Yesterday I attended a meeting with the Western Massachusetts Food Bank and other members of the local faith community. Our local food pantries have been struggling to keep up with the increasing number of people who come seeking food. Overall, we have a shortfall in food supplies.
The meeting, though, was valuable because we got to understand the situation the food bank faces and they got to hear our challenges. We also received some guidance on other programs such as one for schools whereby a school having a high percentage of students on free and reduced lunch can apply for a blanket allocation so all students can get a free meal, which reduces some of the stigma of free and reduced meals.
We have a pretty extensive food network in our area. One church produces thousands of pounds of produce to put into our food distribution system so people using our pantries can get fresh produce. We also have several smaller gardens that get their produce to the local pantries.
Even though we live in a fairly rural part of the state, we have an infrastructure problem getting food from farm to table. We need a commercial kitchen which will process raw food into food so it will have more longevity. An example would be making June strawberries into jam so they can provide revenue well past the growing season. We also need a USDA approved abattoir. Currently farmers must book slots months in advance and transport their livestock a couple of hundred miles for slaughter.
Though addressing the infrastructure impediment will enhance our local agriculture, it probably won’t change the dynamics around local food insecurity. Food insecurity comes about for many reasons including low income, lack of transportation, and high housing costs.
I listened. I couldn’t help saying finally, “What’s happening is that we’ve accepted begging as a way to address food insecurity.”
Today it seems so normal to have food pantries and public suppers to help people who are food insecure. Many churches collect food weekly to fill food pantries. Food drives to fill pantries have become a regular activity within our communities. On Monday Pittsfield will have its third annual Thanksgiving turkey dinner giveaway. (The organizers plan to distribute 1200 turkeys with all the dinner side dishes, including dessert.)
These activities we see as doing something good. It makes us feel good because we’re helping people who don’t have food. We’ll even congratulate ourselves when we give away or collect lots of food. Something has changed in us that we make ourselves feel good for this work.
In reality we should feel angry. Government policy could be more effective to raise incomes for the people on the lowest rungs of the economic ladder. Benefits could be more generous. Instead by donating to food pantries, holding food drives, and serving public suppers we let government policy makers off the hook. They don’t see this and if they do, then they have no shame.
We are the wealthiest nation in the history of the world. We produce more food than any nation in the world. That we have food insecurity in a nation awash in so much food and wealth is hard to imagine. Even worse, however, we accept begging as a way to address food insecurity. This is absolutely wrong. It is not just shameful, it is our collective sin.
And we’re stuck. Since that meeting I’ve thought that maybe we should close down our food pantries and stop serving public suppers. Let anger build so people will take it to the streets, but the anger will probably not be directed at the political leadership. The faith community will feel its brunt.
So, we’re stuck working hard to feed people who don’t have resources to feed themselves. That is so time-consuming that we don’t have time do the advocacy and research necessary for systemic change.
I wish I could have more confidence in our political process.