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Could Not Afford Balanced Meal

I am a little embarrassed to admit this. Here it goes. I came late to the term Food Insecurity. This term is so ubiquitous now in the light of the tragic consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic. Every day, reports about food insecurity are rolling off the presses and plastered everywhere, shocking us into disbelief as we equate it with images of endless lines of cars and people awaiting offerings of food donations.

While the experience of lack of food is not new, and though the immensity of the problem came on with a vengeance, we seem to assume that the linking of the words food and insecurity has long been used and understood among the general populace. But has it? And, if so, while I may lag behind on new trendy words like ‘cancel culture’, how did I miss ‘food insecurity’?

Percentage of households reporting indicators of adult food insecurity in 2019
Indicators of Adult Food Insecurity–2019 USDA

Just so we are all on the same page here, the definition of food insecurity has many variations, the first of which appeared in 1990. These include the lack of consistent access to sufficient food for an active healthy life; a lack of available financial resources for food at the household level; a lack of access by all household members at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life, which includes as a minimum the ready availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods; and, assured ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways (without resorting to emergency food supplies, scavenging, stealing, or other coping strategies); and the state of being without reliable access to a sufficient quantity of nutritious food. Each meaning contains some complexity, and while similar, the nuanced differences may be significant.

The term was appropriated by the US Department of Agriculture, (USDA) in 1995 when it began collecting data in its attempt to capture the number of food insecure households and the extent of hunger in the nation. In its ensuing efforts to refine its findings, the USDA established two sub-categories: Low food security–the reduced quality, variety, or desirability of diet with little or no indication of reduced food intake; and, Very low food security–multiple indications of disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake. (See chart.) (Hmm, should ‘Gained weight’ also be listed?)

However one wishes to slice it, it is not pretty. In 2018, an estimated 1 in 9 Americans were food insecure, equating to over 37 million Americans, including more than 11 million children.[1] It is a lot worse now. Feeding America, the nation’s largest hunger-relief organization, tracks this data, with information on current impacts documented here.

As a Nutritionist who has concerned herself with helping to adequately and appropriately feed people for four decades, not only should I have been hip to the term sooner, I should have been way ahead of the curve–like one of the first to know. In 1995, I was working for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (or WIC) administered by the USDA. Clearly, I missed the memo of what they were up to–and likewise the nascent term–food insecurity.

My own ignorance came to stare at me with incredulity when in late 2018 my work found me supporting recipients of FINI Program Grants. I understood the program, and it was easy to employ another acronym, but I would hesitate each time I had to recall what FINI stood for. FINI was shorthand for the Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive Program. FINI Grants were established and written into the 2014 Farm Bill to ‘incentivize’ the purchase of fruits and vegetables by Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (or SNAP) recipients.

In 2019, just as I cemented the name of the program into my prefrontal cortex, FINI was changed to the Gus Schumacher Nutrition Incentive Program (or GusNIP). It was renamed in memory of the former Undersecretary of Agriculture who was instrumental in implementing early models of expanding produce purchasing power for low-income consumers and advancing the legislation that authorized the Farm Bill funding. The newly anointed GusNIP retained the nutrition incentive part of its identity but snipped away the food insecurity part. I appreciate the intention of the program and have championed its cause and the grantees who lovingly administer it, but I do take issue with the use of the word ‘incentive’. I’d prefer ‘nutrition support’.

I also came to learn during this time that there was a USDA Food Insecurity Screening Tool or Survey Module too. The original version contained 18 questions but has since had different iterations with variations of ten, six and down to the Hunger Vital Sign’s validated two questions which are:

“Within the past 12 months, we worried whether our food would run out before we had money to buy more.”

“Within the past 12 months, the food we bought just didn’t last and we didn’t have money to get more.” 

Yikes, how did I miss that? Though I find the statement phrasings and category listings a bit odd, I see that it is useful. It can be used for data collection and to identify individuals in need of resources. But why had it taken me so long, just a mere year or two before the pandemic flashed Food Insecurity before us all like a neon sign, to find familiarity with these terms and associated tools? Was insecurity something I applied only to myself while everyone else was knowingly and casually tossing the word around with food? What had I been doing with my many hundreds of clients to figure out what I needed to know to help them?

To make sure I hadn’t just forgotten, I searched all of my 125 blog posts. Before 2018, I had used the term twice. I am pretty sure that means that a year ago when I did a big blog cleanup, I inserted it to make it appear that I was appropriately informed back then. But, this has made me really stop to wonder, how I had functioned without the use of the term and the screening tool.

The answer may be relatively simple. When working in low-income communities, there was not usually much for me to discern in the way of food insecurity–it was the norm–and I generally could identify both levels. While I wasn’t using the USDA’s terms and tools, I had the privilege of time to sit with my clients and to have real conversations about the intimate details of their feeding lives. Sometimes, I employed my own screening tools but the stories I heard informed me of so much more.

Even so, I know some details of my clients’ circumstances did slip through the cracks. I have discussed my limitations here. However, I think my assessments were usually near the mark, but it is tricky. There is not much room for assumptions when guiding anyone’s nutrition path. The space between peanut butter and almond butter is wide and chunky for even those who are food secure. I do feel bad about the time I recommended wild rice to a man who later expressed to me his dismay in regard to its cost. However, that misstep highlights a distinction between prevention and repair in terms of what is required for nourishment. And, it marks how the differences mentioned above in defining food insecurity in relation to just ‘food’ in contrast to ‘nutritious food’ matter.

Also, if ‘active lifestyle’ means toiling to care for families, young children, elders, the ill or disabled–one’s own or other’s–or doing low wage service work or manual labor, then my food-insecure clients were quite active in spite of their food insecurity and waning health. Through it all, my office desk drawer was well stocked with referrals to every food and health support resource and program around–including some I created. And, yet my efforts could not surmount the magnitude of the underlying problems.

So then, what blanket terms was I using if I was not tucked under that of food insecurity? A whole bunch, including poverty, exhaustion, trauma, nutritional violence, food deserts, malnutrition, restrictive and confusing SNAP eligibility regulations and bureaucracy, social services system overload, toxic food culture, racism, exclusions for immigrants, disparities, inequality, high food costs, inadequate wages and a sad story to name a few. I guess I got by. Which might you use?

In closing, I share this telling by Jadon-Maurice Forbes, I Didn’t Drink Water At Dinner as a Poor, Black Kid. Start here. You may then be able to skip all the above. No, really. Please, read it.

Thank you for listening, sharing, following, and supporting my writing. Please subscribe in the sidebar to receive notice of new posts. Comments and greetings always welcome.

Be well. Take care. Stay safe. Let’s heal.

In health, Elyn

My Plate Haiku

Food bought did not last

Could not afford balanced meal

Food Insecurity

by 37 million Americans

isle of you

I describe a large part of my career as sitting in small rooms speaking with individuals about the intimate art of eating and self-nourishment. My geography was usually contained within a 10′ x 10′ space. However, the last few years have found me wandering about (albeit mainly, though not entirely, figuratively) in a larger and more vast landscape observing the radical movements taking place concerned also with matters related to eating and nourishment.

These movements are taking what was quiet and personal and are making them loud and public. They are serving to challenge the status quo that served to foster the nutrition and health quandaries and crises that have defined the past few decades. These are movements made up of people passionately determined to decry the depriving of access to real food, the poisoning of plants and people, the hunger of our children and seniors, and the seducing of the vulnerable with manipulative marketing. They assert through their efforts and missions that denying folk of their birthright of health is no longer ok.

Image result for mother teresa feeding the poor

This week I’ve been trying to decide how I might, in a timely manner, in the spirit of Valentine’s Day appropriately honor those whose work I have stumbled upon in my wanderings whose efforts have astounded me. I did so once, many years ago, in Who Do I Love. While flailing about in my decision-making process, one new food hero came to my attention. With that, my dilemma gently placed its hand on my heart. It said, “Just do it. Don’t delay. Just put this out there. Now.”

So here are a few of those Who I Love ‘Two’. There are many more organizations and individuals also doing what I call Random Acts of Crazy Love. This short list includes initiatives addressing food/nutritional insecurity, food injustice or apartheid, hunger, and health either started by just one person taking one huge step, that I have a personal connection to, are perhaps not well-known and/or have struck me with Cupid’s arrow. My brief descriptions do not them justice, therefore, please check them out to really see the deep work being done and where donations would be appreciated.

Keep Slauson FreshOlympia Auset shows up and commits. Frustrated by the lack of healthy food in South LA, and concerned about its inherent consequences, she sets up pop-up produce stands and delivery service for (organic) produce at different locations on different dates throughout the community. This is no small feat. Now in its third year, with more than 25,000 pounds of fresh produce sold, Olympia is working toward establishing a healthy market in the neighborhood.

Chilis on Wheels–In 2014, Michelle Carrera wanted to just do something to help her community. When on Thanksgiving Day she discovered that soup kitchens did not serve vegan meals, she made her own vegan chili and carted it through Union Square in NYC on a wagon. Seeing the response, she committed herself to prepare vegan food to serve those in need. Now, the organization’s chapters continue to do that, and, so much more.

I Love You Restaurant–Jaden Smith started a Vegan Food Truck serving the homeless free meals in Los Angeles.

The Market@25th–This is a full-service grocery store with a mission in a historically-rich but economically-ignored neighborhood in Richmond, Virginia. The community-focused store provides an opportunity for local food entrepreneurs, cultural connection, and nutrition, health, and other empowering educational programming.

First Fruits Farm — Jason Brown was the highest-paid Center in NFL history, but he walked away from a 35 million dollar contract with the St. Louis Rams to become a farmer. Spiritually inspired, he taught himself to farm and now grows and harvests over 100,000 pounds of vegetables in North Carolina to serve communities in need.

Champale Anderson— This St. Louis, Missouri woman prepares and distributes free sandwiches and snacks to hungry children in her neighborhood.

Civil Eats –Founded by Naomi Starkman, Civil Eats serves up daily online news and commentary about the American Food System. The content is quite comprehensive and the stories are compelling. It is where I often learn about these amazing folks and initiatives.

Mazon–A Jewish response to hunger through advocacy, education and strategic partnerships.

Comfort Food Community–Here are good folk doing big things in the small rural communities in Washington County, New York (not far from my home) to eliminate hunger and food insecurity, and building community through the power of food.

LEAP for Local Food, Produce Perks Midwest, Farm Fresh Rhode Island, Community Food and Agriculture Coalition–These are my friends at four state and region-wide organizations committed to improving the health of their communities and the strength of their local agricultural and food systems through policy and advocacy work and the growth of nutrition incentive programs facilitating healthy food access for low-income citizens.

And last but not least,

Feed The Mass–Jacobsen Valentine (yes!), founded this nonprofit cooking school in his hometown of Portland, Oregon providing affordable culinary education to address the culinary and health gap in his community. The low-cost and scholarship supported classes for adults and children focus on meals based on whole foods and made from scratch.

Well, that is it for now, though there are many more to mention. Whose work do you love? Please let me know.

Thank you for listening, sharing, following and supporting my writing. Please subscribe in the sidebar to receive notice of new posts. Comments and greetings always welcome.

Happy Valentine’s Day.

Isle of you, Elyn

Isle of You was the name of a little store in Ithaca, New York–where once upon a time I found my heart–high on a hill.

Related Posts: Love is Love, Nourish Thyself Well Day, Who Do I Love, Inventive Incentive

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Isle of You Necklace My Plate

My Plate Quote

I alone cannot change the world,

but I can cast a stone across the waters

to create many ripples.

by Mother Teresa

where has all the produce gone?

Perhaps it is due to the recent one year anniversary of the passing of Pete Seeger that has this title coming to mind–but this is something I have been thinking about for a while.

I have had a few experiences lately, where a brilliant idea of mine that I have kept gestating in some corner of my mind, waiting for just the right labor to bring forth, is birthed by someone else–and I read about it somewhere. I hate when that happens, especially as brilliance is not my forte and such ideas are few and far between. And, so now I must act quickly to share–and thus take credit–for these rare flashes of genius. 

As you may know, I have been swimming around in this primordial soup for many years–somewhat akin to, um, yes, let me see, ah yes, the great Soviet biologist Alexander Oparin–father of the primordial soup theory–seeking answers to some of life’s most pressing questions. While Mr. Oparin had been searching for the origin of life on Earth, I am anxious to find a solution to this little problem of sanely feeding the carbon-ignited populace of whom he divined the spark.

I was already concocting my own brilliant idea when a friend sent me this article, Can America Learn to Love Misshapen Veggies? by Elizabeth Segran. It is about the vision of Doug Rauch–the former president of Trader Joe’s– to create markets for oft misshapen produce and other food that might otherwise be headed prematurely and unnecessarily into the waste stream. Having seen the high degree of such waste and the exorbitant cost of such a loss while hunger is rampant in our country, he is experimenting with opening grocery stores that would sell such abandoned produce at low-cost in high-need neighborhoods. He seems to know a thing or two about the grocery business, and I am glad to learn of his concern and his efforts. Maybe he’ll like my idea–it is along the same lines.

You see, kind of like Sisyphus, I am among those dedicated to rolling a giant Hubbard squash up to the top of a mountain, only to have it roll back down again–ceaselessly repeating the effort. Sisyphus’ fate “as much through his passions as through his torture”–is similar to the plight of the modern-day nutritionist. “Eat your vegetables!”, we implore. “Three cups a day!” “Eat all the colors of the rainbow!” We beg, we cajole, we try to be cute. We strive mightily to bring the veggies to the people, but we can’t make them eat. (Horses, on the other hand, accept them rather well.) Undaunted, like Sisyphus, we perforce keep trying.

Albert Camus, in The Myth of Sisyphus, states that the gods had condemned Sisyphus to his labor, reasoning that there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labor. But, he continues, “If one believes Homer, Sisyphus was the wisest and most prudent of mortals.” Ah! My personal interpretation of the text provides some vindication for our insanity.

Vegetables can be daunting to buy, prepare and cook. They can be expensive. When they go bad they look quite sad. Certain vegetables require strong muscles, a good set of sharp knives, and a certain finesse to commandeer properly. As a food group they are complex and complicated, and many times a relationship with them must be carefully nurtured. Some challenge the taste buds with a propensity to be bitter or earthy. Plus, they often carry baggage from our collective childhoods.

But, they are so gooooood! And, rich in vitamins, minerals, fiber, Omega-3s, enzymes and phytonutrients to help our hearts, bones, skin, hydration, and mood–they are good for us! The benefits of a plant-rich diet are well established, and with so many different types, including what I might like to think of as a starter kit vegetables for the disinclined, there are plenty for all to enjoy and benefit from–in spite of early experiences. But, with so many real and perceived obstacles, to the chagrin of Mr. Rauch and myself–many march needlessly to their unconsumed demise, after much time, love, care, and commitment were dedicated to their growth by hard-working farmers. Some, just because they do not meet the standard definition of beauty.

So, my basic idea is this: In an effort funded and supported by health care collaborations, corporate and/or governmental subsidies–grocery stores, and other appropriate establishments should create space for the preparation of freshly made, nutrient-blessed vegetable-based juice–oh, and yes, soup–for sale to the public at an affordable cost. Incentives for purchase by SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program formerly known as food stamps) recipients could be implemented, similar to those being offered at Farmer’s Markets. These products can be available year-round in frequented food environments.

Vegetable juices and soups (made with well-prepared broths that can also utilize other ingredients that might otherwise be wasted–such as meat bones) are perhaps the simplest health-promoting and disease-preventing foods available. Increasing the exposure to and ease of access and consumption of these may be a powerful antidote to the scourges of our chronic health ills. Call me naive, but my experience informs me that many appreciate the taste of health–particularly when health has become an elusive concept. Returning health to our food establishments is mildly becoming a not so foreign idea. In my nearby city, a local health insurer and the YMCA have partnered with a food chain–and health classes and services are offered right in the grocery store. And golly, our supermarkets often house pharmacies–so, why not grandma’s penicillin?

The benefits of my little “Primordial Soup and Juice Program” include opportunities to expand vegetable education, improve the visibility of nutrition specialists, eliminate barriers to vegetable purchasing and intake, and affirm the age-old wisdom of food as medicine. Plus, it can contribute to the reduction of food waste and spare the feelings of those poor misshapen vegetables. What well-intentioned juice or soup maker would not warmly welcome them? Right, Mr. Rauch?

Oh, and Pete, Where has all the produce gone? Thirty-one percent of it into the waste stream, everyone. When will we ever learn? When will we ever learn? New verse: Assimilated well into our cells, everyone. Any thoughts to help embellish this vision?

Thank you for listening, sharing, following and supporting my writing. Please subscribe in the sidebar to receive notice of new posts. Comments and greetings always welcome.

In health, Elyn 

Update March 8, 2015. Just elaborating by suggesting that this idea can be implemented in our schools as well as in all of our subsidized food programs serving both young children and adults in group care facilities

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Mock Turtle’s  My Plate Plate

My Plate Poem

Beautiful soup so rich and green

Waiting in a hot tureen

Who for such dainties would not stoop

Soup of the evening beautiful soup. by The Mock Turtle

 

the new food revolution, food stamp cuts and health disparities

My Dilemma cuddled up next to me in bed and rested its head on my shoulder. “What is coconut palm sugar?”, it asked. I explained tenderly while rubbing its dear little head, that it is a natural product made from the nectar of the coconut palm tree. There are several different varieties of palm, and “coconut palm” specifically refers to the coco nucifera plant. It possesses a low glycemic index making it a healthier choice than sugar refined from sugar cane or beet sugar and is an option for diabetics. My Dilemma looked at me with the pure innocent eyes of a child.

English: Coconut Palm tree on the beach in Nus...

English: Coconut Palm tree on the beach in Nusa Dua Bali Indonesia (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“And what about goat’s milk kefir?”, it then asked. I answered, “Oh, you know. Kefir is a fermented milk product that originated centuries ago in the Caucasus mountains, made from the milk of any ruminant animal–in this case, goat. The various types of beneficial microbiota contained in kefir make it one of the most potent probiotic foods available.”

I thought it might be drifting off to sleep, but then it muttered, “Can you tell me the story about chia and hemp seeds, lukuma, stevia and mesquite sweeteners, oh and kombucha and cacao nibs?”. Try saying kombucha and cacao nibs five times fast. Wait a minute. Looking its way, I noticed a little smirk on its face.

I realized then it must have been looking through some of my papers that I have lying around among all of my resources. It was getting late and I was not in the mood to be playing games–even the one apparently called, describe the recently sourced foods deemed essential to a really healthy diet and that are alternatives to the substances compromising our health. Really, it is getting hard to keep up with these emerging products. I could have been annoyed but instead just planted a kiss on its little cheek. Besides, my Dilemma is always incredibly patient with me as I stagger about waving my sword attempting to slay the conundrums of our modern world’s feeding debacle. It is essentially the Sancho Panza to my Don Quixote–forever loyal.

I plumped the pillow, pulled up the covers and made sure it was quite comfy. It puffed a little sigh, the kind that signals the final controlled exhale of the day, but then it managed one last exertion. “Do you tell your patients at the Health Center to eat these foods?” I remained still and didn’t say anything. I knew if I ignored it, sleep would blanket its cares and it would choose sweet dreams over reality-drenched answers.

I was glad to lay the matter to rest and tucked myself in for the night. But still, I knew my innocent-seeming Dilemma was playing me. It knows that every day as I walk into my office, I pray that I may not alienate my clients by making totally unrealistic suggestions and that I am grateful as I leave that there is still air in my car’s tires. It is quite aware that I oft apologize when I utter things like extra virgin olive oil, stevia, quinoa, almonds, and organic milk. It knows I choke and can’t say grass-fed, locally raised beef and heirloom tomatoes, and that I break out in hives when considering presenting the advantages of a gluten-free diet for certain individuals.

My economic assessments must be made fast and furiously and I cannot instantaneously calculate what a person’s monthly social security income, low wage earnings and varying food stamp dollar allotment translates into in terms of a daily food budget for themselves and their family. I have no lab values measuring the degree of food insecurity. Many of my clients depend on the graces of food pantries–especially at the end of the month; some live in shelters or at rehabilitation centers with absolutely no control of their food choices.

If quizzed, I would say the majority of my patients know the price, more or less, of white rice, corn or vegetable oil, hamburger meat, chicken and twelve-packs of soda–and messing with their math by offering well-meaning alternatives does not make for good calculus. Though food budgeting education is valuable, most of whom I work with are already experts in that regard. I can’t surmise how much wiggle room someone has in order to make their diet more of a priority, but I must venture in and gather and glean some sense in order to gauge what is possible. At the end of the day, I can only hope that I was close if there is to be any hope of meaningfully promoting diet for health.

A shelf in my office contains food boxes and wrappers, non-perishable examples of “consider this” and “please, whatever you do, try to avoid this” foods. The shelf is not big enough. My patients are kind as they pick up from the floor the items that have fallen as I search for something from my display to show them. For those with grass-fed dreams but ground beef budgets, I have a few things to suggest, though I lament that it is nary enough. These include beans, oats, sardines, milk substitutes, flax seeds, teas, lemon juice, spices, dried apples, low-sodium chicken broth, canned salmon, whole grain pasta, boxed tomato sauce, sunflower seeds, and apple cider vinegar. When I can, I offer little samples. On some days I have coupons for the farmer’s markets, the local food coop, and manufacturer’s products to share-and I do have a small group of patients tucked under my wing participating in Veggie Rx, a Produce Prescription Program that provides free fruits and vegetables on a weekly basis.

Almost everyone is thoughtful, attentive and appreciative and willing to try to do something. Hardly anyone looks at me and yells, “Are you kidding me?” as I proffer a baggie of cinnamon. Still, I need a lot more to ameliorate the consequences of the nutritional junkyard that litters the land and to which those living in poverty are most vulnerable. With sugar at 62 cents a pound and coconut palm sugar going for about $5 for that same amount, what I could really use is a more level playing field if I am going to accomplish my goal of minimizing health disparities.

In the morning, I found my Dilemma curled up on the couch with a cup of coconut palm sugar-sweetened teeccino caffeine-free herbal coffee alternative and the newspaper. “Good morning”, it greeted me. “Just reading about the cuts to the food stamp program.” “Have a good day!”, it shouted after me, as I ran out the door to work.

If you have any suggestions or would like to hear what I think my patients could really benefit from, drop me a line.

Thank you for listening, sharing, following and supporting my writing. Please subscribe in the sidebar to receive notice of new posts. Comments and greetings always welcome.

In health, Elyn

P.S. Please take a moment to watch this beautiful video, Place Matters, by Clint Smith

Related Post: Inventive Incentive

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My Plate Cup

My Plate Haiku

Hunger tiptoes in

From bellies, hearts or minds

Feed me now she calls.

By Eva