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Changing the Way We Eat, Beginning With Our Children

Originally posted in the Vacaville Reporter: Change is never easy. We all know people who tout their flexibility and their openness to change, but lock themselves up when change begins. (Other people of course, not us.) At the Food Bank of Contra Costa and Solano it is interesting to watch this take place around a subject everyone knows needs to be addressed, improving the nutrition of our children.

Obesity has risen dramatically among younger people (and adults too) over the past twenty years meaning that diabetes and other diseases are becoming a major health problem for our society. The astronomical costs of treating those diseases, as well as the other problems we face as an obese society can be prevented by changing what we eat. Most of us recognize we eat too many fats, too much sugar, too many empty calories. In principle we all understand that we should eat more fresh fruit and vegetables and more whole grains.

If we are going to take steps to implement these changes, one of the most effective ways is to start with our children through the school lunch program. By providing students with a healthy lunch, we can give them good food to eat once a day as well as helping to educate them about how good food tastes. Seems simple, right?

In fact, changing school lunches has become a major political issue. The School Nutrition Association, a lobbying group that focuses on school lunches has switched its position from supporting the changes recently implemented in nutrition standards to now asking for relief from those standards. There are anecdotes about the disruption the new standards have caused that raise legitimate concerns. Stories are told of schools in the Southwest having whole grain tortillas thrown away because they are not culturally acceptable. Applesauce is thrown away as are fresh fruit and vegetables. And of course, funding is not adequate for these districts to provide increasingly expensive healthy food.

On the other side, school districts in rural Georgia share stories of how they were able to move from fried chicken (a Southern staple) to herb-baked chicken that kids love. Locally grown grits are one of the most popular items for their school breakfast program. Here in our community, some school districts are purchasing fresh produce from local farms, providing healthy locally-grown food to their students.

But beyond these operational issues, on the political side, a group named the Coalition for Sustainable School Meals Programs has pushed Congress to designate pizza with tomato sauce as a vegetable. The goal of providing healthy food to our children gets complicated because providing school lunches is a multi-billion dollar program.

While a few people may defend the status quo of the school lunch program, most agree that change is necessary for the good of our children. For the sake of our health, we need to see a change in our individual diets, and that will only come about through education. We need to begin with our children.

Food Bank Offers Healthy Food Choices

Originally posted in the Vacaville Reporter: It’s no great secret that the way we Americans eat is killing us. According to the Center for Disease Control, 35% of adults 21 years of age and older were obese in 2012. The percentage of adults who are overweight (which includes those who are obese) was 69%. The frightening fact is that even our children are obese, with 12% to 18% classified as obese depending on their age. Diabetes is also a significant problem nationwide with over $28 billion being spent on diabetes treatment in California in 2012.

These problems are caused by the diets we eat. Fast food, huge portions and enormous amounts of sugar lead to obesity and diabetes. If we want to address these health issues, people will need to change the way they eat. How to do this is a complicated question. There are those who would like to mandate what people eat. Some people want to begin with individuals who receive CalFresh (food stamp) benefits. New York City tried to ban the use of these funds to buy high-sugar drinks, but ran into resistance from soda manufacturers and some civil libertarians. The New York City plan to control what food recipients purchase was overruled by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Instead of mandating what people can or cannot eat, public health advocates want to generate change by making healthy food more economical and attractive. Along with programs that distribute fresh produce, the Food Bank of Contra Costa and Solano provides access to recipes and a nutrition educator. We are also able to distribute coupons to the low-income individuals we serve so they can purchase fresh produce at farmers markets. The California Market Match Consortium was created to distribute funds obtained from the California Department of Food and Agriculture and private donors. We let the people we are helping enroll in the CalFresh program know that they can obtain Market Match coupons to use at the farmers markets. As a bonus, people receive $5 worth of bonus scrip for every $10 they spend at the farmers market. This program can grow through a $100 million allocation in the 2014 federal Farm Bill and a $2.75 million per year (for five years) Market Match Nutrition Incentive fund included in a California Assembly bill.

The Food Bank also distributes farmers market coupons to low-income senior citizens through our Senior Food Program. Funds from the California Department of Food and Agriculture provide us with $20 booklets of coupons that seniors can use at their local farmers market. Over 1600 of these coupon books go to the Senior Food program participants, helping them obtain healthy produce on a continuing basis. The Food Bank sees its responsibility as helping those who want to change what they eat. We will distribute over ten million pounds of fresh produce this year. Providing farmers markets coupons and giving people fresh produce also allows healthy change to take place. People want to eat well and they want to be healthy. The Food Bank wants to make that possible for the people we serve.

A Look at the Numbers, and the Individuals, Food Banks Around the Nation Help

Originally posted in the Vacaville Reporter: Feeding America, the national food bank network, recently released findings about the “missing meals” in each county in the United States. The Map the Meal Gap project was created, to learn more about the face of hunger at the local level. We now see that 1 in 7 people in the area are food insecure and that includes nearly 22,000 children in Solano County. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) tells us that 49 million people are in danger of hunger nationally. But as I considered those numbers, I was shocked when I saw that 1 in 5 children are in danger of hunger.

Hunger is a pervasive and solvable problem throughout the country. Studies like Map the Meal Gap 2014 (Meal Gap) allow Food Bank of Contra Costa and Solano to continue to evaluate and adjust to the need in our area. With the extensive and revealing data provided, we will be armed with the information needed to work towards making sure everyone has enough to eat. The research data includes weekly food-budget shortfalls, demographics and poverty levels which help us determine the social issues in our area and work together as a community to find a solution.

The Meal Gap and USDA numbers say the same thing in many different ways: it is not acceptable for a country as rich as the United States to have children who do not get the food they need. Even one child going hungry is not ok. It does not make sense that hunger should be accepted, no matter the number.

Lori puts a face to those numbers. She is a food assistance participant in Fairfield. She describes her life before 3 years ago as having been “always married with children” and never having to worry about food or that type of thing. Three years ago she went through a very difficult divorce and found herself in financial trouble and needing to take care of her 2 children (now 12 and 14).

A nurse, she worked at the Public Authority with the elderly doing in-home support services, but she has been off work from there since August on disability – which means money is very tight.

The healthy vegetables, rice, cereal, apples, sweet potatoes and other staples she gets from the Food Bank are a huge nutritious boost to her and her children- and it means she can actually afford to buy meat on occasion. Simply being able to get milk (now quite expensive) is a huge relief.

Lori stresses that she appreciates every bit of the help she gets, and she feels it is teaching her kids how to share, be humble, conquer their fears and not be afraid to ask for help. She says their faces light up on days she picks up food, they are so excited to get the healthy yogurts, fruits and veggies she is able to bring home.

Lori hopes that people will see that there is little truth to the stereotypes about people taking advantage to the system. That those who get food, are like you and me, just in need of some help.

I am proud that the Food Bank of Contra Costa and Solano can help our neighbors like Lori. We will distribute nearly 21 million pounds of food to our neighbors in need this fiscal year, and nearly half that food will be fresh produce. We recognize however that we are one part of the answer. Nutrition programs like CalFresh, school lunch and senior citizen feeding programs demonstrate that as a country know how to extend a helping hand when our neighbors need food. When we see that food is needed, people motivate our response, not numbers.

If you would like to learn more, a summary of the findings, an interactive map of the United States, and the full report are available at www.feedingamerica.org/mapthegap.

A Conversation With Congressman John Garamendi

Originally posted in the Vacaville Reporter: With the support of a generous community, the Food Bank of Contra Costa and Solano was able to provide over eight million pounds of fresh produce to people in need last year. As food banks across the country continue to increase the services we provide, our members of congress have had to make some tough choices including cutting funds to federal nutrition programs.

In Contra Costa and Solano counties, over 200,000 people are food insecure and of that population, nearly half do not qualify for federal nutrition assistance meaning that they need to turn to the food bank and our partner agencies. And of those that do qualify for assistance, it is still not enough to make ends meet.

As an organization on the front lines of hunger, the Food Bank of Contra Costa and Solano feels that we need to help inform our elected officials about the impact their decisions have on the low-income people we serve.

We had a chance to sit down with Congressman John Garamendi recently to discuss these very issues that our communities are facing. Being from a district that is a major agricultural area and as a pear rancher, Congressman Garamendi knows the issues we face when we try to access to fresh produce.

He asked how we felt about the compromise in the recently passed Farm Bill; whether the increase we will see in the amount of food we receive from the US Department of Agriculture will make up for the cuts in the CalFresh (food stamp) program. We expressed our gratitude at having additional food to provide to the people we serve, but it is not enough to offset the significant cuts in the CalFresh program. In fact, we continue to reach out to the people who receive food from us so we can enroll them in CalFresh. The CalFresh is the best way to get people the food they need to feed their families. The Food Bank is an important supplement to the CalFresh program, but Congressman Garamendi knows we cannot replace a program that provides essential food to families in need.

Congressman Garamendi told us a story about his daughter, a kindergarten teacher, who took her class on a field trip to a community garden. As the class was getting back on the bus, they realized one child was not with them, so his daughter ran back to the garden where she found the child sitting under a trellis of hanging cucumbers. The child was about halfway through eating the cucumber he had in his hand, but he also had his pockets full of other cucumbers he had picked. The boy was filling his stomach with a cucumber in the garden, but he made sure he had others to take home to share with his brother at home.

The Food Bank has enough food to make sure people do not go completely without, but it is not enough to solve the persistent issue of hunger. By giving our elected officials important information about the need in their community, we hope they can pass laws that will allow us to help each other meet the basic need for food. We can learn from the boy in the cucumber patch. Even in a difficult time, he thought to take care of his own needs and those of his brother as well.

38 Years of Food Banking

cfcoalition 77

The Community Food Coalition 2 years after it was founded in 1977. Larry Sly is 3rd from the right.

I just celebrated my 38th year working at the Food Bank of Contra Costa and Solano and so it seems like an appropriate time to reflect on the changes I have seen. When I was hired, I was the second employee; the one and only truck driver. At that time the Food Bank was a trailer Safeway had loaned us to store canned food. Our job was to provide food to 17 food pantries that gave people an emergency three-day food supply. Individuals who tried to obtain government assistance programs like CalFresh (food stamps) often found that they had neglected to bring proper documentation, so the eligibility worker was able to use the community resource these food pantries represented to deal with a short term emergency.

We still provide food to pantries today, in addition to our direct service programs, but many programs now provide food to people on a regular basis. Even if people receive government support, they have difficult time getting by on a limited income. The first Food Bank direct program was what is now known as the Senior Food Program because we saw that people could not make ends meet on Social Security alone. The Food Assistance Program was set up to give surplus food from the US Department of Agriculture to low-income people. The availability of fresh produce allowed for the creation of the Farm 2 Kids program and the Community Produce Program.

Food Banking has changed as the need in the community changed. The government programs that provide financial assistance to people in need have greatly diminished. While we cannot make up the loss, we are able to make a difference for those at risk of hunger. We’d like to get back to a place where people only need food from us in an emergency, but until hunger is recognized as a national issue, the Food Bank will do all we can to help people get the nutritious food they need.

Farm Bill Passes in the House, Sent to the Senate for Vote Next Week

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Originally posted by our friends at Feeding America San Diego: After three years of negotiations, the House of Representatives has approved the Farm Bill by a vote of 251-166, with 15 members not voting on Wednesday, January 29, 2014.

The Senate is expected to begin procedural moves this week so that a Senate vote on the Farm Bill will take place on Monday next week.

Highlights from the nutrition title include the following (all numbers are based on a ten-year budget):

  • $8.55 billion cut to SNAP by tightening the “Heat and Eat” policy, which would affect the following states:  California, Connecticut, Delaware, District of Columbia, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington, and Wisconsin.
  • $205 million increase for TEFAP.  The TEFAP funding would be front loaded to provide greater resources in the initial three years of the bill, with an additional $50 million in FY2015, $40 million in FY2016, $20 million in FY2017, $15 million in FY2018 and FY2019, $16 million in FY2020, FY2021, and FY2022, and $17 million in FY2023.  The funding is indexed for food price inflation.  This funding also has the same transfer authority as TEFAP mandatory funding, allowing states to transfer up to 10% of the funding into TEFAP storage and distribution grants.
  • Establishes the Dairy Donation Program. If dairy prices fall below a specific price trigger for 5 consecutive months, USDA is authorized to begin a dairy purchase program, with the dairy products going to public and private nonprofit organizations, and with instructions for USDA to consult with nonprofits on the type of dairy products requested. While there is no set cost, this would provide additional commodities much like TEFAP bonus commodities do when prices are low enough to trigger USDA price support.
  • $250 million for states to pilot innovative programs help SNAP participants get back to work.
  • Clarifies allowable SNAP outreach activities (for example, forbids outreach workers from receiving rewards on a per-head basis for number of applications processed).
  • Improves SNAP access by allowing SNAP home delivery for homebound seniors and disabled participants.
  • Promotes access to nutritious food by tightening stocking requirements for SNAP retailers and testing new ways to use EBT cards (for example, swiping on a mobile device at a farmers’ market).
  • Improves SNAP integrity through new measures to combat trafficking of benefits by retailers and recipients and policy changes forbidding benefits for lottery winners and affluent college students.
  • Transitions the Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP) to a senior only program, allowing women and children currently participating in the program to remain on the caseload.
  • Protects SNAP nutrition education.

While, elements of this bill are positive, the cuts to SNAP are devastating for Californians and people in other states impacted by this cut. Please call Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer and tell them “Vote NO on the Farm Bill. I oppose all SNAP cuts.” The number to use is the Capitol Switchboard:  (202)-224-3121.

Food Day Celebration

Post by Blanca Campos, Food Bank Nutrition Education Coordinator: Food Day is a nationwide celebration of healthy, affordable, and sustainably produced food and a grassroots campaign for better food policies. It builds all year long and culminates on October 24.

Food Day aims to help people Eat Real. That means cutting back on sugar drinks, overly salted packaged foods, and fatty, factory-farmed meats in favor of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and sustainably raised protein. Food Day envisions shorter lines at fast-food drive-thrus—and bigger crowds at farmers markets.

Locally, the Food Bank of Contra Costa and Solano partnered with the Pittsburg Unified School District, John Muir Health, Contra Costa Health Services, Kaiser Permanente and the Pacific Coast Farmers’ Market to celebrate Food Day at Willow Cove Elementary.  The celebration included carrot salad tasting, nutrition information, recipes, and fresh produce giveaway (courtesy of the Food Bank).  Over 150 parents participated and received fresh produce during the event.

We’ll be celebrating Food Day at Rancho Medanos Jr. High today!

Were you involved in Food Day this year? If so, please tell us how.

Budget Cuts Hurt Low-Income Households

Editorial originally posted in The Vacaville Reporter: Passing the Federal budget takes away one piece of chaos from the “perfect storm” striking low-income people, but it certainly doesn’t end the challenges they face. Those who receive CalFresh (food stamp) benefits may be surprised on November 1 when the benefits they receive go down. A family of four will see a 5% decline in the $668 monthly CalFresh benefit they receive, losing $36 each month and over $400 annually.

This is extremely frustrating for us who are trying to help low-income people get food because the CalFresh reduction is a political decision. The 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) increased the CalFresh benefits people receive. This increase helped get more food to low-income people, and helped stimulate the economy because those dollars were spent in grocery stores every month. In 2010 Congress passed bills to end this stimulus early because a decision was made that there were more important places to use the funds. Little publicity came out about this action, so people who are depending on CalFresh benefits to feed their children will be surprised when they receive less help in November.

The more frustrating part is that Congress is also considering a proposal to reduce expenditures on the CalFresh program by $40 billion over the next ten years. This doesn’t make sense when the Food Bank is providing food to more people than we ever have before. As the cost of living continues to go up, people have a difficult time making ends meet, even if they have a working individual in their family. As recent events around the Federal budget show, difficult political decisions are being made. The Food Bank must continue to speak up for the people we serve.

Growing Food to Build Community

Sometimes I think it can be easy for us to forget how fortunate many of us are and why we need organizations like the Food Bank. This week I had the pleasure of attending a three day conference in Tucson titled Closing the Hunger Gap. The conference was made up of three parts:

1. Visiting existing programs
2. Learning and brainstorming about issues relate to hunger relief including policy change and nutrition
3. Planning actions we will take over the next year to make a change

On day one I went with a group to see a school, soup kitchen, farm and home garden.

The school was amazing! Everyday the kids are involved in the operation of the school garden and sustainability program at the school. They grow fruits and veggies, raise chicken and tilapia, compost, collect rain water and host a farmers’ market. Incredible! The outcomes are just as amazing from increased attendance and parent involvement to better understanding of math and overall academic improvement. I encourage you to check out www.goManzo.com to see all the amazing work the school and community are doing.

At the soup kitchen I was again blown away and honestly I wasn’t expecting much here. Terrible I know but I thought I’ve seen soup.kitchen and know what good works they do. What could I possible learn here? Well, this soup kitchen not only feeds people everyday (except thanksgiving and Christmas – because “everyone else wants to do that”) but every afternoon they spend working on community organizing. They are working on keeping bus fares from increasing knowing the people they serve absolutely cannot afford even a five cent increase. A crossing guard was needed so families could safely cross the street to get their food and the community organizers at Casa Maria helped make that happen. It’s amazing how a group of community members can affect so much change. I think we forget the power we have.

Next stop on our tour was the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona’s farm. Community plots are available for families and groups. The food bank also grows food for their services, but the farm is more than that. It’s a place for the neighborhood to gather and to continue a tradition of farming that has been taking place there for thousands of years. One gentleman spoke about how he brings kids on probation to the farm and what a difference that make in their lives. The host potlucks and workshops. It’s an outdoor community center for that neighborhood.

Finally we went to the home of a man who is growing food in his front yard to provide for his family. The food bank helped by providing education and starter plants. Also he sells some of the produce on consignment at the food banks farmers market.

This blog post doesn’t do justice to what I saw last month. Amazing work being done in a community that not only needed help with food but also help remembering how to be a community. They are being given space to gather and learn as well as the tools to affect lasting change in their community. I think this is something we should all think on. 

Passage of $40 Billion SNAP Cut in House

The House passed a bill to cut $40 billion from SNAP (food stamps) yesterday. The measure narrowly passed the House by a vote of 217 to 210.

Locally in Contra Costa and Solano counties:

1 in 4 people are struggling with hunger. (This is the percent of people living at 180% FPL.) The Food Bank of Contra Costa and Solano is serving 50% more people since the start of the recession through their direct service programs and network of partner agencies. That number does not seem to be slowing down. The Food Assistance Program through which the Food Bank distributes federal commodities, the need is still continuing to grow and new people are needing help each month. Regular volunteers who serve each month and often multiple times a month are getting burned out and there is a lack of volunteers willing to commit to help with this program.

Already struggling to keep up with the demand, these farm bill cuts will flood food banks across the country with people needing assistance to feed their families.

From Feeding America:

Did you know that the proposed cuts to SNAP (food stamps) is more than the meals distributed by the entire nationwide network of food banks? Together, the SNAP meals lost in 2014 from the scheduled ARRA cuts and the proposed farm bill cuts (nearly 3.4 billion meals) would exceed the projected annual meal distribution by Feeding America food banks around the country (3.3 billion meals). Following a 46 percent increase in demand during the recession, food banks are already struggling to meet need in their communities and will be unable to make up the difference. Charity can’t make up for lost SNAP meals. Congress must protect SNAP in the farm bill. http://feedingamerica.org/how-we-fight-hunger/advocacy-public-policy/policy-center/federal-anti-hunger-programs-and-policies/supplemental-nutrition-assistance-program/snap-charity.aspx#

 

From recent SNAPclients:

Rosa and Ron

SNAP is the only source of food for Solano county seniors Rosa and Ron.  Their only source of income is Ron’s social security.  Most of that goes to pay their $1,120 rent, leaving them very little for other living expenses.  Often, they will forgo filling or refilling their prescriptions for diabetes and high blood pressure medication because they simply do not have the funds for it.  Without SNAP they simply would not have the funds to put food on the table.  They utilize the Food Bank’s Senior Food Program for additional food but that alone is not enough to feed them for the month.  Many months are even more trying when their disabled adult son lives with them for short periods of time.  Their son has a mental disability and is often homeless unless he lives with them.  Feeding two people on $190 month of CalFresh benefits, what is $6.30 per day or $3.15 per person per day is reduced further when their son is living with them.  Those benefits must now feed three adults at $2.11 per person each day.  Ron is a very proud man, having worked three jobs his entire life and it was difficult to accept the idea that he needed government benefits to feed his family.  Rosa and Ron are already living without medical necessities and doing all they can to survive, the SNAP benefit cuts would further negatively impact their already precarious lives.

Next steps:

The House and the Senate will confer and have to come up with some sort of compromise. Call your Representatives. Let them know SNAP cuts do nothing to fix what ails our country and economy.