Monthly Archives: January 2013

Information – The Key Ingredient to Solving the Problem of Hunger in America

 

The buffalo meat aphorism applies – the more you chew, the bigger it gets.

Statistics abound.  We know there are people in every community who are hungry.  We think of children going to bed hungry, or unable to learn because they have had no breakfast, or not growing strong bodies not because of genetics but because of poor tutrition.  We think of elderly persons who have to choose between food and meds, or who have no transportation to get to the grocery story or the food shelf.  We think of parents working two and three shifts to fee their families.

And then we think about what we can do.  And many of us do lots.  We support the local food shelf with food and funds.  We volunteer for Meals-on-Wheels and the food shelf.  We support the food drive, the Walk to End Hunger, and we’re working to get ready for FoodShare month coming in March.

Still, we know in our hearts that hunger is one social issue that can be solved.  We just do not know how to frame, much less solve, the issue.  It’s the buffalo meat conundrum.  In my humble opinion, it’s not a lack of political will, but of complexity, unbridled political forces, and the difficulty of identifying the thread of domestic hunger midst the tangle of forces within which it is trapped.

President Obama put a name on some of the entanglements:

Speaking of income disparities, he said: “For me the people, understand that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it.”

He spoke, too, of the limits of the social safety networks: “We remember the lessons of our past, when twilight years were spent in poverty and parents of a child with a disability had nowhere to turn.  We do not believe that in this country freedom is reserved for the lucky or happiness for the few.  We recognize that no matter how responsibly we live our lives, any one of us at any time may face a job loss or a sudden illness or a home swept away in a terrible storm.”

He spoke of living wages, “We know that America thrives when every person can find independence and pride in their work, when the wages of honest labor will liberate families from the brink of hardship.” 

The President sets a tone that is emphatic and bold.  It’s up to an informed public, advocacy groups and elected officials to break that down into doable programs.

At the top of my list, as usual, is the imperative of transparency.   For starts, the main reason we don’t understand the symbiotic relationship between the Farm Bill and hungry Americans is that we can’t fathom the depths of the legalese.

If we know more about the use of public funds we will better understand the many tools we have to cope with hunger.  Of course we need to take care of people in need today, but we should not allow ourselves to stop digging deeper into knowing more – not just how many people are hungry, but why?

What is our food and nutrition research agenda?  Who is “discovering the facts?”

Who pays for the research?

Who is speaking to Congress? To the State Legislature?

How much of our food dollar goes for advertising? Lobbying?

Why are the elderly going hungry – is it shame, transportation, economics or is it the allocation of SNAP funds?

To what extent is hunger a “women’s issue?

To what extent are the issues of immigration and hunger related?

How are issues of hunger and the environment related?

Where do food co-ops fit in?

What are “competitive foods” and who has a stake in the regulation?

Who decides the ever-changing food pyramid?

Bottom line, hunger in this nation of plenty is one of the most complex issues on our endless banquet of solvable problems.  Thinking systemically about hunger is a powerful mental exercise that requires access to information that is current, accurate, impartial and understandable.  The conversation about hunger in America must reflect the perspectives of many forces – a challenge in a nation divided.

Still, it is only informed systemic thinking, putting hunger and the right to food in context, that we as a nation or a community will solve what is, in the end, a solvable problem.

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Minnesota Education Policy – Who’s in Charge?

Commenting on the “America the Ugly” social studies curriculum now raising such a controversy in Minnesota, an opinion piece in the National Review Online blog asserts that “any development of American-citizenship education (history/social studies) standards should involve elected legislators in the states, which have the responsibility for education under the Constitution.”

That assertion suggests to me that what this state needs at this hour is a really good State Board of Education.  The “responsibility for education under the Constitution” [sic] may not be enough.  The raging controversy about the state standards for social studies invites discussion of the role that an independent appointed Board might play in the arena of  state education policy.   We once had one of those until 1991 when the Legislature decided to eliminate the Board and assume full responsibility for education policy and finance.

Granted the SBE was not perfect.  There was more than a hint of political favoritism when the Governor named Board members (which were, by the way, ratified by the Senate.)  And there was some inclination on the part of Board members to meddle at times in issues that had a profound impact on their constituents.

Still, the Board was a buffer and a free agency.  Over the yeas Board members grappled with some tough issues – integration of urban schools and bussing being the most prominent.  They dealt, too, with Title IX implementation and a host of issues related to the education of women and girls.  They deliberated the inclusion of American Indian history in the curriculum, the politics of the vocational system, child nutrition, school district consolidation, administrator requirements and countless other controversial matters of local and state significance.

Legislators are comfortable dealing with fiscal issues and policy related to financial formulas, disparities, the long-term implications of the Minnesota Miracle.  They ignore their constituents’ predilections at their own political peril.

Members of the State Board of Education had little to say about money.  Policy was their beat.  They answered to the Governor rather directly to the voters. The SBE was free to advocate, to serve as a liaison among constituencies, to establish and enforce policies that would never win voter approval.

There are over fifty states and other political bodies that belong to the National Association of State Boards of Education.  There are just about as many variations on the theme of policy-setting as there are systems.  A look at the mix of possibilities suggests that neither the present legislative authority nor the role of the former Board is the only way or even the best way to shape education policy at the state level.  Options abound.

The Challenge to Frame the Right to Food as a Human Right

Writing last fall in The Nation Anna Lappe makes a powerful point about why it is hard for Americans to think of the right to food as a human right.  Lappe avers that “it’s extremely difficult to get the concept of the right to food across in the United States because of your constitutional tradition that sees human rights as ‘negative’ rights – rights against government – not ‘positive’ rights that can be used to oblige government to take action to secure people’s livelihoods.”

Lappe, founding principal of the Small Planet Institute and head of the Real Food Media Project, suggests that “so embedded is this in your constitutional culture that the concept that social and economic rights are real rights is generally not accepted.  While human rights to health, education, social security or food are guaranteed to a certain extent through legislation, they are still seen as suspect…. The protective role of government is denounced as paternalistic and even as paving the way for totalitarianism.”

One of the early calls for this nation to re-think the right to food was publication of Diet for a Small Planet, a bestselling book written in 1971 by Frances Moore Lappe, mother of Anna.  A decade later, the concept of food as a human right was underscored when Nobel-Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen published Poverty and Famines in which he challenged the idea that the root cause of hunger is not a crisis of productivity but a crisis of power.  Anna Lappe echoes Amartya Sen when she writes, “hunger’s root cause is clearly not a scarcity of food but a scarcity of democracy.”

Various agencies of the United Nations have taken a lead in re-framing the right to food as a human right. The right to food is variously defined, of course.  In general, the right refers to an essential element without which human beings cannot survive.  Much is written about the responsibility of the individual to fend for him/herself and the obligation of the state when the individual is not capable of obtaining food because of special circumstances such as imprisonment or military service.

“Food security” is the term currently used to describe the basics:  Food must be available, i.e. in sufficient quantity for the entire population; food must be accessible, i.e. each person must be able to procure nourishment either through his own production or through the capacity to buy food; access to food must be stable and continuous; and food must be healthy, i.e. consumable and clean.

Addressing the issue of hunger as a violation of human rights Louise Arbour, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, said that “while it is imperative to respond immediately to emergencies and commensurate humanitarian support and aid in order to address conditions of hunger, a human rights focus will focus will contribute to making solutions more durable and more equitable in the medium and long run.”

Similarly, Olivier De Schutter, Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, has said that the food crisis is a man-made disaster with identifiable causes that obliges all States [nations] “to act without delay to bring relief to the victims.”  De Schutter has said that agricultural politics, the international trade regime, climate change and food aid may appear in some as purely social, economic, or humanitarian issues, but none of them can be addressed effectively without taking the right to be free from hunger into account.

Anna Lappe’s comments may explain in part the disinclination of the United States to sign the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights which has now been signed by over 160 state parties.  Signees to the covenant agree to take steps to the maximum of their available resources to achieve progressively the full realization of the right to adequate food, both nationally and internationally.  In the nations that have agreed to the concept of food as a basic human right that right is specified either in law or in the constitution.

It seems an anomaly that the U.S. has not ratified the Covenant for economic and social rights.  Anna Lappe stresses that “the concept of economic and social rights is not un-American.”  She quotes FDR’s 1944 State of the Union address in which he suggested the need for a “Second Bill of Rights” covering basic social rights as an indispensable complement to the civil liberties listed in the Bill of Rights.

Clearly, reframing an issue as complex and pervasive as the right to food takes mental agility on the part of individuals, communities and society. One opportunity for group think will take place on Thursday, March 14, when Anna Lappe will speak at Noon at the Westminster Town Hall Forum.  Her talk, “Building Real Food Communities”, is co-sponsored by Minnesota FoodShare as part of this community’s celebration of March 2013 as Minnesota FoodShare Month.

How Open Government Happens

Terms such as “transparency” and “open government” fall trippingly from the tongues of elected officials and bureaucrats.   Still, the intricacies of assuring open government present a mighty challenge to persistent advocates.  Today’s headlines describing the inappropriate handling of public records exacerbate the situation.

On the one hand, drastic cutbacks among the ranks of investigative journalists leave a media void when it comes to consistent and informed coverage of  access issues.  At the same time, the complexities of setting policies and procedures appropriate to ensure transparency in the information age is a daunting task for lawmakers and their staffs, not to mention the local officials obligated to implement the laws.

The Minnesota Coalition on Government Information (MNCOGI) tries to keep tabs on the maze of open government issues that creep quietly onto the legislative agenda while more sexy issues capture the attention of the media and the public.

MNCOGI is sponsoring a public meeting on Monday, January 28, to cast a light on pending transparency issues and on those still percolating on the back burner of an interest group.  The meeting is 2:00-3:30 in Meeting Room 118 at the Minnesota State Capitol.  Free and open to the public.

Topics on the agenda range from License Plate Recognition Data to citizen e-mails submitted to municipalities to the definition of “public official” and enforcement of the present Data Practices Act.

The principles and state legislative issues that MNCOGI is currently monitoring are spelled out on the website of the nonprofit advocacy organization.

Putting Susan B. Anthony on a Pedal-stal

February is the cruelest month when it comes to honoring our nation’s heroes.  We used to recognize Honest Abe on his February 12 birthday and our beloved first President on February 22 – not one but two days off school!  Now it’s President’s Day only, and even that is more about sales than patriotism.  Thirty yeas ago we  had the wisdom to add Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to the pantheon of our nation’s leaders;  still even he is eclipsed this year by the second inauguration of President Obama, moved to Monday because the traditional January 20 fell on a Sunday.

Still, the one I’m really concerned about is the fact that Susan B. Anthony slips through the cracks of the crowded February calendar.  Valentine’s Day, which honors little but undying love and the greeting card industry, casts its shadow on Susan B. Anthony’s birthday which fades into oblivion on the following day.  This first rate suffragette, born February 15, 1820 in Adams, Massachusetts, deserves better.

Fierce proponent of the women’s right to vote Anthony didn’t just march, she was arrested for the cause.  In the presidential election of 1872 she cast an illegal vote for which she was fined $100 (which she staunchly refused to pay).   She defended herself and women’s right to vote with her historic declaration ”On Women’s Right to Vote” in which she probed the question Are women persons?  That was 140 years ago and a half century before passage of the 19th Amendment.

Anthony was an ardent abolitionist, in her earlier days, a member of the women’s temperance movement and a tireless proponent of education reform.  Clearly, all of this has not been enough to elevate her birthday or the Susan B. Anthony coin to national prominence.

So I’ve been thinking of another angle.  In this day cyclists need a new role model, one who is without tarnish or steroids.  One who represents the environmental, health and egalitarian benefits of cycling.

Susan B. Anthony is the obvious, worthy and peerless successor to the cyclist throne.

The forgotten fact is that she earned the title fair and square over a century ago. Lost in the annals of women’s history, not to mention the history of bicycling,  is Anthony’s clarion call to celebrate the symbiotic relationship between cycling and feminism.  In 1896, when bicycling was just catching on in the U.S., Anthony opined that

the bicycle has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world….It gives a woman a feeling of freedom and self-reliance.  The moment she takes her seat she knows she can’t get into harm unless she gets off her bicycle, and away she goes, the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood.

Widely self-acknowledged as a mecca for year-round cycling and enlightened feminism, the Twin Cities should take the lead in promoting Susan B. Anthony as the Patron Saint of Peddling.

At Neighbors, Inc. we’re celebrating with the First Annual Susan B. Anthony Sale – All Women’s Clothing 50% Off February 14-16 at the Clothes Closet, 222 Grand Avenue in Beautiful South St. Paul.  Walk, bike, bus or ski for bargains and the birth of a tradition!

Remembering the Way We Were, What We Read, and Why It Matters

Before you visit the Growing Up exhibit at Mineapolis Central Library – and before you read or re-read any of the books in that exhibit –  take time to listen to the NPR interview with Supreme Court Justice Sotomayor.  The delightful interview is  a remarkable testimony to the power of books,  reading, youth, and coming of age in the life of a poor immigrant kid living in an NYC tenement.

The books of Sotomayor’s youth, and those on display, are the classics on every teen’s reading list.  They’re the “coming of age” novels you had to read then, and would probably enjoy reading more now that it’s not an assignment.  They’re also the books your teen-age son or daughter, grandchild, or neighbor kid might enjoy, might even want to discuss with a wise elder.   Or they may be the books from which that teen’s favorite flick was adapted – – and we all know the book is better.

Novels in the coming of age genre can actually help a sensitive teen who’s having trouble figuring out the craziness of life.    The books can help a teen understand that he or she is not alone.   They can open windows of the mind and aspirations.  Listen to the Justice remembering – or read her autobiography due to be out this week.

If you are thinking that you yourself might have missed a beat back there, you might find some answers in the experiences of these temporarily disaffected teens.  Best of all, in the end, the protagonist survives the angst and moves with perceptible ease into maturity.

All of these novels are on the shelves of the Minneapolis Central Library.  The revolving display is chosen and replenished by Ruthann Ovenshire, a volunteer who combs the stacks for just the right read for the season or the mood.

Here are some coming of age books you may want to check out for a weekend read.  Peruse the library exhibit or possibly dig around for a dog-eared paperback in the back of a long-neglected bookcase.  Justice Sotomayor mentions other favorites, ranging from Nancy Drew to Romeo and Juliet to E.B. White’s Elements of Style.  She also mentions several of these, with thoughtful reflections on the power of reading in her youth.

Sisterhood everlasting, by Ann Brashares

Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte

The house on Mango Street, by Sandra Cisneros

The brief wondrous life of Oscar Wao, by Junol Diaz

Great expectations, by Charles Dickens

Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides

The virgin suicides, by Jeffrey Eugenides

White oleander: a novel, by Janet Fitch

About a boy, by Nick Hornby

The kite runner, by Khaled Hosseini

Never let me go, by Kazuo Ishiguro

A portrait of the artist as a young man,  by James Joyce

The secret life of bees, by Sue Monk Kidd

A separate peace, by John Knowles

To kill a mockingbird, by Harper Lee

The bell jar, by Sylvia Plath

The catcher in the rye, by J.D. Salinger

A tree grows in Brooklyn, by Betty Smith

The joy luck club, by Amy Tan

The adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain

Celebrate Two Momentous – and Connected – Events on January 21

Monday, January 21, 2013, Americans will celebrate two significant occasions that shed a light on recent American history.  One occasion is the Second Inauguration of Barack Obama, the first African American President of the United States.  The second event is the celebration of the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr., a national holiday established thirty years ago when Ronald Reagan signed the much-contested holiday legislation.

The first term and re-election of Barack Obama are fresh on the minds of most Americans.  The stories of Martin Luther King Jr. have faded into the deep recesses of Americans’ memories.  One way to honor both the President and the martyred leader is to take time on MLK Day to remember the struggles of a time that may seem so very long ago.

An interesting aspect of MLK Day is that the occasion is an open slate – it comes without ritual and deep tradition.   At age thirty the holiday is ours to invent for today.

The assassination of Dr. King in 1968 ignited the nation’s cities and exposed for all to see the reality of racism in America.  Soon after King’s death his supporters began the long drive to create a national holiday in his honor.  The proposal faced a Congressional backlash.   Even after the national holiday became the law of the land, individuals and states refused to observe the day.

The story is long and ugly.  And it needs to be remembered and told.  Some thoughts for memorializing Dr. King and honoring the President on Inauguration Day, a Day that didn’t just happen by chance.

  • Talk with those who were there when Dr. King led the fight for civil rights, those who walked the walk to follow Dr. King literally or in spirit.
  • Share the story of Dr. King and his impact with children did not experience and cannot fully understand the struggle.
  • The story is not an easy one to share.  There are books and movies, of course.  And there are within the family or the community individuals who may not readily  share their vivid memories.  These are the parents and grandparents of today’s young people.
  • Connect the dots  – how did the story of MLK pave the road for the Inauguration of Barack Obama;
  • Talk about the importance of voter rights for which Dr. King fought so hard – what are we doing today  to protect those rights.

And, of course, take a young friend or relative to one of the countless MLK concerts and other public programs sponsored by a host of churches, nonprofits, advocacy groups, musicians, writers, community groups and historians.

In short, don’t pass up the opportunity to keep the dream alive.