Thursday, September 26, 2013

Unemployed in West Michigan: How to navigate the Unemployment Office

This month I became unemployed for the first time in fifteen years.  The last time I faced the job market, the internet was just becoming popular and finding a job was simply doing legwork or "pounding the pavement."  After all, the economy was roaring and it was more a matter of finding the right job rather than a job.  Today I'm becoming acquainted with a far different, very challenging job market.  And being able to skillfully navigate internet job boards beats any amount of legwork you're willing to put in.

Nonetheless, my first responsibility was to file for an unemployment claim.  Not unlike the Secretary of State's Office, Michigan's Unemployment Insurance Agency has people take a number and wait to speak with an agency representative.  As I sat waiting, I wondered just how long the wait would be.  A twenty-something woman let me know that it would be a few hours.  That is, unless I was willing to stand in line at eight in the morning.

Just as I was about to leave, a UIA worker came out and announced that first-timers could apply online rather than wait. She also apologized to everyone there, announcing that the state had cut four hundred  positions at the state's UIA within the past year.  Apparently it is in the midst of further automating the unemployment process.

Which is a grand idea!  Except that most of the people waiting to talk to a UIA worker had special circumstances (i.e., conflict with disability payments).  The UIA workers I did observe worked diligently to make sure the process worked for those in need, but just being unfamiliar with a new and bureaucratic system can make you feel like you need help too.

Getting unemployment is not typically a monumental ordeal, but you must follow the process carefully (including answering phone questions on a specific day and time).  And the UIA has a reputation for frequently changing its claims process.  Next week, applicants will have to answer a variety of different phone questions through MARVIN (Michigan's Automated Response Voice Interactive Network).  Government agencies have a real affinity for acronyms, don't they?

After making the initial claim, the UIA requires applicants to apply to at least two open job positions each week while they're receiving unemployment checks - which means trudging off to the nearest Michigan Works building.

The Michigan Works staff are tasked with helping the unemployed register for employment on the Pure Michigan Talent Bank. The staff were quite helpful to me in this regard. And the site itself is rather easy to use. However, the connectivity glitches made a 20-minute task turn into an hour. And woe to the unemployed person who has no computer experience whatsoever.

In all, applying for unemployment went fairly smoothly was not the bottleneck or broken pipeline I'd feared it might be.  As with any government entity, correct procedures must be followed to avoid a mess.  Happily, I found the people working at these institutions to be very helpful.

What is your experience with unemployment in West Michigan?

--John Potter 

Monday, September 23, 2013

Arise Grand Rapids: The Revitalization of Downtown

Slowly but surely--even rapidly in some cases--Grand Rapids is transforming. Our old buildings, vacant for some time, are finding new owners with an eye for the future and tenants that are cut from the same cloth. Take the old Harris building for example: Run down for some time after its construction more than 100 years ago, I remember being intrigued by it a handful of times when I was traveling along Division Avenue. I had tried to pull open the door to see if it was unlocked (I do this pretty regularly to buildings that catch my attention) but, as usual, I had no luck. It was a few months later that I heard about something called #saturdaze. Basically, the idea behind this was to host a party. I don't know if it was the first time #saturdaze did this, but they somehow managed to land access to the Harris building. I marked my mental calendar, impatiently awaiting the first time I would get to enter this old gem.

Ah, the Harris building | Photo courtesy of
The party was killer. So was the party after that. There may have been a third and a fourth fiesta after these, but soon the streak would end and the building would get a new owner. It's safe to say that I was sad to see the venue go as it kind of made these parties what they were: grungy yet mystical. Case in point: My friends and I would wake up the next morning with the blackest of boogers, having danced in a space that wasn't put to use for years. We soon realized it was all of the dust that had been kicked up; those little particles had plastered themselves to the insides of our nostrils while the feet of strangers shuffled around us--kind of disgusting but kind of alluring, right? Though tragic, the death of the relationship between #saturdaze and the Harris building was beautiful because it brought a renewed attention to the Harris building and now, with its new owner, it has been revitalized. A locally-owned organic pasta company called The Local Epicurean moved from its Eastown location into the first floor of the building as soon as it could--and other retailers are expected. Future plans include residential lofts, restaurants, community event space (which means #saturdaze might be back!), and work studios. For the next handful of weeks, the building is even an ArtPrize venue (I guess this shouldn't be too surprising). If everything goes as planned, the Harris building could become a model for the restoration of other buildings in the city.

Another building that is getting a lot of attention is the old Grand Rapids Public Museum. After opening in 1940, the museum moved to its new location in 1994. The building went mostly unused--to the public, anyways--for 16 years. It was then that a nonprofit arts group known as SiTE:LAB began collaborating with the museum to make use of it as a space for ArtPrize. Many citizens enjoyed what SiTE:LAB did and began wondering what the space could be used for the rest of the year, thinking that there had to be something that could occupy the 30,000-square-foot spot for more than just three weeks out of the year. Through these notions, a competition called 54 Jeff was conceived and dozens of entries were submitted for the building's revival. A board of expert jurors, focused mostly on art and architecture, are expected to reveal the competition's winning idea later this month and I'd be lying if I said that I wasn't excited.

Anyone traveling on the S-Curve on any given day will see cranes, scaffolding, and insulation going up on buildings like wrapping paper.  Clearly there are big plans for Grand Rapids' old formerly industrial parts.  Cleaning and refurbishing them is something all of us can be happy about.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Let the (Food Truck) Revolution Commence!

With ArtPrize just a single day away, the city is stirring. Art is popping up left and right, kind of like weeds--if weeds were expressive, aesthetic, and created by human beings. Grand Rapids is in a liminal period, biding its time; it's in a cocoon and the city is ready to break through, it's ready to blow the minds of Michiganders, Americans, and citizens of the world alike.

But even its own citizens may be surprised to hear a decision that was recently passed down by the city. Remember that huge conflict surrounding food trucks that happened last year? I do. It was the brick-and-mortar restaurants versus the food truck vendors, with every hungry Grand Rapidian caught in-between, salivating over what could be. Many of us had eaten from the Silver Spork (RIP) or What the Truck outside of the Fulton Street Farmers Market at that point (and have since), but this just wasn't enough for vendors and patrons--both parties wanted to see food trucks in spots scattered around our ever-coveted downtown.

Upon hearing this, some restaurant owners began shaking in their boots--they were scared that a quick-and-dirty option like ye olde food truck would eat into brick-and-mortar profits. And they're probably right: If I'm in a hurry and I can get something fast--and it's good--that's what I'm going to do, almost every time. This means that the business-types who work downtown would probably head to a food truck instead of sitting down at Cinco de Mayo or Bull's Head Tavern, at Donk's (formerly Taco Boy) or Tre Cugini. By the end of the Great Food Truck Conflict of 2012, it was the frightened restaurateurs who had won, not the food truckers, despite the single concession given by the city: Food trucks could now set-up shop on private property. On paper, this may have seemed like a victory for food trucks, but I think it was a ruling that made citizens think that food trucks were allowed. In reality, it was a decision that was in-line with the worried restaurant owners. Few food trucks took advantage of this change, proving that it perpetuated the status quo.

Could the Silver Spork still be alive if the city made this
call sooner? | Photo courtesy of the Silver Spork
Flash forward to about a week ago: That was when the city decided that it will allow two food trucks outside of the Grand Rapids Art Museum for 200 days per year. This means that some of the aforementioned businesses really will have something to worry about. Instead of complaining about it and trying to fight the ruling, the efforts of fearful owners should be used toward innovation--revamping their menu, opening up new options, and exploring unknown territories to catch the eyes, ears, and taste buds of those seeking a place to fend off hunger in the future.  They might take a cue from GR breweries and reduce restaurant waste or go organic.  An article from WZZM 13 said that the GRAM will be allowed to begin its life as a food truck station after ArtPrize is over, since the trucks are allowed to be around during special events like one of the world's largest art competitions. I for one can't wait for this, since it could easily make our already-great food scene into something even better.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Hunger Action Week: Views of hunger in West Michigan by those who serve the hungry

Since it is Hunger Action Week in West Michigan, and other people seem interested in having a conversation on hunger, I decided to talk to a few people who work directly with the people we are talking about.  The central question I asked was, "What do you think is most important to know about food insecurity in Grand Rapids and West Michigan?"

Because I don't think most people who aren't food insecure think about people who are food insecure except at certain times of the year - Thanksgiving, Christmas, Lent, during food drives - I wanted to examine more general attitudes about those who eat with help from SNAP and food pantries.  I talked to Marge at Degage Food Pantry, and she said there was a shortage, not just of fresh nutritional food, but of food education.  That lots of people who are food insecure eat terribly unhealthy food without really knowing the alternatives or even realizing how bad it is for them.  But talking about this with her, we both came to the conclusion that was true of many, if not most, people, not just those who do not have enough to buy groceries.  There's a whole generation of kids growing up now drinking pop instead of milk or even water.  Soda is not just nutritionally empty, it's actively bad for you and linked to obesity and even behavioral problems in kids.  Children and young people often have no concept of what constitutes real food, in the sense that it comes from plants and animals, is cooked or minimally processed and consumed soon after together with other people at a table or in another communal setting.  Most kids do regularly eat foods that contains a scary list of chemicals rather than simple ingredients like milk, eggs, flour, and salt.  Many kids in Forest Hills or Rockford or Jenison are malnourished as well.

So in this sense the food insecure are just like the rest of us, eating crap food because it's cheap, because it's tasty, because it's been deliberately, chemically modified to be addictive, because it's been marketed to us continuously since childhood.

I also talked to Angie Kelley at Westminster Food Pantry.  She agreed that food insecure people often buy the worst food because it's cheap.  She also wanted to stress that while a common perception is that people who use food pantries are scamming the system, most people in fact would prefer not to use food pantries and for them it's a matter of being able to afford food OR some other necessary thing like rent or medicine.  No one is building a dream house by going to food pantries instead of Meijer.  Chances are, they've also sidelined items like getting kids braces or paying the phone bill.  It's embarrassing to many people to ask for help; but as a community (and a nation) we are struggling with unemployment and chronic underemployment at the same time food and energy costs are quickly rising.  Many people have themselves donated to food pantries and then found themselves using them in a time of need.

Angie wanted to mention the shortage of fresh produce (something Marge also mentioned).  There isn't a shortage of food, per se, but there is a shortage of healthy food.  With the opening of the Downtown Market, Degage has a new source of fresh produce as the market is donating its excess to them, but most food pantries do not have it to offer, and most people aren't familiar with ways to cook healthy meals from food pantry staples.  Angie said she would love it if there was a centrally located produce distribution center available either to the public directly or to food pantries to supply them.  She also thought it would be wonderful if the various food insecurity agencies would work more collaboratively so that all populations of the hungry could be served better.  As a librarian, further organization always sounds like a good idea to me.
Another tip I took away: Do not donate expired food to food drives or pantries.  It will be discarded.  It's past the recommended date of use for anyone.  Apparently people do this all the time, perhaps not knowing it will be thrown out.

I'd love to hear your further ideas about food and hunger in West Michigan.  Please leave them in the comments!

Monday, September 9, 2013

Get a Cab, Grand Rapids

We all know that drinking and driving is a dangerous habit. And in a city like ours where the beer flows both strong and deliciously (as does the liquor and wine), I would think that fewer people would be willing to get behind the wheel after emptying their glasses for the night. But from what I've seen, cab usage is rather minimal. Walking isn't rather common either, at least not downtown. People who live in Grand Rapids proper need to understand that our city is not that large, that you can easily walk, ride, or bicycle Grand Rapids both to and from any establishments within the Heartside neighborhood. Even in the winter, your feet are a viable option that can get you where you need to go. If you're feeling cold, quit complaining and take advantage of the Skywalk that runs from DeVos Place to Van Andel Arena--trust me, it'll provide at least some respite from the cold.

But back to the topic at hand: nixing these options when alcohol has been consumed. C'mon people! It might be a little more time-consuming to hoof it back home if you live in a nearby neighborhood like Heritage Hill, East Hills, Eastown, anywhere west of the Grand River, or in GVSU housing but at least you're not putting yourself, your friends, and any other drivers, bikers, or pedestrians at risk. Still, some people would rather not walk, would rather have their vehicle with them--this is when the option of a designated driver becomes an obvious matter. But let's be honest: Few friends want to be left out of the libation celebration, especially if the friends that are drinking are a) extremely fun or b) extremely annoying when they've had a few.

Victorious cab driver is victorious (or angry?). | Source: CNN
Since no one wants to be the DD, it looks like we've come back to cabs and their lacking usage in Grand Rapids. Excluding Ionia Avenue on the weekends, cabs are a rare sight. I imagine that trolling for fares in areas that have an attraction--e.g. Ionia and its many bars on the weekend--is the only legitimate way for a cabbie to get a decent night's pay. So, some people are definitely taking advantage of the cabs when they should be, but this is only a fraction of the market. Too many people are still getting behind the wheel for a number of reasons: they might think that a cab is too expensive or they could be too proud to admit that they are drunk. Get over it! The cost of a DUI in addition to the damage that could be done to a number of parties should be enough to convince both your wallet and your ego to think again about taxis.

If I want to get a taxi, I have to call one of the handful of companies in the city: Yellow Cab, Metro Cab, and Calder City Taxi are my usual choices. Just the other night, I had one of the best cab rides of my life; that's saying something, considering I've belted Celine Dion with my friends and a driver on one occasion. This recent driver though, he didn't sing. Instead, he said that McFadden's was terrible (he was preaching to the choir) and then we proceeded to talk about George Carlin, Noam Chomsky, linguistics, and Mensa--the world's oldest high IQ society. He was a funny man named Scott and he gave me his card. Looks like I'll be calling him whenever I need a ride now because he saved me and my friends from a drunken stumble home.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Hunger Action Week is September 8 - 14th

The Grand Rapids foodshed is changing and developing in fantastic ways, but for the approximately 13% of Kent County residents who experience food insecurity, the doings at the new Downtown Market are of little interest.  That's because affordable is more critical than fresh, local, or organic to them.

Hunger Action Week is a local effort to address the issues of food insecurity and educate people about hunger in West Michigan.  Some of the scheduled events include a SNAP challenge meant to get people to think how would feed themselves or their families on the SNAP allotment of $31.50 per person per week, a poverty simulation exercise, healthy food cook-off between local chefs, and multiple showings of A Place at the Table, a documentary on hunger starring Jeff Bridges.

While I think learning about hunger in our area is a very good thing and many people could benefit from the realization that their circumstances are not everyone's circumstances, I do have problems with both the SNAP food stamp program and even well meaning, enthusiastically staffed programs like Kids' Food Basket.  Since the government now distributes its food benefits via a swipeable Bridge Card, committing fraud is pretty easy and the government has little influence over which foods households purchase with that money.  Cards do offer both more dignity and autonomy to the process  at the individual level, but much of the money our government spends on "food" goes to complete garbage - high sugar, low nutrition fast foods that ensure that while kids might not feel hungry, they are nonetheless being undernourished and their bodies are not receiving enough nutrients to grow and develop properly.  I have donated to Kids Food Basket before and the suppers they send home are easier to transport than they are to digest.  Juice boxes?  Sugar.  Peanut butter sandwiches?  Sugar.  Trail mix?  Sugar.  Apple?  Natural sugar.  I know Kids Food Basket chooses to send home a meal the organization believes kids will eat of their own accord, but this is not a meal I'd want my child to eat every night.  The body turns excess sugar into fat, and childhood obesity in America is very high.  More than one out of three kids in America is currently overweight or obese.  Many of these kids are the same kids who are in food insecure environments.
The problem with hunger in America is not a lack of food.  We are not sub-Saharan Africa, and even amidst drought conditions, the food supply remains more than adequate for our population.  Grocery stores also toss a significant amount of unspoiled food in dumpsters rather than give it away.  Affording food has become troublesome for many families in the last decade as the price of stables like meat and milk and bread continues to rise along with gas prices, making a trip to the store more expensive all the time.  However, if you are carefully shopping and cooking all of your own meals (not to mention gardening or foraging), it is possible to feed a family on a modest food budget.  The food won't be exciting or luxurious, but it can be tasty, nutritious and regular.  Simple Depression era meals like those featured in Cooking with Clara are easy to make.  I baked four loaves of bread using her recipe last weekend, and they were delicious.  Since my husband received notice of being laid off in July, we've cut back on any extraneous food expenditures (eating out, buying luxuries like bakery goods, soda, nice cheeses, or any other food I love to buy), but we are still eating foods that are healthy and delicious.  I just have to cook or bake much more or pick and can it myself.

Some people resent the paternalism that creeps into discussions about poverty and hunger, but it's already paternalistic to pay for or distribute food - it's based on the assumption that people cannot or will not provide for themselves or their children.  I would prefer to see community kitchens arise to eradicate hunger in our neighborhoods.  It would be far more feasible to oversee what people are being fed and to make sure the nutritional content was high, and it would bring people together back to a communal table where they could interact with the people around them instead of eating a bagged lunch in front of a television or computer screen.  There are plenty of empty storefronts in my area of the city, Creston, and the government's money would be spent employing local people doing hands-on work, it would not be going directly or indirectly to industrial farms, CAFOs, or big food corporations that market crap to kids (and adults).

I know this is a pipe dream - there are too many vested interests in the current state of hunger - but if we are going to talk about what will get people the food they need, I'd love to hear solutions that would help people long term, not meal by meal.

Check out some of the Hunger Action Week offerings.  They look very interesting and may inspire meals at your house too.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Founders Brewing Company closed...for 2 whole weeks

It's official: Founders Brewing Company has shuttered its taproom doors… at least for a little while. No, this isn't a harkening back to the near-bankruptcy levels that Founders famously (or infamously?) operated at during its early days--it's another stage of the brewery's seemingly ever-expanding presence in Grand Rapids. After investing $26 million into its most recent project, Founders has made sure that its patrons understand that the taproom will be closed starting Tuesday (that's today!) all the way until September 16. That's when the rest of the changes to the taproom--including a spacious beer garden complete with its own bar and at least one fireplace--will be finalized.

I've imagined that many people--both local and from other places in the world--will be clamoring for the taproom while the public is barred from entering. I know at least one person who has already expressed his depression over the temporary closure. He's one of my best friends and he's on a one-month vacation from his position with the Peace Corps in Senegal. During half of his month here in the U.S., Founders will be closed. The man is a huge fan and I'm doing my best to make sure that he gets his fix, but there's nothing enjoying a glass of Dirty Bastard or Red's Rye straight from the source. Depending on how well he maintains his composure, he could end up leading a revolt to break in, manning the taps in his manic state for all those who have a love for Founders and craft beer that is equal to his. Watch out, Founders--there are quite a few of us!

A rendering as imagined from Grandville Avenue | Courtesy of Founders Brewing Co.
As in many other situations, this is an instance where patience is most certainly a virtue. If you haven't seen the renderings, you need to right now. Seriously. Look at them. I've been drooling over them for months--since they were released in April--and so has my friend in the Peace Corps, even though he's been thousands of miles away the entire time. The beautifully landscaped garden! The second level! Those ghost people! Founders is going to be completely different in less than two weeks, but the heart of it will still be there and that heart is what makes Founders so great. The ability for myself and many others, in Michigan and elsewhere, to feel solidarity with the company's spirit is what has turned some of the best beer that is poured in Grand Rapids into some of the best beer that is poured in the entire world.

The private rental space and educational facility, complete with second-floor balcony | Courtesy of Founders Brewing Co.
Interestingly, the company has plans to expand its share of the international craft beer market. Even though the CEO of Founders said that its beer has been available through a Danish wholesaler in Europe for the past five years, the company has not focused much on its game outside of the U.S. until now. The international beer market should be ready for the storming of its beaches as Founders rolls up on the shores of Sweden, Denmark, England, Canada, Australia, and Brazil in the near future, if it hasn't already. Way to represent Michigan on the international level, Founders.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Grand Rapids goes back to school - with a dress code

Photo credit: Cory Morse/
Students at K8 Grand Rapids Public Schools will have to come to school in specified clothing or be sent home.  According to the GRPS website, this decision was made because "The proven benefits of school uniforms include:
  • Increased focus on teaching and learning
  • Reduced distraction, peer pressure, and behavioral issues
  • Cost savings to parents/families
  • Strengthened school pride
  • Improved school safety"
The reader response on the Mlive article was heavy on the "OMG FASCISM" side, protesting the creeping tide of conformity and subsumption into the Borg, so I thought I'd weigh in as a parent with a child who wears uniforms (at his Catholic school).  

First of all, this is not a real uniform.  The word uniform implies that all students clothes are, well, uniform, or all the same.  If you have multiple top and bottom choices in numerous colors, that is obviously not the case.  This is a dress code with a pre-selected list of choices.  My son has the same dress code, albeit with fewer options, and I personally wish his were stricter - an actual uniform - although it does the job of minimizing  slovenly appearance, classroom distraction, and social pegging based on dress while entirely sidelining "hoochie mama" fashion for girls.  All of which, in my opinion, are positives in education and certainly outrank the expression of personal creativity.  These students have plenty of time outside of school to market their individuality, in school they need to know that someone else is in charge and should be the focus of attention.

Secondly, it really is cheaper, particularly after the initial investment is made.  My son's school has a clothing exchange, and we regularly take advantage of it.  This year I bought him shoes for back to school, and that's it for clothing.  His shirts still fit, and I got two pairs of shorts off of the clothing exchange table. There was no stressing at all about what the other kids would think was cool.  His school occasionally has "color days" during which the kids can wear what they like, within the boundaries of the dress code, and we have more fights on the 10 or so color days than we have all the rest of the year.  In fact, we never fight about what he wears except when he balls up his clothes and shoves them behind the bed overnight and I have to point out that's unacceptable and not a respectful treatment of clothing.  

Third of all, GRPS is a shrinking school district that is pulling kids into its few remaining open schools.  This is going to result in a different diverse mix of kids.  Requiring a uniform is saying without words, "You are all the same to us, and you need to treat each other the same."  A good message to send.

Overall, any message that GRPS can send that communicates to the students that they are not in charge and that they must submit to the authority of their teachers is a good one.  You will never teach kids unless they believe that, and it's a hard message to sell in our narcissistic, entitled culture.  As such, this dress code is more than fine by me.