I had the opportunity to attend the annual fighting hunger in Maryland Conference last Wednesday. It was something I went to last year as an intern, and decided to go this year to get my networking on, start getting some continuing education credits, and just get a reminder of things that inspire and motivate me. The beginning of the day was super depressing honestly. Everyone could not stop talking about the government shutdown, whether it was the speakers, or just chatter amongst the attendees.
I have to say though, things started to look up when there was a panel that included a few “witnesses to hunger.” I don’t know why, but I cry every time I see something like this. It must mean I have chosen the right profession. Their stories will haunt you and motivate you at the same time. You hear stories of living conditions that you thought only existed in third world countries.
That’s what this issue is all about. The faces and the stories. I get so angry when people try to say that people abuse this system. I know it is a broken system and I am sure it happens, but not to the extent that people say it does. Some reasearch shows that the food stamp program only has a 1% rate of fraud and 3% rate of error. I feel that the media.. cough cough fox news (which is not based on facts and is not even considered news in my book) blows things out of proportion such as the surfer dude in California using food stamps for a lobster dinner.
Federal programs need to be strengthened to get people out of the place where they are. It was designed to be a temporary type of system, but the system does not give people enough to get by even when they are working full-time or multiple jobs, so they become reliant on it in a way and stuck where they are.
Just a side note, I signed up to take the Food Stamp Challenge from OCtober 21-27 and I will have to eat with just $30/week. I will be blogging through my experience so come back for that. I think it will give me real perspective and increase my compassion towards people who have this as their reality every day.
Sign up here:
The food stamp program’s first administrator, Milo Perkins said this in 1939: “We got a picture of a gorge, with farm surpluses on one cliff and under-nourished city folks with outstretched hands on the other. We set out to find a practical way to build a bridge across that chasm.” The program ended when the conditions that brought the program into being , unused food surpluses and rampant unemployment, no longer existed. Imagine that?! This is a bipartisan issue. Access to healthy food is a basic human right and I’m pretty sure it is on the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs so we will never move forward as individuals or as a society without it.
25% of kids in Baltimore city live in food deserts. That seems to be a trendy term these days but according to the Baltimore Food Policy Intiative is defined as: An area where the distance to a supermarket is more than ¼ mile, the median household income is at or below 185% of the Federal Poverty Level, over 40% of households have no vehicle available, and the average Healthy Food Availability Index score for supermarkets, convenience and corner stores is low (measured using the Nutrition Environment Measurement Survey).
I also thought it would be helpful to differentiate between food security, food insecurity, and hunger.
According to the official USDA definition, food security is defined as access by all people at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life. Food security includes the ready availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods and an assured ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways. Food insecurity is limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods or limited or uncertain ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways. Hunger is the uneasy or painful sensation caused by a lack of food.
Our kids are overfed, yet undernourished. Childhood obesity statistics are on the rise, so people don’t think we have a problem with hunger at all! Every healthy society in the world has a low rate of income disparity. With more income disparity, there is a loss of opportunity. These issues are more than just food. There is a lot of expertise and collaboration needed beyond my scope of practice as a dietitian. The future of our country is at stake. People don’t realize how much nutrition affects kids’ ability to learn and focus in school. They are the future of this country and societies have problems when their citizens are not educated. I know some people like to think that churches and charities can pick up the slack and that it’s not the government’s job. But it would take every single church, mosque, synagogue etc, donating $50,000/year for ten years to cover the snap benefits.
And while I’m on my soapbox, just a note about Obamacare, which if some of you don’t know is the same thing as the Affordable Care Act.
Now, I’m no economist, but one of the speakers used a great analogy. You cannot just go into a supermarket and get food, so that makes it a market sort of model that runs itself. But because you can go into a hospital and receive care, it shows that it is not a market and requires some sort of government intervention. The entire system we have for insurance operating like a market is ridiculous. I heard a story the other day that a woman was pregnant and had to switch insurance when she got a new job. The new insurance would not cover her because her pregnancy counted as a “pre-existing condition.” That makes me sick. Haha pun intended.
Again, I’m sure Obamacare is not perfect and it will need some revision, but some sort of change definitely needs to happen soon. And for now, I am grateful that it allows me to stay on my parents insurance until I’m 26, considering I still do not have a steady full-time job and may not even receive benefits when I do find one. Another visual this speaker used it the hammock idea. Many conservatives try to say it’s time to cut the hammock. Well, there is no hammock, just a crappy, porous safety net. And a note on this whole government shut down, I think we’ve been doomed for a while considering the model of democracy works when their citizens are informed. But we do not have an informed society. People don’t have time these days so a lot of information comes to us through twitter or Facebook or if we happen to have time to watch tv and catch the news, which is usually biased anyways.
I’ll be honest, I am not as informed about politics as I was in college. I cannot cite all the studies or where these statistics came from. You can cite statistics all day about the prevalence of poverty, homelessness, and food insecurity. But for me, the fact that it happens to one person is this country is unacceptable. And although this conference had a very liberal spin on things, I consider myself pretty moderate and think that these are not issues that should be divisive.
Now onto something more positive. The sessions after lunch seemed to have glimmers of hope sprinkled throughout. Baltimore really is a sort of hub for work in food insecurity and is leading the nation in creative approaches to tackling this multifaceted issue.
Things that make me happy:
-The EBT benefits (electronic benefit transfer aka food stamps) used at farmer’s markets has been increasing exponentially over the past three years, The pilot year, a total of $15,000 were used, $42,000 the next year, and $90,000 the next year.
-The work I have done with low-income parents over the past year at my internship showed me that 99.9% of them want to eat healthy food and want that for their kids, but just don’t know where to find it or how to pay for it.
-A program called Baltimore Bucks will double someone’s EBT benefits up to $5 at a farmer’s market since they are spending it on fresh produce.
-Baltimarket is a free, virtual pea-pod type of delivery program to reach people in food deserts.
-There is a prescription assistance program where a doctor can literally write a prescription for fruits and vegetables for a patient and they will receive $10 to spend at a farmer’s market. That just made my heart sing. And that’s why I probably could never work in a hospital when I’m really being honest with myself. That is the direction our healthcare system needs to be heading. From “Sick Care” to “Health Care.” From reactive to proactive.
-There are tons of community projects being funded that focus on urban gardens, mobile farmer’s markets, kitchen renovations, cooking classes , etc. and even one modeled after the Jamie Oliver community kitchen idea to give people the skills they need to prepare healthy food.
-Real Food Farm in Clifton Park was one organization I had the pleasure of working with during my internship. They have a mobile farmer’s market that visits low-income areas and last year 20% of their sale were SNAP (supplemental nutrition assistance program aka the new name for food stamps after the 2008 farm bill) benefit recipients.
I know this post was super opinionated and probably very biased as well. But for me, this is not a political issue, it’s a heart issue. Because of my values and the way I live my life, I cannot help but feel called to be a part of the solution. I truly believe in the power of the individual. I can’t save the world of hunger by myself, but I can do everything in my power to make sure I am not harming others by my actions or votes.
A quote from the Dali Lama, “If you can, help others; if you cannot do that, at least do not harm them.”
And finally, to end with a quote from my favorite person:
.. whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.. Matthew 25:40
Again, thanks for hanging in there for all of this 🙂
Indignation: Anger aroused by something unjust, mean, or unworthy. I think the emotions this day brought out in me is just all the more confirmation that I want to dedicate my life’s work to pediatric research and be a part of the solution. Thanks again for joining me in this journey!