked to the ceiling like a Costco on steroids. It seems like an endless food supply. But, with over 60,000 people fed per week from this one building. Those shelves empty at an alarming rate. Armies of volunteers are needed weekly to keep up with the ever-increasing need as the number of food insecure in our nation rises. And despite this massive effort, there are many who still go without. In fact, some 100,000 children in my metropolitan area alone are food insecure. To put a face and context around all these cans and boxes (from the report, Hunger in America 2010):

* 37% of the members of households served by Harvesters are children under 18 years old
* 9% of the members of households served by Harvesters are children age 0 to 5 years
* 8% are elderly
* Approximately 36% of clients are white; 51% are African American, 9% are Hispanic and the remainder are from other racial or ethnic groups.
* 40% of households include at least one employed adult
* 73% have incomes at or below the official federal poverty level
* 12% are receiving general assistance, welfare or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)
* 5% are homeless
* 25% of households served by Harvesters report having at least one household member in poor health

If you still need help visualizing the face of hunger, why not look in the mirror? You can help yourself and your family understand what it is to experience food insecurity by taking the Food Stamp Challenge. It would make a great New Year's Resolution project and it would be a fantastic teaching experience for kids.

To take the challenge, you simply vow to spend the same on groceries for one week as food stamp recipients. Here's a quick look at the rules:

• All food purchased and eaten during the Challenge week, including fast food or dining out,
must be included in your food expenses.
• During the Challenge, only eat food that you purchase during the week of the project. Do
not eat food that you already had in your pantry or refrigerator (this does not include spices
and condiments).
• Try to avoid accepting free food from friends, family or work during the Challenge
• You will be able to spend the following amounts on food during the 7-day Challenge:
(Note that these are the maximum Food Stamp benefits available to recipients. The actual average
benefit for individuals in the Midwest, for example, is approximately $20 a week.)

Number of Challenge participants in household and Food budget for one week:
1 $50.00
2 $91.75
3 $131.50
4 $167.00
5 $198.25
6 $238.00

Here's more information about the challenge, recipes, and an article from my local paper about the experience of taking the food challenge as a family.

So, what else can we do this holiday as we shop til we drop?

• Food donations, of course, always count. To be sure what you donate counts most, read this post before cleaning out your pantry. The most needed items are staples; Canned vegetables, Canned fruit, Boxed meals, Canned Meat, Peanut Butter, Canned Soup, and Cereal – hot and cold
• Time. Take a day to give back and volunteer. When I see the donation bins at the store, it does nothing to bring home the scale of hunger just in my own community. Plus, hefting half gallon jugs all day was one fine workout for the body and the soul.
• Advocate. The recent School Nutrition Bill proposed taking money from food stamps to fuel the lunch program. Both serve the same needs, so that's a bit like saying, "Do you want to skip lunch or dinner today?" Write Congress and keep up with these kinds of legislation
• If you are an avid locavore and hate the miles of processed foods stacked up, garden. Start a volunteer garden or your own "back 40" feet and donate something fresh.
• Money. Food banks like Harvesters have special purchasing programs and can buy and unbelievable amount of food for the same dollar spent on that maligned can of lima beens tossed in a donation bin.

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