Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Different, but the same!

Some reflections from Gloria...

As most of you now, I worked in the food policy and anti-hunger field for the last thirty years in the Hartford, Connecticut area.  I'm marking my one-year anniversary at GardenShare in a few more days.  This anniversary has caused some reflection on  my experiences in this work over the years and what is different or similar about doing the work in St. Lawrence County rather than a more urban-suburban setting.

Last fall, while still in Connecticut, but after announcing my planned departure, I started the learning curve about the situation in St. Lawrence County.  And as I shared what I was learning with friends, coworkers, and community members in Hartford, they were astounded.  20% poverty rate in St. Lawrence County.  The only County with a significantly higher poverty rate is Bronx County.  And more than half of the children in the County qualify for a free lunch in school.  The City of Hartford has similar rates of poverty, but Hartford County and the State of Connecticut certainly do not!  So, in some ways the same, but in some ways different.

Some other thoughts on what's the same and what's different...

Transportation and access to large grocery stores - In Connecticut, the poorest urban neighborhoods tended not to have any supermarkets, forcing people to either shop in the higher price convenience stores, take a bus to the store (challenging to get home on the bus with groceries) or use some of their grocery money for taxis.  On returning to St. Lawrence County, where the access issue is the opposite - the larger villages have supermarkets, but people in outlying areas may have a challenge - I was pleased to see how the public transit with the NYSARC bus system has improved the situation.  But getting to the store for people without a car can still be a challenge.  I've also noted a difference in the convenience stores here compared to the city, in that those stores here tend to have more selection and some healthier choices, including some produce.

Programs to help children - In Connecticut, we were working hard to ensure that all children who were eligible received a free breakfast at school and a free lunch during the summer.  While we had made progress, when I left that state,  only 47% of the kids eligible for a free breakfast at school were actually getting that breakfast and only 25% of them were getting a meal in the summer.  These programs are even harder to run in remote and rural places like St. Lawrence County and our situation looks worse.   Only 41% of the children in the county who are eligible for it receive a free breakfast at school and only 13% of those eligible receive a meal in the summer.

Working poor - Data about families who have income above the limits for programs like SNAP and free school meals but are still food insecure tells us that this is a bigger problem in Connecticut, with 50% of the food insecure families in this situation.  In St. Lawrence County, 34% of our food insecure household have incomes too high for public assistance.  This is primarily about the cost of living, which is very high in Connecticut, meaning a higher income is required to cover basic living expenses.  In either case, whether it's a third or a half of the households, it's a problem that people who are working cannot put food on the table and cannot get help to do so!

Strategies families use to get food - I've seen research for both the City of Hartford and for St. Lawrence County indicating that low-income families use more strategies to get food.  Most of us use two or three strategies - the grocery store, a restaurant, maybe we grow some of our own.  Low-income families will use strategies like dropping in on a friend hoping to get fed or visiting a soup kitchen or food pantry.  Some of the strategies I saw families using in Hartford are the same here and some are different.  While St. Lawrence County families frequently name hunting or foraging as ways to get food, there is little of either going on in Hartford!

Saying all of this reminds me so much of what I learned over the years and repeated over and over in my work in Hartford.

Hunger is a complex problem that will require a variety of strategies to find a solution.  Building bigger food pantries or opening more free will dinners won't solve the problem.  As a community, we need to  find a variety of ways to attack this problem.

GardenShare's part of the solution is about connecting local people in need with fresh, healthy, locally grown food.  By helping low-income families buy CSA shares and SNAP recipients use the farmers markets, we are making a difference.  I hope we can count on you to be there and part of the solution as we explore some other strategies to tackle the problem of hunger in our midst.