Tag Archives: poverty

Sharing the Bounty: A Day in the Life of a Food Shelf Manager

Note:  As families and friends gather to enjoy the feasts of this holiday season it is a privilege to know and share the story of one man who spends his long days making sure that everyone in the community shares both the bounty and the love of their neighbors.  ~ ~ ~

Scott Andrews is the energetic manager responsible for providing a warm welcome and wholesome food to the families of northern Dakota County (MN) who depend on Neighbors, Inc.

7:30 AM

The volunteers have already been at Cub Foods and Super Target where they have picked up and now delivered fresh produce, dairy products, fresh and frozen meat products.  This morning the Boy Scouts have dropped off an impressive load of canned goods plus a check they have collected at their weekend food drive.   Scott is psyched for a busy day – it’s the first of the month.

8:00 AM:

Scott is joined by Linda, a volunteer who has kept the food shelf running on an even keel for over thirty years.  Linda’s husband has already been on volunteer duty with the crew at Cub.

8:30 AM

Before the doors open to clients, a second crew of volunteers come on board.  This crew will sort the fresh produce, bag some, cull out the not-so-fresh, and create a tempting display of nutritious veggies for the shoppers.  They will also weigh the canned goods, scratch off the bar codes and check the expiration dates to assure quality control.  They’ll package the fresh meat in family-size amounts, bag the apples and oranges  (if there is fresh fruit today), check the eggs, refrigerate the dairy products, prepared salads and dairy treats, wash the veggies, shelve the fresh baker products and otherwise present the clients with a display of food that is as attractive as it is wholesome.

Meanwhile, clients are arriving at the reception desk upstairs.  Families wait patient as busy staffers check their ID’s and verification documents.  Each family must be recertified once a month.  Hungry children examine the picture books and squirm impatiently as they wait foe the grownups to complete the necessary paperwork.  Moms and dads wait patiently to go through the hoops required to put healthy food on the family table.  Elderly folks help keep an eye on the little ones, thinking fondly of their own grandchildren.

9:00 AM:

The food shelf phones begin to ring- and the action begins.  The families whose credentials are in order after they have met with the intake staff are ready to shop.  Spirits rise ad the customers enter the food shelf, clutching wiggly kids and free-wheeling grocery carts, eager to explore their shopping options.

The little ones are quick to spy the breakfast cereal and peanut butter that are in stock this week.  The moms catch a sidelong glimpse of the shampoo and scented soaps that donors have toted back from their hotel stays.

A volunteer interrupts her work to help a dad whose having a struggle with four-year-old twins.  She finds a picture book to share with the boys so the dad can shop and get to work on time.

10:30 AM:

Scott scans the shelves to make sure the labels are up to date and clearly displayed.  Because Neighbors is an “open choice” food shelf customers, with the help of volunteers, can select their own grocery items – ever dependent on what’s available that day.  Each shelf is meticulously labeled so that the clients know exactly how many of “product X” they may selection a family of “Y” members.  One of Scott’s jobs is to make sure that the labels on the shelves reflect the changes in supply.  Unlike the supermarket manager he has little control over available commodities.

Another team of volunteers arrives.  Scott reassesses the tasks and the team as he lays out the work plan for the next shift.  Over the course of the week Scott will see to it that each of the sixty food shelf volunteers has a job that fits his or her skill and interests.

Today there are donations to be weighed and entered in the data base.  Every ounce of food that comes in is weighted.  Every donor is to be credited and individually thanked.

NOON

Volunteers share a  pleasant break in the day by helping a family celebrate a birthday!  The intake person who follows the family’s record has alerted Scott that the little girl is celebrating her sixth birthday.  A volunteer finds a decorated cake donated by a local grocery store.  Cake and candles in hand, the family heads home to share a special evening.

 ~ ~ ~

And so the day goes – the volunteer shifts manage the steady flow of food and families.  Scott attends a staff meeting, completes the food orders for the near future, checks the shelves, reviews the raft of  health regulations,  struggles with the budget, chats with the  volunteers and welcomes a constant flow of customers with a warm smile.

Food shelf management doesn’t require a degree from the Culinary Institute of America or experience as a sommelier — in fact there is no formally accredited academic program geared to the vocation.  Still, Scott’s skill set bears a strong resemblance to that of a master restaurateur with a flair for customer care and stretching a dollar.  He knows food – the nutritional value, the cost, the availability, the presentation of the product.  Because he has little control over the sources or selection of the food he provides his clients, Scott explores creative techniques to make a pre-selected menu of wholesome food products irresistible.  As a result, he calculates that 87% of the food selections by his food shelf clients are distinctly healthy choices.

Dependent on the generosity of individual and institutional donors, Scott doesn’t enjoy the luxury of daily trips to the farmers’ market – though he welcomes with open arms the produce contributed by vendors at the end of the day’s market.  He  doesn’t order delicacies from the fresh fish purveyor or offer exotic taste treats to his customers.  His greatest asset is a staff of dependable volunteers who work because they care and because their efforts make a difference for members of the community.    It is up to Scott to “keep things interesting.”

Food shelf management is not one of the professional paths a talented youth is likely to pursue.  Scott himself did not exactly choose the career he now loves.  His degree from Northern Michigan University was in Spanish and International Studies.  It was during his stint as a youth ministry volunteer in Costa Rica that he mastered his language skills and learned to enjoy working with volunteers.  He is quick to point out, too, that the time he spent as a laborer in a gasket factory was great preparation for managing the food shelf inventory.

And this rich range of experience forged a flexible attitude perfectly suited to the lively food shelf environment.  Though it may not be a paved road to the pinnacle of the hospitality industry, it works for Scott – and for the Neighbors community that is enriched by the talents and the spirit with which he meets the shifting challenges of each day.

 

 

 

 

 

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People Are Talking — About Hunger in a Land of Plenty

The first essential component of social justice is adequate food for all mankind.  Food is the moral right of all who are born into this world.”  Norman Borlaug

Today’s convergence of factors lead to sobering thoughts – of hungry children plodding through the snow with no breakfast, of the calls for acts of charity at this penitential season, and of concern to meet  goal for Minnesota FoodShare Month, highlighted by a call to action issued by Governor Dayton and a project of the Greater Minneapolis Council of Churches.

Minnesotans may have read or heard that food shelves throughout the state are more than ever in need of both financial and food support.  Barrels are everywhere through Minnesota communities to make it easy for generous folk to drop off non-perishable goods.  Food and financial drives are going full speed in houses of worship, the workplace, nonprofits and the community at large.

The good news is that people are taking a closer look at why we have persistent hunger in our communities – why children go to bed hungry, why seniors have to decide between meds and food, why, in spite of the adage, waste and want exist side by side.  Conversations are going beyond emergency needs to the deeper questions such as What has led us from crisis to benign acceptance of a societal travesty? How do we in a farm state balance production and consumption?  Why do higher employment rates and food shelf statistics not compute?  Is the right to food a human right?

The media are contributing to the public discourse in positive ways.  A Place at the Table, is drawing audiences and media coverage.  Anna Lappe’s presentation, sponsored by Minnesota FoodShare and the Westminster Town Hall Forum, drew a SRO audience and has been requested by a barrage of MPR listeners.  Local media have given time to features on hunger-related issues.  The Daily Planet recently ran the Minnesota FoodShare video for their broad audience.  And people of faith are heeding the words of their leaders in places of worship of every denomination, including a local adoption of  Mazon, a nation-wide Jewish response to hunger.

Meanwhile, at the State Capitol, legislators will have a chance to listen to the public and take action on the immediate needs.  Though the imperative to fill the shelves with more and better food is a priority, it’s time to take a longer view of the underlying issues…. If not now, when?

Children’s Books Portray the Tough Reality of Hunger and Poverty

For far too many children abject poverty and insatiable hunger are a constant reality.   Still, most children are shielded from the facts that some of their peers know only too well.  For children who live in comfort, good books that portray children with whom they can identify can open doors of understanding, even empathy.

Much that is written for children depicts the travesty of global hunger – starving children who struggle against unspeakable conditions in faraway lands.  Poignant  as these stories are, some are remote, beyond the experience or even the imagination of a child.

In recent times the world of children’s literature has expanded to embrace the plight of children closer to home.   My amateur search for children’s books about poverty and hunger is grossly limited by my ignorance of the genre.    A good children’s librarian, teacher or bookseller would be a far better resource.  My thought has been to explore children’s stories about hunger in our midst.  The goal has been to find books that tell a story that will some day have meaning for my grandson whose idea of severe hunger is missing a glass of milk at bedtime.

The unfortunate and statistically inaccurate fact is that ethnicity and family situation play a role in several children’s books that deal with poverty and hunger.   Adults sharing these books are cautioned to take this into account by stressing that the characters are not responsible for their condition.  For the most part the causes of poverty are not individual but systemic.

Many books that depict causes and conditions of poverty derive from passed from generation to generation; many come from places and people that enjoy an oral rather than written tradition.  Though the setting may be unfamiliar, the message transcends geography.  These books come to life when they are shared with caring adults who can interpret the underlying factors that shape the lives of individuals and families, especially children, who are not to blame for their situation.

ü  A good conversation starter is the classic story of Stone Soup, a familiar tale that has been told in words and pictures by countless writers and artists who know children well.

ü  Rosie, the Shopping Cart Lady, by Chia Martin, is a story for children, told by a child, a good introduction to the reality of poverty and homelessness for young book lovers.

ü  Another good read, based on a Chinese folktale, is One potato, two potato retold by Cynthia DeFelice.  In this story a hungry family learns that doubling their edibles is less important than expanding their circle of friends.

ü  In The Roses in my Garden, set in Afghanistan, author Rufshana Kahn tells the story of a young refugee living with terrifying memories.  Overcome by thirst, hunger and mud he continues to dream of freedom.

ü  Beatrice’s Goat by Page McBrier and Lori Lohstoefer, was first published by Heifer Project International.  The book describes how the gift of a goat brought a level of prosperity to a village in Uganda.

ü  In The Caged Birds of Phnom Penh Frederick Lipp describes how a young girl saves money to buy a bird for her impoverished extended family.

ü  Sounder, by William Armstrong and James Barkley, is the story of a 19th Century African American sharecropper family.

ü  In A Shelter in Our Car Monica Gunning writes about a widowed mother and her daughter Zettie who are forced to leave their home in Jamaica.  The mother’s strength instills hope and confidence is the little girl.

ü  Jane Resh Thomas tells the story of Latino migrant workers far from and lonesome for their homeland during the holiday season in Lights on the River.

ü  In Angel City an elderly African man discovers an abandoned baby on a Los Angeles street.  With no experience, he rears the child as his own, keeping the child and hope alive with songs and stories.

ü  A Handful of Seeds by Monica Hughes recounts the story of Concepcion, a young orphan girl who is forced to move to the barrio when her grandmother dies.  When she learns that her new friends must steal for food Concepcion decides to sow the corn and bean seeds left to her by her grandmother.  The community garden represents hope and illustrates the impact one person can have on a community.

ü  Gowanus Canal is a grubby area in NYC in which a homeless man and a brood of dogs share a common fate.  Jonathan Frost shares their story in his first book, Gowanus Dogs.

ü  Race and poverty play a role in Lucky Beans, based on the real life memories recounted by author Becky Birtha’s grandmother.  It’s the story of a Depression-era African American family who enter a bean-counting contest with high hopes of winning a sewing machine.

ü  The Double Life of Zoe Flynn by Janet Lee  Carey is the story of a little rich girl with a secret – – that her family is no longer rich but living in a van.  Hope and strong family ties help Zoe survive her situation.

ü  Uncle Willie and the Soup Kitchen is a realistic story in which a young boy sees first-hand the difficult lives of families who are hungry and the kindness they are shown at the workers at the soup kitchen.

ü  Well-known author Eve Bunting recounts the plight of a homeless boy trying to avoid detection in an airport terminal.  Fly Away Home describes how a bird in flight gives him hope.

ü  In Sam and the Lucky Money by Karen Chinn, Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu, the young boy Sam discovers the true meaning of the “lucky money’ his grandparents have given him to buy “anything he wants.”

ü  Mama Panya’s Pancakes by Mary Chamberlin and Richard Chamberlin is about a poor Kenyan mother and son who go to market to shop for the ingredients to make pancakes.  The generous boy insists on inviting all people he encounters to join the pancake feast.

ü  Predictably the Berenstain Bears have a tale to tell, a story of conspicuous consumption writ large.  In The Berenstain Bears Count Their Blessings Mama helps her cubs realize that love trumps worldly goods, even Bearbie dolls.

ü  Last on the list, first in my heart, is one of my favorite holiday reads, Always Room for One More by Sorche Nic Leodhas, illustrated by Nonny Hogrogian.  Though it’s not strictly about hunger and poverty this book is the perfect holiday read for the whole family and the perfect gift for a young reader with a vivid imagination and a generous heart.

These few titles offer but a quick sample of the treasures on the shelves of libraries and bookstores.  In these volumes creative writers and illustrators interpret themes and conditions that are difficult for children to grasp, harsh realities that are nonetheless part of the world in which they live, learn, make friends and come to understand others.   A good story well told can reveal deep truths and subtle nuances that children are just learning to comprehend and apply.

A good book is always the ideal gift for any child.   In every home, for every child, there is always room for one more….

A Gubernatorial Debate Without Mention of Social Issues

“Don’t worry, they’ll just build a new building,” my friend assured me.  I was entering a much-vaunted auditorium at the University of St. Thomas with a cup of contraband coffee in my hand, timidly murmuring that they would have to re-carpet if I were to spill a drop.

The old anecdote crossed my mind recently as I entered an even newer auditorium, this time to hear a “debate” among gubernatorial candidates sponsored.  As I tried to listen to the spins and dodges, I kept reminding myself to think no small thoughts.  If anyone spilled the beans on the candidates’ avoidance tactics, the powers would indeed build a new building.  The reminder was pricey, painful and a prod to rethink the ways in which those who care about social issues respond to – better yet, get in front of – the issues.

Needless to say, the folks at this debate heard nary a word about social issues.  The prevailing mantra was predictable: “the economy, stupid” – writ large and arguably a little late.  Attendees could blithely stride past peaceful protesters who were not allowed to walk, talk or carry their message to the veranda of the Opus College of Business building.

The candidates are justifiably terrified that any sidelong glance at social issues will raise the hackles and open the checkbooks of those who prefer to ponder the “E” topic – taxes, job creation, the rights of the have’s, fiscal policy.  Candidates and their supporters alike have a preconceived notion of social activists.  For those who struggle to peace and justice, that’s a painful but necessary admission.  I’m reminded of Robert Burns who nailed it:  “O would some power the giftie gie us to see ourselves as others see us.”

This painful – not to mention expensive –  experience of the debate, now tempered by time, sharpened my focus  on the absence of social issues from the candidate debates in particular, from media coverage of the campaigns, and from public discourse in general.   Those who care about pay inequity, the rights of immigrants, domestic abuse, trafficking, the homeless, learning opportunities of poor kids, and other real life issues need to internalize the world view of the candidates.  Electoral politics, statistics, and language both shape and reflect a world view that is as real as it is unlike our own way of looking at things.  Some possible concrete steps to getting on the agenda:

  • Change the questions (priority #1) –  If the candidate is bombarded with the same question in various venues, the issue makes its way to the candidate’s and the media’s agenda.
  • Change the tone – Position yourself or your organization as  a co-conspirator against some common foe.  Invent one if necessary.
  • Load them with the numbers – This I learned from the indomitable Nina Rothchild.  Statistics talk.  Sometimes they speak the truth; in the hands of liars, they lie or obfuscate.  Consider the source and the presentation. Apply the KISS principle and be able to back it up with hard data.
  • Fact check – In the digital age it’s easy enough to track the facts.  Don’t swallow but follow the information track.
  • Craft and communicate a vision – Everybody wants to look ahead to a better world – Create a vision that embraces positive change broadly defined to include crazy ideas such as justice.
  • Listen, painful as that may be – Filter the rhetoric and get into the minds of those who echo, rather than initiate, strategies for addressing the issues.
  • Invoke the founding fathers – Everybody else does.  It was Jefferson himself who wrote that:  “whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government; that, whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them right.”
  • Remember that it’s not about laying new carpet  it’s about building a new building with a new foundation of social, as well economic, building blocks.
  • Speak up – you’ve got the facts, the stories,  and  TJ’s confidence in the people to back you up.

A passion for info access is the dominant thread in my DNA.  Though the sources, format, techniques and skills change with the times, information is a powerful and relentless tool which, if used with skill and a little panache, will bring about change, starting with a revised agenda.  Posts re. the power and sources of information are about to boil over in my head.  Watch for future posts here and elsewhere.