Well, my worst fear happened today. The very first day of service we ran out of food. It was an easy fix, we survived and even managed to just be 15 minutes off schedule the whole day.
The drive home was particularly beautiful after a stressful day and I realized why I love it here so much. I realized why I love coming home no matter how far I’ve gone. It’s the view. Every where you turn rich blue hues and many shades of green dazzle your eyes. The mountains surround us in this fantastic hug. You can’t help but feel at peace and protected by the mountains.
Now, lets talk a little about food access.
Many of the neighborhoods I visit are government subsidized housing or working class folks that are just barely above the poverty line. These folks have the knowledge and ability to access help for assistance programs if they need them. They even knew that you can buy seeds with your S.N.A.P. benefits (formerly known as Food Stamps).
Then there is Railroad St.
Railroad St. is the wrong side of the tracks neighborhood in Erwin. I won’t lie, it’s a pretty shady area of town known as the home of our very minimal gang activity and drug deals galore. I’ll also be honest and say that this is a part of town I try to avoid and it’s the only neighborhood on my list that I was worried about visiting alone despite knowing folks down there and knowing they are good people. This is another intersection I’ll have to talk about another time.
It is full of working class folks that barely make enough to shelter themselves and have to decide between food and a place to live often. It is full of immigrants and many multi-generational homes. The housing that folks can barely afford is dilapidated and probably very unsafe. This neighborhood needs some justice. Folks have been beaten down by life and by a broken system that sees them as collateral damage for too long.
When I went door to door talking to people about our food bus I ran into stories of folks that were in desperate need of food and didn’t know where or how to get help. They had S.N.A.P, but it ran out in two weeks and for the rest of the month they barely had anything. They knew about the dinners at the Methodist church on Wednesdays and they knew about how to get a referral from DHS to get a box of food from Care and Share once a month, but they needed more help and I could tell because they were all getting on the thin side. Well, that’s where my knowledge of charity ran out an my anger at the lack of food access in my own town boiled up.
I would probably classify where they live as a food swamp. A food swamp is an area that has low access to food and the food that is available for purchase is usually cheap, high-calorie, nutrient-poor, GMO, chemically altered, crappy food. Places to get food in a food swamp are typically gas stations, usually corner stores, Dollar Stores, etc.
Food Justice is more than having food to eat. Food access means more than the ability to buy food. And food insecurity, as in not having a clue from where or when your next meal is coming, is a big problem locally, nationally and globally. You don’t have to travel far to find people having a hard time feeding themselves. People are starving here. People are starving in developing countries.What are we going to do about it?
Feeding the hungry is an important step. We must go beyond that simple act and ask important questions. Why are people hungry? How do we empower them to take back control of their own food security? Is this something we can do alone or do we need broader scale measures? And specifically pertaining to myself and this neighborhood in my home town: Why is this neighborhood in such terrible conditions and lacking access to clearly needed basic resources for survival?
Charity makes poverty bearable, it doesn’t solve problems or, in some cases, even help people. Not really. Charity creates an Us vs. Them mentality. WE are “helping” THEM. This is not helpful nor is it okay to think in these terms. But before I climb up on my soap box about Charity vs. Solidarity I will stop and continue.
I heard an excellent quote from some random person talking about military cuts on NPR today. I’ll take the time to look him up and give him credit later. He said, “the first act in solidarity is breaking bread with one another.” –see why I liked it so much?
Now I am breaking bread with this community. I hope this is my first act of solidarity with them. I hope to learn from the people that live there and I know that I will. I’m not sure how to start being a good ally and showing solidarity with this community yet, but I am open, listening, thinking and connecting. Let’s hope that turns into something useful. Till then I choose to keep working on anti-hunger and anti-poverty issues. I’ll keep talking about food access and demanding that everyone in my community has Food Justice.
Author: Heidi is a program leader with Build it Up! East Tennessee.