Monday, March 3, 2014

Groceries for Whoville

My column from the Vinton County Courier, 2/26/2014
I learned Monday morning that a district representative from U.S. Sen. Rob Portman's office would be available to constituents that afternoon at the Courthouse. No appointment necessary.
“I should go,” I thought to myself. “Nah, what difference would it really make?”
Then, as I often do, I thought of a Dr. Seuss story, “Horton Hears a Who.” What if the world was just needing one more voice to make a difference? What if it was me who was that tiniest Who in Whoville?
So I gathered my United Way director business cards and headed to the County Courthouse. After all, how can Sen. Portman represent me if I don’t speak up and tell him what’s on my mind?
And you probably know what’s on my mind, for it might also be on your mind. Groceries. Humble groceries. “Tomatoes, beets, beans, pumpkins, corn,” to quote Robert Frost.
Most of me assumed that Sen. Portman knew about the closure of our Super Valu grocery store; that it was the only store in our county; that his Vinton County constituents were worried; that food insecurity had entered our lives.
But did he? Previously, I had written emails to the Dollar General folks to encourage them to bring a Market concept store to our community. (Epic fail.) But I didn’t write to any of my legislators.
I arrived early, as is the Vinton County way. At first, I was the only person there as a constituent and took every advantage to buttonhole Senator Portman’s representative, Todd Shelton. We talked in the Commissioners’ chamber.
I told him of the United Way’s concerns for those we fund — food pantries overstressed, senior citizens unable to drive out of town for food and low income families without transportation.
I talked to him about the fact that our citizens would not be able to succeed and thrive if they were worried about food. But I also talked to him as a worried person who can’t make soup tonight because she forgot to get potatoes and it would take 90 minutes to get to the store and back and that would be bedtime.
I talked to him as someone worried about the value of her house. I talked to him as someone who has made a commitment to Vinton County as my home.
Mr. Shelton did have some useful suggestions. He said Sen. Portman’s office would contact the Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs in Athens to see if they could develop a business proposal that might attract a food store.
It's a good idea. But I countered with the need to have Vinton County voices in the process. Too often assistance to our region is like butter on cold toast — it just doesn’t sink in.
He countered with the idea that the Voinovich School would help us put together a working group (“stakeholders”) of Vinton County people to get the Center’s plan up and running.
He was nice. I was nice. That’s how it works.
I don’t mean to get political. I am just upset about lack of attention to this problem. I’m upset that I have been a part of the problem. I should be contacting every elected representative I can, from our local officials right up to the President.

I need to be making some noise. I might be that tiniest Who from Whoville. I invite you fellow Whovillians to join me.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Grocery Alternatives: Kroger's in Athens OH

You've probably heard the news by now: The only grocery store in the county I live in, Vinton County, Ohio, is closing.  Several years ago, I decided to buy all of my groceries at this local store, McArthur SuperValu. I felt that if people--meaning me--didn't support the store it would not survive. And now this has come to pass. I have been surprised by how disturbing the loss of my local store is to me.

For several years, I have not shopped for groceries anywhere else.  My choices were a bit restricted, but my needs for basic food and nutrition were met. I never went farther than a mile from my house for groceries. When gas prices went up, my friend Linda joined me in this decision. We shopped together almost every Saturday morning at the SuperValu. (I don't know why we always called it "the" SuperValu, but we did.)

Last Saturday, Linda and I were both hesitant to go for groceries at the SuperValu. What would it be like in there? Would we find what we needed? And, where would we go the next week? Where was my food going to come from?

The store was clean and bright. All merchandise was neatly fronted. But many of the shelves were bare. Almost all perishables were gone--no bread or meat at all. To see the meat cases shiny and empty was the biggest shock. It just looked wrong. The soon-to-be-unemployees put on brave faces. I held back tears the whole time I was in the store.

That evening, we decided to go over to Athens for a nice meal out. I know I felt like I needed something to lift my spirits. And, of course, we drove right past Kroger's. We yes-no-yessed about stopping in, and finally did. I was astounded. I felt like Dorothy stepping out of my shabby hovel into rich, colorful, sensory-overloaded Oz. The lighting was beautiful. The produce area stretched for miles, it seemed, looking more like a landscape than a storescape. My eyes didn't know how to focus on this wonderland.

My first thought was, "oh, this is where the rich people shop." So much opulence, such care in the presentation of the food and merchandise, and so much selection, infinite selection. Forty kinds of bread. Forty different brands of frozen pizza. A great wall of China of breakfast cereal. All beautiful. All so conveniently arranged. I ran into things (and people) with my cart...I couldn't take it all in.

It's always disorienting to go to a different grocery store. Products all seem to be in the wrong places. I backtrack to find stuff I missed. I soldier bravely through aisle after aisle looking valiantly for...well, in this case it was electrical tape. I braved this extravagant world for prosaic old electrical tape.

The absurdity of it all overwhelmed me. Is all this luxury necessary to the procurement of food? What part did the pampering of the patrons play in their affection for the store? Back home in McArthur, it was my affection for my friends and neighbors that made the SuperValu so attractive, not displays of wealth (food IS wealth). How many choices of cream cheese does one really need? And, does it really matter? If people want sun-dried tomato pesto cream cheese, why shouldn't they have it?

I felt I had strayed into another world, to another planet. And I had. I had somehow landed in middle class land, from which I had banished myself so many years ago. And now I'm back. Soon, I will be inured to the choices and style, the delectability. I will think this is normal. I will stop thinking there's something wrong with this system that leaves poor people foodless while others wallow in excess. I'll forget how privileged I am to have a reasonably OK income (from three jobs) and a functioning car and gas money to travel 30 miles to get groceries. I'll start going to the post office and farmer's market somewhere else.

A lot of the life is leaving my community with the SuperValu. My sadness is like background music of cello, low and profound. A small town is a fragile place, always threatening to shimmer out of existence, out of reality. Ghosts and shadows all that remain. I hope that whatever entity moves into SuperValu's building will help hold us together. But Oz beckons. No Auntie Em remains back here to lure me home.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Super Value Closes: Sad Farewell

The News. The news popped up on my Facebook feed at about 2:30 p.m. today--the grocery store in my county, Vinton County, Ohio, is closing its doors. Reactions and reactionaries weighed in on news reports and posts about the shuttering of Super Value. Anger. Hostility. Shock. Sadness. Bewilderment. Fear. Will another store open? What will happen to our community if we have to have a reliable car and gas money to go get bread and milk to avoid paying inflated prices at a convenience store? What will happen to our community if fresh fruit, meat, and vegetables are no longer available? If we go to another community for groceries, will we neglect other local services and institutions?

Food Desert. There's a concept in public health called the urban food desert. These are areas in cities that have no access to a traditional grocery store. In these areas, the poorest people end up paying a considerably higher proportion of their income for food than any other income group. They are left with convenience store prices and selections, paying a considerable health cost as well as taking the financial hit. Convenience store food tends toward the fatty, salty, and sugary. A pretty red apple may cost $2.50--the same price as four boxes of mac & cheese (one dessert versus four whole meals) for the same money. If you had a family to feed on limited funds, which would you choose? These are the facts of a food desert.

Profit Margin, Not Neighbor. Well, we are at risk of becoming our very own food desert. We've flocked to Walmart. Now it may be our only home. I have to say that if I was poor, I would move. I would move closer to a Walmart, frankly. That's where the food is, where it is massively subsidized by a hundred federal tax loopholes. Walmart and other big store chains care about your money, about the volume of customers they can process through a giant intestine of products. They will never care about you like Maryjane Ferguson and her employees have always cared about you. The clerk ringing you up at Walmart won't know your name and won't know that your mom is sick and that your sister just finished a semester at Rio Grande Community College. You are now a profit margin instead of a neighbor.

There are many other downsides to the closing of our local store. Several people are losing their jobs--and replacement jobs just don't exist around here. Property values will drop--would you happily move into a community with no grocery store? Poor people may have to depend more and more on institutions such as schools and food pantries for food.

Support Ferguson. I've been disturbed by Facebook posts that express anger and hostility at Ferguson for closing Super Value. Surely people have seen that the store is struggling to keep its shelves stocked, seen the efforts at new programs to bring customers into the store. Ferguson has been pouring her life's blood into the store to keep it going, especially since the bad storm in the summer of 2012 during which the store had no power and almost all of the inventory was lost.

Maryjane Ferguson is not a Walmart with massive financing and buying power behind her. She knows the impact of this closing and I know it is breaking her heart, as it breaks the hearts of all who know her and her family. Ferguson is just one woman who has been fighting valiantly against considerable odds. She's greeted each disastrous day with courage and an open heart. She's not responsible for a crappy economy, natural disasters, or the movement of local shoppers to a big box store.

I'm sure more news is yet to come. But I hope we remember how well Super Value has served our community, has been a meeting place, a caring place. Super Value is where you run into people from all parts of your life--people from work, from school, from church, from 4-H. We will never replace this.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Vinton County United Way Joins Chamber

A few weeks ago, I was assigned the task of signing up the United Way of Vinton County (UWVC) for membership in the Vinton County Chamber of Commerce.  The Chamber has a reputation for representing the best in our community—the best businesses, the best values, and the best attitudes—and the United Way is proud to participate.

One of the United Way’s goals for membership was to let more people know about our local United Way. We are small, but committed to sustaining the work of non-profits in our community. Recent recipients of funding include:

·         Shepherd’s House domestic violence shelter

·         Care Outreach food pantry

·         Truth food pantry

·         Sojourners Family Development foster care day camp

·         The American Red Cross of Athens County,  which serves Vinton County

·         Big Brothers/Big Sisters’ school mentoring program in Vinton County

·         Vinton County Senior Citizens

·         RSVP Vinton County activities

·         Last summer’s summer feeding program administered by Sojourners

UWVC’s board of directors is committed to investing its money in Vinton County. We keep our overhead costs low (we don’t even have a physical location), paying less than 3% of our earnings in administrative costs. Our income arrives, for the most part, from outside the county. UWVC’s main goal is to change the ratio of where the money comes from to reflect stronger support from the county for the county. Toward that end, we have successfully signed up many county employees and school employees to contribute through payroll deduction.
The decisions about who will receive the $18,000 in investments UWVC made this year involved many tough decisions for the board of directors. They received nine excellently prepared proposals and worked with thoughtful consideration.

The investment committee works with Maslow’s Hierarchy in mind. Maslow devised a pyramid of human needs, with the most basic needs—food, shelter, clothing, safety—on the bottom. He said that unless the needs at the bottom are met, a person (or community) cannot move up to the next level (which might include education, meaningful work, and so on). UWVC invests mostly in that bottom level of Maslow’s pyramid. Our people need food and shelter and safety—especially the youngest and oldest among us. When we funded school mentoring last year, we were aware that for the first time in a long time we were investing in a “next level up” activity.
If you are interested in the work of the United Way of Vinton County, please give me a call at 740-591-6279. I’d be glad to talk with you about our investment priorities, how to make a donation, or how to set up payroll deduction so your employees may contribute that way if they wish—at our suggested pledge level of $1.00 per week. A dollar at time is how we’ll make a difference.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Turkeys to the People

I'm a white meat eater. You?
As you read, note that a lot of people in our world are eating none of the items pictured here on this Thanksgiving Day, November 22, 2012. And note that the foods are in order leading off with my favorite and working my way down (through the heaped plate).

The car pulled up to the yellow line, engine rattling, blue exhaust puffing out of the tailpipe. The trunk is open, grubby but empty. In the driver's seat is an unshaven man with a cigarette in the hand that holds the steering wheel, belly peaking out of his 'Dew t-shirt. An old woman, at least 80, sits in the passenger seat. From her eyes you can tell that she cannot see. She is slouched in every regard--sagging shoulders, vacant face, uncombed gray hair, misbuttoned shirt--except for the hand that tensely holds her cigarette. Life for them has been tougher than I can imagine. Behind them, a line of cars stretches beyond my field of vision, snaking around many block of our tiny village.

Don't give me that jello-type stuff--I want
some crunch and snap in my cranberry
relish. And, Craig Graybill makes the
best relish--please UPS me some.
They (mother and son? neighbors?) are actually in a pretty good mood. They are in line for the drive-through food distribution at the local food pantry. They are about to get food, including their very own turkey. And they are in a good mood because the food pantry has a policy of treating each client as a valued customer, a welcome visitor, someone special. This is a special place on a special day; the food pantry on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving. Their yawning trunk will runneth over.

I worked the Thanksgiving distribution this year. I was passing out flyers for a jobs and education program for young adults in the community. I was going to stay for an hour...but it stretched into two and then two and a half hours. It became my privilege to greet and talk with the people in every car. As the director of an agency that invests in this food pantry (United Way of Vinton County), I was especially interested in meeting the recipients of the food. Who were these people? Were they gaming the system? Did they look needy enough?

I like the classic chunks of sweet potato with
brown sugar--marshmallows optional.
I opened this blog post with a description of the people you expect to see in a food pantry line...people who are ugly, disabled, smoking, in need of a handout. But I hope you see the pain that was in that car, too, and in every car that came through that day--about 400 cars in all in our impoverished community. Don't ever say to me that it's well-off moochers coming to the food pantry until you have spoken to the people in every car through the line.

I was especially interested in the food recipients because in the past year I heard comments from many people about the food "handouts" and about people who have "too nice of cars" to need food assistance; and fielded questions about how the recipients are screened to weed out "people who are just looking for a handout"; and heard one too many "why don't they get a job" statements.

Yum. Judy Graybill--are you eating them right now?
First, let me back up. Under hero-director David Graham and his hero-volunteers, our largest local pantry (Methodist CARE Outreach) has, yes, gone to a drive-thru system. The young people I work with at my day job (and the program for which I was handing out flyers) actually helped convert a large aluminum carport into a drive through lane (they helped install a giant ventilation fan). No one has to park, get out of his car, take a cart around to gather food items, then return to her car to unpack it all into the trunk or back end of a vehicle.The drive through line has speeded up the distribution of food, but it also means that "regular" citizens (of course getting no public assistance--medicare anyone? home mortgage tax deductions anyone? Pell grants anyone?) driving along the streets can see exactly what each car in the food distribution line looks like.

I always think of my Grandma Bessie
Dickerson when I eat yeast rolls. Thanks,
Robin, for carrying on the tradition.
Second, let me back up. Probably some people are scamming the system for food. So what? So we don't feed hungry people? I would rather feed 20 undeserving people than for even one needy person to miss getting food. It's food. It's not gold. I can't judge someone who is cadging food. I know from my upbringing that free food is very hard to resist. Even when I am not needy and not hungry, I feel like I should grab some and stash it somewhere. My brain overrides this impulse most of the time, but it comes out in weird ways, such as the monstrous-huge collection of free pens I have from trade shows and such. When I die, they'll find 3,000 pens stashed in coffee mugs all over my house. Just saying, I am not in a position to critique anyone's behavior.

Plus, it's not gourmet. Canned vegetables. The apples a bit too ugly for Giant Eagle's beauty contest. Off-brand cereal that was left on the shelves for good reason. Sometimes something odd, like a 12-pack of spearmint gum or a 20-ounce bottle of artificially flavored maple syrup. That's the high reward of stealing from the food system. Better to stake out cars at Krogers!

Wait--I want more Cool Whip!
"Well, if they can afford a Suburban, what are they doing getting a handout for food?"

Here's an answer. A lot of the people who qualify for the food distribution borrow a car. Or, a kind neighbor or family member drives them. Or, they share a car with other recipients. Or, a case worker, home health aid, or caregiver brings them. Regardless, each recipient has to show his or her card, which is verified by a volunteer. A colored strip is placed under the windshield wiper of each car to indicate how many allotments that car gets (a family of five gets more food than a person living alone, for example). Then the car proceeds through the drive-through's tunnel of food, where volunteers put the right amount of each item into the car. It's cool to watch--and, as I mentioned above, especially cool to see the respect and good cheer handed out with the food (I'm sure that adds to the food's nutritional value). If an allotment is two cans of corn, then a family with 5 allotments will get 10 cans of corn. That's how it works. By the time the car reaches the street, it is full and can motor off home.

Moist, sticky, bready, with oysters, from a box or
hand made--love my stuffing.
In addition, the cars may look good from the outside, but they are not running that well. The smell of gasoline and exhaust fumes indicated inefficiency. The windows don't go up and down anymore. The door is wired shut. Many cars had distinctive pings, rattles, rumbles, and ka-chunks. These were not great cars. I know. I was checking on that for you. The better cars were mostly those of volunteers taking people through the line.

Listen. The faces of people who need food have a type of strain to them that I learned to recognize when my day job started providing breakfast and lunch to participants. Hunger takes the humanity out of a human. You can't sing and be hungry. You can't learn and be hungry. It's hard to be courteous and be hungry. The general cheer of the recipients in the CARE food line is a tribute to each and every volunteer who helps to bring them food. They honor and dignify the suffering of each person as the food goes into the car.

Salad? You served salad? What were you


For most middle class and above people, the distribution of food to the poor happens outside our awareness. We don't see these people and sometimes we see them but invisibilize them. But, they are the least among us, as in "the least of these my brothers." Take a vacation day and volunteer at a food distribution in your community. You'll find out how it works, who gets food, who "those people" are. And I'm sure you'll be awed by the dedication of the people who serve regularly at the pantry. "Feed the hungry." It's a pretty clear message.


Do you know of any other food banks who do a drive-through? I'm only familiar with the ones here in the county. Please add a comment to this posting if you know of other innovative strategies for making the food distribution respectful and expeditious.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Easing the Pain of Poverty, Part 4

Reminder: This is the fourth in a series of blog posts about easing--not ending--poverty. What can we do to make life easier for poor people? I've let my mind roam on this topic, discussing it with others, sharpening my observation of life around me. So, here we go again.

Also, remember that I'm not at all concerned with implementation of these ideas, nor do I claim them as original. I'm just answering the question, "How can we make life easier for the poor?"

Free GED. It costs as much as $50 for people who earn the absolute lowest among income groups--people without a high school credential--to take a test. Them that have no pay must pay to play.

Why? Why do we place a barrier in front of people who have already been ill-served by middle-class oriented school systems, by the rootlessness of poverty (they move a lot), by the heinous mistake of getting pregnant, by lack of family or community support, or simply by one or two bad decisions made when they were young and, as the young so often are, stupid. Fifty dollars is a lot for a poor person to scrape together and feels more like a punishment than a fee.

Please note that I am dealing specifically with Ohio GED rules and practices. What's the policy in your state? Why don't you know?

The GED, or general equivalency diploma, serves as an alternative to high school (although people in high school are not generally permitted to take it). It signifies that you have learned a core knowledge somewhat equal to a high school diploma. The five parts of the Ohio GED are reading, writing, mathematics, social studies, and science. The Ohio test is being revised.

I propose that the GED be free. No ifs, ands, or buts. And that an online course of study be developed and offered free also. Society will be paid back a hundredfold by this investment in often highly-motivated people. Let's (right this instant) remove any and all barriers between needing a GED and getting a GED.

A note to schools: please do not denigrate the GED to your students--it makes them feel trapped and as though they will be branded a LOSER for the rest of their lives. The GED is well-received in college admissions offices and by employers and is harder to pass than high school standardized tests (and no accommodations are permitted).

The Free Fleet I propose a fleet of hybrid or electric Priuses, Civics, and/or made available to poor people. Gas pricies have hit poor communities hard. In some cases, gas costs more than a person actually earns. Local jobs are scarce, so to be employed you must drive (and drive...and drive). It's a tough expense for people with good jobs, but nearly impossible for the poor who are clustered in low-paying jobs. Financially, it's a toss-up--if you work, you have no money and if you don't work, you have no money. In many cases, it doesn't make sense to work.

I don't believe that being poor and being lazy go together. To outsiders, though, I'm sure it looks that way. I regret that. When I see people lined up to get into federal jobs programs, people calling me to see if I've heard of anybody hiring, adults in their mid-twenties calling to see if they can get back into a jobs program for youth--when I see these, I know that the people in my community are not lazy (not lazy disproportionate to any other group of people). However, even the programs I know often require driving--having a car, having a functional car, having a driver's license, having gas money. I'm not even suggesting auto insurance here.

A fleet of small cars with high gas mileage would allow people to get to where the jobs are and to begin to drive out of the deep hole they're in. I know that lots of programs are working on this and lots of ideas are being floated. How about this: If you get a job, we'll get you a car, a decent car with a good repairs record. You can keep it as long as you keep working. That's it.

Environmentally, it would be cool to try out a fleet of electric or hybrid cars in a defined opportunity zone, such as McArthur, Ohio, to Chillicothe, Ohio, or McArthur to Jackson, Ohio. Plug-in stations would be easy enough to install. And with our focus on tourism and natural beauty, efficient cars would make sense. Car pooling would also be great, but I don't see why we should expect the poor to be more virtuous than the rest of us individual car owners who travel 90% of the time without passengers. It's the American way.

Is this pie in the sky thinking? Yes. Would this be difficult? Only if we make it difficult. Why should we care? All I can say is that I care. Poor people are not abstractions to me--they are my neighbors, friends. They love, they mourn. They are trapped. I care. I don't believe we can write anyone off as useless. I am so fortunate. I have been directed in my life to the golden crossroad where good luck and good preparation intersect. I'm lucky, and I was well-educated by luck. It wasn't my superior efforts toward achievement that kept me out of poverty. The Christian tradition (and most other religious traditions) says to tend to the sick, the poor, the grieving, the prisoners, to demonstrate a loving kindness. My job right now seems to be writing about poverty.

I had to call people the other day to tell them they did not have jobs. The flatness in their voices, the long pause before they acknowledged the news...those were people I cared about, many I knew. I'd like to give them each a Prius. A shiny red one. With a full tank of gas.