Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Why Haven't Food Stamps Ended Hunger in the U.S.?

I recently had an email conversation with a neighbor who surprised me with a question when I asked her if she would consider making a donation to RESULTS to help us continue to advocate for anti-hunger programs:

"Can you explain to me why, with the food stamp program, WIC and the school lunch program, there is still hunger in the U.S.? I am asking this as a naive person who donates to food pantries and food charities...."

I suppose I was surprised because, like many Americans, I spend increasingly more time inside my own "bubble" automatically crafted by the social media platforms I use (so handy to the user...and still seems weird and sneaky, doesn't it?) and naturally curated by the non-profit organizations I work with. But her question is a legitimate one that I feel not enough Americans - and certainly not enough members of Congress - are asking with the good intention of learning. 

Given the good-natured tone of her email, I think that she really is seeking to understand, so I sent her an answer...and me being wordy ol' me, I might have been more than she was looking for. We'll see how that goes! In the meantime, I thought I might post it here since readers of my blog might be either wondering the same thing or wondering how to respond to someone who asks them something similar. Here's an edited version...a little shorter in some areas and a little longer where I thought some clarification was needed. Please let me know in the comments if you have something to add or a different answer completely!

Thank you for your question…it’s one that more members of Congress should be asking! The food stamp program (now known as SNAP- Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), WIC (Women, Infants, and Children Food & Nutrition Service), and school lunches are great programs that create a safety net, but not a complete answer…and they are constantly under threat. Taking a look at SNAP specifically, it was meant to be an emergency-type assistance program…not meant to keep people fed forever. Here’s a quick statement taken from the Center on Budget and Policiy Priorities statistics (https://www.cbpp.org/research/food-assistance/a-quick-guide-to-snap-eligibility-and-benefits ): 
"On average, SNAP households received about $253 a month in fiscal year 2018. The average SNAP benefit per person was about $126 per month, which works out to about $1.40 per person per meal." 
As many people who do the “food stamp challenge” (eating on only $1.40 per meal for a week or two) quickly find out for themselves, it’s extremely hard to eat a healthy, balanced diet on $1.40 per meal. When you break it down like that, it's no wonder people are still hungry! Even if you are adding this small amount to WIC (not available to everyone), a breakfast or program for kids (also not available to everyone), a minimum wage income, and assistance from a food pantry (where you don’t always get to pick the kind of food you need), the kind of diet you can afford is going to be filled with the cheapest, processed food made from corn and wheat instead of fresh vegetables. That skewed pricing is a result of our outdated Farm Bill that artificially subsidizes those corn and other crops and makes that kind of food super cheap. As you can guess, that diet leads to all kinds of health issues like malnutrition, diabetes, and poor immune systems just to name a few. 
The reasons for persistent hunger in the US are complex (involving low wages, farm subsidies, under-funded nutrition assistance, job availability, racial oppression, etc). I’m not even an expert on it because I’m an advocate who focuses on global hunger issues, but I learn quite a lot from my colleagues in RESULTS who work on the U.S. poverty. My favorite advocates to learn from our our “Experts on Poverty,” activists currently living in poverty who receive training to speak openly about their daily challenges. If you want to know more, I bet you can find some good information at our website www.RESULTS.org or I’d be happy to put you in touch with our U.S. poverty group here in St. Louis. 
If you’re interested in a really great documentary about this issue, "A Place at the Table” does an excellent job of bringing a lot of these problematic policies while highlighting the stories of people affected by them…a school girl, a veteran, a teacher, a doctor. Here’s a trailer for it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Stx5PGsFj20 but you can see clips of it on youtube.
Maybe that’s more than you wanted to know! :)  But that’s the kind of thorough information that RESULTS teaches advocates so that we can knowledgeably talk to our members of Congress about solutions. We’d be happy to have your participation if you'd like to join us at www.RESULTS.org or your support of our organization at https://tinyurl.com/ThanksSTL 


Monday, April 9, 2018

Advocacy in the US and Kenya



My guest blogger today is Sarah Borgstede, a fellow mom and RESULTS activist living in the greater St. Louis area. She hasn't been an advocate for even two years, but her passion for learning and her empathetic, active listening style have helped her rocket into a leadership position. This year, RESULTS asked her to join a training program for leaders of groups doing deep advocacy. It happened to be in Nairobi. What an opportunity! I've asked her to share one of her many stories with us today to help us understand the similarities we share with mom-advocates in Kenya as well as how our actions impact lives of moms and kids all the way across the globe. Thank you, Sarah!

-- CCYL

Advocacy in the US and Kenya
By Sarah Borgstede, RESULTS Greater St. Louis and Southern Illinois Group Co-leader

Sometimes when I try to explain what I do as a volunteer with RESULTS, I see people’s eyes glaze over. Advocacy can be really abstract. It’s hard to see how calling a Member of Congress does anything. But it really does! I just got back from Nairobi, Kenya, where I got to see just how real this work is, once you connect the dots.

Sarah Borgstede (left) learns from Irene Njoka (center) how
Kenyan mothers advocate in their own communities.
I was traveling with a group of advocates to visit other advocacy groups in villages in Kenya. In one village, a grassroots group took a break from Sunday morning church to come talk with us in the village center. The group there reminded me a lot of my group back home in St. Louis: both groups are made up of regular people, including a lot of moms and their kids. I didn’t notice the kids at first-- Kenyan toddlers, safely wrapped up in their mom’s arms and baby slings, are apparently quite a bit quieter than my three-year-old is at our advocacy meetings back home!

The water tank in the village. Women and girls used to spend all day every Monday walking to
the tap at the main road. The tap only runs every Monday because water is rationed.
Now the water runs to the tap in the village, right across the street from
this tank. Photo credit: Mikhail Zukhairi Chishti
The Kenyan women of the group told us about one of their success stories: they wrote letters to their elected officials to get water piped to the village. They said, “You promised us this water. Without it, our girls are missing school and our women are missing work to carry it. We will dig the trench: you lay the pipes.” It worked! They got water in the village, freeing many women of backbreaking, day-long trips to get water from a distant source. That’s amazing! 

The grassroots members also showed us letters they wrote to get their hospital’s maternity ward completed. They explained that women were having to go 15-20 kilometers to the next hospital to give birth. Being from the US, I was thinking “That’s not far, I drove a lot farther than that when I was in labor. Our U.S. hospitals are often farther apart than that.” Then, I realized that these women were talking about walking there, through hilly country on often unpaved roads. I checked google maps when I got home: at the least, in good road conditions (during the dry season), it’s a minimum of eight miles with a seven hundred foot elevation increase between the village and the nearest hospital. Can you imagine doing an eight-mile uphill hike while in labor?

This trip really made me think about what advocacy looks like in Kenya and here in the US. Our St. Louis RESULTS group is working on Senate “Dear Colleague” letters to support funding for global maternal and child health programs right now. It feels abstract: it doesn’t impact my life directly. Our work deeply impacts my heart and my sense of morality, but not whether or not I can get to a hospital. Compare that to the grassroots group in Kenya, for whom the stakes are much higher. They are seeing children born on the road on the way to the hospital. They know what needs to happen to prevent that and exactly who needs to be doing it. Now, I can connect the dots all the way from advocacy in St. Louis to mothers in Kenya. In the U.S., we lobby for funding to support global health through specific programs. Then, resources go from the U.S. and other countries into partnerships all over the world. In this example, a Kenyan partner organization uses some of that money to support their expertise in advocacy training and to provide basic supplies--I’m talking pens and paper here-- for grassroots groups. Then, the grassroots groups can pressure their local government to get what is needed. The Kenyan government is held accountable for delivering on their promises. In this example, they are held accountable for delivering babies.

You see? The abstract request we make here, “Senator, please sign this ‘Dear Colleague’ letter to support robust funding” comes all the way down to “let’s spare the cost of office supplies to prevent needless deaths of moms and babies.” Of course, this is only one example of the way that the programs we support work. When I think about how these efforts are multiplied in different communities and environments around the world, it makes my head spin with the complexity of it all. It also makes me feel motivated. I know that my few minutes of volunteering time, though small, can support mothers just like me who are fighting for better opportunities and access to life-saving medical care in their communities.

If YOU want to join in this effort, it’s easier than you think! Call both YOUR senators and urge them to sign onto this letter before April 20!

Images by Sarah Borgstede, Micha Chishti, and Deborah Lash (RESULTS)


Friday, March 23, 2018

Advocacy Made Easy: Outreach Events



For me, one of the most challenging advocacy actions is the Outreach Event. An in-person gathering to bring people to any group or cause is going to individually challenge everyone involved to step out of their comfort zones. Reaching out to like-minded others is inherently exciting, but it's important for us to also recognize that it isn't so easy for the average person. Every participant has to give up some personal time, go to a physical place that might be out of their way, and be open to new ideas and new personalities. As organizers, it's our job to remove as many barriers as possible, so that new folks find our events to be compelling enough to overcome hangups and hesitations.

In this post, I'll propose a few considerations to make your event more appealing to brand new prospective members and then give a sample agenda and tips that can be used for any organization!

Location: Who is your audience and where will they be most comfortable? Is your meeting place centrally located or easy to find? I just went to a school board candidate forum last night, mainly because it happened to be located at a place where my kids often have activities. I knew it was familiar and not too out of my way.  Even though our own homes and houses of worship are inexpensive and convenient for organizers, some people don't like going to private residences of strangers or feel out of place in churches, temples, and mosques. My favorite venues are restaurants that have back rooms that can be used for community events for free. When they have audio/visual hookups, that's even better! In St. Louis, that means Schafly's Bottleworks and "The Egg and I" restaurant chain. I'm always on the prowl for more venues. I've had feedback that some friends liked coming to my home because they were my friends who liked the familiar, relaxed atmosphere. I've also had feedback from strangers who joined my group that they liked our public library event because they felt it was safe, neutral territory for them. Consider your audience and pick the best place for them, not you!

Marketing: Let's face it. People don't really like to leave their houses anymore for something called an "Informational Meeting" My teenage daughter says, "I've been going to informational meetings for years, but I like them better when they're not called that." People DO like to go to a party, learn a new skill, or hear a speaker who they think is rare or special in some way. My events tend to have titles like "Action Workshop," "Celebration of Child Health Success," or "An Evening with ______." (fill in name of special speaker...or maybe "An Evening with Bundt Cakes"...you decide)

Child Friendliness: Are parents within your target audience? If yes, then you'd better think of some ways to keep those kids occupied and let parents know the kids are welcome. A coloring table in back with goldfish crackers? A separate room with a babysitter and a children's movie playing?

Once you've solidified your plan, you need to show up prepared. Here's my outreach meeting packing list. I've gotten to the point where I have a bag that's always packed with most of these things, so I don't have to scramble around every time.
  • Nametags
  • A/V equipment if necessary (laptop, speaker, projector, cables, microphone)
  • Extension cord
  • Snacks/coffee if needed
  • Sign-in sheet and pen for attendees
  • If writing letters to Congress: paper, pens, sample text for letters, clipboards if no tables
  • Camera for pictures to share on social media
  • Organization banner if you have one
  • Handouts
    • Overview of organization
    • Fact sheet about issue
    • Future ways to engage with your organization and contact info
    • Donation envelopes
Lastly, here's a very general sample agenda for the program portion of your event. Of course, you'll want to customize for your own organization and audience, but this will cover the basics!

Introduction: Who are you? What does your organization do?

Set Expectations: How long will your event presentation last? What are you going to cover? Any "norms" of the group to mention? For example: remaining non-partisan and not making jokes or disparaging remarks about other political parties.

Featured Speaker or Video: Show an inspirational video about what your organization does or highlighting the issue you are talking about. If you have one, it makes a nice break from just talking.

Small Group Discussion (if appropriate): Give small groups a question to tackle together and report back to the group. Consider: "Why is this issue personally important to you?" or "What kind of advocate would you like to be and what skills do you need to get there?"

Story from a Volunteer: Have one of your local volunteers share a story about what inspired them to take action and how it made them feel.

Explain Legislation: What is the specific piece of legislation that you are working to pass? How will it address your issue? How will real people benefit from it?

Action Training: Why does the type of action you are taking (phone call, letter to the editor, letter writing) matter? How do you do it? Demonstrate how to call Congress in front of people or show them written examples of letters to the editor. Allow time for them to complete the action and ask one person to call in front of everyone or to read what they have written.

Well, that's the bare bones of it. Now, go out and think about how to customize your event toward your audience and your organization. Feel free to share how it goes in the comment section. It's always great to learn from each other!