Tag Archive for: systems

The food bank is closed.

It’s Wednesday and the day when I would normally be headed out to a five or six hour shift at the food bank eight blocks from my house. But I’m not going today, or ever again, as it turns out. The parent agency shut us down last week for a variety of reasons (all of which made me sad and frustrated and angry).

Our little food bank was the smallest in the city, and it was because of our small size that we were able to be agile and flexible and make a huge difference in people’s lives, both before the onset of Covid and during. The director – the only paid employee – did the job part-time but she did it with all of her heart and soul. She was dedicated to making sure that we centered our clients, that we understood who they were and what they needed, and that we led with equity and social justice principles and treated every one of the folks we served with dignity. The rest of us were volunteers – some working two hours a week and others many, many more than that.

Because of our location, we served a diverse population of folks – Cambodian and Chinese and Filipino communities. Hispanic folks and Black folks and white folks, too. Before Covid hit, we were set up like a store and farmer’s market (thanks to the partnership we had with a local church congregation that brought us gorgeous fresh produce every Wednesday morning – things like bok choy and garlic and melon and apples and salad greens) and when we opened our doors at noon, there was a line around the block. We had homeless folks who came to us looking for ready-to-eat food (which we made sure to set aside for them; things with pop tops and plastic utensils and granola bars and boxes of raisins), and a partnership with a convenience store down the block that would allow them to use the microwave to heat up their food without asking them to make a purchase. We served many many women and children living in domestic violence shelters or transitional housing, and often set aside birthday cakes or cupcakes for special occasions. We knew our families who needed nut-free or gluten-free food, those who didn’t know how to use canned goods, but wanted frozen meat and fresh vegetables, and we worked with each individual to put together the food that they needed and wanted and would use the most.

When Covid hit, we worked hard to shift, delivering food to every household (which meant we could no longer serve homeless folks), and putting together boxes using what we got from the federal government as well as using donated money to purchase things like cooking oil and baking mix and spices to supplement. The director and I sat down every week and crafted a menu for the following week, anchoring it around one or two specific meals, after looking over what we were projected to receive in our delivery. If we saw we were getting frozen ground beef, we purchased sloppy joe mix and hamburger buns and a complementary vegetable. Egg noodles prompted us to get all the ingredients for tuna casserole. Anticipating the holidays, we stockpiled whole chickens and purchased stuffing and solicited donations of pumpkin pie for everyone. We put together boxes with snacks and made sure we gave everyone enough for multiple breakfasts, lunches, and dinners every week. And it still wasn’t perfect because some weeks we only got pork and we knew our Muslim families wouldn’t eat it; we knew our gluten free clients couldn’t eat about 30% of what we sent them. But we had no choice – we had to send everyone the same thing, and we found other ways to serve our community.

With the leftover produce and some of the random things we got from food drives and our snack supply, I put together boxes of food every week to take to the tent encampments in the neighborhood. I brought loaves of sandwich bread, peanut butter and jelly, pouches of tuna, small boxes of cereal and shelf-stable milk, and apples and bananas. We found a way to help the folks we used to help.

When we had a surplus of huge quantities of frozen meat and rice and orange juice, I called two mutual aid groups and arranged for them to meet me on the weekend and fill their cars and trucks to serve their communities. It helped us free up freezer space and made sure the food was eaten by folks who needed it. Another one of the volunteers is a pastor and he arranged for a group who makes sack lunches for homeless folks to come and get juice boxes and sandwich fixings on a regular basis.

We worked really hard to adapt to the Covid restrictions placed on us, working outside in pouring rain and wind trying to keep the food dry as we social-distanced and packed individual boxes, putting together a crew of amazing volunteer drivers who came one by one all day on Wednesday to fill their cars with boxes of food to drop at households in need, and pivoting when our delivery was late or when we got more than we could possibly store in our small facility. When we got CARES Act money and realized how restricted it was and how quickly we had to use it or lose it, we spent some time bitching about the bureaucracy and how out of touch politicians are with the needs of people in this country, and then we put our heads together to figure out how to make it work for the people we feed every week.

So when I got a text message at 2pm last Tuesday, informing me that the following day was our last day and that we needed to get rid of all the food in our storage areas (eight freezers and five refrigerators, two accessory sheds plus a 400 square foot warehouse) by the end of the day, I was stunned. In addition to the food we had been stockpiling in anticipation of another lockdown, we had 10,000 pounds of food still to be delivered that day. And all of the other groups – the homeless camps, the mutual aid groups, the sack lunch folks – they were out of luck after that, along with our regular delivery clients. The agency believed that the other food banks in the city could “absorb the need,” but they have no idea what we do or how many people we feed in any given week from our little tiny food bank. We have done a phenomenal job of feeding hundreds and hundreds of people with the very few resources we’re given, and we have done it with dedication and a bedrock foundation of love. There were always frustrating elements to the work – the times when we had thousands of pounds of dried beans and local grocery stores sent us hundreds of day-old (weeks old) pastries, but we lacked milk and fresh meat; when neighbors who were moving emptied their pantry of expired, half-eaten items and dumped them on the sidewalk with a note that said “food bank.” But because we were small, we were also scrappy.

I showed up at the food bank last Wednesday just after 7am and got to work. After planning with the director, I mobilized the volunteer crew and we all worked our tails off, sending out more boxes than we’d ever sent before, putting out the call to mutual aid groups and other organizations, stocking our sidewalk “Little Free Pantry” to the gills, crying and reminiscing and and making sure we did what needed to be done. I have never been so physically exhausted in my life, nor have I ever been more proud of a group of people who came together once a week to thoughtfully serve their community.

I have no idea how folks will get the food they need now, but I’m actively trying to bridge the gap for many of them. This scenario is a sad reminder to me that when we rely on systems like these, we will never get what we need in a sustainable way because the system will always find a way to center itself over the beings it was designed to serve. When we rely on people, we get creativity and care and things get done, but it’s always a precarious situation. The system can impose its will and shut down the ability of the people to do what they have been doing. And in systems like this, the inflection point is the worker – they are the one who carries the burden of both toeing the line that the system has created and working creatively to help the people they are trying to help. This is why teachers spend their own money on classroom supplies and work 80 hours a week while only getting paid for 40. It’s why we flexed to find ways to serve mutual aid groups and homeless folks even though we weren’t given any resources to do that work – because we as the workers knew it was important enough to us to figure it out, and as long as it didn’t ask the system for anything, they were willing to turn a blind eye. But even if they hadn’t shut us down, it was unsustainable. We were running out of resources – time, money, energy from volunteers – and the system wasn’t going to give us any more.

I am incredibly sad that this is the decision that was made, and also not at all surprised. When we continue to create systems that pretend to serve human beings but center themselves within capitalism and “business models,” this will always be the way it goes, eventually. When it becomes too hard or too expensive to continue serving people well and with dignity, the system will cut corners in order to spare itself. To be sure, I will take the lessons I’ve learned here – both about the system and about the potential of caring, committed workers – to my next endeavor, whatever that may be, with an eye toward finding better ways to help my community. Stay tuned.

PS – I DO count among my victories during my tenure at the food bank the fact that I was able to convince the agency to give every household a $50 gift card to a local grocery store inside their food delivery for the last two weeks we were open. This post from a few months ago details my thinking about this and why I wish, in all actuality, ALL food banks would close in favor of simply giving people money to purchase the food they need when they need it.

photo & caption credit @jenlemen

Food is my love language. Or, more precisely, feeding other people is how I show my love and affection for them. There is nothing I love more than a house full of people that I can cook for and with, or sitting down to a table with those I adore to share a meal that I’ve provided or paid for. It makes my heart sing.

Which is why it makes sense that nearly five years ago, I responded to a call for volunteers at my local food bank – the smallest one in the city that serves a population of unhoused folks, women and children living in domestic violence shelters, and members of the community at large.

Like many food banks, pre-Covid19, we were structured much like a grocery store or farmer’s market. People came on foot, by bus, or private car to shop for items on our shelves and from the fresh produce we received once a week thanks to the generosity of a local church congregation.

Like many food banks, our funding was a mix of private donations, state funds, and federal funds – a complex system of receiving surplus food from the USDA, deliveries from the state non-profit that serves all food banks in Washington, purchasing items to fill in the gaps with cash we got from private patrons and fund-raising events. We served a particular slice of the community, many with unique needs. Folks without homes came to get food that doesn’t require refrigeration (or a can opener). Folks from Asian communities particularly preferred the weeks when we had bok choy and garlic on offer. Many of the women in the shelters had a desperate need for diapers and feminine hygiene items and were delighted when we had birthday cakes or cupcakes to help their kids celebrate special occasions. Larger households took whole chickens or bags of flour, while single folks living in shelters with just a mini-fridge and a microwave preferred frozen meals and a half-dozen eggs to bigger portions. It wasn’t perfect by any means – we often had a surplus of dried beans and received strange items that didn’t sell in traditional stores or sixteen cases of soda would show up at once – but we were able to stretch our donor dollars to fill in the gaps and donate huge bulk items to shelters that cooked communal meals for their residents.

But since March, it has become increasingly clear that this system is irrevocably broken and it is my strong opinion that food banks, on the whole, will never be able to meet the needs of our communities. It is time for a new solution and it will require a lot of courage and creativity and a willingness to dismantle the incredibly complex and wasteful system we have created over the last 50 years. I want to be absolutely clear that this is not an indictment of the food bank with which I am affiliated or, frankly, any food bank or volunteer or paid staff at all. This is an indictment of the system we have created that is not capable of rising to this moment in history in a way that is consistent with social justice. Let me explain:

In our county alone, during the pandemic, the number of households seeking food assistance from food banks has more than doubled. Unfortunately, because individuals are not allowed to visit food banks to choose the food they need for their particular circumstance, that means food banks have to prepare boxes of food for everyone and deliver them. In March, we scrambled to figure out how to make that happen, sending out a checklist to our regular clients and personalizing boxes for them. Needless to say, this didn’t last long. It took us hundreds of hours to go through our entire inventory, pick items off of the shelves and put them in boxes, label them, and ensure that they got on the correct delivery vehicle. It was simply impossible to do that for every client we had. And the clients who had no address to deliver to were simply unable to get food from us.

Within weeks, we had pivoted to making hundreds and hundreds of the same boxes so that everyone got the same mix of things. We were still working hard to ensure that we filled the gaps – soliciting donations of sandwich bread from Franz Bakery (who absolutely came through and delivered 200 loaves of fresh white bread every single week for months on end), purchasing oatmeal packets and cans of chili to supplement our boxes, and continuing to receive fresh produce every week – but the deliveries that came from Food Lifeline were simply what they were – we couldn’t control what we got. And this meant that during Ramadan, the only fresh meat we got for weeks on end was pork. One week, it meant that we received 400 5# cans of baby corn – one for each household. That is a bowling-ball-sized can of baby corn, for every single client. The following week, that huge can was filled with mandarin oranges and the week after that, it was green beans. If I am Muslim or Jewish and I don’t want pork to even cross the threshold of my home, I’m out of luck when I get that box of food. If I live in a shelter with just a mini-fridge for storage, once I open that giant can, what do I do with the remaining food? It will take up half the space in my refrigerator.

By April, the state of Washington was spending $5.5 million per week supporting Food Lifeline. The National Guard was enlisted to deliver food to area food banks and work in FL’s warehouse, and King County had agreed to use their Access buses and drivers to deliver the food to our clients. Everyone was trying to make this work. Where we previously had volunteers one day a week, because of the increased workload and social distancing needs, we now had folks there three days a week and we were still behind. And as someone with celiac, I often packed boxes with the realization that, were it my family this was going to, we would have to discard at least half of the items we received because we would get sick if we ate them. At one point, we had a caseworker at one of the shelters call us and essentially drop out of the program because the amount of wasted food was building up in their common areas and it was untenable. The boxes we sent simply had too much food or the wrong kind of food for their residents (I’ve never tried to cook a whole chicken in a microwave or on a hot plate, have you?)

At some point, Food Lifeline decided that they would pack boxes for all of the food banks and simply deliver them to us. They had the National Guard, after all, and the feedback they were getting was that it was too much work for each individual food bank to make up these boxes. But the boxes still came with items that were not useful to so many people, and we ended up supplementing with toilet paper and bread, pancake mix and fresh produce. We were still working three days a week to get food to our families, and as things opened up, the Access buses went away – leaving us to put out a call for volunteer drivers to deliver food to hundreds of clients. Unhoused folks were still not able to get food from us because of Covid19 restrictions.

I became increasingly frustrated. I am not an expert on every nuance of the program. As I said before, it is incredibly complicated. Food Lifeline gets shipments of food from the USDA and passes them on to food banks. That food ranges from meat and dairy to canned and frozen goods and it is often in massive quantities (in my understanding, it’s surplus food that can’t be sold – often from crops that the federal government subsidizes despite the fact that there isn’t a big enough market for them). In addition, they order food from other sources and then each food bank is offered an opportunity to order those items to be delivered along with their regular shipment – these are things like rice and applesauce and juice, and they cost us, but it is often a race to get them before they’re sold out to the bigger food banks. Our numbers changed every week, so often if we ordered 200 of the prepacked boxes, by the time we got them the following week, we actually needed 208, or maybe there were ten too many and we had to figure out how to store the extra. Every week, we either had some households that didn’t get emergency boxes, or we had trouble finding space in our refrigerators and freezers for the surplus food.

I began thinking about the waste in this system. At one end, there is someone packing up the food items from the USDA program on to trucks to ship it to every state. That is time, effort, and gasoline, from the packing to the driving to the unloading of the trucks. At the other end, there are folks dismantling those packages, storing and/or repackaging them in to smaller boxes (called Emergency Boxes during Covid19), putting them on trucks, and driving them to individual food banks. That is time, effort, and gasoline. At each individual food bank, there are folks unpacking those trucks, opening every box, supplementing the items, stacking them, and putting them in individual cars for delivery to shelters and households. That is time, effort, and gasoline. And at the very end, if you open a box that contains items you can’t eat (and many honestly ended up redonating back to their local food bank – I can’t tell you how many times that happened), what is the cost of the hundreds of hours of time people spent moving and packing that food and the gasoline it took to get it from Point A to Points B, C, and D, and the toll it takes on the planet in terms of carbon emissions? And who benefits from this system working this way?

If the goal is to help people who need food, we are doing it wrong.

As this is all happening, local restaurants and grocery stores and farmer’s markets are suffering, too. And the obvious solution seems to me to be giving people money to buy the food they need. Not only does that reduce the amount of wasted time, effort, gasoline and food, but it would enable these folks to have the flexibility and dignity of getting their own needs met. If my six-year old is having a birthday, I can use some of that money to get a cake. If I need formula for my baby, I can buy it with that money (because I guarantee you food banks are not getting formula from the feds or the state right now). And, in doing so, I can support my hyperlocal economy – the shops in my neighborhood, my local farmer’s market. I can even order takeout one night if I’m overwhelmed and tired from a long day of work and helping my kid navigate online school.

With the current system, every household gets the same thing. So if I’m a 67-year old single person with hypertension and diabetes, I get the same items and the same volume of food as a household with seven people. There is no way to individualize the boxes, and what happens to the extra food? Anecdotally, I can tell you it either gets thrown away or donated back to food banks. Both of which are a complete waste of the time, effort, money, and gasoline that it took to get it to the client.

I have spoken with two county council members, written op-eds that were either ignored or rejected, and vented to my fellow volunteers and friends and family about this for months. People are horrified and then they shrug. What’s to be done? It’s a huge system. We can’t change it.

The other reaction I get is one of discomfort with my proposed solution: What if you give people money and they don’t spend it on food?

I believe that is a cop-out. If you have ever been hungry or unsure of where your next meal is coming from, you may get how scary that is, how elemental the need for food is. If you’ve ever been tasked with providing for loved ones and you couldn’t figure out how to feed them, you may have a hard time being cynical about giving people money for food.

Also, so what? If some people choose not to spend that money on food, that is their choice. The amount of money we would need to give to people to feed themselves is a drop in the bucket compared to what we spend nationally and locally packing, transporting, unpacking, repacking, transporting, unpacking, repacking, and transporting food to food banks and people in need. And we still aren’t reaching everyone (remember, unhoused folks don’t get food delivered to them during the pandemic). So even if a tiny bit of that food aid money is wasted on a few individuals who buy other things, it is nothing compared to the state-sanctioned waste that is happening right now every day in this current system.

And if I think about the kinds of things that aren’t food that people could use this money for, frankly, I’m fine with it. If someone needs tampons or diapers or ibuprofen or cat food, they should be able to buy those things. Why do we think we deserve to scrutinize poor people’s shopping lists when we would never do that to anyone else? I guarantee you I’ve got neighbors whose spending on alcohol went up exponentially during the last six months, but I’m not going through their pantry casting judgment on them for eschewing fresh produce and whole foods in favor of Entenmann’s and Kendall Jackson. It’s. None. Of. My. Business.

And don’t give me “they’ll buy drugs.” If we simply increase the SNAP benefits, add money to folks’ EBT cards, offer those programs to unhoused people and others who haven’t hit the threshold before, that’s not an issue. Last I checked, you can’t go in to your local pot shop and get a few grams with your EBT card.

I will say again, I am not an expert on the system and how it works. I am certain that it would take a great deal of effort to dismantle this system and some folks would lose their jobs. But the vast majority of folks who are involved with food banks in this country are volunteers and if they are like me and the goal is to make sure people are fed, then they won’t mind at all. The waste and inefficiency I have witnessed over the last several years and the fact that we still aren’t helping people get the food they need when they need it is overwhelming. We can’t just throw more money in to the system and hope to solve the problems – we have to put money in the hands of those who need it and I promise you, the effect in each local community would be enormous.

I am so proud of the work we are doing to help our community and I dearly love all the folks who work their butts off every day within this broken system. I have no beef with them – it’s the system I want to see go away.

If this speaks to you, please share it with folks you know. All comments must be respectful, productive, and relevant or they will be deleted.

You know that phenomenon when you notice a pattern somewhere and you can’t believe you hadn’t seen it before, and suddenly you start seeing it everywhere? It’s even more eye-opening when there was something you thought was a little ‘off,’ but you couldn’t quite figure it out and then, once you do, you realize it’s a cancer. Hindsight and all that.

I volunteered to be part of a task force for my local school district in 2018. Our job was to dig deeply in to the “highly capable” program and come up with ways to make it less elite (less white, less geared toward rich families, less racist). We spent months looking at data, examining the history of the program, the laws surrounding it, the myriad ways the district had tried to identify and serve kids with extraordinary academic prowess over the years, and how other districts were doing it. It was no secret that our system was deeply flawed from beginning to end.

We weren’t the first group of folks to ever attempt this here. Indeed, there had been a similar task force just a few years earlier that had done the same thing – volunteering hundreds of hours of their time to come up with recommendations they put forth to the district, many of which got a head nod and a sad, “we wish that were possible” before retiring to the packet of information to be passed along to the next task force – us.

We were a fairly diverse group of parents, educators, and community members – cutting across racial and ethnic lines, but not really across socioeconomic ones. I mean, if you have to be able to offer your labor for free for 18 months and show up at prescribed times in a central location, it’s not exactly feasible for many folks, is it? But we did our best to try and bring voices in to the room that may not have been represented.

I think it was around month 12 that I finally figured it out. And now I can’t unsee it. And I also can’t not notice it everywhere I look.

We were never going to be able to make radical, substantive change to this system because no matter what we did, the system had a way of continuing to center itself.

Supposedly, the public school system was created to benefit kids and society (well, mostly society if we’re being honest). Over time, we started thinking that the benefit to kids would work itself out if we just threw a little money and a bunch of rules at it. We kept adding layers and layers of bureaucracy (standardized testing, mandatory minimum days/hours of instruction, core class requirements, etc. etc.) without ever looking at the impact it truly had on society or the kids. And even if we recognized that some of those things were detrimental or not really serving the kids, the system had invested so much time and money in to setting up the scaffolding for those things, we weren’t about to abandon them. When we went in to that task force work, it was with the goal of increasing equity, but that has to do with the kids, what’s good for them, and the system kept saying, “how can we do that?” or “how can we pay for that?”

It’s the same with our “health care” system. We don’t center the patient – we center the system. Asking how we can afford it, or wringing our hands as we think about the logistics of dismantling the private insurance system and the administrative bureaucracy fed by it is centering the system. The system has taken over and become our driving, bedrock force in every decision. We consider the needs of the individuals only within the context of the system’s needs being met, not the other way around. We bend over backwards to try and find solutions (add layers of bureaucracy) to protect the system. That’s why Joe Biden wants to have a private insurance option and just expand Obamacare. Not for the good of the collective, the good of the individual human beings, but so we don’t disrupt the system.

That is why women and people of color and folks with disabilities and those along the gender and sexuality spectrum are the progressives – because they have historically not ever been served well by the systems we put in to place and they are willing to center the collective, the human beings. But the white men who are served really well by capitalism, indeed, who have their identities tied up so deeply with capitalism and colonialism, feel threatened.

So many of the things we take for granted – 40-hour work week, retiring at 65, the stock market as the measure of the economy – those are things that were set up to benefit the system. If we don’t question them, when we want to make things better for the people who aren’t served well by the system, we just add little appendages here and there. Overtime pay, retirement jobs at Walmart as greeters, no-fee online investing opportunities. WE ARE CENTERING THE SYSTEM.

But here’s the thing: this time in history right now is showing us that we can live outside the system, that we can find ways to center people.

Do you know how vulnerable people are getting fed right now? Not through systems – in SPITE of systems. There are collectives springing up all over the place to feed people who need it, neighbors offering to shop for other neighbors and deliver groceries to their doors, donations of gift cards to folks in need, people sending money through Venmo to people they’ve never met before. People centering people.

Do you know how people are going to survive not paying their rent? Not because of systems. The systems aren’t responding quickly enough – there are too many layers to cut through. If we suspend rent payments, we have to suspend  mortgages for the landlords and if we do that, we have to bail out the banks who hold those mortgages and then people will be mad that we bailed out the banks, etc. etc.  But local folks are banding together to form coalitions that are demanding that renters not be evicted and that rent be suspended – without penalty or interest – for now. There are millions of dollars in grant money flowing to artists and small businesses impacted by this because of individual people who centered the collective good.

Small farmers who were de-centered in favor of the system are banding together to find ways to get food to folks who want it. And in many cases, it’s working. Because we are centering people, not systems.

The huge hospitals that are cutting pay for healthcare workers because their clinics have all but shut down for elective visits? They’re centering the system. They are saying “we can’t pay for this” instead of saying “we will do what it takes to make sure that everyone is taken care of.”

The politicians who refuse to order shelter-in-place rules? They’re centering the system. They are saying “having people out buying and selling things in my community is more important than the health and well-being of the community.”

That pathetic stimulus package check you may or may not get? Centering the system. Even it doesn’t address everyone – college students who live on their own but are still claimed as dependents on their parents’ taxes get no check, social security beneficiaries whose threshold income is too low to file a tax return get no check.

The thing is, the system will tell you that it is working for the greater good, for the collective. But it isn’t. The system is working for itself. Anytime you hear “what will that cost?” or “we can’t logistically manage that,” you are witnessing a system centering itself. These systems are crumbling for a reason right now and that is because they rely on people to make them work, whether they serve the people or not. The system will try to coerce a certain number of people to stick with them by any means possible (overtime pay, threats of job loss, appealing to the needs of others), but make no mistake, your needs are not paramount.

One evening toward the end of our task force work, I walked out in to the dark parking lot alongside a teacher who works with students with special needs. We talked about our frustration and our hope that we hadn’t just been wasting hundreds of hours of our own time to come up with strong, bodacious recommendations that would simply be cast aside by the Superintendent. I talked to her about my theory of systems centering themselves and she got teary and it was then that I realized she was the inflection point and I felt overwhelmed for her. In a system that centers itself, if you are a teacher or a health care worker who truly centers the person you’re supposed to be serving, you are caught in a vise. In order to keep your job and do the work you do that you believe is so vital, you have to bow to the system. But in order to serve the children or the patients who come to you in the way they deserve to be served, you have to eschew all of the principles the system wants you to embrace – you have to be creative, find workarounds, often use your own resources to go above and beyond. The system is hurting us all if we truly want to center people and the collective good, not only the individuals being served, but those who are exhausting themselves and their resources to be the conduit between the systems and the collective.

It’s time for another way. May we use the next several weeks to dismantle the systems that center themselves. May we find the strength and courage to answer the question “how can we pay for that?” by saying “it doesn’t matter – we have to do what is right.” May we remember that if we value each other, we can look to the underground groups that are springing up to help each other outside the system and learn from them. This truly is the Matrix and we’re seeing the glitches.