Thursday, December 1, 2016

Food Pantries and America's Poor

I've participated in canned food drives since my childhood, but it's only in the past year my eyes have been opened regarding food-insecure households. There's a better way to help then donating expired or nearly-expired cans--the undesirables from your pantry.

Before I give recommendations, let me explain what a "food pantry" is. It's an inspiring story worth reading.

John Arnold van Hengel (1923-2005) is the “Father of Food Banking.” In 1967 van Hengel, a grass roots activist and entrepreneur, founded the world’s first food bank in Phoenix, Arizona. His efforts were blessed, as you will read in the following history, from Feeding America's website:

"For 35 years, Feeding America has responded to the hunger crisis in America by providing food to people in need through a nationwide network of food banks.

The concept of food banking was developed by John van Hengel in Phoenix, AZ in the late 1960s. Van Hengel, a retired businessman, had been volunteering at a soup kitchen trying to find food to serve the hungry. One day, he met a desperate mother who regularly rummaged through grocery store garbage bins to find food for her children. She suggested that there should be a place where, instead of being thrown out, discarded food could be stored for people to pick up—similar to the way “banks” store money for future use. With that, an industry was born.

Van Hengel established St. Mary’s Food Bank in Phoenix, AZ as the nation’s first food bank. In its initial year, van Hengel and his team of volunteers distributed 275,000 pounds of food to people in need. Word of the food bank’s success quickly spread, and states began to take note. By 1977, food banks had been established in 18 cities across the country.

As the number of food banks began to increase, van Hengel created a national organization for food banks and in 1979 he established Second Harvest, which was later called America’s Second Harvest the Nation’s Food Bank Network. In 2008, the network changed its name to Feeding America to better reflect the mission of the organization.

Today, Feeding America is the nation’s largest domestic hunger-relief organization—a powerful and efficient network of 200 food banks across the country. As food insecurity rates hold steady at the highest levels ever, the Feeding America network of food banks has risen to meet the need. We feed 46 million people at risk of hunger, including 12 million children and 7 million seniors. Learn more about how we get food to people in need in our "How We Work" section. Support Feeding America and help solve hunger. Donate. Volunteer. Advocate. Educate.


It's far more efficient and sustainable for private citizens like Van Hengel to bridge the gap between the haves and have-nots, than for our government to do so. Millions of single mothers would be hard pressed without the nation's food stamp program, but if we--especially Christians--could innovate a way to help needy families through a non-profit organization, the country would be stronger both spiritually and financially. Families could be holistically assisted using a model similar to the highly successful programs Compassion International runs.

Mental health issues, for example, are common among the poor and without donated medical services many are never helped. The nation's Medicaid program is a blessing but very few doctors and dentists and therapists take the insurance, and eye glasses are not covered, leaving many children suffering poor vision through their school years. (FYI: Walmart Vision Centers allow you to donate discarded eye glasses).

A better medical solution would be a non-profit organization of doctors who donate a day per week or month seeing needy patients for free. Understandably, younger doctors are paying back hefty student loans, but older, established, or retired doctors would be ideal for such a program.

With innovation and dedication wealth can be shared voluntarily, blessing both the givers and receivers. Tax-payers are not blessed to give, correct?

Over the past year we've needed to visit our local food pantry several times, so I'm very grateful for Mr. Van Hengel's dedication and innovation. All it takes for some payday-to-payday families to become food-insecure is a major car repair or paying for those eye glasses Johnny broke in the latest bike crash or wrestling match. Sometimes, it's simply that essential toiletries or replacement clothes compete for food money. Every fiscal month has enough trouble of its own.

Local businesses, such as Starbucks and Panera, use Feeding American to distribute food they would otherwise throw away. A visit to many local food pantries includes fresh, delicious Panera bread--from a restaurant the poor could never frequent. 

Meats nearing their sell-by date are discounted by grocery stores, and if they still aren't sold, they are frozen and distributed to the nearest Food Bank (one of 200 across the country). Each food bank serves many surrounding areas, distributing the bounty as needed.

We've received quality food mixed with some clearly rotten food--things that would have sickened us, if we dared eat them. Nevertheless, my children never had to really wonder if there's something for dinner. There was always something I could throw together, thanks to the food pantry.

So, how can you help? Give money to Feeding America, not food, when you can. For every $1 donated, 11 meals can be distributed (including soup kitchens) because Feeding America has amazing buying power. They make your ten dollars stretch far further by working with off-brand food companies and local farmers, allowing needy families to receive fresher foods that don't make them feel worthless and discarded. Believe me, expired food cans given as gifts make the receivers feel crushed. Their thin clinging to hope is dashed when they're given the message they already suspected...that they don't matter.

If you're spearheading a donation effort ask for money or staples like peanut butter, jelly, tuna, dried or canned beans, oil, condiments, and other alternative protein sources, etc. Needy families have to make meat stretch so they can always use alternate protein sources. Toiletries are expensive and always needed too.

The actual money you spent on that generic peanut butter at Walmart would go further than the one jar of peanut butter, however. This is crucial to share with the people you are soliciting help from.

Another blessing would be to donate your time toward cooking classes through your local food pantry so families can learn how to use bagged dry beans and rice to maximize their nutrition. Sometimes they're given donated meats they may not choose to buy themselves, or know how to prepare, such as chicken sausage or roasts. 

Whatever you do, don't forget your local food pantry this holiday season. You may even be able to sponsor a local child for Christmas through your pantry. Food pantries do more than just provide food, depending on who is running the local efforts. When we visited the local pantry in October after a $200 essential car repair, they asked each of our children what they wanted for Christmas. Local people in our community pick ages and genders to help bless with new merchandise. The giving is anonymous so children are not embarrassed by anyone personally knowing their situation. Anonymous giving is a unique blessing because accepting help is excruciatingly hard, and yet parents have to make practical decisions that bless their children, rather than constantly working to preserve their own pride. Love is like that sometimes.

Local people helping local people is the best model for spreading the love of Christ. Needy people fit in with the crowd pretty well, often wearing decent, even designer clothes from local thrift stores. You can go to church with or stand behind a food-insecure family in your community and not even know it.

And if you are aware, don't begrudge them that Netflix subscription, okay? Books and cheap movies at home are often the only entertainment low-income people have. Everyone needs to be distracted from their problems for a time. Vehicle gas always has to be figured into entertainment costs, too, and internet service?  It's essential for keeping on top of job offerings.

The reasons people become food insecure vary wildly, but underemployment is common. Some, like me, are desperately clinging to an ideal--that of raising and pouring heart and mind into my own children so they can be lights to the world--valuable, capable contributors...life-changers even, for a hurting world desperate for sustainable solutions to both spiritual and practical problems. 

My reasons for accepting help (and not working) will undoubtedly be judged, but my heart is and has always been soft for children--my own first, and then all others. Someone has got to pour into the nation's children. Jesus is our first and eternal hope. Children are our second hope, but their spiritual and emotional needs are often put last in our culture. Sometimes well-meaning parents pour into their kids financially, forgetting that a child's spiritual and emotional needs are easily crowded out because kids can't always tell us where their lives are lacking. A supportive extended family helps safeguard many children, but not all children have that.

"Children are resilient", people like to quote.

Not so much, really. 

Proverbs 22:9 Whoever has a bountiful eye will be blessed, for he shares his bread with the poor.

Acts 20:35 In all things I have shown you that by working hard in this way we must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’”