Quick Farm Bill Update

The 2012 Farm Bill is a big, big, BIG piece of legislation, so I can’t cover it all here. Essentially, the Farm Bill is a piece of legislation written and approved every five years that funds most government programs that relate (even remotely) to agriculture. The bill is usually approved through our government’s standard legislative process. However, because our congressional representatives won’t play nice with each other (excuse: budget crisis), and because the Farm Bill is an enormous amount of money, the approval of the Farm Bill is now the responsibility of the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, a.k.a. “Super Committee” (more info on them). Currently, most Farm Bill discussions are being held behind closed doors; the rationale appears to be that because the decisions to be made involve enormous amounts of money and an extremely short time frame (the first 2012 Farm Bill proposal is due November 1st), the public’s input would just complicate things.

Some -maybe all- of you received an Action Alert from Common Ground about the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative, which some political entities are trying to undermine by denying it Farm Bill funding. Denial of funding is, unfortunately, the name of the game in American politics right now, so many other programs and initiatives dependent upon the Farm Bill are at risk of being cut or dramatically reduced: nutrition programs like food stamps, farmland conservation programs, programs promoting local food systems, etc. The House Subcommittee on Agriculture is auditing such programs as I type; you can learn more about that here (there is also a link at the bottom of that page for the 2008 Farm Bill, if you want to see what was approved the last time around). The current Farm Bill legislation is not available online, as far as I can tell, but you can look up info about it on basically any U.S. news site; the New York Times even has a whole section dedicated to the Farm Bill.

Main points: the Farm Bill is a lot of money. A lot of programs could be cut. The regular citizen input process has been suspended. Your input matters more now than ever – make the effort to share your perspective. If we don’t share our views, we risk letting corporate lobbyists monopolize the public input on the Farm Bill. (I hate writing “the Man” statements like that, but in this case it’s true – if individuals won’t share their points of view, only corporations will.) If you don’t know your U.S. House Representative, find him or her and his or her contact information here. Our U.S. Senators’ contact information is here. Just call them already: it’s only five to ten minutes of your time, and it helps make a difference!

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SNAP Challenge: Follow Up

I didn’t get around to posting the SNAP Challenge follow up last week, but here it is! If you’re limited on time and only want the meat of this post, I recommend reading the last section – “What We Can Do.”

Effects of Hunger and Food Insecurity*

As I wrote in my last post, taking the SNAP Challenge was an incredibly eye-opening experience for me. What I didn’t write about much last time -or, indeed anytime last week- is how incredibly difficult the Challenge was. While I may have seemed perky and upbeat (at least I hope I did!), and while I did enjoy aspects of the Challenge, the perkiness was basically an effort of willpower. Not only was I not naturally perky last week – I felt pretty poorly, both physically and mentally. Examples:

  • I was really easily distracted, which made working (and pricing out ingredients!) difficult.
  • I became irritable more easily than is normal for me.
  • I was often light-headed.
  • I easily lost hope regarding my ability to accomplish tasks, meet my SNAP Challenge budget, and feed myself sufficiently.
  • I physically shook quite a bit – enough that I spilled beverages on myself about three times that week.
  • I was less alert than normal, which made tasks involving coordination and/or hazards (like cooking and bicycling) more time consuming and dangerous.
  • I lost weight. (This one might seem minor, especially as I only lost two pounds. However, losing two pounds in one week is at the upper periphery of how much weight is safe to lose in one week – and that is assuming you are trying to lose weight by limiting calorie intake and increasing physical activity. When you undergo a significant calorie reduction, your body tries to “make up” for the calories you’re missing by burning not only stored fat, but also muscle. From my understanding, if you are using your muscles, they are less likely to be “burned” for digestion. However, as I reduced my physical activity level last week, I didn’t maintain my muscle mass, and probably ended up digesting some muscle. Bottom line: it’s really, REALLY unhealthy to lose weight like this.)
  • I experienced nausea. I didn’t feel sick, so I think this was related to my reduced calorie intake and physical activity levels.
  • I was more lethargic and more easily became exhausted than is normal for me.

Small list, hmm? Now I can’t guarantee that any of this was actually caused by taking the SNAP Challenge, but I’d imagine it’s related; I don’t regularly feel nauseous or lose two pounds in one week for no reason. Also, these effects put me in no real danger, however uncomfortable I might have been. But let’s add some context: I only did this for a week. I really can’t imagine having all those effects for months – or years. While losing 96 pounds in a year (two pounds per week) doesn’t sound horribly dangerous -indeed, it might sound pretty good to some of us- if a child, or a person of marginal health or weight, lost 96 pounds in a year, it could be very dangerous – or even fatal. And then there are the possible secondary effects, like lagging behind in academic performance and poor general health.  For children especially, chronic hunger and food insecurity strongly affect development: physically, mentally, and emotionally. A report written at the University of Illinois documents the effects of food insecurity upon children, and to be frank, a lot of them can be lifelong and pretty grim. (The link is not working as of this posting, but the document should be available from this site. If the link doesn’t work soon and you want to see the report, I have a copy that I can forward to you.) I haven’t seen as many studies about the effects of chronic hunger and food insecurity upon adults as upon children, but it seems like there are a lot of similarities.

Feasibility

Although the SNAP Challenge was pretty difficult, it was not impossible for me; I managed to eat on $5 a day for two days longer than I expected. However, just because I could do $5/day in the short term does NOT mean that it is feasible to eat on $5/day in the long term. Here is a brief list of why I was able to do the SNAP Challenge:

  • I was well fed for the months before and knew I would be well fed for the months to follow.
  • I knew what my nutritional needs were and a variety of ways to fill them.
  • I’ve been specifically educated on how to feed myself cheaply, healthfully, and nutritiously.
  • I had family, friend, and community resources that supported and encouraged me.
  • I do not have responsibilities beyond the care of my own person.
  • I do not have disabilities or serious health issues.
  • I live near a number of grocery stores.
  • I had the time to price out every single ingredient and plan my meals obsessively (I think I spent 2-4 a day on pricing and planning).

Now consider an individual who meets the eligibility requirements for SNAP: s/he would have less than $2,000-$3,000 in resources (like bank account and car) and the eligible income level – for example, a family of four would have to receive less than $28,665/year in income to meet the income requirement. The adult(s) in this family are likely under significant financial and personal duress. Add to this any of the following circumstances: food insecurity/hunger in the past and the likelihood of food insecurity/hunger in the future; not knowing what one’s nutritional needs are and/or how to fulfill them; lack of education about inexpensive, healthful and nutritious eating; lack of support networks (family, friends, community, etc.); responsibility for children, aging parents, ill family members, etc.; disabilities or serious health issues; grocery stores being far away, nearby grocery stores lacking nutritious food, or limited transportation options to grocery stores; and/or lack of time or planning ability.

People who use SNAP benefits probably have, have had, or will have one of the above-mentioned circumstances. Cheryl Precious of the Eastern Illinois Foodbank (many, many thanks to her for her work with the SNAP Challenge and in the community) indicates that in our area, medical obligations/debt and un- and underemployment are big factors in hunger and food insecurity. I, personally, do not know if I could have eaten on $5/day if I had either of those circumstances – at the very least, it would have been difficult. I doubt if it is possible to eat on $5/day or less, month in and month out, if you have the above-mentioned circumstances. Yes, you could probably get very close to $5/day and eat healthfully, but it would take a lot of planning and determination, and you would still need more than $5/day regularly. In fact, the average family using SNAP benefits in our area uses all of their benefits for the month in two weeks, and then has to rely on other food resources -such as food pantries and soup kitchens- for the rest of the month (information courtesy of EIF again – learn more specifics about food insecurity in our area here). Can you imagine coming home two weeks into the month, every month, and not knowing how you will feed yourself or your family for the rest of the month?

I don’t know about you, but I think all of this is a big problem.

What We Can Do

So many people have said it before me and will say it after me, but it’s worth repeating: what on earth are we doing, a country as culturally and fiscally prosperous as we are, having people who are hungry and food insecure? In reality, no matter what kind of economy or political structure a country has, someone is probably going to be food insecure – the realities of unemployment, underemployment (being employed but not making enough money, or one’s wages not keeping up with the cost of living – it’s a bigger problem than unemployment in some ways), medical obligations and debt (including uninsured households with emergencies, bankruptcy due to medical care, ill members of the household, etc.),  family crises (sudden major expenses such as car or house repair, relatives moving in, etc.) and natural disasters will cause monetary shortages, which can cause food insecurity. These are the realities of life – you can’t avoid hurricanes, and other problems can descend upon a family with the same abruptness and ferocity.

So if someone is always going to be hungry, no matter what, why should we help? During conversations on the topic of hunger, someone always asks this question – often with the unstated assumption that people who are hungry caused themselves to be hungry. So I’m going to address it before anyone asks: we need to help the hungry and those who are food insecure because we want to be good people, and good people help each other. Yes, some people who are food insecure are in that situation because of decisions they have made; however, I think most nutrition and food agencies would vouch that these people are quite the minority. Regardless – almost all religious, moral, and ethical systems I have heard of indicate the vast importance of helping those in need, however they got there. Helping other people is a good and worthy deed.

I wrote that with my personal ethics hat on, but I’d write something very similar with my Co-op ethics hat on: our Ends direct us to be the center of a vibrant, inclusive community, and to make our local food chain more equitable. If people are hungry in our community, we are not including them well enough – and as enough food does not reach them, our food chain is inequitable. Accepting hunger in our midst violates at least two of our Ends, so we need to work on the issue of hunger as a co-op. (And yes, an inclusive community is likely one that includes the small number of people who caused their own food insecurity. I know someone out there will get hung up on that point, so it’s worth restating.)

Bottom line: we need to do something. The ultimate solution is for every household to have an income equivalent to or exceeding living wage and which allows it to support itself – such households could purchase or grow the amount of nutritious food that they would need and weather most household financial emergencies. Great – we have a solution! Problem solved, right? Well, not exactly – if it was that easy, it would have been done already. Like a 100% literacy rate, it is much easier to set national household solvency as a goal than to reach it. However, there are many different approaches to work towards this solution and others like it. I’ve organized the approaches in terms of locally systemic versus nationally systemic.

Locally Systemic:

-Volunteer at and Donate to Food Banks and Pantries- It’s very tempting to start with structural changes, but the fact is that people are food insecure today and can’t wait the months, years, or decades it will take to create structural change. In alleviating day-to-day, local-level food insecurity, food banks and pantries are tops. They feed the people who fall through the gaps of national and state-level nutrition programs and anyone else who is hungry or lacks food security. And although our local food bank and pantries do an excellent job, there definitely is room for improvement.

This is where WE can help. Our local Eastern Illinois Foodbank, which supplies many local food pantries, receives no funding from the state, so they depend  heavily upon donations and volunteers. Most of our local food pantries and soup kitchens also depend heavily -or entirely- upon volunteers. You can volunteer for hours or an hour, to do food repackaging, harvesting, serving, or any number of other tasks. Every dollar we donate to the Foodbank helps them acquire $10 worth of food for those in need – not bad at all.

It took me less than 10 minutes to fill out the form to volunteer with the Foodbank – just go and fill it out! Here, I’ll even give you the link. Volunteering even one hour a month helps.

Nationally Systemic:

We will always need local emergency food support networks, even if we achieve the ultimate solution I mentioned above. There will always be short-term food insecurity during household transitions, natural disasters that destroy food supply chains (did you know food banks have prepared help for such disasters?), etc. However, when people think about “big” things that will reduce hunger, they usually think about systemic change on the national level. Our impact on this level isn’t as direct and clear-cut as it is at the local level, but there are still some things we can do:

Contact Your Legislative Representatives– This is where we can probably have the biggest impact on the national level, and yet we invest so little time in it. It is your legislative representatives’ job to represent you – how can they do that if they don’t know what you want? With the upcoming reauthorization of the Farm Bill -which includes nutritional programs like SNAP- this is an important time to contact your representatives. Tell them that SNAP reinvests tax dollars in our local economy (it does) and relieves the pressure on agencies (a person doesn’t need to go to the food pantry if s/he can go to the store). Also let your representatives know about the factors that affect food insecurity – medical debt and lack of medical insurance, underemployment, etc. Any legislation or initiatives that tackle these kinds of issues will improve food security.

Don’t spend a week preparing a speech for your representatives (unless you want to) – calling them up and telling them what you’re thinking can take as few as five minutes.

Follow Legislation– Stay informed. You need to know what’s going on at the national level if you want to understand why we have our current policies, programs, and problems, and how upcoming legislation could improve -or worsen- them.

By talking to our representatives and helping out at the local level, we may not eradicate hunger, but we will make a difference. With all the busyness of modern life, it’s easy to leave “big” problems like hunger for someone else to deal with. The fact is, we’re all someone else to someone else – if we don’t do something, how can we expect equally busy others to do it? I myself have made all sorts of excuses in the past to not help out – too busy, too little money, too big of an issue to tackle, etc. After the SNAP Challenge, I can’t make those excuses with anything like a clear conscience: I knew hunger sucked, but now I know it more personally.

I’m not cool with being complacent about hunger anymore; I’m going to help out locally and call my representatives. I hope you’ll join me in making a difference.

* I’m going to use this term a lot, so let me define it with help from the Eastern Illinois Foodbank: food insecurity is the lack of access to adequate resources to provide a nutritional and balanced diet for one’s self and family. The USDA also has a definition, but it’s more convoluted.