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!