The Nation and TalkPoverty

The Nation is the oldest weekly political magazine in the United States. We were founded by abolitionists in 1865 and, spurred by that noble cause, we’ve committed ourselves to giving voice to underserved, and often ignored (and maligned and marginalized) members of society. We’re a reporter’s notebook and an activist’s bullhorn; naturally, poverty coverage is in our DNA.

In April 1929, six months before the Crash, Paul Blanshard reported from Greenville, S.C., letting millworker Gladys Caldwell (a pseudonym) explain to readers how she keeps her family alive in “How to Live on Forty-six Cents a Day.”

While running for Governor of California in September 1934, Upton Sinclair wrote “End Poverty in Civilization,” urging Nation readers to support his West Coast crusade.

And in “Poor, Proud, and Primitive,” from May 1959—several years before the region’s plight became a national issue—Harry W. Ernst and Charles H. Drake visited West Virginia’s coal country, discovering, “in this sweet land of liberty… the shaggy, shoeless children of the unwanted—the ‘hillbilly’ coal miners who have been displaced by machines and largely left to rot on surplus government food and the small doles of a half-hearted welfare state.”

We’re proud that, in keeping with this tradition, we worked with Greg Kaufmann in late 2011—when coverage in much of the media was sorely lacking—to develop This Week in Poverty, a weekly blog designed to keep the issue front and center for our readers. “We Can Reduce Poverty,” Kaufmann declared in his first entry, a hopeful note on which to begin his exploration of failed policy, public indifference, and political ineptitude. We were determined to examine poverty, and to make sure that the voices of low-income people themselves were represented.

It was also important for us to show readers how to get involved. “It’s time to stop bemoaning ‘the lack of political will’ to take on poverty and focus on what we are doing to create that political will,” Greg wrote last October. “[T]here will be no significant change without a truly broad-based movement….” In last year’s post on the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, Greg explained how the CIW had indeed created that political will: Its Campaign for Fair Food “forg[ed] an alliance between consumers and farmworkers” and drew non-activists (that is, anyone who shopped for food and vegetables) into the fight against illegal employment practices (including rampant sexual harassment) and criminally low wages (including involuntary servitude).

Turning on the bullhorn, Greg included at the end of his This Week in Poverty posts a digest that comprised ways to get involved (“Tell Wendy’s to join the Fair Food Program”); clips and other resources (“This map shows where the world’s 30 million slaves live. There are 60,000 in the U.S.”); and vital statistics (“Poverty-level wages, 2011: 28 percent of workers”). This Week in Poverty represented some of the best examples of The Nation’s mission of bringing reportorial attention to issues while also drawing attention to solutions; of highlighting individuals working to alleviate or end poverty; propagating new and creative initiatives; and celebrating those sweet victories when values and change align.

Greg’s effort to push poverty into the 2012 presidential campaign included a series called #TalkPoverty. “Thirteen Questions for the First Presidential Debate” was a real highlight. Not only did it garner a response from the Obama campaign, but #TalkPoverty also took off on Twitter, where it still thrives today. We were thrilled when the Half in Ten campaign and its activists used #TalkPoverty to push their own questions at debate moderators and built a social media campaign around it.

Although I have mixed feelings about Greg’s decision to be a full-time activist instead of a full-time reporter, I am excited for this new project. (I am also pleased he will continue to write a monthly column for TheNation.com, beginning in June.)

I believe TalkPoverty.org will succeed in bringing to the forefront important voices in the fight against poverty. I have always believed that many of the solutions to poverty are found by the people who have worked on this issue for years in virtual anonymity, and also in the experiences of people struggling in poverty themselves. While media coverage of poverty has improved since we launched This Week in Poverty, there still needs to be much, much more. I hope TalkPoverty.org will be a resource for reporters who are looking for stories, and I wish it success. The Nation and I look forward to supporting this important and exciting effort.



A New Tool to Address Hunger in High-Poverty Communities

The 50th anniversary of President Johnson’s War on Poverty has helped bring renewed public attention to poverty, opportunity, and the safety net.  Debates over potential new initiatives in these areas should take account of the accomplishments of existing programs like SNAP (formerly food stamps), the Earned Income Tax Credit, Medicaid, and the school breakfast and lunch programs.  And, the school meals programs have an important new tool — community eligibility — that can make them even more effective in reducing hunger in high-poverty communities.  But eligible schools must act by June 30 to take advantage of this opportunity.

I’ve worked on the school meals programs for over 35 years, starting when I was in charge of the federal food assistance programs in the Agriculture Department during the Carter Administration.  They have long served a vital role and have continued to improve over the years with healthier meals and greater efficiency.

Under community eligibility, schools in which at least 40 percent of students are eligible for free school meals automatically, without submitting an application, can serve free meals to all students.  Students are approved without an application if they have been identified by another program (such as SNAP) as being low-income, or if they are at risk of hunger (for example, because they are homeless).

The option has been phasing in since 2011, and now, for the first time, will become available nationwide for the 2014-2015 school year.  The lists of eligible schools in all states are available here.  But schools have only until June 30 to opt in, so school districts need to move quickly to embrace this opportunity.

Community eligibility has led to a striking increase in the number of children in high-poverty areas eating school breakfast and lunch.  In schools in Illinois, Kentucky, and Michigan that have used the option for two years, lunch participation rose by 13 percent and breakfast participation rose by 25 percent, with 29,000 more low-income children eating breakfast daily.

This model of connecting low-income children to assistance is effective for several reasons:

  • It’s targeted.  School meals have always been available free of charge to low-income children, but community eligibility expands the school meals programs’ reach in communities with high concentrations of poverty.  Over 80 percent of the students participating in community eligibility schools in its first two years had been approved for free or reduced-price meals the prior year.
  • It’s administratively simple.  Community eligibility not only connects more low-income children to nutritious food, but also cuts red tape.  Families don’t have to complete applications or provide information on their income, and schools don’t have to process those applications or have a cashier figure out whether to provide a free or reduced-price meal every time a child goes through the lunch line.  A related benefit is that students can eat in the cafeteria without worrying about any stigma from receiving a free meal. Moreover, schools that have adopted community eligibility report administrative savings from streamlining their meals programs.  Those savings, combined with the drop in per-meal costs when more children eat, help to cover the costs of providing meals to more students.
  • It promotes opportunity.  Eating breakfast and lunch helps children start the school day ready to learn and remain focused throughout the day.  Schools that have taken steps to increase school breakfast participation, for example, report that discipline referrals and behavior problems went down and student attentiveness and attendance went up.

The national debate on poverty will continue, but let’s take this practical next step right now:  encourage the schools and districts in your state that are eligible for community eligibility to take the option.

Connecting low-income children to good nutrition to help them grow, learn, and thrive is something we all ought to be able to agree on.



A Just State, Not a Welfare State

This past November, Pope Francis wrote, “Growth in justice requires more than economic growth, while presupposing such growth: it requires decisions, programs, mechanisms and processes specifically geared to a better distribution of income, the creation of sources of employment and an integral promotion of the poor which goes beyond a simple welfare mentality” (Joy in the Gospel, par. 204) In Detroit, at the end of February 2014, I saw this challenge embodied in people striving to create a more inclusive economy.

At Mercy Education Project for women and girls, Sharon talked to me about her secret: she had never told her husband or three daughters that she never graduated from high school. She fought through mental illness and worked hard to keep her family together, but she could not compete in an economy without a GED.

Sharon had a nightshift job, but could not advance unless she had a graduation certificate. It was her reading that was tripping her up. She had a learning disability and never learned how to compensate for it. As a result, she had come to dread school and the failure she associated with it.

Because of the needs of her family, Sharon came to Mercy Education and discovered that she was very capable. She entered Mercy’s welcoming community, improved her reading and math skills, and earned her GED.

The next day Sharon went to her employer with her diploma in hand and he said, “Today is your lucky day!” Just that morning, a worker had left so there was an opening on the day shift. Sharon moved into that new position with increased pay. All of her hard work was beneficial for herself, her family and her employer.

On the other side of Detroit I met Kristine, whose flashing eyes and ready smile are a magnetic attraction for anyone who walks within ten feet of her. She wrestled with dyslexia all of her life.  Although her mom was a champion for her needs, it wasn’t until she was an adult and went to the Dominican Literacy Center that she received the individualized attention that she needed. At the Center, she learned how to compensate for her disability.

With her new skills and engaging personality Kristine became a part-time mentor at the Center. This eventually led to a full-time position. She is now truly at the heart of the mentoring program, encouraging and supporting other adults as they strive to gain essential skills.

Marcella, for example, came for tutoring and said she didn’t talk to anyone until Kristine talked with her. Then she began to share her story and her struggles with reading and math. The tutoring made all of the difference for Marcella as she gained confidence in her skills. She became a mentor to adults who were new to the Center. Marcella is now proficient with computers, has enrolled in a QuickBooks programing project, and continues to serve as an individual mentor. She delights that she is now “giving back” to others.

Another woman at the Dominican Center, Elizabeth, also said that Kristine helped her as she struggled to stay off drugs and learn to read. Kristine encouraged her to create a flyer for a cleaning business that Elizabeth wanted to start. Because of that flyer, Elizabeth is now employed and celebrating her steps into the labor force. Elizabeth and her employer take pride in Elizabeth’s personal growth and the contribution she is making to the business with her improved reading and math skills.

Finally, Antonio told me that Kristine was the person who encouraged him to first come to the Center. He had always been a good kid in school, but was extremely shy and afraid to speak up when he didn’t understand what was going on, and he could not read. He got passed along from grade to grade but had severe dyslexia. Although he received his high school diploma he had been afraid to tell anyone about his struggles. Because of Dominican, Antonio now spoke to me with confidence about how much he had learned and where he was headed.

The Mercy Education Program and Dominican Center—both started and sponsored by Catholic Sisters—are geared to addressing income disparities in our nation. Through individual tutoring and small classes they are making a difference as adults wrestle with lifelong limitations. But what is often missed is that they both use some government funding to pay for their programs. They combine government money with donations, grants and volunteers—a public-private partnership that is making change happen. But it is only one step in many that are necessary to change the face of poverty in our society.

We need more centers, not fewer. We need more employment, not less. We need better wages so that work does pay. We need to restructure some of our educational programs so that students do not get lost or discouraged. All of the people I met in Detroit were invested in making a difference in their city. They were not seeking a “welfare state” – they were looking for a “just state,” and they are well on their way to making something new in their city.

Pope Francis is right. We are all needed to further the quest for the common good. That is what is happening in parts of Detroit. May it be realized in our entire nation.



First Person

My Poverty, My Trauma

I have lived in Philadelphia, in poverty, for most of my life. I remember the smell of mold and mildew. I would watch as my most valuable possessions were destroyed by them. The smell of decay was all around me. I remember being cold and being in houses with no heat or hot water. My stepfather would use gray duct tape to wrap around the cords of the heaters when they burned out, so we could keep using it. Yes, it was a fire hazard, but who cared – the heater was keeping us warm. On occasion you would hear a sizzle and a pop from the heater.  Despite our efforts we were still cold.

My scars run long and deep – they will always be there. The long lasting effects of trauma stick with you.

We never had a working kitchen. My mom would cook food at her parents’ house and then we would take the food back to wherever we were staying at that moment. Most of the places we lived in had no running water and were very unsanitary. We would also go to my grandparents’ house to take baths and we got used to defecating in shoe boxes, putting it in plastic bags, getting on the bus and just throwing it out the window into a lot or something. People who are raised like this simply pass it on down the line. And you grow up thinking that it is ok to live like this.

As for food, we didn’t starve.  But we were hungry.  We ate whatever we could afford.  This is where the past affects the present. Today I’m somewhat of a food hoarder – I’m afraid of not having enough food for my family and me. I know what it feels like to be hungry but not have the food that you need or want. I have to constantly remind myself that I no longer live that way. But it’s the only way I’ve ever known. I don’t take showers, only baths, because I’m not used to it. If I do get cold or hungry I have learned how to deal with it. It’s like when you are being raped and you go out of your body to survive. That’s what it’s like when you are born into hunger and into a dirty, unhealthy environment.  This kind of living goes back in time, too.  If your parental figure is used to living that way, it’s likely because their childhood was the same way. You are stripped of your dignity. You are ashamed. Your soul feels like a bottomless pit. You feel less than human. The hell that I know came from the environment that I was born into. Now I am in my thirties, and I’m still haunted by the trauma and food insecurity.

My scars run long and deep – they will always be there. The long lasting effects of trauma stick with you. But I refuse to let my past dictate my future. My memories keep me humble. I’m shaped not by the commonly accepted “fact” that since I grew up in poverty I have to live in poverty now. Instead, I’m shaped by the idea that while you can’t change the past, you can change the future.

When I go into a market and see and smell food I feel bliss. It’s like I just won the lottery. To know that I can buy a steak if I want to or some seafood is a very priceless feeling. To be able to run hot and cold water is a blessing.

Today I am far from my childhood of mold, cold, and hunger. But even though I’ve healed so much and don’t have to live that way anymore, the effects of early poverty and trauma are still a part of my being. They shape me into the woman I am today. A woman who is motivated, and works hard to make sure that her daughter will have more opportunities than she had growing up. I take what I saw and experienced as a child, and use that to drive me to be a better person for myself, for my family, and for others who live through the trauma of poverty.



First Person

It’s Time to #VOTEFOOD

I’m a chef, a food activist, an avid eater, and a healthy-cooking parent, though most people know me from my role as head judge on Bravo’s Top Chef. All of the above warrant my inclusion in what is known as the Food Movement.

So you may be surprised to learn that lately I’ve been asking myself this question:

Is there actually a Food Movement?

25 years ago, as a fledgling chef, I didn’t ask these sorts of questions. I started purchasing fresh food for my restaurant from farmer’s markets because it tasted better. Back then I could actually back my truck up into the market at Union Square and load up on root vegetables and fresh herbs from Guy Jones and the other early farmers who sold vegetables there.  I was buying local and organic — not because I was concerned about the environment or farm workers — but because it simply tasted better and my goal at the time was to be the best chef I could be. It was higher quality food, period.

Around the same time, I was invited to cook at a Share Our Strength Taste of the Nation Fundraiser. I was happy to support SOS’s mission to combat hunger, but frankly, I agreed because it meant I was invited to cook alongside the country’s most elite chefs that night, and I was flattered to be included.

The truth is that the great work of charities is being undermined by really bad policy, and until we face that truth, we’re deluding ourselves.

What I learned that evening really made me start to think about hunger in this country.  At the same time, issues pertaining to our food supply and our fisheries became more important to me and I educated myself about them too, with the dawning understanding that my success as a chef rested on the viability of the ingredients at my disposal.

Around this time I started to feel uneasy about the great schism between the variety and quality of what I could offer my guests at restaurants, and the food available to millions of other Americans for whom a meal at Craft or Colicchio & Sons was not an option.  As a chef, it’s my job to feed people, and given my own humble roots, it didn’t feel right to only feed the luckiest few. That was the impulse behind ‘wichcraft – I wanted to offer great, high quality food at a more democratic price point. But that wasn’t enough to quiet my growing discomfort. A $10 artisanal sandwich wasn’t the answer to unequal food access.

Over the years I continued to cook for any group that was tackling hunger. I saw my role as a fundraiser, plain and simple.  When asked, I also lent my voice to groups who were pushing for more sustainable ways of farming the land, and to environmental groups bent on protecting our food and fisheries.

Then, about six years ago, my wife Lori began working on a movie that examined our nation’s hunger crisis.  She was determined to ask some hard questions about how the world’s wealthiest nation could have a massive hunger crisis – a crisis virtually unknown in other wealthy, developed nations.

Making A Place at the Table changed my thinking radically, because I learned a remarkable truth: hunger in the U.S. is solvable. We actually can end it, if we resolve to look honestly and critically at the policies that contribute to the issue.  Other nations have done that, and they are not faced with the same hunger crisis. We, on the other hand, comfort ourselves with charitable work that barely makes a dent in the problem. I was so used to raising money, I thought the answer was food banking. Food banks do really excellent, needed work, but they’re not getting us any closer to ending hunger.

To put it in perspective: The most successful fundraising gala I’ve ever attended raised $2 million dollars to support the food banks of New York City. Earlier this year, Congress voted to slash $8.8 BILLION dollars from SNAP. To make up for $8.8 billion dollars in cuts to food for hungry people, we would need to replicate the success of that fundraiser every single night.  For the next 12 years.

The truth is that the great work of charities is being undermined by really bad policy, and until we face that truth, we’re deluding ourselves. If bad policies — like cruel cuts to food stamps or a minimum wage so low that working people can’t afford food — are creating the problem, then it will take good policies to fix them.  And where do policies get written, decided and voted on? Washington, DC.

Marion Nestle once described a meeting she had on Capitol Hill where she used the term “The Food Movement.” The Congressman chuckled and said, “The food movement? What food movement?” As he saw it there was no food movement because Congress wasn’t hearing from them and they weren’t voting people in and out of office on the basis of these values.

Plain and simple, his point was: you might think you’re a movement, but if you’re not getting anyone elected, then your issues don’t matter here. Sorry.

So far, the food movement has been no match for the food industry, especially on Election Day. And, that’s why so many of our food policies benefit industrial agriculture and giant food processors at the expense of struggling families.

Unfortunately, the Americans most affected by policies that lead to hunger haven’t been able to move the needle on influencing our leaders for obvious reasons – when you’re struggling just to get enough food together for your kids each day, you’re unlikely to be able to focus on organizing a political movement.

For years now, food advocates and hunger advocates have been in silos – so focused on making modest gains that many times we are faced with bargaining between good food policy and reducing hunger.

The key to our success is impossible to ignore – we have to get out of our silos and work together as a political movement.  When that starts to happen, we won’t be in the kind of situation we were in during this last Farm Bill debate, which split people who care about hunger from people who care about healthy diets and organic farmers. We all share the same food values, but we were too divided to deliver the food system Americans overwhelmingly want.

That’s why I worked with food leaders from across the country to help create Food Policy Action.  Finally, we are uniting food leaders from across the country, and are holding legislators accountable. We can see whether or not they share our values. Because that’s what this is about. This is about creating a system that works for everyone. It’s about more than just food: it’s about justice.
Every year, Food Policy Action issues a scorecard that tracks how legislators are voting on the issues we all care about, issues like hunger, nutrition, food access, food and farm workers, food safety, local food and farming, animal welfare, and reforming farm subsidies.

This kind of accountability is crucial to our ability – as a movement – to promote the policies that will change the way we eat and how our food is grown.  Right now, we have a Gun Rights Movement that votes expressly on Second Amendment Rights.  We have a Pro-Life movement that votes entirely based on Reproductive Rights. It’s time we have a Food Movement that votes on a good fair food system for all.

Now is the time for us to band together with people working on all food issues to make food matter in elections. We can work together to introduce tax incentives that promote the right kind of behavior from industry. We can raise Americans’ awareness of how their leaders are voting on issues that directly impact the quality and availability of their food. We can call out our leaders who show disdain for American eaters by voting for bad food policies and force them to defend those votes in primaries, talk to SNAP recipients, and stare down the 17 million kids who routinely go hungry through no fault of their own.  We can start to vote for good food not with our dollars, but with our votes.

As soon as one legislator loses their job over the way they vote on food issues, it will send a clear message to Congress: We are organized. We’re strong.  Yes, we have a food movement, and it’s coming for you.

Join me, #VOTEFOOD.