The realities of feeding the poor.

Concurrent with the push for the new farm bill, which includes cuts to food stamps, has been a series of editorials and news stories lauding the compassion of the American people in helping feed the poor.

And that’s true — as far as it goes, which isn’t far enough.  The statistics suggest that in Oklahoma there are 675,000 people who need food assistance at one time or another, chronically. That is, they live constantly in a state of food insecurity.  It’s a number that boggles my mind. I can hardly comprehend it.  I have enough problems understanding and responding to the 2,000-3,000 that I and others involved with the Oscar Romero Catholic Worker House have accepted personal responsibility for  providing supplemental groceries each month.

In practical terms, this amounts to about 400 individual deliveries each month.  Each delivery requires sacking one to four bags of groceries, depending on the size of the household, and getting another bag of frozen items together. Then those groceries are driven to an address, and carried up to the door and given to the people.  Before this happens, someone must listen to the message requesting a food delivery, enter it into a spreadsheet, and then prepare a series of delivery routes. That involves sorting by zip code, then street, then street number, and then eye-balling the lists to move addresses around so that each delivery involves addresses in a particular geographic area.

Why do we deliver? Why don’t we instead demand that people come to us? Because our particular charism is to deliver to people in need who don’t have transportation.  And that means that we typically see the poorest of the poor.

  • The 80 year old grandmas raising a half dozen grand kids, who don’t have a car — or maybe they don’t have gas money, or their car is broken down and they don’t have the money to fix it — they call us.
  • So do the disabled people who sometimes have a hard time telling us where they live.
  • And the guys, fathers, unemployed, or working poor in the midst of a crisis, you can hear the total embarrassment in their voices as they call in their request for help.

Some people give long explanations of their circumstances. Others are more brief.  I listen to them all.  Sometimes I have help, but mostly it’s me and it has been for a long time.  I have personally heard what must be thousands of requests for help with food.

The situation of the elderly is particularly troubling. An elderly person who is solely dependent upon Social Security for all their income is also eligible for food stamps (or rather, SNAP benefits which is the new name). How much do they get? Well, about $25/month in food stamps.  That always drives me a little bonkers. I figure it undoubtedly takes more than $25 in bureaucratic expense to deliver that $25/month to an elderly person so why don’t they at least give them enough to make the bureaucratic expense worthwhile. This is one of the reasons we deliver to so many elderly.

All of this is a lot of work, especially in the summer. During the school year, we get a lot of parents and their kids, working off required volunteer hours for school, confirmation class, etc. But in the summer, all that is over. It’s hot. We don’t have AC at the Dorothy Day Center.  Not as many people show up, so that means more work for those who do show up and that is itself a disincentive.  But still they come, faithful and helpful, compassionate and practical.

I just wish there were more.

Which is why I am always just a bit dubious about claims that private compassion will pick up the slack as the resources once devoted to the safety net for the poor are transferred to the preferred causes of the rich, the ambitious, and the corrupt. It worries me because helping the poor with private charity requires work. Specifically, it requires a lot of manual labor. And people these days aren’t that fond of manual labor.

In any event, I am worry all day, but my fretting won’t change the trajectory of modern politics. No one will actually cut the budget until the IMF and the other international bankers impose austerity on the US government and while people will sqawk a lot, just as the politicians of Greece and Spain have sold out their people to the international bankers, ours (Republican and Democrat) will do the same.  In the meantime, we will play our political charade, where we claim we’re cutting the budget, but what we’re really doing is  re-allocating spending away from the poor and towards the not-poor.

Our nation is headed for the ash heap of history. We have reached our peak, and are now in our long descent. There’s not enough to go around. And if there is a crowd pushing and shoving to get access to something, the weak and the elderly poor will always get shoved aside. We leave them behind for the wolves to devour.  That’s what human societies have nearly always done. That’s the kind of society that we are creating with our present politics.  It doesn’t mater, left or right, Democratic or Republican, all are driving us in the same direction.

WHICH MEANS. . . that IN FACT. . . there is a greater need for personal involvement to help the poor.  People need to be willing to not laze around in bed on a hot Saturday July or August morning and instead rise up and come to the Dorothy Day Center and help us make food deliveries (upcoming days are July 21 and 28, August 18 and 25.)

NOW is the time to create alternative structures — before the old system collapses and falls around us.

Supporting and developing the food delivery system of the Oscar Romero Catholic Worker House is part of that greater scheme of things.

Eventually we will have to also raise and process most of the food we deliver.  I’ve seen that situation in my dreams so often I know it must eventually happen.

I haven’t even the first littlest clue as to how that could actually happen. I just know that eventually it must and because it won’t be optional, it will happen.  But my present clueless status is OK, because I don’t need to know that now.  Right now, I just need to know that I will have enough people to do the deliveries in July.  And then I will need to know that I will have enough people to do the deliveries in August. After that comes September, and then October, November, and December and then we start a whole new year again in January 2013.

Because it’s hot, we’re going to start at 8 AM in July and August, but if you aren’t an early riser, feel free to go ahead and come at the usual time of 9 AM.

It’s an election year, and in November we will vote.  BUT RIGHT NOW, THIS VERY MONTH. . . you can VOTE WITH YOUR BODY by showing up and helping with our food deliveries.  If you can’t do any deliveries, show up and help us bag the groceries. That’s a big job all by itself. It takes 1-1/2 to 2 hours, depending on how many people and how much food we got.  Extra hands are always welcome for that.

Why should we do this? Because if my brother or sister is hungry, I am hungry. That’s what solidarity is about. That’s why Jesus said when we offer bread to the hungry, we feed Him himself himself.  And also, when we don’t feed the hungry, we are turning away Jesus who comes to us in the distressing disguises of the poor.

If you can’t feed a hundred people, feed one.  — Mother Teresa

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