Here in the developed world, you would think that everybody would have access to food, even the very poor. It's true, there are free meal programs, emergency pantries, food stamps, and more. I've heard people say that in Portland, nobody has to go hungry. But they still do.
The Oregon Food Bank buys foods in bulk and sells it to various hunger-relief charities. Yes, they sell it. They recently started offering all the fresh produce for free, but everything else comes at a price. So the charities have to be funded, and with limits on funding, they have to set up guidelines regarding who is allowed to receive food, and limits as to how often those recipients can be helped.
OFB's free produce is an excellent improvement. Dubbed Free Alliance, the program partners with sellers for more donated fresh food, allowing the food bank to pass it on at no charge, in order to increase nutrition of the food being given to people in need. Because hunger itself really isn't the biggest problem -- it's malnutrition.
There's always bread. I've driven downtown and offered leftover bakery items to people on the streets. Sweets are a big hit, as their brief shelf life makes them harder to distribute. But bread, bagels, and rolls are everywhere, and street folks often say thanks but no thanks to more bread, especially hard breads that aggravate already-under-cared-for dental problems. (Why is it that we can provide free medical care, but no dental services?!)
Man cannot live by bread alone, the bible tells us. It's literally true, regardless of religious meaning. Nature requires a variety of fruits, vegetables, and protein sources to build healthy bodies, and bread is mostly just extra calories. The calories help, especially for people who don't have access to anything else. But consuming calories isn't the same as being nourished.
That free produce that OFB is offering? Yeah, that only goes to partner agencies. If you want food from OFB, you have to be a 501c3, have adequate storage and transportation, submit an application, and attend a class. After all that, they select partner agencies. I went through the process and was declined. This year, they aren't accepting any new partner agencies.
So even though there is a lot of food in Portland, there isn't necessarily a lot of nutrition available to the very poor. Even though there are hundreds of volunteers actively working to provide food to everyone in need, we rely on donations, and few people are donating meat, produce, and dairy products. We end up cooking meals that are heavy on rice or pasta, flavored with what little meat we can get, and supplemented with meager vegetable offerings.
Nobody has to go hungry in Portland, but malnutrition is a whole different story.
I haven't posted in ages, mostly due to my daughter's wedding, the house remodel, and preparing for my first grand-baby, which has all been joyful. But it's also because it's hard to create meaningful content when the world is discouraging, and anyone who keeps up with news and world affairs and isn't discouraged is living in a fantasy. I cope by hunkering down and working on the small things I can control and impact.
Waste Not Food Taxi is poised to become a major force and solution in the greater Portland area, which is both a dream come true and a terrifying prospect. If all three counties' waste management departments, as well as Metro, start referring businesses to us for help with their food waste, we're going to not only need all the volunteers we've been signing up for the past year, we're also going to need managers, coordinators, team leaders, and a primary contact in each of the 100 zip codes in our territory.
So I'm learning that a really great antidote for discouragement is having a lot of meaningful work on my to-do list. Getting the rest of the baseboards painted isn't enough to pull me out of a funk, but methane emissions from wasted food sure is. Knowing there are hundreds of people falling through the cracks of our society because getting excess food to them is inconvenient really lights a fire under me. Feeling temperatures dip into the low 40s at night reminds me that thousands of people can't afford heat, or don't have access to a warm room or even an adequate jacket.
I can't solve all the problems in our world. I can barely cause a ripple. But everyone can do something, and in doing something we can reignite our sense of hope, of value, of courage. One small act of kindness, one changed habit at home, one shared success story can carry us through the darkest times, together.
What can you do today?
More and more lately, I'm realizing that the US is home to two societies, almost entirely separate and distinct. I grew up in the white society. People of color sometimes step into my world, briefly, but have never really been an integral part of it. I never really thought about why, and I never considered myself racist or prejudiced in any way. People are people, I figured, and I tend to like and get along with everybody.
The other society is people of color. Almost all Black people, most Latinx and Asian people and other minority groups fit in this group of "others." These are the people who grow up alongside us whites, but not "with" us. These are the people who don't believe the world is a safe place or that America is a land of opportunity. These are the people born into oppression, who fear authority figures, who spend their lives learning to be subtle and not make waves.
This society is painful and lonely. It's endlessly frustrating, knowing that the people in power, the people hiring, the people prosecuting, the people building housing, will never understand what it is to be part of a separate society. What it feels like to walk down the street and see people hold their purses tighter or grab their children's hands when they see you approaching.
Have you seen the YouTube video of a white man stealing a bike compared to a black man stealing a bike? It illustrates our subconscious prejudgments effectively (whether or not it was a valid experiment). I, who consider myself unbiased, have to admit that I'm more likely to suspect a black young adult man in a hoody than a white young adult man in a polo shirt and khakis. And it has very little to do with their clothing choices.
Here's the thing, though. The young white guy is far more likely to be a white supremacy zealot than the black man is to be anything but a regular guy trying to get through the day without pissing off any white people. Yes, he buys his clothes at discount stores and bikes to work, but his mama raised him to be honest, hardworking, loyal, and respectful. Doesn't matter. He's ten times more likely to end up in prison than the white guy.
According to the NAACP, if you happen to be born black and male, there's a one in three chance that you'll spend some time in jail. For whites, it's more like one in forty. If you're a black woman, you're twice as likely to be raped as a white woman -- nearly half of all black women in America suffer sexual assault.
Somehow the story has circulated that black men rape white women more than white men rape black women. Even though the exact opposite is true, white people choose to believe this lie.
Black men arrested for drug possession serve prison time equivalent to white men guilty of violent crimes. People of color are ten times more likely to be arrested on drug charges, even though they represent less than one quarter of the drug users in America.
We didn't abolish slavery 150 years ago. Slavery is alive and well. Instead of openly owning and abusing people of color, we just shun them, deny them access to public services, arrest them, sentence them to private prisons that practice unpaid labor.
Just yesterday, a Seattle pregnant black mother of three called the police to report a burglary in progress. She was shot and killed by the two officers. She was holding a knife, they said. She had a history of mental illness, they reported. They feared for their lives, the story says. So they shot a tiny young mother in front of her children. No tasers. No tear gas. No effort to use their joint power, authority, and strength to disarm the frightened victim who had called them for help.
Two Americas. I'm ashamed. Aren't you?
A couple of students have contacted me recently, asking for interviews for class projects. I'm so glad high schools are including awareness of charitable organizations in their curricula! Here are the most recent questions and answers.
How long has this organization been around?
We started August 1, 2015, as Benefit Brownies. I was a pastry chef and then an office manager and small business consultant. I became disabled in early 2015, and had the first of several surgeries in July that year. Sitting around recovering gave me time to think about what I wanted to do next with my life, now that my physical capacity was diminished, but I had a modest disability income so a salary wasn't mandatory. I've always loved to feed people, and am especially passionate about providing for people whom society has passed over. So I started Benefit Brownies to raise funds to fight hunger. I would use the funds to develop a network of volunteers to "rescue" edible leftover food and get it to people in need. I hoped to commission an app, similar to Uber, that would be open source. Then I could document the whole process and offer it to other communities to start their own programs with no costs.
What motivates you to give your time to this cause?
Once you've provided something as essential as food to someone who doesn't have enough, you can't ever turn your back on this problem. I'm glad that my humanity and sense of decency make me uncomfortable with our failures as a society, and that they push me to do something about it. I feel very fortunate to be able to choose where, when, and how to serve, and I'm very aware that I have a level of privilege that 90% of the world will never have access to. Most people are struggling so hard just to survive that they can't rise above their own needs to serve any other purpose, let alone choose a satisfying way to do that. And, selfishly, I have to admit that I need something productive to do with my days, a certain amount of structure, a certain accountability to others, that keeps me from becoming isolated and depressed. The more we care about other people, the richer our lives are. I have a very rich life!
How does helping so many people make you feel?
I used to think I would feel a lot of satisfaction in providing food to poor people, but it's not anything like that. It's humbling. It makes me feel apologetic, that I'm part of a community that allows people to go hungry and homeless, and that all I'm able to do about it is offer some food. In all the years I catered gourmet food to the wealthy, I never met anyone so grateful, kind, generous, and open. The people I meet on the street are amazing, and it's a privilege to be allowed into their lives, to learn their needs and fears and joys. They're all so vulnerable, but they don't let that rule them -- they find pleasure in simple things like a hot meal. They're eager to share with their neighbors, a quality so much richer because they have so little. You can't come home from them and take for granted your access to heat and a comfortable bed and running water.
Where is the organization now compared to when it started?
It didn't take us long, as Benefit Brownies, to learn that our little fundraising efforts weren't having a big impact. We also learned that the need isn't so much for money as it is for a volunteer force, for community energy, in getting already-available food to where it's needed. By January, 2016, we were focusing on Waste Not Food Taxi. When I suffered another health setback in August that year, we gave up the brownie baking completely, as I was no longer able to do the physical work. I started spending my time, instead, using mostly social media to invite people to volunteer. I phoned all the pantries, shelters, and free meal programs I could find and asked what kinds of food they needed most and when, and then went to area stores and restaurants to invite them to donate leftovers instead of throwing them away. In September, we enlisted 1 grocery store, a bakery, a bagel shop, and a coffee house. By the end of 2016, we were picking up about a ton of food a week, a lot of it from cafeterias in the Beaverton School District. We started partnering with other agencies to share resources, pick up from one another, and do our best to put edible leftovers to the most effective use. Now in the middle of March, 2017, we only pick up less than two tons of food each week when we can't line up big enough vehicles to move it all. We're launching a Saturday free food pantry this Saturday, because Saturdays seem under-served in Washington County. And we're actively seeking funds to add a vehicle to our operation, allowing us to deliver hot meals to people where they are. Whether it's a full-fledged food truck or a small pick up with pots of soup in the back will be determined by the amount we can raise. We hope to be offering mobile free meals by the end of this summer.
What interesting things have happened while trying to start this organization?
I had a small retirement account when I started this, and had to spend most of it to get off the ground. Just the licenses, permits, and other fees were about $1,000, and I had to rent commercial kitchen time to bake. I was surprised how little money I was able to raise. I expected to need to work hard to make any difference, but have since realized that hard work isn't what I have to offer, and it isn't what is most needed. As I continue to try to bend and adapt as I learn, I find that community organizing and "selling" this idea to volunteers and donating businesses are both my strengths and society's needs. Populating spreadsheets and sharing technology with other agencies is a much bigger part of this work than I expected. I'm glad, since my physical ability is so limited. But I never want to lose my direct connection with people living without shelter. They are my constant reminder of the simple basic needs of mankind and how easy it is to provide and care for one another. I believe that being out of touch with that simplicity is our culture's greatest loss.
A lot of people think it's extreme to compare the Donald to Hitler, but I don't. All the warning signs are in place -- the undermining of public media, the spread of false information to create chaos and mistrust, the chronyism in Washington. The biggest threat to our democracy, though is all the money that's backing selfish agendas that no longer serve the common citizen.
All my hopes for getting money out of politics were dashed when #45 was elected. The 1% used their assets to shout louder than the voices of the majority, and enough people believed their spiel to give them a stronghold in national politics. After they got their Trump-pet into office, the rest has been a cake walk. In this age of information, whoever can make the loudest case wins, no matter the merits or dangers of that case.
I attended a fundraiser years ago, where I was first introduced to the concept of voting with our dollars. The speaker asked us to take out our check books and our calendars. We looked at them, and were reminded that the things we're spending our money and our time on are the things we want, the things we support in this society. These are our votes. Capitalism will always adapt to where the dollars are going.
Do you buy Nestle products, even though they're trying to privatize natural resources and they care more about profit than whether child slaves are used to produce their chocolate ingredients? Do you shop at Walmart even though their profits are based on paying low enough wages that employees rely on public assistance, and the cost to taxpayers is more than double what Walmart earns in profits? Do you drive when you could walk or bike? Do you choose gas over electricity because it's cheaper? Do you think about the impact your time and money choices are making on the world? These are important things to consider.
It's a struggle for those of us with minimal discretionary income to make our votes heard, but we can do it. We can recommend the businesses that, besides being effective and useful, are owned and managed by minorities, that give back to the community, that participate in earth-friendly practices, that support education or healthcare or any number of causes that make our lives better. We can organize, so that our voices are amplified. Those messy protests that may be inconvenient and may seem ineffective are an important part of the democratic process. They help stave off the fascism of a money-centered government. Each angry, frustrated citizen hardly causes a ripple, but together, we can be a tsunami.
Those of us without the money to buy media attention and bribe politicians have to vote with what we've got -- our time, our voices, our determination. The 1% would love to have complete control over our government. Fascism serves them. Our only defense against continuing down that road is to get really loud, really committed, really organized, and hyper-aware of what our dollars and hours are voting for.
We've talked before about our society's sick pressure on women to be young, thin, tall, and picture-perfect. It causes untold anxiety in teenage girls especially and has driven many to eating disorders and even some to suicide. It's painful. It's lonely. It's so wrong. I've been embarrassed of my body since I was in grade school. I've been bullied, shamed, encouraged to lose weight, told I "would be so pretty if..." An early interest in health and maybe becoming a dietitian morphed into being a pastry chef -- a fat person has more credibility in that role. I don't go to movies or fly or sit in booths, mostly to avoid still more shame for being too large.
But let's get outside of ourselves for a minute. What if you're bald? Maybe you had chemo or a skin disease or maybe you just hated your hair. Can women be comfortable with that, even when society judges you? Perhaps you have a disability or deformity -- even those words judge you as wrong, less, the opposite of normal. How about people of color? Did you like Halle Barry's hair at the Oscars? Or was it too "African" for you, or too informal, or just too different? Seriously, one of the most beautiful women in the world, and people criticize her appearance.
What if you're of a darker ethnic background and suffering poverty? You don't have stylish clothes or miracle makeup or fancy hair products -- does that make you somehow less of a person? It does in a lot of eyes, so many eyes, in fact, that society in general tends to label you as less -- less attractive, less worthwhile, less intelligent, even less entitled to necessities like shelter, food, and toilet facilities. Your self image pales in comparison to society's image of you.
What if, because you were ostracized, you became mentally unstable? What if you lost your job, couldn't afford your meds, and ended up living in a tent behind some shrubs near the freeway? What does society think of you now?
Society is a harsh judge, and any time we accept a social norm on face value, we're more likely than not hurting somebody. We need to become drastically more aware of what denotes value, how we determine who has and who has not, who is worthy of necessities and who is deserving of grace. Until all of us feel acceptance, value, beauty, society serves none of us.
I saw a recipe the other day for a fresh apple upside-down cake. It looked delicious. It made me wonder why we eat so many foods right-side-up. All the garnishes, the flavor, the crunchy bits or melted cheese or icing, those are all on the top. We should eat them upside-down to get the most flavor. We even serve upside-down cake right-side-up. Seems like a weird obsession to me.
On further contemplation, I'm realizing how much of our world has turned upside-down, inside-out. A few hundred years ago, poor people were actually the healthiest -- they got more exercise, grew their own food, lived simple lives and had longer life expectancy than their wealthy counterparts, who were idle and ate too much rich food. Now it's expensive to eat fresh, especially organic, food. Exercise often means joining a gym. The majority of Americans work sedentary jobs and can only afford less-expensive processed, mass-produced food. Poor people get outside less, and rich folks can indulge in all kinds of physical luxuries and top-of-the-line health care.
A hundred years ago, America was a farming country. A family farm could support everyone on it, including hired help, and provide a little income as well. But as corporate economy grew, family farms couldn't compete. Poor people started moving to the cities, where they could find paid employment. The cities eventually encompassed ghettos, gangs, poverty in all its iterations, and suburbs started to grow as a place for "better" (read richer) living. And now, city rents are so high and other costs of living so demanding, that people of limited income can't afford to live there anymore. But with rural land now all fenced off, private property and few legal places to just settle down and live without purchasing land, we've eliminated options for the poor.
We wonder why there are so many homeless, so many struggling, so many poor. Simple -- we created them. We took away the country, then took away the cities, and thousands of people have no place to go. What would you do if you couldn't pay and lost your home? Living with relatives is great, if you have relatives. Roommates crowding together works, sometimes, for a while. Couch-hopping is likely the next best option. Then you're pretty much down to living on the street or choosing a nomadic life where you hope to meet your needs through a combination of odd jobs and the kindness of strangers.
In early America, the wealthy rural landowners had more influence politically. Now that a majority of our population is urban or suburban, we have an altered set of values that reflect our modern societal needs. But our government still favors the rural in many ways, such as providing a minimum of three congressional representatives per state, no matter how small the population (and, correspondingly, electoral college votes). So even though the needs of the majority of our people are far more socialist and cooperative, we're now governed by those who value isolation rather than a global community, less government as opposed to more and better services, a "if you want more, work more" attitude that doesn't translate to city dwellers whose rent is 80% of their income.
Mostly, in the upside-down nature of our current society, we seem to have stopped trying to understand one another, to care about people who are different from us, to welcome the stranger. We become more and more insulated in our homes and behind our computers, and we forget that there might be a neighbor going hungry. Where we used to give food to any stranger who asked for it, we now avoid "those" people, assuming they're dangerous or criminal or lazy. We even travel the world only to stay in American hotels or walled-off all-inclusive resorts, where we don't have to experience what the native populations really live like. And if any of them dare beg for help, they're reported, reprimanded, removed, because that behavior can affect tourism dollars the rich depend on.
I consider myself a humanitarian and an activist, but there are many days I don't go outside. I don't know my neighbors. I don't engage strangers in conversation. I care about feeding the hungry, but I mostly don't even do that anymore -- I just gather food and find someone else who's providing it to and interacting with the homeless camps. My world is protected, insulated, a safe distance from reality. What a shame that we feel the need to distance ourselves from one another.
Our world has turned upside-down. Humankind has lost its humanity.
I've been expressing political and human rights opinions the last few posts, and intend to keep doing that, but I do need to talk about Waste Not Food Taxi's work sometimes, too!
WNFT continues to gain popularity and, more importantly, awareness in Washington County and the greater Portland area. Just yesterday, I had a terrific phone call with the director of Urban Gleaners in Portland, in which we discussed our mutual goals and collaboration opportunities. It's good to know we're not the only ones working on the massive global problem of food waste. Also yesterday, one of our volunteers dropped by with $75 in cash and several bags of food that her garden club contributed! Group efforts like this help us tremendously.
Still, there's a huge amount of food waste. We've barely scratched the surface. The next major effort is working with the Oregon Food Bank. Yes, they do a lot to get food to families facing poverty. But they also waste a tremendous amount of edible food. They DO compost it, and I credit them for that environmental effort. But their food distribution system is based on independent pantries that offer food boxes and other free groceries to families in need. The pantries buy their food from OFB (at a deep discount), so must be independently funded. And that distribution model takes time -- at least several days.
Lots of people working to feed the hungry are not approved partners of OFB, often due to lack of funding. Those are the groups WNFT is supporting. Everything we collect and give away is entirely free, and our only requirement is that meals be prepared in spaces that meet state standards for cleanliness and food safety. A big advantage these free-meal programs have is quick turn-around. They can take expired dairy products & meat and limp produce and get it out to homeless camps within 24 hours. So that milk that was dated yesterday can be served perfectly safely. Thousands of gallons and hundreds of tons are being composted due to slow distribution options and lack of manpower.
I feel strongly that we can eliminate hunger in urban Oregon this year, if we can partner with the Oregon Food Bank. It'll take a little longer to reach rural communities, because we'd have to acquire funding for our volunteers to travel the state and potentially spend a night on the road. But we can do this. Thank you for your support!
I have a lot of conservative friends, and I know some of them are rolling their eyes when they see how fired up I am about the government mess we're in right now. They know I tend to get fired up about all the things that matter to me, that I can be called extremist, but politics? Why politics?
I'm passionate about reducing food waste, because 25% of our landfills are food waste, and that's creating a tremendous amount of dangerous methane in our air. Pair that problem with the number of people who are struggling to get enough to eat, and I have to be fired up. I couldn't live with myself if I didn't address these problems that could so easily solve each other.
I'm passionate about homelessness, and helping people realize that homelessness is the problem, not homeless people. I know there are solutions that would cost taxpayers less than we're paying now for the repercussions of the problem, but we have to think outside the box and be willing to take chances on radical ideas.
I'm passionate about marginalized populations and have a big problem with people thinking it's OK to treat specific groups as less valuable, less important, less human. Or thinking that we get to tell other people whether their circumstances and choices are good or bad, ethical or immoral.
But most of all, I'm passionate about 21st century America, the freedoms and privileges it offers and the potential for greatness in each of us. I'm very uncomfortable with a president who believes his ratings are more important than legal non-citizens' rights to come home to their families. Who believes shock value works in government the same way it works in reality TV. I'm worried about a bunch of billionaires with no public service experience all of a sudden running our government.
I don't believe our country is safe with this leadership team. Oh, I'm safe. I'm white, a citizen, educated, with supportive family and friends. No, I'm talking about the other HALF of our population. People who weren't born in the U.S., people who can't read, people who are decent and hard-working but unable to rise out of poverty. People of color, a wide range of ethnic groups who enrich and deepen the quality of our country. Veterans left to live on the streets. Young women trapped in prostitution. People not on either end of the gender spectrum but falling somewhere in between, falling where we don't even have an appropriate pronoun, falling through the cracks of our male-or-female, black-or-white, right-or-wrong artificial sense of order. People who made mistakes and got dragged down to a dark underworld of addiction and can no longer see any light.
Half of our country is under attack. Civil rights violations are running rampant, because this administration is allowing white supremacists to believe that they have permission to act out, to hurt innocent people, to judge and condemn and ostracize decent, kind people just because of some made-up difference that they think matters. We don't have the right to do this to anybody, ever, but especially not to the people who have already suffered at our hands for generations. People of African descent have put up with crap from us white people forever. They've fought hard and paid a high price for their rights and their freedoms. You think they're going to just sit back and let that all fade away? Not on your life. Native Americans have sacrificed everything to try to get along with us white folks. We've stabbed them in the back every time. You think they're going to let go of the little land and scrap of dignity they still cling to? Don't hold your breath.
Just because all the garbage going on in Washington right now doesn't hurt us doesn't make it OK. It's not OK. It's absolutely 100% NOT OK, and we owe it to our country to fight for freedom, for fairness, for choice, for rights. We owe it to those who cannot stand on their own to stand up for them. How can we live with ourselves if we don't?
I've learned a lot about respectful conversation in the last month, thanks primarily to the Women's March leadership team, and the wonderful Margaret Jacobsen. The first (and likely most important) step in community organizing is talking and listening. I knew that. What I didn't know was that we white folks are doing it wrong.
You've probably seen the fiery conversations on social media. A white privileged person makes a statement. A marginalized person challenges it. But they don't say, "Uh, excuse me, friend, I think you're mistaken in your assumptions here. Let's talk about this more deeply." They say, "Shut up, Bitch, you've got no idea what your talking about" (likely with more slang and a pissed-off tone).
White clueless bubble-living woman says, "Wow, that's inappropriate. I believe in conversation, but if you could avoid the name calling, we could work this out."
"Name calling, Becky? You think THAT's name-calling? You white cis women sit in your ivory towers, you've got no idea what oppression is. Don't you dare tell me how to talk."
At this point, we uninformed folk tend to wash our hands of that person. We block them or unfriend them or just choose not to look in that group anymore. They just don't get it. If they could learn to speak proper English and show proper respect ...
Bullshit. After oppressing the black community for our entire history, and continuing to allow oppression right before our eyes, after being apathetic to their plight because it doesn't touch us, we want THEM to learn? We think we can tell gay and trans people how they should talk to us, after the insults we've lobbed at them? Proper English and respectful conversation are fine for those of us who have had the luxury of communicating only that way. But we have to open our minds and allow emotionally-charged words and painful labels to be part of this conversation, or we can't possibly hear the pain, anger, resentment, indignation, and frustration that whole groups of our population are living with.
Sure, we want to know what it feels like to be different, to be oppressed, to suffer constant injustice. Just say it my way, just come into my orderly little white hetero mainstream world and behave like me -- then I can hear you.
It's time to toughen up, white friends, and be willing to hear what oppression feels like. These people have endured so much more than a few offensive names. Let's get over ourselves and really listen.
Margaret Jacobsen, my new hero, has started a real conversation group called "Let's Talk." If you'd like information about February's meeting, please send me a message. As Margaret says, "Let's get uncomfortable together."
Susie Snortum is passionate about improving society's compassion for meeting basic human needs -- food, shelter, clean water, and dignity.