Food Stamp Challenge: Week 2

Foodbank CEO Finds that Nutritional Awareness is Essential to His Quest

I’m well into week two of the challenge, and my “challenges” are not all nutritional.

I knew this was a touchy area before beginning the challenge, and that was part of the point — to get the conversation going on this vital area of federal support that could bring another $80 million into the community to be spent locally, an investment that would benefit the entire community, not just the people on food stamps.

There has been quite a lot of reaction to the challenge from all sides of the political and personal spectrum. My own mother warned me that I could be seen as a “poseur,” spending a limited amount of time living in a situation that millions can’t walk away from at the end of a single month.

And you have to listen to your mother, right?

Erik Talkin, CEO of the Foodbank of Santa Barbara County, helps 7-year-old Yvonne Govea with a bicycle-powered blend at Isla Vista Elementary School as part of the Santa Barbara County Healthy School Pantry program.
Beth Askins

So I wanted to take the opportunity to spell out again that the reason for the challenge is to bring to attention a difficult situation that many face. It is not to make light of their situation, but to bring light to bear on it. There are great comments on the blog from people in the community facing the challenges of food insecurity for real. Someone even wanted to know where I got the fish I mentioned in one of my meal logs, but it wasn’t in my list of purchased items! I’m glad people are keeping a close eye on me. (And, by the way, the fish was indeed purchased with my food stamp money, but after the first listing I provided).

The simple facts of my current situation are that I have now spent $82.30 of my allotted $200. I have purchased some things like cereal and cooking oil, which will last me more than a week, and I also have a good eight meals still frozen.

One thing is already crystal clear — I would have no chance of remaining healthy and well nourished for the whole period without the additional help I have accessed from the Foodbank and our partners in the community. I received $80 in groceries from the first distribution, and produce worth $25 from the Mobile Farmers Market I attended.

I’ve been stuck eating some boring stuff this week (check out the blog for the full bite-by-bite commentary), so I decided to find some new ideas to help me 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 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.

I’m finding in my own challenge that food literacy skills are not just nice things to have, but are absolutely essential if I am going to make it through the month with very little money for food and stay healthy. How can I stretch my food stamp dollars? How can I utilize that large quantity of 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 I.V. 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, grow more of their own food, and find out more about nutrition.

This week I took a return visit to our relatively swanky DSS office, and interviewed three senior staff members. I discovered that there are currently 14,000 households or 31,000 people participating in the CalFresh program. (That’s out of a total population of 400,000). They saw an eight percent increase last year alone and indicated to me that they are seeing a different population of people, who they termed as more “middle class.”

They were keen to let me know that if they receive an emergency application, they guarantee to process it within three business days. They recognize that sometimes lives of clients can be pretty challenging, which can make it hard for them to show up for interviews. If someone’s car breaks down they don’t always have the luxury of AAA coming to their rescue. They wanted to remind people that they can call to reschedule if need be.

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

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 numerous 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.

This week, I spoke at a National Conference of State Legislators Hunger Partnership meeting which breezed through town. There was a lot of interest from politicians around the country in the programs we are developing here in Santa Barbara, which was gratifying, but not as gratifying as what I took home from the presentation.

I have been a very good boy about not taking any of the food and snacks that are offered to me at meetings during the challenge time. 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 five 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!


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