Graduate students at the University of Southern Maine sent out a survey to food security advocates to determine what people think about the messaging around food insecurity and hunger. These are my answers, what do you think and what are your answers?
1. What is your current job title?
Food Security Advocate – self-employed, working with a $15,000 grant funded by several Quaker entities. Grant project: SNAP ReBoot - giving persons in poverty a voice, especially those on SNAP. Interviewing participants, creating a composite paper and bringing the stories to the legislature
2. Where were you born and raised?
Hartford, Connecticut. Raised in Windsor, Connecticut. (And because you can make all kinds of assumptions about this information)… raised by Catholic parents, with 7 siblings. Father (8th grade education) a truck driver and Mom raised children while earning two college degrees, a graduate degree and when her last three children were in high school, she taught at Wesleyan College as an adjunct English and writing professor. Intermittently, my mother had food stamps in her purse if Dad laid off or furloughed. Our family was considered lower middle income from 1950 to 1980ish.
3. In what other areas of the country have you worked and lived?
While studying at Rutgers University in New Brunswick NJ, I served as a ranger for the National Park Service at Acadia National Park, Bar Harbor, Maine for 6 seasons. After graduating from UMaine Orono with graduate degree in Economic and Community Development, worked as Park Planner at Acadia National Park, followed by Maine State Planner, then (western Maine) Regional Land Use Planner, then one year in Duchess County New York as Planning Director/Senior Planner, followed by several City Planning positions in southern Maine. Left City of Biddeford City Planner position in 2004 to take care of a family situation, resettle my teenager and toddler, and eventually earn a Music Theory degree. In fall 2008, applied for positions back in the Planning and Development field. Many interviews later, no job offers resulted. I earned a meager living substitute teaching, dog sitting, house sitting and involuntarily sitting out of a full-time professional job. This past fall, I created the SNAP ReBoot project, procured funding and here I am. I work out of a friend’s home in Freeport, Maine.
4. In your own words, what do you think the difference between hunger and food insecurity? Do you think there is a difference between the two?
I think there is a big difference between hunger and food insecurity. Due to my situation, my daughter and I have been food insecure for the past ten years, despite SNAP benefits and food pantry offerings. SNAP benefits never cover more than two weeks of groceries. Monthly grocery bills average $450 a month for our family. SNAP benefits range from $240 a month to $15 a month (when I was substitute teaching and earning on average $750 a month). At the end of the month, I often must choose between buying groceries or paying the electric bill or the credit card. Lots of stuff ends up on the credit card, such as groceries, clothing, personal care products not covered by SNAP, car repairs and medical expenses not covered by MaineCare health insurance, as well as monthly credit card interest. Our large vegetable garden in the summer provides food for our table, our freezer, and weekly seasonal donations to the food pantry. Our food pantry typically has fresh fruit and vegetables every week, though at times the food is near rotten. We both are vegetarians, have soy and corn allergies, are sensitive to dairy products and I have celiac disease. It is challenging to find healthy food at the food pantry. Neighbors and friends often discretely place fresh vegetables, eggs, gluten free bread and other foods in our fridge when we were away from home for the day. All these efforts ensure that although I feel insecure when I have to buy groceries on credit card, we have never been physically hungry.
I have heard many stories of hunger through my work on the SNAP ReBoot project. People have only one meal a day, maybe, and it is served from a food kitchen. They are hungry when they wake up and hungry when they go to sleep at night. Hungry means headaches, stomachaches, lack of energy and a depressed spirit. Hungry means out of money to buy food. Hungry means feeling left behind by a country whose wealth mirrors none other. When substituting in RSU5, where 40% of the students are eligible to receive free lunch, I found it easy to tell who had not eaten more than lunch that day by their listless attitude, depressed demeanor, falling asleep on their desk, again. Hunger means missed opportunities to function in our society.
5. In your opinion, do you think most of the Maine’s population differentiates between food insecurity and hunger?
No. The same way that most Mainer’s do not differentiate between poverty and low income.
6. Do you think that negative narratives exist around populations that depend on state-funded food programs?
A. Why or why not? B If yes, what negative narratives do you think exist?
I believe negative narratives exist around populations that depend on state/federal funded food programs.
(The federal government pays 100 percent of SNAP benefits. Federal and state governments share administrative costs (with the federal government contributing nearly 50 percent). SNAP is the largest nutrition assistance program administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. WIC is also federally funded with state grants used to administer the monies).
Some politicians send a daily message that it is “wrong to live off the government dole”. They claim that food stamps add to the dependency on the federal government and add to the federal deficit. Paul Ryan, past speaker of the house, famously claimed that America’s safety net is like a hammock that lulls able bodied citizens into lives of complacency. He ignores that most people in the hammock are children, single moms, disabled persons, seniors and the long term unemployed. Our own past Maine governor held tightly to this belief, cutting SNAP benefits and increasing hunger in Maine. Some media outlets also disparage the use of food stamps and make jokes. For example, a FOX news host joked, she would look “fabulous” on a food stamp diet. Television viewers hear on a regular basis that government programs are a disincentive to work and the way to help people is take away the assistance. The federal government has convinced many Americans that it is ok to give $700 billion in tax cuts to the wealthy while at the same time cutting $771 billion on health care of the poor.
7. What do you think would be effective to change existing negative narratives? Why do you think these narratives persist?
Americans are not told the real story of poverty. People in poverty need to give voice to their story, they need to become visible politically. Poor people need to vote, need to testify, need to work with their legislators to create legislation that will benefit them. The Poor People’s Campaign is one effective national effort to hear the voice of the poor and make them visible. Maine Equal Justice Partners (MEJP) is another organization helping poor people find and share their voice. MEJP encourages people to write about their circumstances and provide supporting testimony to poverty driven legislation.
Television, internet and other media sources could share space with people from all backgrounds more often. They need to cover all angles of a story. Television viewers seem to thrive on sad, awful, mean stories, so why not throw some truth in there – create newscasts of the homeless scrounging through dumpsters and low income people at food pantries, kids at school discretely picking up food backpacks at the end of the day, and stuffing food in their months within the shadow of the school building, the same kids who are too embarrassed and humiliated to take the free breakfast and lunch during school hours.
So why are there so few news media stories covering food insecurity and hunger? The American public does not want to view the failing of our government to help people who are out of luck, who have landed on bad times, who have no bootstraps to pull up. Other people need to step up to cover the injustices people experience on a regular basis. Young people have the tools and knowledge to use YOUTUBE and other media sources. Go interview people, film the stories, share on social media.
The narrative persists because it is so uncomfortable to face up to the truth. And, the political will in this country, so far, will not address poverty issues. Many political leaders, including our President, ignore the problem or blame people for getting themselves into the unfortunate situation in the first place. According to our President, everyone needs to work to make this country great. He fails to acknowledge minimum wage can not support a family, disabled people can not work, children can not earn an income, if they are spending their time at school, affordable housing is out of reach for many working people.
8. Do you think focusing on subsets of the population would create more helpful messaging? For example, food programs and initiatives that focus on hungry children vs other subsets of the population. Why or why not?
Yes, I agree that focusing on subsets would educate people and make them more aware of the problems with hunger and food insecurity. People generally have sympathy for children and seniors. I think many people do not connect hunger with these population groups. The general public assumes people who face hunger and need assistance are middle aged, lazy, on drugs, and are not motivated to contribute to society in a positive fashion. The general public would benefit from learning that most beneficiaries of food stamps are single mothers, some who have been left behind from a divorce to take care of the children, or people who have become disabled from an accident, or people who were forced out of their middle income manufacturing job and can not even find minimum wage employment, despite that they are able bodied adults. Get out the message who uses these benefits and why/how they landed in this awful situation. Put faces behind the numbers. Who are the 185,000 hungry people in Maine?
9. What do you think would be the best way to educate the people of Maine about food insecurity and hunger? Which message do you think would be the most effective at doing this?
Real stories told through social media and other news outlets. Stories from people of all backgrounds and genders. Find the story of the high schooler who lives on their own because their parents disappeared, or the single mom with three preschool children whose husband left and does not have to pay child support, or the senior citizen struggling to live on $950 a month social security check, in a rented apartment because they lost their home when their spouse passed away. There are so many stories to share. And they especially need to be shared with legislators who create the polices that can help people.
The most effective message would demonstrate that food insecurity and hunger make it challenging or impossible to find and secure a job.
10. In terms of changing the narrative of food insecurity and hunger, what messaging do you think would garner the greatest amount of support for ending hunger in Maine by 2030?
Share stories of people who have fallen from middle income to low income or poverty, by no fault of their own. Point out the lack of a living wage, lack of jobs in rural areas, lack of reliable transportation and daycare, lack of adequate health care. Demonstrate that not all poor people in Maine are generationally poor. Perhaps, the general public may be more willing to accept stories of middle-income people losing their livelihoods. These stories may hold more empathy.
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I bring who I am to my present condition. I live with a below poverty income while continuing to express my values. I believe in giving back and contributing to those who have less, using my gardening talent and knowledge. Neighbors and friends donate seeds every spring. Gene offers a giant garden space, complete with marine clay, lots of sunshine, and somehow no deer. I turn soil, dig, weed. Gene turns soil, digs, mulches. The russian kale and spinach and parsley regenerate every season. The harvest is weekly, plentiful and has granted me the nickname, "kale lady" at our local food pantry. I am reminded that hard work and dedication to greens brings great satisfaction to myself and others who can not afford to buy fresh produce. I am proud of my food pantry hauls.