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June 2012

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Spreading the Love: Serving at the Food Bank

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Today’s post is from Lele of Lele Lurves Plants, a blogger with a love of food & politics, and a heart for serving others! 

I started writing this post by thinking about hunger statistics, but all of you are free to research that for yourself (and I’ve given you some links at the end of this post).

Instead, I’d like to tell you how I ended up at this job.

I finished college wanting to get away from spoiled, entitled college kids. There’s nothing wrong with being a college kid, but I wanted to move from my cloistered, private college with a lot of people with too much money and not enough experience, to the real world.

I ended up doing an Americorps year at an afterschool program for low-income children in Arlington (that’s in NOVA, touching DC, for you southern VA-ers). It was exhausting and also a great antidote to everything that had disillusioned me in college. My burgeoning interest in public health (and my lifelong interest in food, and cooking it, and doing awesome cooking projects with my kiddos like this one) got me in touch with the Capital Area Food Bank. I’d interviewed for a previous job, but hadn’t gotten it. Imagine my stunned delight when they called me to offer me a new position: working for Kids Cafe, the food bank program that had sent our kiddos food all year. Woo hoo!

Northern Virginians, were you surprised to hear that I was working with low income kids in Arlington? Does Arlington make you think of the Whole Foods, like this charming rap? Virginians, take note: we are one of the nation’s wealthiest states. Loudon County is the highest income county in the entire country, with a median annual household income of $115,574. Followed by Falls Church city (#2), Fairfax County (#3), and Fairfax City (#8), just in the top ten.

Yet despite all of that, 1 in 6 people in our area are at risk of hunger.

The food bank’s main office is in Northeast DC, and fairly or not, the image of poverty in America that many picture is urban. However, I work in our Northern Virginia office, in the suburbs, not far from the Mixing Bowl of I-95 and the Beltway. Suburban poverty is sneakier. For example, if any of you live in Clarendon; know you can walk for fifteen minutes and be in Section 8 housing. Poverty, and hunger are there, but are a little further under the surface.

So, we see hungry people and we feed them. In Kids Cafe, we feed hungry kids. Hungry kids in this country can generally get their hands on a school lunch. It’s one of the most popular federal programs for a reason (and did you know it was created because soldiers in World War 2 were so malnourished?). School breakfast is also fairly popular, especially in this area. However, two meals- particularly for growing kids- do not a complete day’s nutrition make. So, we send an afterschool snack. Or, preferably, a supper. Lest you think supper is a weird, old-fashioned term, it’s coined by the USDA, and we speak a lot of USDA-ese at the food bank.

Becaaaaaaause…. Surprise! There’s another large, well-funded, huuuuuuuuuuuugely underutilized USDA program called the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP for short). It looks different in different places, but for our purposes here at the food bank, it means we can buy food, send it to afterschool programs, and with a little help from the staff at those sites with submitting attendance reports, get reimbursed by the USDA.

Being a government agency, the USDA supplies us with a certain number of rules. Snacks have to be food groups, and suppers have to include all five: a grain, a meat or meat alternate (like peanut butter, beans, fish, or, weirdly, non-milk dairy products like yogurt and cheese), milk (liquid, 1%-or-skim milk only!), and two servings of fruits or vegetables (you can do two fruits or two vegetables). As you would imagine, this meal planning is one of the most enjoyable parts of my job. Some of it is creatively repurposing items that are donated to the food bank (weird frozen pre-sliced steak plus day-old sub rolls from grocery stores plus a thirty pound bag of onions= steak subs! Awesome!) and some of it is ordering our own food through our fresh produce suppliers and certain grocery stores (again, it helps that we get reimbursed. Our program largely pays for itself!)

So what does it mean? I will tell you firsthand, on a day when you hear about food banks competing with each other and talking smack about why other guys are less good at feeding hungry people, it feels really stupid and ridiculous. Ditto interdepartmental sniping. Ditto when I go down and see that stores have donated stale cake and soda, and this is how they laud themselves (and get a tax write off) for helping the poor and hungry.

However, the best days are the ones I get to do my (mandatory, per the USDA- your tax dollars are carefully monitored!) site visits. Site visits are the BEST. I arrive at the sites, usually slightly before snack, and see the kiddos bopping around on a playground, or reading stories, or doing a group project. I say hello to our site leaders, who all have a harried-but-happy look on their face at this time in the day. And then the kids sit down to snack and I watch them get a really healthy meal. And when I tell them I’m from the place that sends them their snack, and ask for any ideas they have for what I should send them, unsurprisingly they start with pizza and ice cream. But then I move on to fruits and vegetables, and wouldn’t you know it, they still get psyched. “Watermelon!” “Pineapple!” “Cherries!” “Oooh I love cherries too!”

It’s a big thing that we have the resources to give them that food, based largely on the goodwill and generosity of the community around us, as well as a program by the government that I can tell you, firsthand, does make a difference and is worth the money. Because they eat that third snack- or meal- of the day, and then they sit down to do their homework. And they’re focused, and they’re nourished, and I know that. And what I also hope is that by getting that healthy meal, by getting exposed to fresh fruits and vegetables, and by having the security of knowing they won’t go to bed hungry; they’re getting off on a good track not just for that day but for their life. That maybe when we send our nutrition education lesson, one kid absorbs some of the facts and it makes them a little healthier.

And p.s.; as we know, a poorly nourished kid is also a sick kid. In our program last year we were talking about whole grains and how they don’t make your blood sugar spike as much, and diabetes came up. I said offhand, “Does anybody here know what diabetes is?” Yikes. I can attest that poverty and nutrition-related illness are the best of friends at this moment in time, and it needs to change.

A few more things…

Hunger and public health junkies: for my organization’s website, I compiled stats on childhood hunger in America, and the very real impact food banks can have. Did you know that a child who has experienced hunger, even just once in their life, is 2 ½ times more likely to be in poor health than a child who has not? Did you know that almost half of the participants in SNAP (formerly known as food stamps) are children?

If you want to hear more, check out some of my other posts on food bank life! Back in the day when I was finishing up my Americorps year at one of our partner agencies, we got to participate in an amazing farm visit. Speaking of kids, you can also get a behind-the-scenes look at a cooking demo in a microscopic kitchen at one of our sites in DC, where the site leader manages to feed dinner to twenty kids every day. And finally, check out a day in my life at the food bank, which includes a super delicious Empty Bowls fundraiser (and less glamorous warehouse tour!).

And just for funsies:

If you’d like to volunteer, come hang out with me! Tuesday afternoons you can help pre-pack the nonperishable goods that go out to our sites the following week.

If you’d like to donate, let me know!

And if you’re a particularly creative soul, make a USDA supper: it consists of milk, a grain, a meat or meat alternate, and two servings of fruits and/or veggies. An example from the menu going out this week: Bun (grain), sliced steak (meat), onions on top (veggie #1), oven fries (veggie #2), and milk.

Your turn! Meal-plan me something awesome and kid-friendly! Extra credit if it uses extra cheap ingredients!

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