Denver

Hungry at Home: What is Food Justice?

It’s 8am on a Saturday morning, and organizers of the Forward Food Summit in Denver are setting up tables, audio equipment, and projectors at the Mercury Cafe for a day of conversation focused on issues of food and economic justice.

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It’s snowing outside, fulfillment of a promised spring snowstorm for the Denver metro, but attendees all received an email the day before letting us know that even Mother Nature wouldn’t keep the summit from happening. Last minute arrangements were made for those who couldn’t make it in on snowy roads to participate remotely, and that was about as much acknowledgement as the weather would receive. As people start to trickle in, the energy and excitement build and soon what’s happening outside becomes inconsequential.

Hunger, food insecurity, and food justice are complex issues. While I understood this on an intellectual, “Oh, I read an article about that,” level, it wasn’t until I found myself in this room full of people on the front lines of the fight that I began to really feel the full depth and breadth of what’s at stake. Even my own experience didn’t prepare me for just how enormous a topic we were about to tackle. The day, designed through cooperative effort of the Denver and Boulder Food Rescues, would leave us all wondering how we could learn more, say more, be more, do more, to bring light and resolution to these often overwhelming issues.

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Our discussions that day started with an introduction to the Community Language Cooperative, whose volunteer translators helped make sure both English and Spanish speaking participants could be included in the conversation. That was lesson one—the recognition that people from every background, socioeconomic status, and country of origin have a role to play, and that means a multilingual approach is absolutely vital. Not every hungry person speaks English, and in order to help them, to have the best perspective on their experience, we have to make sure that we can understand them, and they can understand us.

This discussion flowed naturally into the topic of privilege. What advantages do you have that make your access to even the most basic necessities less challenging? Access to food—nutritious food to fuel your mind and body to learn and grow… to education—quality education that will prepare you for a future that gives you options, and even greater access to jobs that pay well enough to support you and your family in a way that helps foster a cycle of greater access to the next generation. The advantages or disadvantages of each generation is what sets up the next one for success or struggle. By recognizing what privilege is, and how it becomes a living, breathing character in the story of a life, we start to see how the deck can be stacked against entire groups of people—your neighbors, your friends, your kid’s classmates, your colleagues.

Throughout the rest of the day, we would talk about and dispel many of the myths surrounding living wage legislation. “It’s will raise the price of everything!” some say. But what if, instead, it gave more people the wage needed to not just subsist, but to thrive? Economists will tell you that more people buying more new things—new TVs, computers, cars, and homes, is what allows for economic growth, job creation, and better investment in education and infrastructure. What if, by raising the minimum wage, we were giving another entire population of people the ability to contribute to their local, regional, and national economies?  Living wage panelist Maggie Gomez from 9 to 5 Colorado summed it up best when she said, “If you work 40 hours a week, you should be able to feed yourself.” A living wage provides dignity to every job, simple as that.

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We would talk about food deserts—entire neighborhoods without access to a grocery store, farm stand, farmer’s market, or community farm. For those without cars, this means a long, physically demanding trip to and from the nearest food source, which could be as much as an hour away by bus. Or, it might mean it’s just easier to go to the fast food restaurant up the street, where, thanks to cheap, low quality ingredients, dinner for a family of four can be had for about 20 bucks. All of us can understand the snowball effect rolling from that scenario—health problems due to poor diet that aren’t addressed due to lack of access to proper healthcare and nutrition education, no time off from work to go to the doctor anyway, and children who are going to school under-nourished, making it harder for them to pay attention in class and retain what they’ve learned. This is how a cycle is perpetuated.

We would talk about the successes, too. An entire Denver neighborhood full of families who helped teach each other how to grow their own food.  They’re now in the process of opening a local food cooperative called Re:Vision Co-op. Or, a group of women from the Globeville and Elyria-Swansea neighborhood in Denver who are working together to start several food related micro-businesses. They’ve spent weeks and months taking advantage of every bit of training and education they could get their hands on to learn about topics from nutrition, to sanitation, to how to start a business. One woman dreams of owning a fleet of food trucks, serving healthy Latin cuisine. Another wants to open her own bakery, utilizing fresh fruits to help make traditional Latin American pastries lighter and more nutritious. Looking around during this panel discussion, there didn’t seem to be a single one of us in the audience who wasn’t inspired and moved by these women, who, despite a pile of disadvantages, understood the value of what they could do for their neighborhood with just a little help.

“We need help to make these businesses successful. What we offer in return is our hard work, and job creation…To dream is a beautiful thing, and together, I know we will achieve our dreams.”

This is the first of a four part series on hunger and food insecurity, as told through the experiences of the authors. We’ll share their personal stories, and find out that hunger is exactly where you think you’d find it, and in many places you wouldn’t. In the meantime, please join in the discussion here, on Facebook, or Twitter. What’s happening in your town to help fight hunger, and create food justice?

Hungry at Home: Recognizing Privilege

When did you first realize you had more than someone else? Less than someone else? That’s the question we’re posing in today’s installment of #HungryatHome, to open up a discussion about privilege, and how to recognize your own as well as that of larger groups. Boulder food activist and volunteer Celina Ngoti Sekawu stepped up to start the conversation, by sharing her own experience. Please feel free to post your own response in the comments.

Hungry at Home: The Bills are Paid, but the Cupboard is Empty

Hunger isn’t just a news segment. It isn’t something that happens in other countries, other cities, or other neighborhoods. Hunger isn’t only in the bellies of the homeless.

There are hungry people everywhere. They are your neighbors, your co-workers, your friends and acquaintances. While hunger is most commonly seen on TV and at your local homeless shelter, the fact of the matter is that it exists right in your backyard. It may even exist in your very own kitchen.

According to Hunger Free Colorado, a non-profit that aims to help all Coloradans gain access to healthy food and nutrition, 1 in 7 Coloradans suffers from hunger, 1 in 4 working families cannot afford enough food to meet their basic needs, and 1 in 7 people do not know where their next meal will come from.

Hungry at Home – Rachael’s Story

In November of 2014, I was walking to the cafeteria at work with a friend. As we headed downstairs, we were talking about paying bills and buying groceries. Half-jokingly, I made the comment of “Yeah, food is a luxury for me right now. So grocery shopping has to wait until next paycheck.” While I laughed on the outside with my cold pizza in my lunch bag, my stomach wasn’t laughing.

Unbeknownst to me, another co-worker had heard my comment. The next day, as I walked to my desk to start my day I noticed a small envelope. Inside was a $100 gift card to Safeway with a note that read, “Food is not a luxury. Hope this helps.” That random co-worker had no idea how much their gesture of kindness meant to me. That night, my fiancé and I went grocery shopping and stocked our fridge and pantry.

That was two years ago. In my nearly 30 years of life on this planet, I’ve had a job for about 12 of them. I’ve been living on my own for the most part since I was 21. I pay my bills and make sure the electricity stays on. I may not be the first person you’d think of when you think of food insecurity but, isn’t that the point? The bills are paid, but…

The Emotional Side of Food Insecurity

…the cupboards are empty. That’s a tough pill to swallow when you’ve got a job and a roof over your head. The emotions that come with food insecurity can range from shame to sadness, anger to anxiety, and like you’ve totally failed in the eyes of your peers. And they range in severity depending on the circumstances.

The Food Bank of the Rockies serves roughly 411,000 people annually. 25% are educated beyond high school, while 7% have four-year degrees. Hunger affects everyone regardless of educational background or social class.

The effects of hunger don’t just cause physical pain – they can have a lifetime impact on your mental state, causing bouts of depression, anxiety, and fear. We as a society joke about being “hangry”, but the fact is that increased aggression is common when there’s little to no food around, or when you don’t know where the next meal is coming from. Those who experience food insecurity may not always tell their core group that they’re hungry. Whether it be embarrassment or that whole shame thing I mentioned earlier, many people keep quiet about their struggles. Asking for help can seem like an admission of failure, and this ultimately leads to suffering in silence.

But there is hope…

Filling the Cupboard

More and more people are taking to the streets to help those who are hungry. The majority of media coverage focuses on groups feeding the homeless, but there are others who are willing to feed anyone who is experiencing hunger.

Donation-Based Restaurants

Donation and volunteer-based restaurants are opening all over the country. Here in Denver, we have at least two – S.A.M.E. Café in Denver’s Capitol Hill neighborhood and Café 180 in Englewood. At these restaurants, patrons donate what they think the food is worth, and if they can’t pay with cash they can volunteer their time as payment. For single moms, families, the elderly living on fixed income, and anyone else in the midst of food insecurity, this is a great option to get something to eat.

Independent Outreach Groups

These organizations vary from city to city, but many people in the community enjoy getting together and helping their fellow man. A local group called May You Have Enough is the perfect example of that. Every other Saturday, the group gets together to make sack lunches and pass them out to those who need them.

Local Food Banks

There are more food banks in the city of Denver than you might expect. Many churches and religious organizations run their own food banks, however, community organizations such as Denver Metro CareRing and Food Bank of the Rockies also provide food to Denver’s hungry. If you need to fill your cupboards and can’t afford to hit the market, these organizations can help.

At the End of the Day, Help Your Neighbor

Whether you’re experiencing food insecurity yourself, know someone who is, or just want to help someone who might be, the opportunity to get help and to make a difference is there. If you can, donate to your local food bank, volunteer at your local shelter, or start an independent outreach of your own. There is always going to be someone who needs you.

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Our next big discussion will dive deeper into the work of local agencies and groups working to not only feed those dealing with food insecurity, but also empower them toward self sufficiency and achievement of food justice. We’ll also discuss the thousands of kids currently receiving a majority of their meals from school breakfast and lunch programs who will struggle to find enough to eat in the summer months.

“One” can be the hungriest number.

It’s the 18th of the month. The food stamps haven’t hit our mailbox, and our dad’s child support check is late, again. As my Mom looks through the cabinets to try and figure out dinner, the anxiety isn’t just written on her face; it’s taken over her entire countenance. This isn’t a new place for us — it’s happened every two or three months since my parent’s divorce, but every single time it seems to create just a little more fear, and a little less hope for my mom, my siblings and me. Eventually, she pulls what’s left of a small bag of potatoes out of the pantry along with a box of powdered milk and an onion. It’s potato soup time. My mom is not a skilled scratch cook, but this is a recipe she’s mastered. It might even have been one of our favorites if it wasn’t for the fact that it was always an indicator of being dangerously close to having no food left at all.

That was over 30 years ago, but those memories are still so powerful I feel my own heartbeat quicken and my breathing become shallow as they come flooding back. I wish I could tell you that after surviving a childhood filled with these moments of food insecurity, I never had to deal with them again. But twice in my adult life I’ve found myself in very similar situations. I often tell myself that I was fortunate that I only had myself to worry about in those moments, and that knowing how to cook meant I could turn the very last scraps of just about anything into something edible. The truth is, though, that as recently as last summer I was under employed, unsure of how I would pay rent, and staring at empty cupboards once again. I had taken a gamble — quitting my comfy corporate gig to pursue culinary school full time. It seemed, in that moment, less like a leap of faith and more like a big, stupid, stumble. What had I done? This was all my fault. I was too embarrassed to even ask for help because I had done this to myself. How could I go stand in line with people who had no food through no fault of their own? I was ashamed, embarrassed, and terrified. Despite every effort to find a job in my chosen field, begging friends on Facebook for odd jobs, and literally going through everything I owned to find things to sell, I was failing. I was a failure.

Feeding America’s Hunger and Poverty Fact Sheet tells us that in 2014, 14 percent of American households, over 17 million, experienced consistent food insecurity. Households headed by single mothers represent the largest number of those households — a fact that probably wouldn’t surprise most of us. But in a report published in February of this year, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities revealed that childless adults dealing with the same issue, most of whom are women over 40, make up a large number of underserved hungry Americans. Most of the people in this group are currently working, or have worked in the past 12 months, but simply can’t secure employment that pays enough to help them get out of poverty. This group is subject to a three month limit to utilize SNAP benefits, and the CBPP estimates that as many as 1 million of them will hit that limit this year. While the majority of childless adults living in poverty do not have more than a high school education, the three month limit does not discriminate — even my two college degrees wouldn’t qualify me for any help beyond those three months if I lost my job tomorrow.

As a person who experienced food insecurity as the child of a single mother, I would never express anything less than full-throated support for providing families with children any help they need to remain healthy and well-fed. That doesn’t mean, however, that I believe we should turn a blind eye to other members of my community who are also struggling to feed themselves, simply because they are childless. I’m not ignorant to the fact that it costs money to feed people, and limiting longer term benefits so they go primarily to homes with children seems, on the surface, like the absolute best way to utilize those funds. But hungry is hungry, and no one at any age or station in life should have to experience the fear and humiliation of not knowing where their next meal is coming from.

On Wednesday, Rachael will tell her own story, and take a closer look at what hunger looks like and feels like for those experiencing it on a daily basis.

-J

Sources

Hunger and Poverty Facts and Statistics. (n.d.). Retrieved March 16, 2016, from http://www.feedingamerica.org/hunger-in-america/impact-of-hunger/hunger-and-poverty/hunger-and-poverty-fact-sheet.html

Carlson, S., Rosenbaum, D., & Keith-Jennings, B. (2016, February 8). Who Are the Low-Income Childless Adults Facing the Loss of SNAP in 2016? Retrieved March 16, 2016, from http://www.cbpp.org/research/food-assistance/who-are-the-low-income-childless-adults-facing-the-loss-of-snap-in-2016

Hungry at Home

“I’m so hungry!”

When we say that, it can mean one of several things. I could mean my stomach is growling, I’m bored, or that I just smelled something delicious and now I want some of whatever’s cooking. But it could also mean there’s nothing to eat, that there consistently hasn’t been anything for me to eat, or I’m afraid I’m about to run out of things to eat with no money to replace them. Regardless of what you mean when you say it, the word “hungry” demands satisfaction.

Starting this week, and over the next several weeks, my friend Rachael Niswander and I are going on a search for, well, if not satisfaction, at least some truth, as part of a series of reports called “Hungry at Home.” Through this series, we’ll first look at the experiences of those who are dealing with hunger and food insecurity; then at those who are working to help feed them, empower them, and give them hope; and finally, the people who are growing and supplying the food that seems to be so plentiful for some, yet frustratingly out of reach for others.

We’ll focus on the issue right here in the Denver/Boulder, Colorado metros. However, these questions don’t just demand answers in Colorado. People are hungry everywhere. Rachael and I both have our own stories to tell, along with those of dozens of others right in our own backyard. Our hope is that by shining a light on our own community, you will also hear echoes of the stories of hundreds just like us across the country, maybe even in your own community.

Today, we’re attending the Forward Food Summit in Denver. The summit, a collaboration between the Denver and Boulder Food Rescues, was organized to get all the local players in the same room to present ideas to like minded folks in our area, and help give those interested in taking an active role in the food justice arena a place to talk to each other and, perhaps, join forces. We’re so excited to share what we’re learning here, as well as letting some of those in attendance share their experiences as they follow their own search for satisfaction.

We’re hungry for change. We’re hungry to make a difference. We’re hungry to hear your story, too. Hunger affects us all, in one way or another, so the conversation needs to include us all. No matter where you live, we hope you’ll join in.

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About the Authors

Rachael Niswander is a passionate writer living in the Denver area. Originally from L.A., Rachael moved to Denver in 2010 to pursue a life where she depended only on herself. She realized that dream through hard work and perseverance, which included lessons in food insecurity. During a financially difficult time in 2014, Rachael was gifted a $100 Safeway gift card with a note that read, “Food is not a luxury. Hope this helps.” This anonymous gift was one of hope and Rachael promised to pay it forward when she could.

Today, Rachael is a founding member of Denver’s grassroots organization May You Have Enough, which makes and delivers sack lunches and clothing to the homeless. She also plays an active role as co-author of Hungry at Home, along with Jordan Anderson. Join her on Facebook via May You Have Enough and on Twitter at @rockitpixie.

Jordan Anderson is a recent culinary school graduate, food writer and blogger, and private cooking instructor. She currently works “in the industry” in Denver, and has also recently become the PR/Social Media Director for a new pop-up restaurant concept, ELEMENTS. A native of Arkansas, Jordan moved to Denver in 1999 after closing her eyes and pointing to a spot on the map. She is a Big Sister with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Colorado, and just celebrated the five year anniversary of her match with her Little. After experiencing food insecurity and homelessness both as a child and an adult, she firmly believes that it will be through the grassroots efforts of local food activist organizations that solutions will be found and implemented. You can find her here online at her blog, I’m Gonna Cook That!, @gonnacookthat on Twitter and Instagram, and GonnaCookThat on Facebook.