Cupboard’s Bare, Time’s Up

11 Feb

empty cupboard

My Food Security Challenge is officially finished.

Thirty days of getting a small taste of having to view food as a scarce and precious resource rather than something that you just open up the refrigerator – and there it is.

And it was a small taste. Thirty days felt like a long time to me, but for some of our friends and neighbors in Santa Barbara, this is the reality year in and year out. My experience could never replicate what they face, but it also wasn’t also playacting around a serious subject. I needed to understand what are the stakes with an issue where my job as CEO of the Foodbank brings me every day.

30TH ANNIVERSARY LOGO copy

The benefit of any kind of challenge is that it pulls you out of your normal mode of seeing the world and gives you a new view of that world, the people in it – and yourself. The real challenge we all face in life is to stay aware and present to what is happening around us in the moment, and the last thirty days have been great for that. (Things such as the value of a healthy meal with a loved one; the value of providing sustenance and support to everyone in our community.)

Happiness is daddy's vegetable dip says Mia

Happiness is daddy’s vegetable dip says Mia

Did the emergency safety net hold fast? Barely. It’s frayed and straining and in need of an overhaul, but it did keep me pretty much fed, but it would have been a huge challenge to sustain living like that.

If any element of the net was weakened or removed, then the whole net would tear and become ineffective. That means supporting the Foodbank and its local nonprofit member agencies who do such wonderful work. It means paying your taxes knowing that the relatively modest amounts that go toward food stamps are a vital tool for helping people who need the most help. (Food Stamp fraud has been independently estimated at 1%, the lowest of all Federal programs) This doesn’t just help the families who receive them, it helps the entire community stay strong. Enlightened self-interest or love of your fellow man, both can lead to the same place.

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These are the criteria for an 'expedited' food stamp application

These are the criteria for an ‘expedited’ food stamp application. Would any of us begrudge someone in this situation from getting help?

The value of what I received on top of the $200 in food stamps, was the equivalent of nearly $300 in terms of the value of the food that I received from the Foodbank distributions, not to mention the cost of the free meals I was served at the various soup kitchens.

In my blog/online Independent piece last week I chronicled my reliance on emergency meal provision in the last week of my challenge, when the food stamp money ran out. I experienced sleeping in my car and joining the invisible part of SB’s homeless. By the end I was living in a world of abundant food that was unavailable to me, because I had nothing in my pocket to pay for it with.

belly full

“A hungry man is an angry man,” goes the old Bob Marley song. My body was angry at me for not providing enough sustenance for it that day, and that anger got turned outwards. I believe ‘low blood sugar’ is the polite description, but in the last couple of days I lost my temper with my wife Mari at some small thing, scrunching up an invaluable (to me) packet of crackers and throwing them against the wall. Sometimes the futile gesture is the only one left to you.

My favored gruel

My favored gruel

What about my food tips? Besides all the amazing fresh produce that our region provides and which formed the core of my diet, my main anti-hunger staple was countless meals of Trader Joes Eggplant Hummus and Akmak crackers. It had the ability to stop the stomach growling almost immediately, the hummus was nutrient dense and lower in calories than most hummus. Cost, a total of about 75 cents a meal. I wouldn’t recommend it long term though, and maybe better check the label again, because I was really eating Soylent Green…

Erik shows his heavy lifting abilities. Now you know why HR put him in a swivel chair, not on the warehouse floor

Erik shows his heavy lifting abilities. Now you know why HR put him in a swivel chair, not on the warehouse floor

My month ended at exactly the place it needed to. Not at a rendezvous with my old pal McConnell’s Salted Caramel Chip, but with a morning spent volunteering with the Foodbank’s ‘Brown Bag’ grocery program for seniors. I had been helped by the community around me through Foodbank food distributions paid for by so many members of that community. I had withdrawn from that ‘bank’ when I needed to, and now it was time for me to make a deposit – time, money, support it’s all needed. To be able to pack together healthy fresh vegetables and fruit, frozen hams and canned and dry goods, to break down boxes and clean up, all of it was a wonderful form of nourishment for me.

Fresh produce for the brown bag program

Fresh produce for the brown bag program

Those men and women who came to the Westside Community Center to receive that food really needed help. The food itself was the main course, but the sweetest dessert of all was for them to know that the community cared enough about them to provide that food.

safety_net

The lessons learned have been simple – that food stamps (CalFresh/SNAP) by themselves are not enough to prevent a person sliding in expensive, destructive ill health. They need to be supplemented by other sources of food, distributions by the Foodbank, and by the ability to grow some of your own food.

The other lesson is that the food itself is not enough. Without the skills and empowerment about how to plan, shop, cook and store that food, you might as well toss away all that fresh produce. It means a family making the effort to find the time to cook and eat together, to find the space to cook and the cooking instruments (blenders, slow cookers) that help them stretch their food resources.

Foodbank Feed The Future (Email Version)

I feel even more confident that we are going in the right direction at the Foodbank, by putting a strong emphasis on both sides of the equation – the food and the skills to use that food. My commitment to ending hunger and transforming the health of Santa Barbara County through good nutrition is stronger than ever. This goal is vital, it’s possible and it’s joyful. There’s not much else that makes life worth living than sharing a healthy, delicious meal with those we love.

Take care and thanks for all the support and encouragement. The story’s only beginning, so if you are interested about wider hunger and nutrition issues, check out my regular blog at www.hungerintohealth.com

HUNGER INTO HEALTH PROMO SLIDE

Running on Empty

8 Feb
The great wheel of life turns...

Here I am: The coolest thing that is both on four wheels and wrapped in a pink duvet.

When last we left my Food Security Challenge, I was down to my last $11.77 in food stamp money and hoping that I would be able to score some free meals designed to help those in our community who are facing the biggest challenges.

Could I find a free breakfast, lunch and dinner?

First up is breakfast, and I made my way to the bottom of Chapala Street and the Salvation Army’s impressive Hospitality House.

Hospitality House

Hospitality House

There I met up with Enrique who gave me one of the Sally Army’s breakfast burritos, made with beef, rice, cheese and vegetables.

Enrique reaches for the burrito

Enrique reaches for the burrito

They give out about 50 of these each day and they are made by those in their residential programs. That was quite a belly filler, but sure enough, when lunchtime came around, I was looking for something else.

CK Logo

My next stop was at my alma mater, the Community Kitchen, located within the Casa Esperanza homeless shelter. They say you can’t go home again, but that’s just popular wisdom. I say ‘go home’ because I was Executive Director of Foodbank Member Agency, Community Kitchen for six years before joining the Foodbank.

Your faithful and wooly-hatted scribe sharing lunch with Casa Esperanza staff members Imelda Loza and Jose Figueroa.

Your faithful and wooly-hatted scribe sharing lunch with Casa Esperanza staff members Imelda Loza and Jose Figueroa.

I was excited to see the improvements that have continued since I was in charge, and marveled at the dedication of staff like Imelda and Jose who are still working hard to help homeless people.

It’s all down to the food, and the Community Kitchen is able to access a lot of healthy produce and meat from the Foodbank. Yet, as I have discovered, unless the Chef is ‘in the zone’ you might as well be eating sludge.

That is why I was thrilled that they have engaged an enthusiastic young Executive Chef, Augusto Caudillo, who has seen service at the Bacara and Biltmore.

Augusto Caudillo

Augusto Caudillo

I had a good lunch – still served on a tray, which I always hated because it has that institutionalized feeling, but the costs of disposables or broken crockery are astronomical. The lunch featured barbecued chicken leg, a nice salad and a great fruit salad with julienned apples and blue berries.

Lunch at the Community Kitchen

Lunch at the Community Kitchen. Loved the fruit salad (top right) not so sure about the refried beans (bottom left). It must be being brought up in England.

The Community Kitchen is primarily designed to serve the residents of Casa Esperanza (about 200 in winter, under 100 rest of year), but also those in the community who need a lunch, who now need to get an id card to be served after the first day. The kitchen is staff both by those staying at the shelter and by a rotating volunteer core of servers, especially from the faith community. (All Saints By The Sea Episcopal Church are particularly staunch supporters, covering two days a week).

All Saints Volunteers serving the line

All Saints Volunteers serving the line

Like the Foodbank’s approach, in addition to literally serving those in need, food and meals also provide a key to engagement – for the Foodbank, around nutrition and health education that changes lives and strengthens families, and for Casa, around building trust and helping connect the homeless with opportunities to access jobs, housing and recovery.

What about dinner? I am lucky that I live about a fifteen minutes away from Santa Barbara Rescue Mission.

Rescue Mission

Rescue Mission

The Rescue Mission offers dinner to about 100 people each night (More toward the end of the month when people’s money runs out). Some are homeless people who also get a bed. Others are just hungry.

Rescue Mission decides to invest scarce funds in food rather than state-of-the-art client management software...

It looks like the Rescue Mission decided to invest scarce funds in food rather than state-of-the-art client management software…

I was lucky enough to be showed around by Rescue Mission Manager Jill Wallerstedt before I took my place in line.

Jill Wallerstedt in the chapel, which features a  service from a different denomination each night

Jill Wallerstedt in the chapel, which features a service from a different denomination each night

I had some chicken and rice, soup and salad and virtuously turned down the pastry that was offered me. All the food had originally come from the Foodbank, and it was great to see it being put to such pressing and valuable use.

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So, I had managed to find three square meals, because I live within 15 minutes of SB’s two homeless shelters, and so I could supplement my diet. If I was on the Westside or in Goleta, I might be out of luck.

This is the safety net, and posing as a modestly scary-looking single man (would you start something with someone with a hat like that? He might go psych0) I was able to access these services. Do I want to bring my wife there and kids there? A much harder call. There were some kids at the Community Kitchen lunch but none at the Rescue Mission.

So, what better to finish off my day then with a night on the town. Or a night in my car on the town to be more precise. The current recession has seen more and more invisible homelessness with people living in their cars as a way of dealing with crippling financial problems.

It is illegal to sleep in your car in Santa Barbara, and so my only option to get some small experience of what this is like was to get in touch with the Safe Parking program, run by New Beginnings. I met with Nancy Kapp who runs the program, when she was down at the Foodbank getting food for the program.

Nancy Kapp (she actually took off her sunglasses for the shot)

Nancy Kapp (she actually took off her sunglasses for the shot)

They have over 100 designated parking spots spread throughout Santa Barbara, where you can park if you receive a permit from the Safe Parking Program. We have five outside the Foodbank on Hollister Ave. I can often remember working late at the warehouse and seeing the cars begin to pull up for the night, some a lot nicer than you imagine. The windows would be covered with shades in the hope that they would offer some privacy and keep some heat in.

I took my spot around 9pm and tried to get cozy. Most people come later than this, trying to find somewhere else to be before having to submit to dropping temperatures and being confined in a metal box for the night.

Yes, even grouchier than usual...

Yes, even grouchier than usual…

Santa Barbara is not Chicago, yet nevertheless it does feel pretty cold at night, and it is amazing just how quickly the temperature in a car begins to get near the outside temperature. I could have switched on the engine and let the heat blow for a while, but with the price of gas that would not be a smart option. Anyway, as soon as the engine is switched off the cold returns quickly. The leg nearest the door is the one that remains cold all night even though I have pajamas under my clothes and wear a coat and hat and scarf.

At first it is just like camping. A novelty. But then you begin to remember why you hate camping so much. I find it hard to get to sleep because of lights outside and I have no way of covering the window. Eventually I fall asleep, but the crick in my back from my reclined seat begins to build, no matter what position I wriggle into.

I begin to scan the horizon for any sign of daylight. Any sign that I will be able to start a new day and forget about this cold, miserable night. When it gets to 5am I drive off. I’m a member of a 24 gym, and an hour on the elliptical followed by a hot shower sounds like the best offer I’ve had in years.

Imagine doing that every night. Imagine it with a child. The adventure would wear off pretty quickly. The beauty of this program is helping to keep people safe, with what may be the last asset between them and the street -a safe place to park while New Beginnings provides services and case management to help them get back on track.

I’m now into the home stretch of my challenge. Stay tuned for my final report.

1177 – A Number to live by?

7 Feb
The mystery unravels...

The mystery unravels…

1177 is a heptagonal number.

1177 is the maximal number of regions into which 48 lines divide a plane.

1177 was the year in which the Peace Treaty of Venice was signed by Emperor Frederik I & Pope Alexander III.

1177 is also $11.77 which is the total amount of food stamp money I have left for the last full week of my challenge.

Yikes!

A lot of the support that the Foodbank and our 300 member nonprofit agencies in the county provide is to people who reach a similar kind of situation, typically later in the calendar month. Bills have been paid, money spent and there ain’t nuthin’ in the cupboard.

This is out of date, it's already over 300

This is out of date, it’s already over 300

I’m lucky, because I still have a good amount of food in the cupboard. Here is a photo of what will probably be the final significant food purchasing I will do. Someone play ‘Taps’ on a trumpet as a tear drops silently onto my depleted EBT card:

The Last Shop - An emotional moment

The Last Shop – An emotional moment

I went shopping for vegetables, rice cakes, yoghurt, fish, canned tuna. Straightforward stuff. No more licorice allsorts for me, sunny Jim.

I have still been getting by on preparing large quantities and freezing it. I made a particularly good pasta sauce with a ton of fresh vegetables pureed into it, including kale from the garden (the perfect way for us non-kale groupies to consume the nutritious little weed…)

Never in my life did I imagine I would be posting pictures of kale from my garden...how did I get here??

Never in my life did I imagine I would be posting pictures of kale from my garden…how did I get here?? Why did my life travel down a pathway like this?

It was a great way of me using up all the cauliflower and carrots and onions and other vegetables that I had received from distributions, but which were about to go off if I did not act. I have also benefitted from some great salad stuff from my garden:

You'd feel all dry and tired if someone kept you in a bag for days on end. Which is why the greens from my garden are bursting with color and freshness.

You’d feel all dry and tired if someone kept you in a bag for days on end. Which is why the greens from my garden are bursting with color and freshness.

Yet despite all the Rachel Ray moments, there has been a lot of monotony. Like the last of the Chili below:

No it's not an outtake from the 'Walking Dead,' that's my dinner!

No it’s not an outtake from the ‘Walking Dead,’ that’s my dinner!


At this point in my study, I thought it was time for an expert to weigh in with some comments on what I’ve been up to in my challenge. The Foodbank is lucky to have an experienced dietician, Serena Fuller PhD, RD (and doubtless enough other acronyms to fill up a twitter post) on our staff. Serena’s job is to be our Health Evaluation and Education Manager, and to help us keep our community healthy.

Serena Fuller

Serena Fuller

I have tried to be a good boy, and I remained hopeful that Serena would not rap my knuckles for nutritional misbehavior and so it largely proved. I have certainly made major improvements over the last six months in terms of what I am eating, how much exercise I am doing, as well as giving up drinking and trying to moderate my McConnells and black licorice and Cadbury’s Flake (a British chocolate bar) addictions.

cadbury-flake-484

Serena did encourage me to look at my fiber intake. Serena explained that Americans in general have poor fiber intake, with the average being 12 grams a day, when adult males need 30 grams and females 25g. I have been using a lot of different beans as a way of getting fiber, but have not been making use of oatmeal as I could. It can be cheap bought in bulk and used in baking or sprinkling half a cup in a sauce so that you never know it is there.

oats

Our conversation mainly focused on the challenges that our client families face living on a small amount of money for food, year in, year out. A major danger is the monotonous diet I have sometimes grappled with in my month. Also the fact that people are drawn to prepared foods, which at the cheaper end have a high sodium content and poor nutritional makeup.

The way to get by is by being able to buy and cook and store in bulk. There are a number of barriers to doing this: having the skills and confidence, the time to cook, the place to cook, the utensils to cook with (large soup pot, slow cooker, blender etc) and then a place to store both ingredients and completed meals. These can be huge barriers with many clients living in a hotel or sharing a garage. There is simply nowhere to store or save things.

The Foodbank is focused on helping provide the skills and confidence to encourage families to take the steps to equip themselves to be able to look after themselves like this.

There are also good resources out there. Serena suggests checking out:

She also says that in any State the University Extensions are great resources for classes on cooking, nutrition and food preservation with a focus on the low-income client.
And of course there are those of us who need the Web MD to tell us what to do. So you could check out:

http://www.webmd.com/food-recipes/features/cheap-healthy-15-nutritious-foods-about-2-dollars

I am hoping I will be able to get through my last week, because I will also be accessing services for those who might be homeless or living in their car or otherwise without a kitchen.

If you want to see a grown man try and defrost chili with a car cigarette lighter, stay tuned for my report

Hungry in the Windy City

2 Feb
Beautiful and cold...

Beautiful and cold…

Chicago has to be one of the most vibrant and impressive cities in America. Lots of amazing buildings and culture and great restaurants…

Oh yeah, great restaurants, that won’t be of much relevance to a food stamp tourist like myself. I was in the city for three days for meetings of the National Advisory Council of Feeding America (the nationwide network of 202 food banks) which meets five times a year to help make a success of our food security efforts both on a local level (of getting as much food and support as possible in our direction) and on a national level (sourcing food, training and advocating to protect food stamps, federal commodities and the like). Also I wanted to check out the food stamp situation in a big city.

Leaders in the field of nutrition - and what have they got? A plate full of candy.

Leaders in the field of nutrition – and what have they got? A plate full of candy.

We had great discussions, working on issues like the contract that binds food banks together, issues of diversity, food sourcing and all manner of complex issues. Still, everyone had a delicious mexican lunch to keep their brain working…

A Fiesta like this calls for a panoramic shot.

A Fiesta like this calls for a panoramic shot.

That’s right, everyone except me. Despite the suggestions of some readers of this blog, I didn’t take advantage of all the free food that was offered to me, so as to make the Food Security Challenge more realistic. I had one free cooked dinner on Monday, because I had been flying and traveling all day and had virtually nothing to eat and was about to collapse. I got to Chicago late and couldn’t buy any food. I also took one free sandwich on one of the other days. Otherwise I existed on soup and sandwiches, like below:

Note the 'we accept EBT' sticker at 7-11

Note the ‘we accept EBT’ sticker at 7-11

Still, even the cheapest sandwich I could find, for $3.69 still blew my budget of figuring $2 per meal per day. I made it because I skipped breakfast. But being without the food I had amassed at home was a huge problem. I couldn’t buy a bunch of stuff that I wouldn’t be able to bring back on the plane, and so waste. So I had to sandwich it.

That is until my last day, when I visited the Marillac Center Food Pantry on Chicago’s West Side. I was interested in seeing how the level of services would compare from SB to Chicago.

Marillac Center on W Jackson

Marillac Center on W Jackson

The Marillac Center has been around for a hundred years providing services and a place to meet for the local community. The Food Pantry serves about 1200 families per month representing over 4100 individuals. It’s open 3 days per week for a couple of hours. Clients can only come once a month.

Whitney, the Program Director.

Whitney, the Program Director.

The good thing is that it has a waiting area where people can congregate until it is their turn to visit the pantry. In this area they will have blood pressure screenings and cooking demonstrations (though nothing was happening when I visited).The waiting area is great, because in Chicago in January, it SNOWS and everyone would freeze to death while they were waiting. Or maybe just wimpy west coasters like me would freeze. Anyway I was glad not to find out.

jlae

Take a number from Robert, a long-term volunteer

They let about 6 shoppers into the pantry area at one time.

The pantry didn't look this dingy, just bad photography from your humble reporter

The pantry didn’t look this dingy, just bad photography from your humble reporter

And there are volunteers to help with your shopping which is what is called client choice, which means that you can choose what you want from a selection of items.

Lauren - volunteer. Likes it because of the 'characters' she meets in her work.

Lauren – volunteer. Likes it because of the ‘characters’ she meets in her work.

The amount you can receive is also based on family size. The food is provided by the Greater Chicago Food Depository and includes pasta, beans, meat, vegetables, canned goods, bread and some dairy. As a single person I would be able to get enough food for maybe 4-5 days. My trouble was that in a strange town with no cooking facilities I wouldn’t be able to eat too much. (As in SB, I didn’t actually take the food, but bought an equivalent). So I was able to get some soup, which I heated up in my hotel room.

I would say that the level of services is broadly similar in Chicago – less fresh produce obviously, and more need for a lot of hot food to stop you freezing.

In my next post I’ll give people an update on where I am with my money and my meals.

It’s good to be back in sunny Santa Barbara!

Time to ‘Grow Your Own Way’

1 Feb

This is my first post this week. Have I died of starvation or blown all of my food stamp budget on an ice cream and cake bender?

Do you feel less guilty if you're being patriotic?

Do you feel less guilty if you’re being patriotic?

Neither, luckily.

Instead I have been in Chicago all week and have been busy with meetings and visits to discover the world of food stamps in a very big (and very cold) city. More of that in the next post.

Chicago snow Wednesday 30th Jan

Chicago snow Wednesday 30th Jan

First, I want to clue people in on a ‘secret’ project I have been working on in my own little Area 51 behind our house.

You think it's just an innocent vegetable garden...

You think it’s just an innocent vegetable garden…

A project which will change nutrition as I know it. A project that will help me meet the challenges of living on food stamps.

A vegetable garden.

Just one more bed to make...

Just one more bed to make…

Here is an unassuming wooden bed that has remained empty since we moved into the house a year and a half ago. Ignored and unloved. Even weeds couldn’t work up the energy to grow in the thing.

All that changed when I was paid a visit by a man with the greenest of green fingers, Oscar Carmona, manager of the Foodbank’s Grow Your Own Way program.

Oscar Carmona

Oscar Carmona

Oscar has been a tireless promoter of the simple virtues of growing your own food and the benefits this brings families. He is the owner of the Healing Grounds nursery in Goleta, and you can always see him at the downtown SB farmer’s market on a Saturday morning looking cool in his wraparound shades and selling seedlings.

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The ‘Grow Your Own Way’ is a beginner’s program that helps encourage and provide training for people to grow more of their own food. Growing food is not something that can only be done by people wearing open-toed sandals or who have big backyards.

The idea with GYOW is that this is the program for people who are convinced they cannot grow anything beyond their own toenails. It is for people who are convinced they have no space whatsoever to grow food. In other words, it is designed for people like me.

Healthier than a bucket of chicken

Healthier than a bucket of chicken

We start with the belief that anyone can find a place to grow. A plastic bucket on an apartment balcony – fine for some cilantro or a tomato plant, a raised bed made with old wood and plastic on a piece of cracked concrete.

Vegetables are a vital part of our diet and fresh produce is the most expensive element when we hit the supermarket, so by growing a little bit of produce yourself, you can make a big impact in your health at minimum cost. You also get the freshest food possible, not something that was shipped from hundreds or thousands of miles away

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Mia takes a bath the fun way

I don’t want to get all zen here, but nurturing something and watching it grow and then having it nurture you in return is also good to combat stress. And remember even if everyone else in your life is sick of listening to you, your plants never will be…

The earth is speaking to me!

The earth is speaking to me!

We have started a ‘seedbank’ at the Foodbank where free seeds will be made available to families in need. Currently these are available through our Healthy School Pantry program and Brown Bag programs, but we hope to have it more widely available (all seed donations taken).

Because my food stamp challenge only lasts a month, Oscar helped me out with some seedlings, so that I could skip a couple of weeks in the process.

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Lili and Mia get planting

I was also lucky to have two helpers in two of my beautiful daughters, Mia (18 months) and Lili (15 – 16 in August – she’s constantly checking that I still remember her birthday, as if alzheimer’s is going to strike me at any moment). Both girls took to the task of planting the seedlings with gusto. Even Mia realized intuitively that there was something special about planting something in the ground and watering it.

We planted primarily different types of greens for salad (arugula, butter lettuce etc) as well as cilantro and two types of Kale. (You can’t escape Kale at the Foodbank, believe me).

Salad garden

Salad garden

We live in Santa Barbara County, with an amazing growing climate. It’s hard to mess it up here, and even if you do, you can check in regularly with GYOW to get help and advice.

To get the fresh vegetables is wonderful. Almost as important is the feeling that you are directly involved in generating food for yourself. If you are going to a luxury market or a free food distribution, you are still relying on someone else to provide food for you. Eating something you grew yourself gives you a satisfaction and energy that neither of these places can provide.

Natural Born Poseur

Natural Born Poseur

Just what I need to sustain me, living on food stamps!

In the belly of the SNAP dragon

26 Jan
Is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program a cute, friendly little dragon or a mean fire-breathing dragon?

Is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program a cute, friendly little dragon or a mean fire-breathing dragon?

So, forgive the tortured metaphor, but SNAP (aka food stamps aka CalFresh here in the Golden State) really can appear very differently to different people, depending on their situation, emotional state – and how long the line they are standing in stretches.

In previous posts I’ve discussed the polarized views that food stamps trigger in the community at large, but this is also true amongst those who are eligible for or receiving them. Most people do not want to or enjoy being on food stamps. Some feel intimidated from signing up or come off the program before they are really able, sometimes because they can’t keep up with the reporting requirements or because they take a hopeful view on how their income will hold up. Then you have those who are afraid of the government having detailed information on them or applying when they are in the middle of putting forward an application for citizenship. There are many fears, myths and barriers which prevent people from taking the help they are entitled to.

Sometimes they are afraid that the hand that feeds might also bite.

So, cuddly or spiky, I got a chance this week to enter into the belly of the beast. I took a visit  local DSS office, which is at the County complex in Goleta to interview three staff members. As you can see, the building looks pretty classy on the outside:

DSS in SB

DSS in SB.

Inside it is still nice, but it is hard to escape the cubicles and glass barriers environment completely, and a waiting room full of people, who I did not want to take a photograph of. (The feeling was mutual on their side).
Dang, they have Dora the Explorer playing.

Dang, they have Dora the Explorer playing.

The DSS version of the iPad!

The DSS version of the iPad! And you can only push one button.

I spoke to Maria, Mario and Maria, which could be a wonderful mariachi group, but who are in fact Maria Gardner, Deputy Director County of Santa Barbara, Department of Social Services, Mario R. Velasco, Division Chief Santa Barbara, Department of Social Services and Maria Dwyer, Eligibility Supervisor for Calfresh in Santa Barbara.

These are nice, hard-working, dedicated people, and they indicated that SB County has a current total CalFresh participation of approximately 14,000 households or 31,000 people.  (Out of a total population of 400,000). They saw an 8% increase last year alone and indicate that they are seeing a different population of people, more middle class.

Mario: We process 2000 applications per month during busy time and partnering with the food bank to do outreach helps us draw people in.  We start interviews at 7am and can go through to 6pm to try and accommodate people’s schedules. We tried doing interviews on weekends but out of the 20 clients we scheduled only 3 showed up. If it is a rush application, we guarantee to process it within three business days.

Maria Gardner: The lives of clients can sometimes be pretty chaotic which makes it hard for them to make interviews sometimes. If their car breaks down they don’t typically have AAA to come to the  rescue. So there are lots of perfectly understandable reasons why clients can’t show.  

Maria Dwyer: They don’t realize that they can call to reschedule and don’t show and then reapply again later, slowing things down.

Maria Gardner: The amount you receive will only get less if the household composition or circumstances of income change, but otherwise they stay consistent. People are coming off and on the rolls all the time (especially in Santa Maria, where there are a lot of agricultural workers whose income yo-yos). People don’t want to be on the program, so sometimes they come off the program prematurely and that causes a lot of ‘churn’ and reapplications, which slows things down somewhat.

We try and dispel myths about fraud and waste in the system and we often find ourselves in the defensive mode of justifying why we are administering these programs which are a basic safety net for our community, rather than being able to present the positive side that 99% of all these recipients are legitimate and not defrauding.

Mario: Often people see someone using their EBT card in a supermarket and think: ‘ How dare they buy this extravagant thing, when I am in line to buy this frugal or unhealthy thing’, so there is judgment about that. They might not see that person next week because they have no benefit left. It is down to individual choice but we try and steer things with education.

Maria Dwyer: There is a large nutrition education element to Calfresh these days. There are publications and recipe cards and we partner with public health for some of these activities.

Erik: Thanks for letting me speak to you.

As with most things in our lives today, getting any attention or help comes down to how much we want to wait in line or hang on the telephone or answer questions. The CalFresh program is a complex administrative machine which can be unyielding and sometimes impersonal, but this is the system we have, so we first need to protect it and then steadily improve it, from within and without.  I’m sure I’ll get plenty of comments about people’s experiences with the DSS.

Not so much time to dip into the food stuff this post and will report more next time. Still, I have been pleased how many great comments I have been getting from people about their experiences. Please take a moment to take a peek at the comments on some of the posts if you have not already done so. These include the challenges of people facing food insecurity. Someone also wanted to know where I got the fish I mentioned in one of my meal logs but not in my list of purchased items! I’m glad people are keeping an eye on me. (And by the way the fish was purchased with my food stamp money but after the first listing I provided).

On Thursday I braved hellish rainy traffic to go to Orange County for a board meeting of the California Association of Food Banks (I serve on the board). We work very closely with them through the Farm2Family program which helps us purchase low-cost produce from across California and we also work with them on State level advocacy.  For the meeting, I planned ahead and packed a lunch for myself and warned them not to get me one.

I turned my back on the nice packaged lunch, thereby remaining virtuous and saving another tree for the box

I turned my back on the nice packaged lunch, thereby remaining virtuous and saving another tree for the box

Captain Virtuous - I stayed with my trusty Ak Mak crackers and kind of yummy tuna and fresh vegetable mix with rice vinegar, with tomatoes and cucumbers on top

Captain Virtuous – I stayed with my trusty Ak Mak crackers and kind of yummy tuna and fresh vegetable mix with rice vinegar, with tomatoes and cucumbers on top

This Friday I spoke at a National Conference of State Legislators Hunger Partnership meeting which breezed through town, featuring  Senator Renee S. Unterman, Georgia and Representative Dwight Evans, Pennsylvania and a bunch of others. We had been asked to speak to them about our innovative programs at the Foodbank and I mentioned about the Food Security Challenge. There was a lot of interest from representatives around the country about adopting the type of approach espoused by our organizations and which I have been pushing through my ‘From Hunger to Health Blog.’

I have been super diligent about not taking any of the food and snacks that are offered to me at meetings and other business situations that I have to navigate. I have only been taking tea or water so that at least people don’t feel that I am totally snubbing their hospitality. However this time I definitely didn’t snub the hospitality because I took home 5 of my favorite tea bags from the presentation. Call me a thief, call me a cheat, but no one’s going to miss that from a huge hotel catering department, and you have to be aware of the ‘low hanging fruit’ in your environment when you’re on food stamps!

Which would you rather have? Five teabags or a state representative's business card?

Which would you rather have? Five teabags or a state representative’s business card?

Next week I am going to Chicago for three days. I sit on the National Advisory Council for Feeding America (the nationwide network of Foodbanks) and we meet five times a year to advise the senior management team of Feeding America about the issues involved in taking what can be perceived as a very local issue (hunger) and giving it a national perspective and solution. There is a lot of focus on joint advocacy, food sourcing and training. Hey, I know I go to a lot of meetings, but they do actually lead to things happening or I wouldn’t go.

So, Chicago is a very beautiful city, but the problem is that I’m on food stamps, and all my food is, like, in Santa Barbara…

I’ll be offered nice dinners and lunches and I’m going to have to ‘Just Say No’ again. The bigger challenge will be sourcing food and being able to keep to my budget while staying there. If I try and smuggle any more packets of my frozen chili, the TSA will be convinced that I am trying to smuggle plastic explosives on the plane – and my chili just doesn’t have that kind of kick.

In Chicago I’ll be meeting with SNAP experts at Feeding America and also checking out a SNAP outreach/ Food Distribution on Chicago’s South Side. It should give me a chillier view of the world of food stamps, where having a nice little salad might not cut it if it is freezing cold outside.

Let’s see how this Santa Barbara ’60 degrees is freezing’ wimp does in the Windy City!

Stamp Collector or Literary Genius?

24 Jan

Yesterday I was bemoaning the repetitious nature of my Food Security Challenge diet. Today, I was able to do something about it, to get some new ideas, to get stimulated about nutrition again. I didn’t put my feet up and watch the cooking channel hoping that some inspiration would magically transfer to me through the airwaves. No, instead I headed down to the Foodbank’s Healthy School Pantry at Isla Vista Elementary school.

Healthy School Family Pantry logo email

Healthy School Pantry is a program we are very excited about at the Foodbank. Last year we won a national Hunger’s Hope Award for the program as the best child nutrition program in the country.  The concept behind HSP is that you can’t help people become more food secure by just giving out food. You have to provide the education – what we call the ‘food literacy’ – for families to make effective and economic use of the food they have.

Many of us are reasonable cooks and smart about what we buy, but a lot of those skills can go by the wayside when people are incredibly busy. The easy solution is sought out and that is usually not very healthy. Also we do see families where the parents are pretty much heat and serve. The grandparents can cook, but the parents have forgotten, were never taught or are too busy.

I’m finding in my own challenge that food literacy skills are not something that is nice to have, but that are absolutely essential if I am going to make it through the month with very little money for food, but still wanting to stay healthy. How can I stretch my food stamp dollars? How can I utilize that large quantity of a carrots that I got from the food distribution before they go bad?

We made the decision to focus a lot of energy on a series of programs for kids, called Feed the Future, which starts food literacy training at the youngest age possible and then builds on skills all the way until high school graduation.

This is not going to stop people losing their jobs, or avoid the effects of a national recession. What it will do is give them the skills to take the modest safety nets we have (food stamps and Foodbank/Member agency food distributions) and utilize them to stay healthy. The great thing is that these ‘survival’ skills are really ‘thriving’ skills, because they are equally applicable in better economic times. Using good nutrition to be healthy is the number one preventative health tool we all possess, and Feed the Future is designed to make it available to all.

So, what did I find down at IV Elementary School? Not some food distribution where everyone is standing in a line, feeling disempowered, but an exciting circle of activities where people are learning how to cook a delicious dish, how to grow more of their own food, about nutrition and even having some some fun and games on our bike blenders.

This is how the pantries are laid out:

How the HSP model works.

How the HSP model works.

My first stop was to see Foodbank community health volunteer Angie Rios and Foodbank Health Education and Evaluation Manager Serena Fuller and the recipe of the day they were demonstrating.

Serena and Angie

Serena and Angie

The good thing about HSP is that it provides the actual ingredients you need to cook the recipe that is featured. That may not sound like much, but in the food bank world, where we are used to just giving out the food we have on hand, it is an epic achievement.

Microsoft Word - 13-01-15 HSP Baked Macaroni and Cheese with Mar

This recipe used basic ingredients like a boxed macaroni and cheese and a bagged marinara sauce that were both availabe at the Foodbank and then incorporated minutely diced celery, carrots and cauliflower to make a dish that was not only incredibly good for you, but down right delicious and wolfed up by hordes of kids, never suspecting just how many fresh vegetables they were ingesting.

Simple ingredients, delicious result

Simple ingredients, delicious result

Whilst at the HSP, I had to try out a healthy smoothie using the amazing bike blender. Last month we made an amazing smoothie with kiwi fruit, bananas and spinach, where no kid noticed the spinach and everyone loved it. This time we had frozen strawberries with bananas and apple juice.

Foodbank CEO pretends to assist child whilst stealing entire blender of delicious smoothie

Foodbank CEO pretends to assist child whilst stealing entire blender of delicious smoothie

People were also learning about nutrition from Justine Meyer, our Dietetic Intern.

Justine talks practical nutrition

Justine talks practical nutrition

A key component of HSP is a chance to get involved in our Grow Your Own Way program  Program Manager Oscar Carmona shares some spinach seeds and the skills to plant them.

Oscar shares spinach seeds

Oscar shares spinach seeds

Providing this friendly and supportive range of services is augmented by volunteers who are helping us get eligible people pre-screened for food stamps.

Our wonderful Calfresh volunteers

Our wonderful Calfresh volunteers

The HSP also includes a distribution of other food items and is current serving 14 schools around the county.

Visiting the HSP certainly fired me up to try a new skill, which is to make up some large batches of a very healthy marinara sauce with pureed fresh vegetables, which will enable me to create a whole new raft of dishes for my next week on the Food Security Challenge. Stay tuned!

Our HSP was visited by County Supervisor Doreen Farr

Our HSP was visited by County Supervisor Doreen Farr

Download the recipe at:

13-01-15 HSP Baked Macaroni and Cheese with Marnara Sauce and Breadcrumbs

Food Log Wednesday

B – 2 rice cakes and orange

L – curried chicken salad and Ak Mak Crackers

D – Salsa and chips and HSP free samples!

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