Sunday, August 30, 2009

Making work supports work, supportively

This past weekend I had the pleasure of traveling with Lisa, one of my dearest friends, to my hometown of Urbana, Ohio (Google map it if you're not familiar). First on our agenda was a visit to my grandmother's house in Bellefontaine (pronounced bell-'Foun-ten), Ohio. Lisa studied environmental science during our Miami years, so I wanted her to meet my grandma, who I consider the essence of sustainability. Over the years, my grandmother and her husband have transformed their yard into a natural, organic garden. They grow pears, peaches, apples, berries of all kind including the rare royalberry (a mixture between a red and black raspberry), potatoes, yams, onions, herbs, watermelon, tomatoes, peppers, okra, greens, alfalfa--get the picture? They make their own compost, and they even raise their own bees, which yield the sweetest honey you've ever tasted.

But that's not the purpose of this post.

When we arrived on Friday, my grandparents were in the process of canning pears for the winter, so their kitchen table was covered in the green fruit. We sat down in their living room to chat. As expected, Lisa and my grandmother immediately hit it off. We talked about all sorts of things--my grandma's childhood chores on the farm, Lisa's summer VISTA position, organic gardening, eating for your bloodtype, and ultimately--welfare (her term, not mine). She and her husband told us stories of meeting people who lived on "welfare" (meaning work supports such as food stamps, cash assistance, etc.) and would buy non-necessities instead of taking care of their basic needs. For instance, they told us about a couple who, in the middle of winter, had splurged on a pair of new Ohio State University coats for themselves instead of buying new shoes for their 4-year-old daughter. And that's certainly a frustrating scenario to witness.

My grandmother is a very kind, generous person, who adheres strongly to Christian principles of love, mercy, and forgiveness. She values social justice and she certainly values the work I do as a VISTA. However, she, like many Americans, has a hard time reconciling how people in low-income families spend their money, especially when they are receiving assistance from the government. They believe people are abusing a system in need of reform, and that to solve this problem, government should make it harder to access benefits, as well as reduce the amount of assistance "handed out."

But I don't believe making it harder to access benefits is the solution. Take it from me--the system is already difficult enough to navigate. I do believe, though, that the system is in need of another reform.

Programs that many consider welfare are actually work supports. As their name suggests, you must work in order to access these benefits. But it would seem that the other half of the name is missing from these programs: support. Once a family secures benefits, there is no support in place to teach them how to most efficiently use this money. There are no supplementary classes on money management automatically offered to people receiving cash assistance; no classes on nutrition for families receiving food stamps; you get the idea. Why should we expect people to perfectly prioritize their spending just because they are receiving extra help from the government? If they didn't have parents, teachers, or neighbors to model good spending habits and money management, how are they to learn what it means to spend wisely? Besides, that kind of money-mismanagement happens across all income levels--but do you hear the same outcry for people making $50K with $50K in credit card debt? Think about it. People are people regardless of income--they want to fit in, they want to be accepted, and that usually involves spending. I'm not saying it's right. Certainly, when the desire to spend comes ahead of meeting basic needs, that's a problem. We can solve the problem by treating it at its source, not just treating the symptoms.

For work supports to really work, they need to actually support people. The government can not just throw money at people without teaching them how to use it effectively and expect them to magically know how to save. That doesn't mean we need to police all people receiving benefits, but we need to mindfully offer support in the way of education and guidance. That's the kind of "welfare reform" worth looking into.

As a person who has personally experienced how beneficial these benefits are for families with little expendible income, it's difficult to hear criticisms of these programs. Sure, I know that people can abuse the system--that can happen anywhere, no matter what safeguards you have in place. And yes, I've seen the family outfitted in designer jeans and handbags while they stand in line to access food stamps. But where do we draw the line? I bought a new vacuum cleaner after 3 months of borrowing a vacuum from family. Does that make me undeserving of receiving food stamps? Am I abusing the system? It may be easy to generalize about people receiving public benefits, but remember that people come from a variety of situations. Slow down before you apply labels and judgments to people--their lives might not be as transparent as you think.

Friday, August 28, 2009

A heap of HEAP

For all of you astute readers out there wondering about the HEAP conference call yesterday, yes I did attend it! Let's talk about the highlights.

First, HEAP stands for Home Energy Assistance Program. It began back in 1982 as a block grant to states to distribute for, well, home energy assistance. At that time, a little over $1 billion dollars was allocated nationwide for the program. In 2009, that amount has quadrupled to about $4.5 billion allocated for the program.

In a nutshell, the way it works is that the federal government hands down money to the states to be distributed to low-income families in need of home energy assistance. The states are allowed to set their own eligibility standards, though they can't set them below 110% of the Federal Poverty Income Guidelines (FPIG). In Ohio, the income limit is set at 175% FPIG and is calculated a couple of different ways. First, they'll look at the past 30 days' income. If it exceeds 175% FPIG, then they'll look at the past 90 days' income. And if you still don't fall below the income limit, they'll take the past 12 months' income into consideration.

Agencies within the state are then certified to distribute this money to citizens in need of assistance. Typically, these are the Community Action Agencies in your area. They provide home energy assistance to a household via a one-time payment, usually made directly to the utility company, which appears as a credit on their bill. It isn't much, but it can be a big help in the face of a shut-off notice in the middle of winter.

But the thing about this program is that it's a block grant, not an entitlement program. When the money runs out, the money is gone. So if a family gets a shut-off notice in the middle of December, there's no guarantee that there will be any money left to help at that point, even if they met eligibility requirements. That's why it's important to apply early while the assistance is still available.

As of August 1, 2009, HEAP applications for this winter are now being accepted. If you or someone you know might struggle with home energy costs this year and believe you meet the income eligibility requirements, be sure to get your application in ASAP! If you qualify, you'll be glad you acted early.

Remember, the Ohio Benefit Bank helps people fill out HEAP applications! Click on the link below to see if you might be eligible for HEAP and to find the nearest OBB site to you:

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Voices for Ohio's Children

I made the trip back to Dayton for the Voices for Ohio's Children regional briefing today. The event was held in the United Way building on Salem Ave., and service providers from Help Me Grow, Community Action, community health organizations, and the United Way, among others, were in attendance. Even a state legislator sat in on the discussions today.

The morning began with a presentation on the state budget for the 2010-2011 fiscal year passed several weeks ago in the Ohio General Assembly. Of course, the news wasn't good, and it wasn't really new either. Because the state constitution mandates that the budget be balanced every fiscal cycle, and Ohio had a deficit of over $3 billion dollars, many Health and Human Services programs were drastically cut, directly impacting the quantity and quality of services provided across the state. And we're not out of the woods yet. Representative Peggy Lehner from the 37th district (Montgomery County) reported that there would be budget corrections meetings beginning as early as this fall, which means even more money can still be lost. It is reasonable to say that pretty much every agency expected some loss of funding this year, but enough is enough.

And if that's not bad enough, I also learned that advocates are now beginning to worry about the 2012-2013 funding cycle. With a "safety net" based on one-time federal stimulus dollars, plus a handful of video lottery terminals, and no solid tax base or revenue to speak of, it is likely we'll see even more cuts next time.

After learning about the budget situation, the group voiced specific ways community agencies have been affected by the cuts. I was pretty quiet during this part; the Ohio Association of Second Harvest Foodbanks was one of the only groups to see an increase in funding this year by $3 million dollars (though it is no where near enough to meet the rising demand for food assistance), so I just listened to what others were experiencing as they tried to meet greater demands with even fewer resources. Let me tell you, it isn't pretty out there.

But Voices for Ohio's Children didn't organize the briefing to just sit around and complain. They organized these briefings to set their policy agenda in response to the budget cuts. Near the end of the session, we broke into five groups to discuss policy priorities in five result areas, which include keeping children: Safe, Educated, Healthy, Connected, and Employable in the future. I joined one other person to form the "Employable" group, and together we worked on revising and adding to the current policy priorities listed.

For children/teens to grow into employable adults, we recognized the need for a positive, working adult role model in the home and community. Therefore, we suggested that advocacy efforts focus on making work support programs like food stamps, cash assistance, and child care assistance truly supportive. As I have mentioned in previous posts, the amount of time spent at Job and Family Services and other agencies to maintain benefits/support tends to interfere with holding down a job. Furthermore, if families earn just a tad over the income limits set for these programs, their benefits completely stop. Their overall situation has not improved enough to take on all of their expenses, and they end up sliding backwards right back where they started. We need more transitional services to support working families as they make their way up to economic self-sufficiency.

Additionally, we talked about providing children with a variety of educational experiences, including vocational training, service learning, and real-life skill building exercises to prepare teenagers for adulthood. Society puts a heavy emphasis on college being the only route to success, yet we know that not every child is the perfect fit for college. While I value my personal college experience, I also value other opportunities for learning such as technical training and national service programs. Perhaps if we encourage a variety of educational opportunities, more children will grow into successful, employable adults.

And that was just a taste of what my group came up with. Even more policy ideas were generated in the other 4 areas. It was recommended that the facilitators send out a summary of each regional briefing's findings for all 5 areas. If/when I get the revised policy agenda, I'll share it with you.

I think it's clear that this is a critical time in our state, even weeks after the passing of the state budget. Depending on the solidarity and collective action taken by people like you and me, we can prevent more budget cuts from devastating thousands of Ohio's most vulnerable populations. If you are interested in advocating for Ohio's children and families, check out the website below. It will give you tips on how to lobby your representatives, as well as how to become a policy partner with Voices for Ohio's Children. It's definitely worth a look.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Kaitlyn, [Road] Warrior Princess

As I rack up days as a VISTA, my car is racking up the miles. Travel is picking up here, and before long, I'll be on the road with even longer days and bigger trips during tax season. Until then, I'm keeping busy with OBB trainings, community events, presentations, meetings, and conferences every week.

Today I was back in Dayton at the Wesley Community Center for my third OBB training. A picture of the room is on the right. I only had 4 people show up, but all of them caught on to the software very quickly and I'm confident that each of them will be successful OBB counselors. In fact, the training went so smoothly that all were able to complete extra practice and still finish half an hour ahead of schedule. The class seemed attentive and asked some engaging questions; it was great! Groups like this are very rewarding to work with, and definitely make my job a lot easier.

Tomorrow I'm heading back to Dayton for the Voices for Ohio's Children regional briefing, and shortly after that, I'll sit in on a conference call regarding the Home Energy Assistance Program (HEAP). As always, I'll update you on what I learn.

Meanwhile, I'll need to stop by the gas station for another fill up tomorrow morning, and check in with my odometer about my next oil change. I'm becoming what you might consider a road warrior--and I've got to say, it's exciting! I like the variety this position offers, and I am enjoying getting out and seeing the region. I might be singing a different tune this winter when travel becomes a little more treacherous, but as of now, I'm enjoying these adventures.

Monday, August 24, 2009

VISTA on-call

Although we usually keep regular business hours, VISTAs are on-call, so to speak, 24/7. Accordingly, VISTAs are not to work additional jobs or attend school so as to be available at all times. However, we are encouraged to volunteer in our communities in other capacities. Beyond my position as a VISTA with the OBB and Shared Harvest, I also volunteer as a victim advocate with the Butler County Rape Crisis Program.

This May, I completed an extensive 30-hour training process to learn how to respond to sexual assault victims at the 5 hospitals in the county and over the phone. Now I serve an average of five, 12-hour shifts on-call with the program each month. I schedule my shifts on the weekends, and this weekend, I was on-call from 6pm Saturday to 6am Sunday. It was one of the most eventful shifts I've seen since beginning as an advocate, and I'd like to share a little about what I saw. I should point out that the nature of this work is highly confidential, so I can't go into much detail. I'll only discuss some of the common threads I recently found between my experience as a VISTA and a volunteer advocate.

On Saturday, I got my first call just 45 minutes into my shift while Taylor was making dinner. I grabbed a nutri-grain bar and a handful of chocolate chips to keep my blood-sugar up until I could come back for a late dinner. I arrived at the hospital with my partner advocate (we're always on-call in pairs) and we ended up staying with her until 1:45am. She was confused, scared, and alone, with no support system in place after we left her.

By the time I got home, it was too late to eat anything of substance, so I quickly changed into pajamas and got into bed. But sure enough, our next call came at 3am, and I was on the road again to a different hospital. The second case was just getting started with the sexual assault nurse examiner when, at 4:30am, we received a call for a third victim who had just arrived at a different hospital in the county. This has to be some kind of record in hospital calls per shift. My partner left to attend to that call, and I remained with the second woman until she was discharged around 7:15am.

My shift was over at this point, so I drove home, called in the cases to our court liaison, and fell asleep. By the time my head hit the pillow, I had been awake for 24 hours straight, and my last meal had come about 19 hours earlier. You do what you have to do.

Working as an advocate is much like working as a VISTA: you see some pretty tragic stories that are nearly impossible to forget at the end of the day. Both fields are difficult to work in, but I am proud of my efforts, no matter how small. I am proud that I could help these women through this crisis in their lives, but unfortunately I won't be there tomorrow or the next day or the one after that to help. And that's discouraging. Like every other social services professional, sometimes I just want to wave a magic wand and make everything better for them.
As I mentioned, I have observed some overlap with people in poverty and people who have experienced sexual assault. Strangely, most of society ends up blaming both groups of people for their circumstances. When it comes to poverty, it is very common for people in middle and upper economic classes to believe that if you just work hard enough, you can rise above your condition. By this logic, if someone is living in poverty, then it's there fault for not working harder or making better choices. The fault lies with the person, not society or policymakers or employers or circumstance, which is where some of the blame really lies.

The same idea is often true when it comes to sexual assault. Unlike any other crime, much of society believes that sexual assault can be prevented if the victim (usually a woman) behaves differently, by wearing different clothes, avoiding dark alleys, staying at home at night, etc. The truth is that the only person who can prevent an attack is the attacker himself. Yet, many people still blame the victim for something that has happened to them and isn't their fault. With both issues, the blame is misplaced. I guess it is easier for many members of society to "deal with" such complex, difficult problems by distancing themselves and placing the blame on the victim.

I've also found an interlocking relationship between poverty and sexual assault. Before I go too much further, I should point out that rape does not discriminate based on race, age, or social class. Statistics show that rape occurs in all populations, regardless of socio-economic status. However, I believe that rape tends to have a more long-term, damaging effect on people in poverty than those with more financial resources. Let me explain.

On Saturday night, I noticed that in addition to being victims of sexual assault, both women were also from low-income backgrounds. Being poor didn't cause them to be raped. But being poor will probably make their recovery much more difficult. Of course, people with a lot of money may have a long road to recovery, please don't misunderstand me. But people with higher incomes usually have more resources (aka money) to work through their recovery. They can pay for therapists, for attorneys, for help. They tend to have a stronger support system in place; the finest that money can buy. It isn't easy, but they have an advantage in working through these difficulties. Without money, the women I met this weekend are not likely to reach out for counseling and follow-up medical care in the future. It just isn't feasible with their incomes unless they have access to free clinics, which isn't always a guarantee, especially in rural areas of the county.

Poverty and rape are complex problems with complex solutions, and I don't expect anyone to be able to fix them overnight. But I do think that the first step in solving these problems is acknowledging their actual source and working from there. The more we buy into myths of poverty and rape and any other social problem out there, the longer we delay finding a solution.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Psst, pass it on!

Remember all of the state budget woes from a couple of months ago? How lots of social service programs were being cut to balance the budget and make up for a $3.2 billion dollar deficit? Well, amazingly, one provision made it through--and it's especially important at this time of year.

As part of education reform, the Ohio General Assembly decided that families who qualify for the Federal Free Lunch Program do not have to pay school fees or course materials needed to participate in a course of instruction. This is HUGE! Even in public schools, the cost to attend can be overwhelming for many low-income families.

Please tell everyone you know about this provision. The more people know about the program, the more it will be used, and the more our community's families will be strengthened.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Minority Business Urban Outreach

This day has been a little confusing. I hope this post is not. :)

I arrived at Shared Harvest at 7:30, as usual, and started prepping for a trip to Dayton for the Ohio Department of Development's Minority Business Urban Outreach sessions today. About a month ago, I learned that I would be manning a table to promote the Ohio Benefit Bank. Usually the Ohio Benefit Bank Mobile Express attends these types of community events, but it would not be available this time, so Meredith and I were to attend in its place. And that's about all I knew as of 7:30 this morning.

Around 8:00, Meredith called to say I'd be on my own today, but advised me on what marketing materials to take and instructed me to keep a tally of the people who stop by for information, or who complete a Quick Check to see eligibility for the different programs. I printed out directions, shoved some flyers and brochures in my laptop bag, and set out for Dayton about 45 minutes later.

I arrived at the Canaan Community Center on Salem Avenue around 10am, with the event set to start about an hour later. I abruptly met the facility manager at the door, who directed me into a room with a small collection of chairs and some tables draped in white plastic table cloths. She seemed very confused about who I was or who I was representing--I repeated my name and organization several times but the look on her face never changed from "huh?" She mumbled something about not knowing I was coming, and that I must be one of the speakers. At that point, my face mirrored hers: confused, plus a "deer in the headlights look," and a perma-smile. Say what?!?

I set up my table, laid out my brochures, flyers, and cards, and cued my laptop screen to the OBB website. I watched as representatives from the Attorney General's office and the Social Security Administration draped personalized tablecloths over their designated tables, and laid out what seemed like a hundred different brochures and papers. Next time I'll at least bring a big sign or something, I thought.

I tried asking the other table people what was going on and what to expect today, but no one seemed to know. I did, however, get a little tour of the community center. So if nothing else, I had learned about the building and its services. :) A short while later, a group of suit-clad people from the statehouse and governor's office came in, including Shannon Teague, the director of the OBB. Finally, a familiar face! I said hi to Shannon, and casually asked her for a run-down of the day. Turns out, all I was to do was sit at my table while the attendees sat in on sessions located in a big presentation in the auditorium across the hall. Throughout the day, the business people would wander in and pick up information from us tablers either on behalf of their businesses or themselves personally. So no presentations for me--whew! Shannon told me they've done quite a few of these around the state, and all have been pretty laid back. This one seemed no different. I only had 8 people cruise by my table; of those, 1 was a state senator just saying hi, and 3 people were looking for directions to another table. However, I did get to use the site locator with one woman who was looking for information for her mother, so that was good. Overall, I view any opportunity to put information out about the Benefit Bank as positive.

As casual as today was, it also provided opportunities to meet the other people behind tables and to tell them more about AmeriCorps*VISTA as well. I even connected with a woman who not only was from my hometown but went to high school with my parents! Small world.

At the end of the day, I was still a little confused about my role at the business outreach event, but that's okay. Part of being a VISTA is being flexible and adaptable. We learn how to go with the flow, which is a great ability to have when working in non-profits, or any field, for that matter.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

My Map Quest

A project that began back in July, my map quest is finally over! In a little under a month's time, I have successfully mapped all current Ohio Benefit Bank sites in my 7-county region, as well as all of the potential OBB sites from the database I created. This project includes both paper and electronic copies of the maps to show where OBB sites are currently/potentially located.

In most counties, I've found that the bigger metropolitan areas hold the majority of the counties' current and potential sites, with considerable coverage gaps in the rural areas and small towns. This picture is an example of just that--the cluster of stars is in downtown Dayton, while the rest of Montgomery County has few current/potential OBB sites.

This finding isn't a big surprise--after all, I did discover many of the potential sites on my list via internet searches and online directories. Non-profit agencies in smaller, more rural towns tend not to have as much funding and capacity as some of the bigger, more established agencies to advertise their services online.

Of course this doesn't mean that these agencies are any less important than those with websites. In fact, it is these rural agencies that we are most interested in, as they can provide their local citizens access to the Ohio Benefit Bank without requiring them to drive half an hour into a big city.

So how will I find these potential sites among the small towns and rural corn fields? I have a couple of ideas. First, I hope to use some networking to my advantage. Next month we will begin hosting local information sessions for the organizations in each county to learn more about the Ohio Benefit Bank. I can ask the representatives from the agencies in attendance to help identify other local, perhaps rural, agencies not present.

Secondly, I suppose I will need to just get out there and explore! When I'm in each of these counties doing a training or other activity, I can stop and visit some of these little towns to see who/what is there. I've learned that people in Southern Ohio prefer more personal, face-to-face contact for this type of thing anyway, so this should work out alright.

Any other ideas on how to find and develop rural agencies from each county to be OBB sites? I'd love to hear them!

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Extra, extra, read all about it!

Upon returning from a Butler County FEED Alliance meeting this morning with members from the Shared Harvest network, I opened the Hamilton Journal-News to find this article on yesterday's United Way summit, written by Tiffany Latta:

I had an idea that I might be quoted in an article when Tiffany asked me for my age and the correct spelling of my name yesterday, but it doesn't mean I was any less tickled to see my words in print this morning! As a representative of both a provider and consumer of social services in this county, it feels great to give a genuine voice to the issues and concerns people living in poverty face in this community.

Thanks, Tiffany!

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Live United

I've found a common theme among several of the VISTAs I know. At the end of the day, we have a hard time "turning off" our brains. We go over and over our work in our minds, trying to come up with innovative solutions for challenging problems. And today has been no exception.

Today I attended the Impact Council Summit put on by the Butler County United Way. The summit was designed to provide a place for professionals in a variety of social service agencies to come together and address major issues concerning poverty in our community. Because this was my first summit, I wasn't sure what to expect. I'm new to this scene, so I anticipated doing a lot of listening and note-taking, with mild participation on my part.

But that wasn't the case.

Instead, the summit was set up in the "World Cafe" model, in which every person is expected to contribute to small discussions held at tables around the room. No passive listening here. In 30 minute allotments, the tables were to generate all of their concerns for each topic provided, which were recorded by a scribe. From that list, the group was to then reach a consensus on their top two concerns, which were later compiled into a master list from all of the tables' responses. Participants then moved to a new table with new people and continued on to the next topic, repeating the process.

The topics up for discussion were as follows: Income and Social Services, Housing, Education, Family Expenses, and Senior Citizens. Not being a particularly quiet or shy person, I had no problems contributing to these discussions. In fact, I wonder now if I talked too much! As the group analyzed charts and data surrounding each topic, I found myself not only contributing general facts about the issues, but also sharing quite a bit about my personal experiences as an AmeriCorps*VISTA in poverty. And people listened! It was great to be included in this summit, and I never expected my voice to be valued quite so much among top leaders in the community.

At the end of the day, the top two concerns generated by each table on each topic were then handed over to United Way staff and posted on large sheets around the room. We all received ballots and were asked to individually vote on what we considered our top two concerns from each of the five master lists. Once we voted, we were free to leave and learn the results later, but Tina and I (and a few others) decided to stick around and wait for the final tally. About 20 minutes later, the votes were in.

Regarding housing, the concerns were primarily:
1. A lack of affordable housing, and
2. That families must sacrifice basic needs to meet the rising costs of housing.

Regarding education, participants were concerned about:
1. A general unavailability of early intervention services, and
2. A low reading proficiency among students.

Regarding both Family Expenses AND Income & Social Services, the concerns were the same:
1. A lack of jobs that pay a living wage, as well as
2. A lack of public transportation.

And when it comes to Senior Citizens, the concerns were:
1. An increase in demand for services, and
2. A lack of public [accessible] transportation.

It seems that the concerns are fairly clear, so now I suppose the question is, what do we do about it? Where do we go from here? How can we actually impact these very issues?

I don't have all of the answers but I was struck by a few important points made throughout the day for county agencies to effectively address these concerns. First, the very agencies that came together today to talk about the issues must continue to come together to act on the issues. Each social service agency does great work, don't get me wrong. But I have noticed some disconnect among agencies meeting similar needs. At a time when resources are limited and demand is higher than ever, communication and collaboration are essential to efficiently serve the community. Today's summit was a great opportunity to form a central, core mission among agencies in the county.

Secondly--and I suppose this is something I have known for a while, but could only put words to after today's exercises--many social service agencies serve their clients from a middle-class mindset, expecting them to play by foreign middle-class rules to secure benefits and assistance. For example, many agencies expect their clients to arrive early or on time to appointments at their agencies, despite what may be a lack of reliable transportation to get there. Or caseworkers schedule appointments for their clients during business hours, but get frustrated that he/she is unsuccessful in holding down a job when fired for missing work for this very appointment (see my post "A field trip to JFS" for more on this issue).

People today seemed to agree that these fragmented practices contribute to many people in poverty falling through the cracks and remaining in poverty. Our agencies must address this reality, which might mean a shift in how we work with people in poverty. We need to meet people where they are, and that requires a genuine understanding of their priorities and way of life. It might take non-traditional measures, such as evening hours, home visits, and policy changes, to name a few, to fully meet the needs of clients in poverty. I believe that if social services professionals can internalize this discrepancy and respond accordingly, we will see a tremendous change in the quality of service we provide to people in poverty, resulting in a significant, lasting impact on the community as a whole.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Welcome, Alex!

The wait is finally over--Alex has come to Shared Harvest! Meet Alex Moning, another AmeriCorps*VISTA member and (soon-to-be) OBB community trainer with the Shared Harvest Foodbank. She was officially hired about a month ago, but after a series of unfortunate events involving a delay in paperwork and training schedules through various offices, today was her first day.

I started in this position just about 2 months ago, and I remember how excited/anxious/confused I was on my first day of service. As with any new position, there seemed like a ton of stuff to learn and remember, and I wasn't sure I would be able to keep it all straight. To say I was overwhelmed was an understatement. With this in mind, after her orientation with Meredith, I showed Alex everything I could to try and make some of the details of our system a little less foggy. It takes some time to get used to, but I can already tell she is getting the hang of it. (She's a note taker, like the rest of us in the office! I think that's a good sign.)

After lunch, Alex and I worked on the last of 7 maps of potential and current OBB sites--and it was nice to have an extra set of hands to help pinpoint each location on the map. Slowly but surely, that stage of our OBB site development project is coming to a close! I have a feeling that was the first of many occasions in which we'll help each other out, even if just by offering a small suggestion to build upon an idea, or providing moral support. I bet we'll work well together over the coming year.

Between her Pre-Service Orientation and Community Trainer Orientation, Alex will be in and out of the office over the next two weeks, so the other half of the table will be empty for a majority of the duration of August. Still, it is nice to know that our little team at Shared Harvest is finally complete!

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Road trip!

Our first official road trip of the summer, Taylor and I drove to Akron this weekend! We woke up early Saturday morning, and after loading up on coffee, hit the road a little before 8am. We spent the next four hours driving across the state, and we passed a lot of familiar sites, including: Wilmington! (or at least the area around the Wilmington exit) Good ol' Southwest Ohio.

The primary reason for our visit this weekend was to support Taylor's mom Stacy as she graduated from University of Akron with her Master of Applied Politics degree. Taylor's family had lived in Akron for many years before moving to Cincinnati, so Taylor was especially looking forward to visiting his hometown. We had a little time to kill before the graduation ceremony, so we spent an hour touring parts of Akron. Taylor made a point of showing me his former middle school located in Opportunity Park, a low-income neighborhood that David Shipler specifically mentions in his book The Working Poor: Invisible in America. I wonder how many other people tour the projects on purpose.

It would seem that wherever I go, the Ohio Benefit Bank seems to follow. Our host for the weekend was Stacy's good friend Amy Swanson, who is an executive director for Voices for Ohio's Children ( She also happens to work very closely with OASHF and the OBB, so it was refreshing to talk to someone outside of the organization who actually knew what those acronyms stand for. Later Saturday evening, I met more of Stacy's friends, all of whom are key women leaders of Summit County. I was amazed at the breadth and depth of their experiences in the community. Hearing their stories reminded me of the things I am capable of, and the excitement of adventures to come. It was a privilege to sit in on their discussion.

Today it was my turn to spend a little time with a friend of my own--Joree! If you've been reading her blog, "Active Hope" (link to the right), then you know that Joree is also a community trainer for the Ohio Benefit Bank. I met her a few weeks ago at our orientation in Columbus, and when she identified herself as a VISTA at the Akron-Canton Regional Foodbank, I made a mental note to get in touch during our brief stay in Akron. Lucky for Taylor and me, she was available today for lunch, and we spent a couple of hours chatting on a bench overlooking the Cuyahoga River. Here we are:

Even on our day off, we spent all of our time talking about poverty, the economy, social stigma, and public benefits--you know, typical VISTA stuff. I guess when you live your work, you don't really have an "off" switch. Poor Taylor!

As always, I am grateful for the built-in VISTA network of people all around the state who can share resources, ideas, enthusiasm, and support with one another. I am confident the experiences Joree and I share this year, even at opposite corners of the state, will bind us together well into the future. And that's a good part of what being a VISTA is all about.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Thanks, Kroger!

Shared Harvest director Tina Osso, left, accepts a $30,000 check from Kroger's advertising manager Rachael Betzler. The money from Kroger's Bringing Hope to the Table campaign will be used to distribute food to pantries in five Southwest Ohio counties. Sue Kiesewetter/for the Enquirer

For the full story check out these links:

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Heat wave in Dayton

Yesterday I had my second training at the Wesley Community Center in Dayton. As I exited the freeway and neared my destination, I noticed a majority of the storefronts lining the streets were empty. Weeds and overgrowth invaded parking lots, climbed up building walls, and engulfed the abandoned homes; trash littered the gutters. But I wasn't necessarily suprised at this sight. My best friend Lisa, a former summer VISTA from this same area, and had told me about the deterioration of this neighborhood and its reputation among many people as a "bad part of town." She told me that many people tend to automatically attribute all violence and crime to people in poverty because they fear what they do not know. (Makes sense.) So I should point out that, like Lisa, I never really felt unsafe during my time in the neighborhood. Instead of feeling scared, I felt...sad, for lack of a better word, to witness a city dying from the inside out.

Unlike the surrounding empty buildings, though, the Wesley Community Center was bustling with activity. Here's a picture of the outside:

Once inside, I navigated the narrow hallways to the computer lab containing 7 desktop computers. The room itself was small, and despite a fan circulating on high speed, the room was also rather warm.

My class consisted of 6 people from 3 different organizations, with half of the counselors taking the class for a refresher after a couple years of inactivity. Even though I had a small, manageable class, as soon as the last counselor walked out the door, I suddenly felt like I had been holding my breath for six hours and I'd finally been able to exhale. These trainings are from 9-4pm with a one hour lunch--so, essentially I am "on" for 6 hours with the occasional 5-minute break sprinkled in for a quick drink of water or restroom visit. I try my best to maintain a high level of energy throughout the day so that I can kindly troubleshoot malfunctioning computers or gently diffuse critical, nit-picky questions over the extensive material. It's a lot of information to work into a dynamic, engaging presentation, but I'm forming my own style. Nevertheless, by the end of the day, my voice--and my brain--are just exhausted.

Of course, it's a good kind of exhaustion. I feel good knowing that I have given these counselors the tools to better serve their communities, and I am hopeful that these "baby birds," as I like to think of them, will be alright flying solo. In reviewing the course evaluations, 8 of the 11 counselors I have trained so far indicated they felt "very prepared" to assist clients with their benefits applications using the Benefit Bank. The remaining 3 felt "somewhat prepared," and that is to be expected. Overall, the remarks were positive, with only a few complaints popping up about the temperature of the room, or boredom during various sections of the training. Meredith and I have discussed modifying the training by having the counselors role-play the first practice scenario in partner teams, (much like the second scenario's set-up) to curb frustration. It's going to be a bit of a trial and error process, and with more and more trainings, I will find my rhythym and best practices for training.

After the training I made a quick drive to Lisa's house, and ended up staying 3 and a half hours before making the journey home! The day ended with good food, good conversation, and a very good friend. It was a good day.

Monday, August 10, 2009

The tenth on the tenth

It's hard to believe that only one month ago today, I started my blog to document my year as an AmeriCorps*VISTA living in poverty.

Perhaps even more unbelievable still, the [registered] followers of this blog have now hit the double digits! The fact that anyone other than my mother actually takes time to read what I write is truly humbling. Thank you all for your comments and emails--please, keep them coming! I like hearing what you think. And if there's a topic or issue you want to know more about, or an idea you have on how to improve this blog, let me know.

So it's official: I've caught the blog bug! You can count on me in the coming months to keep shedding light on an all too common way of life in this country. If you'll continue to read, I'll continue to write.

By the way, I'm not the only VISTA with a blog! Be sure to check out what other VISTAs around the state are up to by clicking the links on the right of the page.

Sunday, August 9, 2009


Mmm mmm good. Here's the story of how these goodies made it from the Oxford Uptown Farmers' Market to our kitchen.

Taylor and I arrived in Oxford around 11:00 Saturday morning. It was an unusually busy day, with the local hospital and emergency response teams stationing a "family health fair" in conjunction with the weekly farmers' market. We paused to watch a martial arts demonstration before maneuvering through crowds of kids in balloon hats towards the fresh produce stands.

On our first lap around the market, we just wanted to check out the goods. Tomatoes, peppers, beans, peaches, squash--all freshly picked and humbly displayed in little baskets on tables under white, blue, and red canopies. Towards the end of the aisle, there were booths of locally made cookies, crafts, and jewelry as well, which we also stopped to admire. On our second lap, we started looking for a person or machine who would convert our food stamps into farmers' market money, but by the time we reached the handmade earrings, we still hadn't figured it out.
For some reason, most likely embarrassment, I was reluctant to approach the smiling people in their booths to ask how to purchase their delectable vegetables with our government money. For a brief moment, I even considered posing as some kind of reporter/researcher who just wanted to know about the process, nothing more. But we had come to buy local produce, and I didn't want to leave empty-handed.

Fortunately, Taylor picked up on my nervousness, and on our third lap around marched assertively up to a man in a bright yellow Oxford Farmers' Market t-shirt with the word "manager" on the back. His "Oxford Farmers' Market" visor and name tag further indicated that he was Larry Slocum, and was probably the right person to talk to. As Taylor shook his hand and introduced himself, Larry eagerly asked "oh yes, are you the musicians?" An image of us playing the spoons to earn our produce briefly flashed through my mind. That wouldn't have been pretty. Taylor quickly diffused what could have been a very humorous situation, and asked him about the article we had seen in the paper, and if it was true that we could use food stamps at the farmers' market. Larry nodded knowingly, and enthusiastically led us to his van, parked behind the row of canopies. Along the way, we talked about how great it is to be able to access real, healthy, local food--and I was impressed when he referenced Michael Pollan's work.

There in the driver's seat of his van, he kept the EBT card reader, which he plugged in by running a long white extension cord from the machine to an outlet on a nearby street lamp. When he returned, he told us that they had been accepting EBT cards since May but that not many people had used them yet. Then he swiped our card, I entered our PIN, and he deducted our requested amount: $10.

As he processed the transaction, I told him about serving as an AmeriCorps*VISTA and living at poverty level wages. Again, I felt the need to explain ourselves, why exactly these two kids were here at the front seat of the van swiping our food stamps card. I told him about my blog, how I write about living in poverty, and that I was really excited to post about the Oxford Farmers' Market now accepting food stamps. My story didn't really seem to matter to Larry--he didn't judge us--but he did ask me some questions about the possibility of accepting other benefits, such as WIC, along with food stamps. I bumbled through some kind of explanation about something I had read online once, but ultimately ended up admitting I didn't know the answer. However, I promised him I would find out and get back to him. He gave me his card for future contact, then suggested that we all do a cheer for food stamps. Taylor and Larry racked their brains for the perfect cheer, but I already had it--I explained that nationally, food stamps are now known as "SNAP" (supplemental nutrition assistance program) so, naturally, we should all do a big diva snap while yelling "Snap!" Larry counted to three and we did the food stamp cheer together. Twice. It was awesome.

We left the van door with big smiles and 10 'greenback' vouchers to serve as currency for farmers' market shopping. Below is a picture of one of the greenbacks:

The vouchers have a raised seal to prevent illegal copying, I imagine, and only food vendors at the market can accept the vouchers (no homemade purses or wooden benches for us). Our vouchers were perfectly legit, but because only one person has ever used food stamps at the market, I wasn't sure how the vendors would respond to the unfamiliar little white slips--would they act like the hot-shot cashiers at Kroger? Once again, I felt my cheeks color with nervousness.

Standing in the middle of the aisle, we decided to first try out our greenbacks on a small basket of tomatoes. We picked our basket, handed over the slips, and got our tomatoes, simple as that! All of the vendors with whom we interacted were kind and respectful, just as they were with every other paying customer. We bought a basket of tomatoes, a basket of "Butler County's best peaches," a giant zucchini, and two eggplants for $8.50 (and no funny looks!)

In the coming weeks, I would really like to learn more about the process of becoming a food stamp friendly farmers' market. It would be great to help markets in Hamilton and Fairfield get in on the fun. Of course, I'll be looking up the rules for accepting WIC, among other benefits, to pass along to Larry. Unfortunately, we probably won't make it back to Oxford until September, but that should give me plenty of time to come up with a new food stamp cheer.

To find a food stamp-friendly farmers' market near you, check out this PDF from Ohio Department of Job and Family Services:'MarketCompleteParticipants.pdf

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Food stamps at the farmers' market (finally!)

When Taylor and I moved to Fairfield, we had dreams of waking up early (okay not too early), grabbing our sunglasses and canvas totes, and hitting the Saturday morning farmers' markets together. We love the idea of buying local (especially after reading The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan--have you read it yet?) and wished we had taken more advantage of the farmers' markets in Oxford during the years that we lived there. But now with a move to Fairfield, we had a fresh start and we were ready to make the most of it.

But there was just one problem.

With little expendible income, we just didn't have the cash to buy from the local farmers' markets. But we did have an EBT card loaded with food stamps, so we had to settle on the shiny, enhanced produce from Kroger.
"Too bad we couldn't use food stamps at the farmers' market," I sighed.
"Yeah, I wonder what it would take for farmers' markets to get a credit card/EBT swipe machine," Taylor pondered.

We proceeded to talk about why it's so important for farmers' markets to accept food stamps. Think about it--food stamps are a great stimulus for families in need, often much more effective than the traditional, one-time cash stimulus. Unlike a cash stimulus that might be used to pay down debt from credit card companies in other states, food stamps are almost guaranteed to be spent in the local community. After all, people tend not to rush out of their town or state to buy food. Whether they're spent at a Kroger, Meijer, Wal-Mart, etc., the federally funded food stamp dollars are infused into the local economy, boosting food sales and job potential in local stores. (Remember, food stamps are funded 100% by the federal government, while the state and federal governments divide the costs of administering them 50/50.) Unfortunately, local farmers' markets are left out of this equation. They can't reap the benefits of federal food stamp dollars because they traditionally have had no way of accepting the little plastic cards at their fruit and vegetable stands.

In the days that followed that conversation, I googled farmers' markets and food stamps. And I was surprised to find that last year, 7 farmers' markets in Ohio had been part of a pilot program to accept food stamps. I called a number provided for more information about where exactly all of these markets were located, but I never did get through to an actual person. I tried a couple more times, but with no answer, the idea eventually dissolved.

Until now.

A few days ago, an article by Josh Sweigart ran in the Hamilton Journal-News (our local paper) about food stamps now being accepted at the uptown farmers' market in Oxford. Apparently, food stamps are converted into paper vouchers that can only be used at the farmers' market. Then you are free to wander the stands and purchase your local goodies. Follow the link here to read the complete article:

We are absolutely delighted with this news! According to the article, only one woman has used food stamps at the farmers' market so far, but on Saturday, Taylor and I hope to be the second and third when we visit friends Amanda and Dan in Oxford for lunch. I'll let you know how it goes!

P.S. To the VISTAs in Wilmington working with Grow Food, Grow Hope (and anyone else who might be interested)--check out this link (if you haven't seen it already) to learn more about how to make your farmers' market food stamp-friendly:

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

A Living Wage

I've always been a friend of the library, but since we moved to Fairfield I have found myself strolling through the aisles of books much more often. Currently I am reading Nickel and Dimed, in which the author, Barbara Ehrenreich goes "undercover" to see if it is possible to support herself in various regions of the country from wages she earns as a waitress, a housecleaner, and a Wal-Mart employee. Even with a start up savings account and no dependents, Enrenreich finds that she can not sustain an adequate standard of living on her wages.

This book was written between 1998 and 2000, but I have found that the core issues she addresses are still prevalent today, 10 years later. Minimum wage jobs just don't pay all of the bills. What employees really need are jobs that pay a living wage.

So what is a living wage? It is a wage that a worker would need to earn to meet the minimum standards of living. It is calculated based on costs of living specific to a person's geographic region and the size of his household. In most places, the living wage exceeds the minimum wage, yet ironically, a majority of the working poor only earns the bare minimum or just slightly above it.

In Ohio the minimum wage is set at $7.25/hour. In Fairfield, the living wage for one adult is $8.63/hour. And according to the living wage chart, a sole provider (or wage earner) for two adults would need to earn $13.64/hour to support only themselves, no children. Because Taylor and I both work and have no kids, let's see if his and my wages add up to the $13.64/hour living wage for two adults.

Taylor works about 35 hours a week at $7.65/hour. I report to Shared Harvest 40 hours a week and before taxes, I receive $395 in my biweekly living allowance. For the purposes of this exercise, when I calculate my hourly wage, it divides out to $4.94/hour. So with our wages added together, we are earning a combined $12.59/hour. Not quite a living wage by Fairfield's standards, about a dollar/hour short. The extra income Taylor earns from his second part-time job makes up for some of that, but not all.

Given this information, you can see why so many millions of American families work two or three jobs at a time. It isn't always enough to just "get a job." Most low-skilled laborers are paid only the minimum wage (and no benefits, of course), leaving a significant gap between their wages and the necessary expenses to maintain the minimum standard of living. I strongly believe that if we were to recalculate the federal poverty income guidelines using living wages as a determining factor, we would find a much higher poverty rate than already exists. So why haven't the federal poverty standards been modernized? Because if we saw the true numbers of people living in poverty, we would actually have to do something about it.

I'm curious--do you earn a living wage? Check out this link to find out the living wage for your area: and leave me a comment with your findings.

Monday, August 3, 2009

A field trip to JFS

It's about 9:30 and I'm just getting into the office this morning. Why? Because I had to re-up on our food stamps. Even though Taylor and I are both working, we had to reapply for benefits after 3 months instead of the traditional 6, because at the time we applied we were an "unstable household."

Before I go too much further, I want to make one thing very clear--I do not necessarily mind recertifying for our benefits. Yes, it's a hassle, but it gives me an opportunity to sit down with a caseworker and go through every element of our household. From our income, to our expenses, every last penny is accounted for, and it gives me a chance to clarify any discrepancies not easily solved over the phone. (Can we say VISTA income exclusion confusion?)


I have never found, in my experience, a trip to Jobs and Family Services that is enjoyable, no matter what its purpose. The biggest hassle for most people is not navigating the city streets or parking garage, or lugging strollers full of whiny 1 year olds on and off the elevator, but finding the time off work to keep the appointment. These recertification appointment times are assigned to clients with no input from them regarding their schedules, which puts clients in a very awkward place. Allow me to elaborate.

To keep your benefits, you have to go through recertification every so often to make sure you are still eligible to receive your $3/day/person. To keep your benefits, you also have to keep a job (remember food stamps are work supports not welfare). But to keep your job, you have to show up and work, usually every day, all day. Now, when do you think most appointments are made for clients? That's right--during day time business hours. So let me get this straight--if I am employed and my recert appointment falls within business hours, my choices are to a) not show up to work but keep my appointment (and have my benefits renewed on time), b) miss the appointment but show up to work (and risk losing benefits in the mean time) or c) try to work with the employer to miss an hour or two for my food stamp recertification. In a typical low-income job, working with the employer is often not an option. Their mindset tends to be that if you're not willing to work for whatever reason, we will find someone in the vast sea of unemployed people who will. Yikes, JFS. I seem to be missing the "support" part of "work support program."

My appointment was for 8:00a, obviously within regular working hours. Well, actually my original appointment was scheduled for 2:00p on August 21st, which caused an impossible, non-negotiable time conflict due to a previously scheduled OBB outreach event during that time. When I called to report this issue to JFS, the only times I was allowed to reschedule were 8a or 8:15a, any day of the week, M-F. Of course, that will always be within business hours for me, but fortunately, Shared Harvest has a policy that states any employee who must report to JFS does not have to use personal or comp time to do so. Perfect. Thanks, Tina!

I arrived at least 15 minutes early just in case they were running ahead of schedule, and found a seat in the crowded waiting room. I pulled out a book, Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich, to pass the time. I didn't end up getting called back until about 8:20, which wasn't too bad, considering how understaffed and overworked JFS caseworkers are. This time my caseworker introduced herself and even made eye contact with me, though there was no handshake. Maybe next time.

As we walked through the maze of desks, she clarified that I was there to recertify my food stamps. I confirmed this was true, but requested to be placed on the 6 month recert schedule instead of the 3 month, considering both members of my household were gainfully employed.

"You're both employed now?" she asked.
"Yes, we weren't at the time that we applied for benefits, but we're both working now, so we would like to go on the traditional recert schedule, please," I said.
"Oh, you so you're both working."
"Okay, so you probably are ineligible now," she said as we reached her desk.
"Um, no, we're still eligible," I said, digging out my paperwork. Ha! Not so fast, lady.

I handed over the mound of paperwork I brought: lease agreement, canceled rent check proving we still live there, electric bill, phone bill, water bill, pay stubs from that last 30 days for both of Taylor's jobs and mine, as well as my letter of income exclusion, and a letter to verify my previous employment at Miami had ended (over 2 months ago). I had it all. And I didn't want any document to fall through the cracks, so I patiently explained each one and waited for her to put in the information. Those of you who know me well would be proud of my performance today. At all times, I spoke softly and kept a small smile on my face--of course, I felt like giving her a piece of my mind on why this is a dehumanizing, invasive system that doesn't really provide an adequate work support for clients, but I kept my mouth shut. After all, she didn't make the rules for food stamp eligibility, and it isn't her fault that their office is overworked and understaffed. But that's for another day.

As she typed, she asked if either of us were in school, and I reported that yes, Taylor was taking classes at Butler Tech to become an EMT-B. I proudly told her that his program was ending in two weeks and soon he would start nursing classes at Cincinnati State. As if she really cared about our attempts to better ourselves. There were no "how nice!" or "oh great, you know nursing is in demand right now" type of statements.
Instead she said, "If he's going to school full time, he is no longer eligible for food stamps."
"Even if he's working over 20 hours a week?" I asked, slightly incredulous.
"No--if he goes full time he's ineligible. His program at Butler Tech isn't considered full time, so he's okay now, but just so you know, he won't be eligible when he starts new classes. And you'll have to report that to us when he does," she said.
"Oh, okay. We'll do that," I said.

[Note: If Jason or Dustin or Lisa or anybody else from OASHF is reading this, what are the rules with full-time school and benefits eligibility? HELP!]

She finished putting our information in the computer, then went to make copies of my documents and to retrieve my renewed contract sheet from the printer. When she returned, she told me we would receive $254/month (which is about the amount the person in Quality Control told me a couple of weeks ago), and I signed the contract. I have no idea what it really said--reading it over didn't seem to be encouraged. Next, I asked to withdraw our appeal that we had filed over a month ago, because our income discrepancies had been resolved. She perked up with this request and cheerfully brought me the form to cancel my state hearing.

Finally, I asked her when our food stamps are supposed to be deposited on our EBT card. If we had to guess, Taylor and I would have thought it was the 1st of the month, but sure enough, on August 1st we went shopping and our amount wasn't higher than what it began. So we have no clue. She said she had no way of knowing that information, but I could call the help line located on the back of my EBT card to find out. Then she stood up--apparently the appointment was over, and I scrambled to shove my papers back in their manila home.

As she ecorted me out, she said, "Okay, so I'll fax your appeal withdrawal. And remember what I said about full-time classes."
"Thank you very much," I said. "I think Taylor was considering the 3-year part time program, but I'll keep it in mind."
"Really? I would rather do it in two years, full time," she said. "Takes less time."
"Yeah," I said with a slightly more edgy-sounding laugh, "but he wants to work too, so part-time it is."
And with that I was in the hallway and the door was shutting.

When I reached the parking garage, I rummaged through my bag for our EBT card. I called the 800 number and went through the options, press 1 for this, 3 for that, 4 for more options. Finally, I got to an option to find out our benefits distribution schedule. And this is what I heard:
"This information is available at your local Jobs and Family Services office. Call your caseworker to learn more about when your benefits are available to you."

So much for that.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Food shopping with a VISTA

At around 3:00 yesterday, several hours after my post, Taylor came home from his second job and we went grocery shopping. I'd like to tell you a little about a typical grocery store excursion for us.

Before we set out, we take an inventory of what we already have. There's nothing worse than coming home with a bunch of duplicate items that will either a) spoil before we can use them or b) take up shelf space (and money) for the week. Next, we make a rough plan of what meals we'd like to make for the week. We also compare our coupons to the store ad to see if we can find any good deals on items that we either need right now or can stock up on for the month. Based on this assessment, we make a quick list of everything we need, then grab our EBT card, our Kroger card, coupons, and reusable grocery totes (hey, we may be poor but we're still green!), and hit the road.

Once we arrive, we start circling the store. After years of college living, I have had a bit of practice in stretching my dollar as far as possible, and the same principles apply when shopping with food stamps. I know that I could stretch our food stamps a lot further if we only bought Ramen noodles or mac 'n cheese every week. And if I were still single, that's probably what you would find in my cart. Thankfully, the better half of our household knows how to cook with real ingredients and recipes and values fresh food.

In an attempt to be as healthy as possible, Taylor prefers to stick to the outer walls of the store, which is where all of the fresh foods such as fruits, veggies, meat, and dairy lives. The interior aisles are where more of the shelf stable stuff (like Ramen) lives, which is often loaded with sugar, sodium, and preservatives. The foods in this section have the highest caloric content, are cheapest to buy, and last longest in the cupboard. However, they are also lowest in nutritional value, which eventually will cost us in terms of our health and energy. Because we have food stamps, we feel less guilty about investing a little extra in fresh items for our weekly food supply.

Our first stop is in produce where we pick up an average of 3 kinds of fruits (usually some kind of apple, banana, peach combo depending on what's on sale), 2 kinds of fresh veggies (carrots, celery, etc.), and an occasional bag of salad.

Next we grab a loaf of bread, tortillas, and a bag of bagels, before moving into a few interior aisles to replenish condiments, spices, or baking ingredients, and to grab the occasional bag of cereal, pasta, canned vegetables, peanut butter, soup, salsa, or box of crackers.

Then it's back to the outer walls and the meat department where we always buy a pack of lunch meat (Taylor's lunch staple). We might get some ground beef or pork chops if they're on sale, but usually we find that fresh meat tends to cost more money than we're willing to spend. We don't particularly mind this, though, especially after reading Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma. If fresh protein isn't appealing, we'll pick up a few cans of beans or a bag of frozen chicken for the week, maybe a block of tofu.

Next comes the dairy department where we always buy two gallons of milk and about 8-10 yogurt cups. We also tend to buy cheese, butter, and sour cream, depending on our needs for the week.

Finally, we'll scan the frozen food aisle. Sometimes with our coupons and the store's sale we can get a great deal on frozen pizzas, frozen potatoes, and yes, ice cream.

Now, this probably sounds like a typical grocery store visit for most families, especially during the recent recession. We're not making any exotic purchases but we're also not living on rice and beans. We're doing alright.

What makes our experience different, though, is the checkout line. First, if Taylor and I have any non-food items in our cart such as toilet paper or sponges or something, we have to check out separately, once with cash or credit card, the second time with our EBT card. Nowadays, using the EBT card saves the user a considerable amount of embarrassment, as it is faster and easier than tearing out actual stamps to present to the cashier. We have found though, that while the person behind use might not know we're using food stamps, the cashier always does, which can be just as embarrassing depending on his/her philosophy on public benefits.

When the cashier sees me pull out my EBT card, he assumes it is a regular credit card and automatically hits "credit" on his key pad. So I always have to swipe the card twice unless I explicitly specify "food stamps" before this process begins. A majority of the time, I can re-swipe without incident, except for the handful of times when we encounter the self-righteous 16-year old who rolls her eyes and sighs loudly when I say "oh, no, this is an EBT card." And that's about the same time that she and anyone within earshot starts examining the contents of our cart and the clothes on our backs to see if, yes, we really do deserve food stamps. And when they see we're buying anything more than rice and beans, a disapproving look crosses their faces as to why we would ever buy such extravagant food as apples and milk and yogurt on the government's money.

It is this kind of reaction from the general public that keeps the food stamp stigma alive. Through this blog and our daily interactions with cashiers and neighbors and friends, we hope to educate the public and alleviate the stigma people in poverty face everyday. Everyone deserves a little variety, a little flavor in their life. And everyone deserves at least three nutritious meals every day. Unfortunately, $3/day per person in food stamps doesn't always make the cut.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Food stamps accepted here...and here...and here...

You might recall in a previous post that when Taylor and I first got our EBT (electronic benefits transfer) card for food stamps, we had no idea where we could use it. We guessed it would be accepted at our local Kroger, and fortunately, we were right. But little did we know just how many stores now accept food stamps. With over 39 million people using food stamps, it just makes good business sense for stores to accept the benefits. In fact, most stores have actually seen an increase in food sales and profits, which is an amazing feat during one of the worst recessions since the Great Depression.

To learn more, check out this article that Meredith sent to me:

Speaking of grocery stores, I think I'll go buy our groceries for the week. Kroger, here I come.