Life in the trenches of hunger relief

This is a journal of my experiences in the fight against hunger in United States. All names are fictitious, but the fight is real.

Location: United States

Monday, February 07, 2005

Our youth, in service and in action

Once again, leadership in this community comes from our youth. More specifically, it comes from R. Curran and his A-team. R. is a local high school student. He called us a month ago wanting to organize "the largest food drive EVER" for our foodshelf. We were delighted and told him that we'd be extremely grateful for anything he could offer.

He called again a week ago to arrange delivery on Saturday. Our operations coordinator scheduled himself to receive the donations. I expected a call from him around noon with totals on the food drive. Around 2 p.m., I finally called him. They were still bringing food. Four o'clock rolled around, still no return call from him. Five o'clock came and went with no call. Six o'clock passed with no word. Finally, at 6:30 p.m., the phone rang. They had just brought in the last car load of food.

16, 399 pounds of food and $195 in cash and checks.

Sixteen THOUSAND pounds of food. SIXTEEN THOUSAND pounds of food. The warehouse is packed. The foodshelf is packed. The foodshelf is packed and a few stray bags that were missed are being delivered today. The total is at 16, 415 pounds of food...and climbing.

One young man with a vision and a quest did this by himself...well, he and his "A-Team" did it by themselves. They are incredible. They are inspiring.

:::sitting back in amazement::: Let no one tell you our youth don't know the importance of service. Let no one tell you that our youth are self-centered and egotistical. Let no one tell you that our youth don't care. If someone tries to tell you that, just point to R. Curran and the A-team. THEY know. The youth of our community know how to give. Let them remind you how it's done.

And a child shall lead them. Now, who shall follow?

Thursday, February 03, 2005

If you're going to dream, then dream big

Dreams are wonderful things. I'm sure I'm not the only person working in social services who has dreamt of winning a lottery and then using the proceeds to support my favorite non-profit organizations. Probably because I work in a food/clothing/furniture shelf with an emphasis on basic needs, my focus is on helping people in crisis, whether the crises are short-term or long-term.

I'm dreaming big right now. I'm not happy just dreaming about winning a lottery and helping support foodshelves. I'm dreaming about a complete re-thinking of how foodshelves are supported. Wouldn't it be wonderful, if instead of having to purchase truckloads of one item to get the best price, a foodshelf, because it was part of a foodshelf network, could purchase directly from the grocery store at those reduced prices? I know it's a stretch, but the potential to make that work does exist. Foodbanks could focus on collecting and distributing donations and USDA commodities, instead of trying to become cooperative purchasing programs for the food shelves.

It requires that grocers not look at foodshelves as competitors. We wouldn't be purchasing at reduced rates from them in order to keep them from making a profit by selling at shelf prices to our clients. We provide three meals a day for three days times the number of people in a household. In an average order, a family of four would recieve 2 boxes of macaroni and cheese. That doesn't mean that family won't have to purchase mac and cheese for other days in the month. It only means, that for that short space of time, we will have provided a meal for this family at the lowest price possible, without having to jump through beaurocratic hoops.

There might have to be some bending and stretching of the system over-all in order to make this kind of idea work, but wouldn't it be wonderful, if instead of having to rely on USDA commodities, I could supplement what I purchase from USDA with regular grocery items purchased directly from our local supermarket at those bulk prices.

Okay, no one ever said I was sane. It's a dream. It's my dream. In a country as wealthy as this one, why should children go to bed hungry when the product is available?

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

HOW MUCH?!?!?!

I tried to explain to someone yesterday why a small delivery fee makes such an incredible difference to the food shelves. $0.02/pound to deliver items doesn't seem like much, does it? It really shouldn't be something over which to worry. At least, on the surface it looks that way.

I spoke earlier about the importance of Second Harvest Heartland to our food shelf. The availability of USDA commodity items allows us to stretch our food dollars. To give you an idea of the impact of that small delivery fee (and it IS small), at SHH, we can purchase commodity items at $0.04/pound. Out of curiousity, I ran the numbers for having a pallet of shelf stable milk delivered to us from another food bank. On average, a pallet weighs 2320 pounds. At $0.02/pound, the fee to deliver that milk is $46.40. If you'll recall from an earlier post, I purchased 1200 pounds of USDA ground beef from SHH. That same delivery fee for the milk would purchase 1160 pounds of ground beef for the families in this community. If I have to choose between a delivery fee for milk or product to feed families, I'm buying product.

The milk itself is free, but $46.40 is far more than we can afford for a "free" product. It costs us less to drive out to Hope for the City (even WITH gas prices at $2/gallon) and pick it up ourselves.

Every penny counts. Remember that when you give.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

The faces in my world

With so many clients over so many years, it's hard to sort out which ones made the greatest impact on me. It's even harder to discern which ones opened my eyes to poverty issues the most.

One woman I met early on, I'll call her Miss T. She was elderly. She was fighting cancer. Her daughter died suddenly and Miss T was left to raise her three teenage grandchildren. Miss T was in her 70's. She'd raised her family, but she was going to do her best for her three grandkids. She struggled hard to keep them in school, to see that they got good grades and didn't run wild. She'd still be fighting that battle today, but the cancer won its race and took her from them.

Her story is, sadly, not unusual. I'm constantly amazed by how many of my elderly clients are raising grandkids. Sometimes the story is sad, a sudden death in the family. Sometimes, the story is tragic. A daughter murdered by her husband leaving children to be raised by grandparents. Sometimes it's a story of someone gone wrong and leaving his/her parents to clean up the mess they've left behind while they serve time in jail.

Our elderly have done their time as parents. They already struggle on fixed incomes. Suddenly they find themselves parenting again though.

Lack of adequate health care brings many families here. Unable to afford health care, they are suddenly overcome by medical bills. A friend's situation can demonstrate this. No, she isn't a client. She's married (although at the time she was single). She has/had medical coverage. She was 25 years old and suddenly she was acutely ill. Her boyfriend drove her to the hospital. She needed emergency surgery to remove an infected gall bladder. She was in the hospital from about 2 a.m. on Friday to mid afternoon on Sunday. Her medical bill was $20,000. After her insurance company paid it's portion, she was left with $2000.

All it takes is a sick child to totally rearrange your life. A mom and dad are working. They have a family relative to do daycare for their toddler and newborn. Suddenly, the newborn is critically ill. They don't have health insurance. The baby is in critical condition and mom and dad haunt the hospital hallways for a week and a half. The baby recovered, but this family will take far longer to recover from the financial fallout of his illness.

I talked to a mother whose son was shot in a drive-by shooting. He managed to walk to his apartment and call her. He died on the phone. She came to me, grieving. We wept together.

I wept with a grandmother whose granddaughter was killed when a drive by shooting on their street sent a bullet through the dining room wall, killing the child where she sat at the dining room table with her sister, doing their homework. I know the mom. I knew that smart little girl. She was her mom's helper. There are no words of comfort.

What brings people to a food pantry for help? There are many reasons which bring them here, but the underlying thread is that in spite of everything they are doing, they can't quite make it through the month. Three meals a day for three days somehow doesn't seem like enough.

Monday, January 24, 2005

How do I...

A friend from out of town emailed me a little while ago. She wants to donate food and clothing to a local shelter near her but doesn't know how to find connect with a good agency. Since I'm encouraging people to donate to their local shelves, it would seem to be a good idea to pass along some resources for finding the foodshelf in your area.

First: United Way. Most of the local United Way organizations have local branches, complete with web pages. For the national organization:

In our area, United Way has a service called First Call For Help. If you dial their number (locally 651-291-0211) they can tell you what food shelf serves your neighborhood.

Second: Second Harvest - From the website: "The mission of America's Second Harvest is to create a hunger-free America. We distribute food and grocery products through a nationwide network of certified affiliates, increase public awareness of domestic hunger, and advocate for policies that benefit America's hungry."

"Our network includes more than 200 food banks and food-rescue organizations, serving every county in the U.S. The effectiveness and operating efficiency of this network depends on the cooperation of food banks, food-rescue organizations, service agencies, donors, and national programs. " There is a search feature on their main splash screen where you can enter your zip code and find your local food bank. (Locally:

Don't let a child go to bed hungry.


Sometimes, it's very difficult to sit at the desk and listen to the tales of tragedy day after day. While we haven't been particularly busy this morning, I have been dealing with unusual circumstances. As much as we can do for someone, even factoring serving them more than once in a calendar month, it's often just not enough.

Utility bill problems seem to be the order of the day. The prices for natural gas are high and it doesn't take long for the bill to be out of control for a low income family. I've had no less than four people at my desk this morning requesting assistance or referral for assistance with huge (painfully huge) gas bills. In addition, one of my shut-ins called needing help.

Thank Minnesota for the Cold Weather rule. As long as the client is making a good faith effort to make payments, their utilities cannot be disconnected during the winter. That doesn't help come April though when that $800 utility bill has skyrocketed to $1500.

Some of my clients work in seasonal industries. Landscaping work during the summer pays decent wages, but it's not enough to get you through the winter, especially when there hasn't been enough snow (Did I really say that?) to subsidize your income through a shovel. I've been a little puzzled, though, by the number of layoffs that have happened recently in the janitorial/cleaning staff area.

Layoffs, though, can happen to any of us at any time. The company my brother-in-law works for handed out pink slips one year for Christmas. Thank you very much and have a Merry Christmas. I remember that one of those men had been at his bank that morning, signing mortgage papers. Suddenly, everything was ripped out from under him.

Waaaay back in the dark ages when I worked for Control Data, our entire department was part of a centralization project in August (we expanded) that turned into a decentralization project in December, when we all received pink slips. Thank you for all your hard work and have a Merry Christmas. I have friends who have been looking for work for TWO years. These are professional or semi-professional people. One friend said he's getting sort of used to getting a job, working six months and then getting laid off again.

How long can you continue fighting the same battles before you give up, though? When does the economy finally improve to the point that employers aren't cutting corners? When does affordable health care become a priority? When does affordable daycare become important?

Friday, January 21, 2005

Heaving a sigh of relief

:::deep breath::: The week is finally over. Yes, it is over. That means I have two days in a row in which I won't have to worry about someone else's crisis.

I think a lot of people are suddenly realizing that the weather is creating it's own mini-crisis today. About mid-morning, clients started walking through my door powdered with snow. Of course, I had to ask the obvious. "Is it snowing?" Yes. "I mean, is it REALLY snowing?" YES.

They almost all told me that it was "really coming down". A snow emergency has been declared in our city. That means starting at 9 p.m. tonight, there will be no parking on snow emergency routes. This is the first major snowfall of the winter. Yes, we actually made it to the end of the third week of January before we saw snow in any accumulating amounts.

I think it's making up for lost time. HELP! The snow has fallen and it can't get up!

Heh, now that I have that out of my system, I can move along. This is the first declared snow emergency of the season. Inevitably, that means that someone won't realize in time that they can't park their cars on snow emergency routes tonight. It means that a lot of cars are going to be towed in my low-income neighborhood. That may not sound logical, but in this part of the city, we have a large proportion of rental housing. Most of that rental housing doesn't have off-street parking. That means that the few street slots have to be emptied putting the overload on ancillary streets, which were already full.

In my neighborhood, its a rare night when every slot of street parking isn't full. Tonight, we'll lose virtually all the slots on on the main thoroughfare. Being towed comes with heavy consequences in this town. First you have to figure out how you'll get to the lot. Then you have to catch your breath after they tell you that you have a towing charge AND a huge ticket to pay....up front. If you can't get there right away, you have storage fees per day too. It's been awhile since I got caught with one of these, but if I recall correctly, it was close to $150 - and I was able to bail out my car the next morning.

That hurts a budget quickly. I don't know why, but it always seems like those less able to withstand the fees are the ones who inevitably end up caught in it. There will be less money for groceries next week in a lot of homes.

I understand that the city has to take a stand somewhere, but do they always have to stand on the backs of the poorest of the poor?

The snow has other hazards for my clients. I especially worry about my elderly clients. A few years ago, one of my clients fell on the ice walking home from a corner store at night. No one found him until morning. It was too late.

I've already had a rash of falls among my seniors this year. We've had numerous bumps, bruises and black eyes, one broken wrist and a broken hip. The gentleman with the broken hip was fortunate that he lives with family. Otherwise he could have died before they found him.

So, the snow and the cold tends to keep my seniors close to home. We deliver foodshelf requests to a handful who are "shut-ins", but those who want to keep their independence, fight for it with a stubborn determination. They will fight before they admit they need help. It can be so hard to convince them that you only want to help.

I've watched a tiny 95 year old woman take care of a disabled 80 year old man to earn extra money so she could stay independent. ::shaking head:: She did it too. She'd still be doing it except that she was the loser in a city bus vs car accident. She was hospitalized for many weeks after that. She's still fighting. She's feisty. I take my hat off to her. At the same time, I'm so grateful that she has a son and daughter who will make sure that she isn't out walking on these treacherous sidewalks.

It's the opportunity to serve those like her that keeps me at my desk doing my job.


I really shouldn't be amazed any longer over the number of clients we serve in a month. Yesterday afternoon, I watched my pile of pink re-registration forms shrink down to nothingness. It's not that difficult to make more, just a little time consuming. Because I number all forms, I had a rough idea of how many people I've seen this month. That number is put into focus when I realized that I totally used up a ream of paper. That's 500 families who have recertified this year. In addition to the recertifications, we have all the families registering for the very first time.

The month isn't over yet either. The last week of the month is, typically, the busiest (and we have an extra Monday tacked on too). Foodstamp (food assistance) money has run out and there is just too much month left.

Thankfully, we've stretched our food dollars this month. Bless Second Harvest. I don't know what we'd do without them. The USDA commodity hamburger finally arrived. Kudos to ChrisP for letting me know that I could tell Bev I was waiting for it. When it came up on the list, Bev let me know and we jumped on it. For the curious, the cost was $0.04/pound or $48 dollars for 1200 pounds of hamburger. Compare that to co-op prices of $1.55/pound. The same 1200 pounds of hamburger would have cost us $1860.

This aspect of my job is new. In the past, while we haven't been flush (by ANY means), I haven't had to really worry about spending money on product. The money has been available. We've still had to watch our nickels and dimes so we utilized cooperative purchasing but we were always fairly sure we could set enough aside each month that we could do our annual Thanksgiving program. In 2004, lack of funds meant that we were only able to serve about a third of the requests we had for Thanksgiving baskets. Now the budget is even smaller.

We had more funds to use in past years. We've been under mandates to use them. I could look at the shelves and tell the boss what we needed and then order it. Sometimes we've used the co-op. Other times we made purchases from Second Harvest. I see the bills so I always know how much money is being spent. I do the data entry, so I know how many pounds of food we are distributing. Still, it wasn't as imperative. Now, saving those pennies is imperative. There is no more wiggle room in the budget. This is "back against the wall" food shelf budgeting.

It's fascinating and amazing and horrifying all at the same time. Just looking at the raw numbers, I'm a bit staggered. It's one thing to know, academically, that purchasing at $0.04 a pound will save you tons of money. It's another thing to run the numbers (a simple task) and see the savings mount.

Because one of our funding sources gives us lump sums of money but requires that they be spent over a finite period of time, we will still, likely, have to make some purchases through sources other than Second Harvest. I'm still awaiting contact from our food broker. If his prices are competitive, it's likely he'll be one recipient of those time-stamped funds. Second Harvest will likely get some too, if they have the purchase product (co-op purchases) items that we need.

For me, this all boils down to being able to serve families. It means I won't have to face the nightmares that come after having to turn away a worried parent. It means that I can go home at night and sleep, secure in the knowledge that the little children I saw throughout the day will have dinner and go to bed with full tummies.

Those nightmare nights have been rare here, but I still wake up with them. I still remember, clearly, the first time I had to turn someone away because we had empty shelves. I remember tossing and turning all night long because all I could envision was the five-year old child with her going to bed hungry. It's impossible to eat dinner and then sleep when you're afraid you just made a small child sleep with hunger pangs.

Try sleeping at night after that image is burned into your mind.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

And the smallest of these...

Sometimes it's the smallest people in our community, the children, who are an example to the rest of us. We had a visitor to the food shelf yesterday. His name is Damon and he's about 6 years old. He's very articulate and he's very sweet.

Damon brought a donation to the food shelf yesterday. He brought his toys. They are in new and almost new condition, most were still in the original packaging. They were his Christmas presents. He wanted to see our department. He wanted to understand what we do. Then he asked if his toys could be used to help children, who might not receive a gift otherwise, have a good birthday.

There are two times a year when parents really anguish over not being able to purchase something special for their child. The first is Christmas and there are a number of programs that try to assist with that need. The second time is birthdays. There are few programs that can help here. We try to set aside a few items but it's a pitiful small number.

We have a limited birthday program. There is a nearby school that makes up birthday bags for us. They include a cake and frosting and decorations and candles. They also usually have a few coloring books and crayons and such. We seldom have other items for parents to select.

Thanks to Damon's generousity, we have a whole box of new gifts that parents of younger children can select from now.

The most powerful examples come from our children.