Why a Fast?

Today I began a 50 meal fast. This action comes after much prayer and reflection. My purpose in doing this fast is to make a personal statement about the inhumanity of an action in Congress, the Budget Resolution recently passed by the House of Representatives.

This budget proposal is strikingly immoral. The Resolution included $150 billion in cuts to SNAP (formerly food stamps) over 10 years. What does this number really mean? Calculating the impact on Hoosiers – it translates to 50 million meals taken away from children, veterans and seniors each year for ten years.

I have devoted the last decade of my life to improving the systems to try to assure that no one goes hungry. I know the food assistance systems more than well enough to know for sure that most of the 50 million meals cannot be covered some other way. Real people, millions of times a year, will go hungry.

I believe this proposal is also unwise. Hungry people increase our health care costs and crime, and hunger hurts our economic competitiveness.

Jesus fed people who were hungry, all of them. His disciples were instructed not to send the people away hungry. Wishing to do what I can I will fast. Every meal I’ll miss for the next 16 days represents roughly a million meals in jeopardy for Hoosier children, seniors and veterans if the drastic cuts being debated in Congress become reality.

I have a plan to fast safely.  My decision to miss meals is my own choice, while our most vulnerable neighbors could go hungry through no choice of their own. People of conscience should speak out. I am sharing the experience through my personal and organizational networks, and with those who represent me in Congress, in the hope of bringing attention to the cruelty of these cuts.

I welcome your prayers. More importantly I invite you to join me – pray for our nation, share this concern with others, and let your voice be heard in Washington by contacting your Congressional representatives.

I also invite you to read about the work being done by Bread for the World on behalf of the hungry. Standing united and speaking up is how we can end hunger, together.

For the next 15 days, I’ll be sharing more information about ending hunger as well as sharing my 16-day journey at millionmealfast.com. 

Thank you.

Dave Miner

No Shoes, No Shirt #2

Who deserves our assistance? Shouldn’t we avoid giving food to those who don’t appear to deserve it?

I offer two reflections. For Christians, I would note that Jesus fed people, and when he did he fed everyone (Matt 14: 13-21). He did no selecting out, and he instructed his disciples to send no one away hungry.

Secondly, I share the story of a family I met years ago who had a clear window on this question.

At dinner time, I arrived at an urban church where a hot meal is provided outdoors every week. The weather was cold with a threat of rain, and the sun was going down. People were arriving by foot from all directions. The setting and the clientele made me a bit apprehensive. As I walked up to the old school bus around which the activity swirled, I was welcomed by John who, along with his father Roger and his step-mother Jill, make this meal go. John says he is the “bouncer,” but there is no need for interventions most evenings. “Feed them all, let God sort them out” is Roger’s motto for his outdoor dinner program.

The line quickly grows as they place and cover folding tables. Bottled water, utensils, desserts are laid out. The hot food, prepared in the church kitchen, follows and all is quickly served into take-home containers for the clients. Dinner box 1

Afterwards there is time to talk to Roger. He is a large man. A very large man, probably outweighing most NFL linemen. His white hair gives a clue as to his age.

The family’s involvement began when Jill had a dream that she was supposed to feed people. Roger resisted initially but was won over, and the evidence of time verifies the veracity of her calling. They have served dinner in this location weekly in all weather for multiple years.

They serve the homeless and near homeless.  The legions of working families who rely on food assistance are not among the dinner visitors here.

Even among this group, Roger’s analysis across all the thousands they have served, is that 80% of the people are very grateful for the meal they receive. Another 10% are mentally ill. Some of them have to be handled gingerly so they are not scared off before receiving their meal. Only the remaining 10% of those they serve are ‘greedy’ as Roger puts it, potentially working the system. Thus, the motto, “Feed them all, let God sort them out” which he connects to his Christian faith, is also very practical.

Bottom line: we too should not let a concern about freeloaders keep us from serving the overwhelming majority who deserve our support. Please contact your Representative and Senators and let them know that you oppose cuts to SNAP.

No Shoes, No Shirt #1

At some time or another, we’ve all seen a “No Shoes, No Shirt, No Service” No Shoes No Shirt 2  sign hung in a restaurant window. Who deserves our assistance? Shouldn’t we avoid giving food to those who appear not to deserve it? This is an often-heard concern, voiced in connection with most types of food assistance for the hungry.

 

A driver for this concern at food pantries is that their food supply is always quite limited. Keeping food on their shelves is a daily challenge for the hard-working folks who run pantries. At best, clients can get a few days of food, and usually just once a month. So, a concern about restricting food to only the “deserving” is understandable. It reflects, however, a lack of understanding of the role of the food pantry in the bigger picture of food assistance. Food pantries have an important role to play but it is a focused niche, not the whole story.

The common stereotype that most of the hungry are lazy, happily living off of government assistance is often directed at programs like SNAP. There are, of course, some folks like this, but I’ve long wondered how many there really are?

So, let’s break this down. First, half of those receiving government assistance are in a demographic that unquestionably deserves our support. They are children who find themselves in the ranks of the hungry through no fault of their own. Our nation needs our children to grow up strong and ready to be contributing citizens. They cannot thrive in school if their stomachs are growling. Another portion of this half are people who cannot work. This includes disabled veterans and seniors, for example.

A great nation takes care of those who cannot care for themselves. These children, veterans and seniors are the Americans I am highlighting in my 50-meal fast.

Adults make up the second half of those receiving government assistance. Work is good for any of them who can work, and it’s good for society. Not all of them can work, however. I think of the nurse I met in Connersville several years ago. She was caring for three boys, all of whom had significant health issues. One was too old for school, and the other two were not a good fit for school. Caring for them was her full-time job.

Sadly, another major portion of hungry adults are in fact working. They are, however, caught by the gig economy, working part time, in a low wage job, or have seasonal employment. They do not earn enough to always feed their own families. Some earn little enough to qualify for SNAP. Some earn more than the Federal guidelines but are still sometimes short. This group constitutes fully one-third of the clients at food pantries.

After accounting for all of the above, how many “lazy” types are we left with? We’ll pick this up in our next blog.

How people are served is also important, as described in these helpfully provocative books:  When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor… And Yourself by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert, and Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help, and How to Reverse It by Robert Lupton. This, too, is a topic for another day.

Hunger Is Not Partisan  

Like hurricanes and tornadoes, and nonsensical tragedies, resolving hunger is one of the few issues able to bring people together. All the major traditions of faith call for their adherents to feed the hungry. Rural and urban alike can understand the importance of seeing that no child goes hungry.

Similarly, hunger is not a partisan issue. Not many political leaders think hunger is a good idea. In the last election, no one ran on a platform of increasing hunger.

In our nation’s legislative history, the great advances have come from bipartisan collaboration. Senators George McGovern (D) and Bob Dole (R) worked across party lines, putting partisanship aside for the shared purpose of feeding the most vulnerable members of our global community. Their work improved the lives of Americans and members of the human family across the world. The McGovern-Dole Food for Education Program, for example, has provided school meals to more than 40 million children in some of the world’s poorest countries. Senator Dole is still a member of the board of Bread for the World.

S. Lugar at Alliance

Another great champion of the hungry has been Indiana’s Senator Richard Lugar. Born out of his lived experience as a family farmer, school board member and Mayor of Indianapolis, Senator Lugar was a great friend to hungry people during his time in the Senate and continues to focus on reducing food insecurity.

I am grateful for Senator Lugar’s support for this Million Meal Fast. In a letter last week, he wrote: “I recently learned of your plan to fast for 16 days to call attention to Congress’s proposed cuts to the federal SNAP program. . . . I share in your disappointment over the congressional proposal and I thank you for your continuing efforts to help the millions of food insecure Americans.”

Please contact your Representative and Senators and let them know that you oppose cuts to SNAP. SNAP provides 2/3 of the food for hungry people in the US. It’s vital to kids, veterans and seniors. There is no better alternative.

“We can all agree that no one ought to go hungry in America, and SNAP is essential in protecting the most vulnerable citizens during tough times. For many it is a vital lifeline to keeping food on the table.”

K. Michael Conaway, Republican of Texas, Chairman of the House Committee on Agriculture, from: Past, Present, & Future of SNAP, Hearing Series Findings: 114th Congress

Coming Together

Yesterday in this blog, we talked about how stereotypes of hungry people are a major hurdle to understanding and ending hunger.

(Postscript to that blog: when we avoid stereotypes of hungry people, we may also be protecting ourselves and our children, because studies show that most Americans will need food assistance at some point in their lives!)

Stereotypes divide all of us, including those who don’t need food assistance. This is clear to anyone who’s not been in a coma for the last year or two. There is great divisiveness in our land, over all kinds of things. Amanda Taub wrote in the New York Times: “Partisan bias now operates more like racism than mere political disagreement”. We have to ask ourselves, “What does our heart tell us when our head is bombarded with so much information from so many sides?”

What we have learned from our hearts, and our heads, in our quest to end hunger in Indiana is that we need everyone. Hunger is like a 250 lb. fullback – it’s not sitting back and waiting, it’s coming at us full on, and we have to team tackle it. The problem is so large that we need public and private, faith-based and secular, business and nonprofits all working together. If we collaborate, we can meet the challenge. SNAP is an essential part of the team.

This collaboration means working beyond our usual boundaries – working with people who are different. Indy Hunger Network and other Hunger Free Community groups across the country do this. IHN’s collaboration has meant millions of additional meals for Indy. The photo is from a meeting yesterday of IHN leaders with Indiana Governor Eric Holcomb to discuss collaborations to end hunger.

Likewise, Bread for the World collaborates to impact US policy. In fact, the only way to change public policy is through working together. Bread brings together Christians from 50 denominations and lots of others as well.        IHN and Gov Holcomb

The hunger problem is solvable, if we set aside labels and get to know one another, and focus on working together to assist those in need.

I urge you to join your voice with ours and request our government continue to do its part to end hunger. Contact your Congressional representative and let them know that their constituents include the hungry, and they deserve to be fed. Urge them to oppose cuts in funding for SNAP.

dave

The Trouble with Stereotypes

One of the many hurdles to ending hunger is the stereotyping of hungry people. What generally comes to mind are people in crumbling, crime-ridden neighborhoods who are on all manner of government assistance, are lazy and taking advantage of the system. People begging with cardboard signs at intersections also come to mind.

There are certainly hungry people in those scenarios. There are some people who try to take advantage of the system — but their numbers are far, far lower than the number of families who honestly need support, and are working to better their lives. If you’ve ever known someone who has been in one of these government systems, you know how difficult enrollment can be, how strictly guidelines are adhered to, and how modest is the assistance actually given. Few want to be in those programs unless they have to be.

The truth is that while some of the food insecure do reflect those stereotypes, most folks who need assistance look just like you and me. Let me introduce you to Brad.

A few years ago, I was at Downey Avenue Christian Church on Indy’s near east side. Their food pantry was open that day, and I was interviewing clients as part of a Gleaners study when a man approached the table where I was working.

Brad looked “normal” (if there is such a thing!). He had a college degree, and had had a good job as a manager and his own place in Carmel. He’d been doing well — until he lost his job. That’s when things went downhill. He’d had no income at all the prior month and found himself living in the inner city sharing a bathroom with three other men. He had frequently been hungry, sometimes not eating for an entire day.

Brad had lost all sense of self-worth. The man he saw in the mirror was not the manager who lived in Carmel, a middle-class citizen with a mortgage and late model car. His financial situation had thrown him in with the poor and hungry people for whom, in his former life, he’d only felt disdain. He believed they were poor because they were lazy or unmotivated. Now the face in the mirror told him a different story.

From this and dozens of other interviews, I learned an important lesson. The face of hunger is not one face — it’s a collage of faces of all ages, all races, rural and urban, people with advanced degrees and people who didn’t finish high school.

Don’t fall for stereotypes, especially stereotypes in which the hungry themselves are blamed for their predicament. People’s circumstances can change in a heartbeat through no fault of their own. When that happens, we need to make sure we’re there to help support them, feed them, until they get back on their feet.

I urge you to be a voice for those who are struggling, those whose struggles will only worsen if Congress cuts $150 billion in funding for SNAP. Contact your Congressional representative and let them know that their constituents include the hungry, and they deserve to be fed.

dave

All About SNAP

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is a federal program that provides food assistance to low and no-income people and families living in the U.S. It is among the programs Congress has designated as mandatory spending (or entitlement). What this means is that if your situation deteriorates enough that you qualify, you can receive benefits regardless of others also needing support. When the recession hit in 2008/2009 SNAP immediately ramped up to help the greatly increased number of people in need. It took years for private charities to similarly ramp up. SNAP is doing the same right now for people impoverished by hurricanes and floods.

“Why are SNAP expenditures so high?” is a frequently asked question. Sadly, there is a simple answer for this: it’s because lots of people are truly poor. It’s not because people want to be on SNAP.  Applying is difficult. Work requirements limit benefits for able-bodied adults who do not have dependents. The value of the minimum wage has declined and the cost of living has not.

The answer should not be millions more people going hungry. The answer should be adjusting our economy so that anyone willing to work a full-time job is able to feed their own family. As people get good jobs, they will gladly see their SNAP benefits ended (once a certain income level is reached, SNAP benefits automatically end).

SNAP benefits are not generous. They are designed to run out after three weeks of a month, and they do. To feed their families, desperately poor people have to patch together SNAP, school meals, food pantries, etc. in the midst of extreme life challenges. Benefits are adjusted for family size, so seniors living alone often conclude that the application process is not worth the minimal benefit.

Periodically, there are suggestions that SNAP can be made more efficient by handing the program off to the states. The truth, however, is that the program is already very efficient:  >90% of funds go directly to beneficiaries. Many private charities cannot make that claim. Fraud rates are also already very low, despite the claims of people who want to sack the program. In fact, overhead could be even lower if SNAP administrators at the state level didn’t have to spend so much time assuring critics that no one wrongly receives benefits!

To those who suggest that charities simply replace SNAP — unfortunately, this idea is completely impractical. The reality is that 80-90% of food assistance provided to those in need from all sources is Federal. It comes through SNAP, school meals, WIC, commodities distributed through food banks, and senior nutrition programs. Churches and private charities in total can cover just 10-20% of the need.

Poverty is just too widespread for charities and churches to meet the need for food. With public and private, faith-based and secular, for-profit and not-for-profit all together we could meet the need. But only with everyone contributing.

The cuts that Congress is proposing will be devastating to those in need. Please contact your legislative representative and urge them to keep SNAP at its currently funded level.

dave

All About Bread

Subtitle: Change the Systems!

“The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool.”
Martin Luther King, Jr. in The Strength to Love

The natural first response to people going hungry is to offer them food. However, as we noted yesterday, hunger is a massive issue. We also need to keep in mind the bigger picture – changing the systems is also needed.

If you had a payday lender nearby gouging very poor people with 200% interest rates, you might angrily picket the store to try to get them to close or change their practices, but there’s probably ten more such stores nearby. Or you could work to change the systems by getting a law passed that caps interests rates for all such outfits.

Bread for the World works to change the systems, to change Federal government policy to make the system more just for hungry and poor people, at home and abroad. Everyone has a part to play, and hunger cannot be ended without our government playing its part.

How does Bread for the World do this work? We can capture it in 5 ‘P’s.

Prayer. Bread organizes a collective Christian voice urging our nation’s decision makers to help end hunger and poverty. We need God in this work. We bring together Christians from all traditions, as well as many others, to speak up for the hungry. We see God in each of our elected officials of both parties, and treat them with respect. We have no ‘red meat’ partisan issues; we do not work with or for parties and politics.

Policy. Bread’s staff are widely respected on Capitol Hill for their knowledge and ability. The staff provide advocates like me in all 50 states with timely information we need to make an impact. Bread’s role is so vital and done so well that it was recognized with the World Food Prize in 2010, the only time the award has gone to an advocacy organization. We are bipartisan in our policy approaches, staff and board.

Persuasion. Our advocates know the issues and engage their friends and churches. This increases their impact. As their voices are joined with those of activists across the country, change can happen.

Persistence. Systems change is not easy, and it can take a long time. When it comes, though, it can be deep, wide, just and sustainable. The Founding Fathers framed our democracy for compromise — this takes time, so we persist.

Power. From the first four ‘P’s’ comes our fifth ‘P’ — power. With leadership from Bread, the Global Food Security Act was passed in 2016 with both Senators Coats and Donnelly as co-sponsors, as were six of the nine Hoosier Representatives in the House. Eight of the nine Representatives voted in favor of it. The prior year we saw major victories with tax credits for the working poor, poverty-focused development assistance, international food aid reform, and Africa trade policy.

It’s a story for another blog post, but a couple years ago I wrote an email to my Senator’s staffer, and the upshot was $35 million for African farmers. You can’t get that impact with a bake sale.

Contact your legislative representative today. Together we can move mountains.

Dave