How Mom Lives

September 2, 2010

My husband and I just got back from a visit with his mother in Cleveland. We were celebrating her 91st birthday.

Mom is one of those wonderful stereotype-busters. A single mother who successfully raised two boys, keeping them securely housed, well-fed, at the top of their classes and, I gather, happy on the wages she earned as a housekeeper.

She’s still sharp as a tack and fiercely independent. I think she might decline — just sort of settle into waiting for the end — if she had to move to a nursing home.

Instead, she lives alone in the same apartment she’s lived in for about 27 years. She doesn’t get around as much any more. Tires easily and not so steady on her feet. But she takes regular walks and visits with her neighbors.

A testimony to her fighting spirit, since she was paralyzed on one side after a stroke eight years ago. Also to the intensive physical therapy she got, including home visits after she left the rehab facility. Then came an excruciating case of sciatica. All but cured after she decided to risk a spinal operation rather than become bed-bound.

Mom reads a lot. She’s curious about many things — animals, far off places, famous and not-so-famous people, American history. And she does love those Grisham mysteries. The public library delivers the books she asks for and picks them up when she’s finished them.

Still cooks for herself. Free fruits and vegetables come to the building biweekly through an arrangement with a farmers’ market. One of the younger residents picks up bags of non-perishables from a local food pantry. A home aide does in-between shopping, plus some housekeeping.

I’m telling you about Mom because her housing, health and general well-being are all made possible by public benefits.

Her apartment building is public housing for seniors and younger disabled people. Most of her medical care and the home aide are covered by Medicaid. So was the visiting physical therapist. The book service is also publicly funded, as is a portion of the costs of the food pantry items.

So I worry. Ohio has been hard it by the recession. It will soon have to close a budget gap that’s been estimated at $8 billion. And we know what often happens to programs for low-income people when elected officials face a revenue shortage.

The food bank that supplies the pantry depends in part on commodities the U.S. Department of Agriculture purchases under The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP). As I earlier wrote, funding for these purchases has dropped at the same time need is increasing.

This may help explain why the bags Mom and her fellow residents get have fewer items and less variety now. Just two small cans of veggies in the bag I unpacked. No fruit, fish or dairy. The building’s food pantry intermediary says, “The rest of us [who aren’t well-off] are expected to get by.”

I know this is foolish and sentimental. But I can’t help thinking that if the decision-makers knew Mom they’d find a way to protect the programs that make her life possible.


Federal Emergency Food Program Helps Feed Hungry DC Area Residents

February 16, 2010

As I recently wrote, the Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) is said to need a supplemental appropriation because it can’t otherwise provide enough food commodities to meet the increasing pressures on food banks.

Still on my learning curve, I contacted Marian Peele, the Director of Agency Relations at the Capital Area Food Bank, to find out what the situation is there.

CAFB is the Feeding America network partner for the greater Washington D.C. area. It uses federal funds channeled through the D.C. and Virginia state governments to purchase TEFAP food commodities. It also gets free TEFAP bonus commodities when they’re available and suitable to its needs.

All told, CAFB distributes about 23 million pounds of food a year. Nearly 14% of this comes through TEFAP. The rest is donated by various food industry sources and food collected by a vast number of organizations and individuals.

CAFB distributes the food it gets to more than 700 partner agencies, i.e., local nonprofits that either prepare and serve them or give them to low-income people to take home. Organizations I’ve written about before, including Bread for the City, Miriam’s Kitchen and So Others Might Eat are all partner agencies and thus, in part, dependent on TEFAP. CAFB also distributes some food directly to local low-income residents.

Peele says that TEFAP foods are “an enormous help to [their] agencies and thus the community members who receive them.” She says they’re often healthier choices than foods donated from other sources, except for the fresh produce CAFB gets from local farmers.

As we know, the recession has vastly increased the number of people needing emergency food assistance. The newspapers are full of stories about people going to food pantries who never sought help before. Feeding America reports that its food bank network is serving one in eight Americans–46% more than in 2006.

Calls to the CAFB Hunger Lifeline, an emergency food referral, have increased 91%. Peele says that partner agencies report increases in food distributions ranging from 85% to 200%. They’re dealing with longer lines, cutting back on portions and still running out of food faster than ever before.

The organizations that are calling for a supplemental appropriation say that it’s needed to avert a drop of 50% or more in the dollar value of this year’s bonus commodity donations. This doesn’t mean that CAFB would receive that much less. But it does show what the food bank may be up against as it tries to keep up with the rising tide of hunger in our nation’s capital.