Kojo talks with author Colson Whitehead about his new novel "The Underground Railroad" and its resonance at this particular moment in history.
Could you eat for just $5 a day? Three hundred Montgomery County, Md., officials and employees tried it last week to draw attention to poverty and hunger in the affluent county. But some people who regularly struggle to buy food found the week-long challenge offensive. Kojo explores hunger in our region and what local governments have the power to do about it.
- Brian Banks Director of Public Policy and Community Outreach, Capital Area Food Bank
- Valerie Ervin Member, Montgomery County Council (D)
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, benefit corporations in Maryland, Virginia and District, what they are and how they're doing. But first, what if you could only spend $5 a day on food? More than 300 Montgomery County officials and employees found out last week when they took up the challenge to limit their spending at the grocery store as many people on limited incomes have to do every day.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIThat weeklong challenge was designed to help local leaders understand the plight of those who need help feeding their families, often through the program that used to be called food stamps. Some people criticized the challenge as being more about publicity than about policy. But those who took it say it helped raise awareness and create momentum to act.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIAt local food banks, officials say the need is great. They encourage local leaders to stir resources to programs that fight poverty and warned that federal dollars for food programs are at risk. Joining us to look at hunger in our community and what local governments can do about it is Valerie Ervin. She is a Montgomery County councilmember. Valerie Ervin, thank you for joining us.
MS. VALERIE ERVINThank you for having me.
NNAMDIAlso in studio with us is Brian Banks, director of public policy and community outreach at the Capital Area Food Bank. Brian Banks, thank you for joining us.
MR. BRIAN BANKSThank you very much for having me.
NNAMDIIt's a conversation you can join by calling 800-433-8850. Have you ever had to cut back on food because you couldn't afford to buy more? 800-433-8850. You can send email to email@example.com. Brian Banks, I'll start with you. The $5-a-day attempt is part of the so-called SNAP Challenge, named after the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps. It's a program to help people who have some assets and income, but not enough to feed themselves or their family. Who is eligible for SNAP benefits?
BANKSWell, there are a lot of people in our community are eligible. Before I start there, I just want to thank Councilwoman Ervin for getting the Council and several others in Montgomery County involved in this challenge. When you look at the SNAP program, a lot of people are eligible. We're talking about 50 million Americans that are suffering from hunger.
BANKSIn our local jurisdiction, there are about 670,000 people that are at risk or suffering from hunger. The average person that's eligible in our jurisdiction are people just like us. They are families. They are single. They are seniors. A lot of people actually work full-time jobs, and they just don't have enough food to put into -- in their household.
BANKSFor example, a family of three that's grossing around $2,069 per month would be eligible for the SNAP program, but a lot comes into play: bills, your mortgage, medicine, et cetera. All the funding that you're paying monthly is going to come into play into how much you're eligible per month. About -- the average of SNAP is about $236 per month, but in our area, we're seeing people as low as $16 what's the lowest allotment of the SNAP program up to maybe $132.
NNAMDIAnd it's my understanding that the basic calculations that people are expected to pay about 30 percent of their income towards food, and if you can't make it, that in a way makes you eligible for the SNAP program.
BANKSAbsolutely, absolutely. And when you look at the SNAP program or something as important, SNAP is going to last a person about 13 or 14 days. It doesn't last the entire month. SNAP is the supplemental nutrition assistance program. So it's supposed to supplement what you already have within your refrigerator, but in some cases, people do not have food. And that's when food banks come into play to actually provide food to our partners in the community so people can access healthy and nutritious foods.
NNAMDICouncilmember Ervin, you've worked on getting meal programs into schools like the summer lunch program and the universal breakfast program that serves breakfast in the classroom to all the kids so that you can eliminate the stigma of being needy and to be sure that all kids start the day with a full stomach. Why did you decide to take up the SNAP challenge and invite your colleagues to do it too?
ERVINWell, I decided to do this because the issue of poverty in Montgomery County isn't talked about very much. But because I've been involved in schools for the last 15 years, where we see poverty first is in a school building. And one out of three children in Montgomery County Public Schools qualifies for free and reduced meals which is an indicator for poverty. We actually believe that number is much bigger than that.
ERVINAnd so I've been very moved by the outpouring of support over this last couple of weeks about the SNAP challenge because it's from my perspective more about what happens next. Like, the focus on poverty is a focus on jobs that pay a living wage. It's a focus on affordable housing. It's a focus on access to childcare, access to health care, transportation.
ERVINAll of these issues resound with -- especially the people in a nonprofit community that came on board the SNAP challenge immediately but also among people who are policymakers who know that if we don't get a handle on why so many more people are in poverty now than maybe before the 2008 bottom drop economy it is up to us to begin the conversations moving forward.
NNAMDIIt's a conversation on hunger in the Washington region precipitated by local leaders deciding to take the SNAP challenge and try to eat on $5 per day. If you'd like to join the conversation, call us at 800-433-8850. What would you like to see your city or county leaders do to help address hunger? 800-433-8850.
NNAMDIAfter a week of eating on $5 a day, you held a debrief on Friday night with people who had participated and a couple of local nonprofits that work with low-income people. What was the reaction to the low-budget diet both on the part of the people who took it and on the part of the people that you talked with about it?
ERVINAbout 100 people showed up in downtown Silver Spring Friday night at the Civic Building which was a larger number than we were anticipating. They showed up, and we had tables of people sitting around circles talking about their experiences for the week. And what I learned from people was that, first of all, it was a humbling experience. Second of all, we all talked about how resourceful people who are poor have to be to live.
NNAMDIYeah. That was the part of the challenge that I found that fascinated me most, the resourcefulness you had to be able to use in order to do that because, regardless of what you do, you're going to try to have -- you're going to try to feel satisfied for most of the day. Talk a little bit about that challenge.
ERVINYeah. What came out Friday night was very fascinating because my experience reminded me of my grandmother and my mother who had to feed very large families on very little money. And so what people started talking about is the fact that today lots of people don't know how to cook. They don't know how to soak some black beans and cook them the next day. They don't know how to prepare rice that's not already prepared that's got lots of salt or sodium or the things in it that you don't want.
ERVINSo this whole conversation became about, wow, look what we have to go back and relearn. And you can eat on very little money if you're resourceful and if you know how to prepare the foods. And a couple of people said, you know, next year I think people want to see this be an annual event. They want to make it longer. They want to make it two weeks instead of one, and they want more advice from people who know how to prepare foods.
ERVINThey want more advice on what to buy. They want to hold a lot more advice, and they were given with the first SNAP challenge. So people started remembering, you know, how we grew up and how you would make your peanut butter sandwich and take that to school and that would be enough with some milk that you would get at school for a nickel.
NNAMDIThe big question, of course, is where all of this is leading. But before we get to that, Brian Banks, put a face, if you will, on hunger in our region. Who are the people having trouble feeding their families? What are their numbers?
BANKSThat's a great question. As I stated earlier, there are about almost 700,000, 650,000 people in our region that are at risk for suffering from hunger. The food bank were able to reach about 467,000 people in our area, and as those numbers increase, we're doing more at the food bank to reach people. We have a wonderful nutrition education department who has a $16 bag. The lowest allotment of the SNAP program is $16.
BANKSAnd I say that because the majority of our seniors are only receiving $16. So this is a program where we show people how to maximize the funds that they receive. That $16 could essentially get a person 16 meals if they use the program that the food bank has together. And our healthy eating department and nutrition education, we also show people what types of foods to buy, how they last -- how they -- how we can make them last and how to supplement which already have in your household to stretch your dollars.
BANKSAnd in the face of hunger, it looks just like you and I, Kojo. It's people -- the majority of people in our region are people that work every single day. They have jobs. They have families. It's a mom and a dad that goes to work, and they send their children to school. And when they come home and the daughter says, "Dad, what's for dinner tonight?" And he opens up the refrigerator, and all he sees is the bright light.
BANKSSo it's people just like us that are suffering. So with the SNAP program, the average person that gets on this program, give them six to eight months, and they're off the program back on their feet. The SNAP program, for every $5 in SNAP generates $9 on local economic activity, so it is a wonderful program. Let's brings the federal dollars in the community and also allowing people to get back on their feet.
NNAMDIValerie Ervin, you are a politician, and last year, we saw a very prolonged political campaign in the run for president in which there was a great deal of talk and focus on the middle class and not a great deal of talk about poverty and hunger. So what can local and government now do in that kind of, I guess, if you will, political environment to address hunger, and what's your follow-up plan now that the challenge is over? How do you bring people's attention back to the issues of poverty and hunger when we've been so focused on the stability of the middle class?
ERVINYeah. The stability of the middle class is an interesting thing because so many people dropped out of the middle class, and these are the people we're talking about, people who as Rev. Jesse Jackson used to say years and years ago, poor people work every day. They take the early bus, and they might take the bus two or three times a day to get to the two or three jobs that they have to work at just to make ends meet.
ERVINThe issue of poverty has at its very basis, in my opinion, the fact that people want to work, but they want to work at jobs that pay a living wage. And when we start talking about a $7.25, you know, salary -- that's what we pay in this country to most of the workforce -- that's not enough. And that means families have to live together, two and three families at a time.
ERVINIn Montgomery County, there's something called a family self-sufficiency standard. For a family of four in Montgomery County to make it, based on transportation costs, food, childcare and rent, you have to make $82,000 a year to subsist, and that's without any other bills.
NNAMDIDo you have a specific follow-up plan now that the challenge is over?
ERVINOur follow-up plan is coming out of Friday night's meeting, and it's going to move forward. But we are really wanting to get behind raising the minimum wage and really working in our community around attracting jobs that pay well and jobs that, you know, is very hard to say this now because things have changed so much but jobs that also have benefits attached to them. So to me, this is where we start.
ERVINAnd then the second piece of that is how affordable housing is lacking in the District of Columbia. I don't live there but I -- my son lives in the District of Columbia. And Montgomery County, affordable housing is a huge issue. There's not enough of the stock, and we need to do something about that. So policymakers, like myself, are being challenged by the broader community that this can no longer stand.
NNAMDIHere is Valentin. Don your headphones, please. Valentine is in Columbia, Md. Valentin, you're now on the air. Go ahead, please.
VALENTINYeah. I was wondering how -- that people were taking into account. When you look at poverty and look at hunger, the kind of resources that poor people have in order to prepare their food for, like, having a freezer to a fully working kitchen, to all the utensils you need, and things (unintelligible) prepare especially cheap food that you might get on food stamps and other things.
NNAMDIWas that taken into account at all, Valerie Ervin?
ERVINYes, it was. Since this was a first time we've done this challenge, we understood that for people who are struggling every day, they may not have freezers or all the other accoutrements that we take for granted. And you're absolutely right. I remember, growing up, my parents had a big freezer. And there were seven people that my mother had to feed.
ERVINAnd so she would buy cheap cuts of meat and frozen vegetables and other kind of things that she could store in our freezer. We did take that into account. And the next time we do the SNAP challenge, we're going to really work hard on trying to make the situation more real for people because people who are struggling do not have these kinds of items at their disposal.
NNAMDIValentin, thank you very much for your call. On to Ray in Arlington, Va. Ray, your turn.
RAYGood afternoon. I was -- I wanted to ask a question pertaining to the SNAP program. One, I was wondering if we're educating our children on the nutritional values as far as a daily basis goes. And I was also wondering, what foods are we feeding our children in school? Are we feeding our children in schools food that are relatively nutritious? Are they sugar based? And with the SNAP challenge program, are we teaching everyone how to live off of that $5 a day in a healthy way instead of purchasing foods from the middle of the grocery store?
NNAMDIWell, we've had a number of broadcasts on this show about the attempts in this region to improve the nutritional diet in schools of our children. That said, I don't know if Valerie Ervin or Brian Banks would like to add something to that.
BANKSI could add something quickly. Throughout the region, we are definitely focusing -- when I say, we, I'm speaking of legislators, Maryland Hunger Solutions, D.C. Hunger Solutions, Food Research & Action Center, are really have taken a focus on schools to bring in healthy, nutritious foods. For example, in D.C., you have Mary Cheh who worked extremely hard to pass the Healthy Schools Act...
NNAMDIWell, she did the SNAP challenge too.
BANKSAnd she also did the SNAP challenge to get healthy foods in the community. And the same things happened in Montgomery County, as well as throughout suburban Virginia. So we are definitely looking at healthy foods in the community and through the food bank. We're showing people how to buy healthy, nutritious foods on a low budget and how to survive on those foods as well.
NNAMDIWe got an email from Katherine in Springfield, Va., which says, "In part, in the '70s, when the government was handing out surplus corn meal, oil, powdered milk, pasta and cheese, the social workers and nurses at a local pediatric hospital realized that people simply did not know what to do with it. That got the dieticians to hold simple cooking classes, teaching how to make corn bread, macaroni and cheese, pudding and other simple foods. I think we need a massive education program in this country."
NNAMDIValerie Ervin, some people say the SNAP challenge is more about publicity for politicians than about helping people in need. How will your challenge experience shape your outlook going forward?
ERVINWell, before I even came to the council, this was a big issue of mine. And I want to say right now that the governor of the state of Maryland just did something very tremendous. And he put in his budget, $1.8 million, to feed 57,000 students, universal breakfast, an initiative that I push really hard for. We are very serious about this. I know that there are cynical people out there and the listening audience who believe that politicians do things on behalf of themselves.
ERVINBut not only have we worked with Gov. O'Malley, but we started a summer food program that now feeds kids in Montgomery County, 100 schools in the summer time. You can just walk right in and get a nutritious meal. We're working on a food recovery program, community gardens, universal breakfast. All of these things are things that myself, as a politician and a policymaker, initiated.
ERVINAnd we're trying to make it even more important not just for me but for my neighbors and the people who live in Montgomery County to understand that we need to do more. We need to give more to the nonprofit providers, and we need to do more to move elected officials and others to do these things on behalf of poor people.
NNAMDIAnd finally, Brian Banks, what would you like to see local elected leaders do once they finish the SNAP challenge, whether they're in Montgomery County, the District of Columbia or anywhere in our region?
BANKSRight. The councilwoman is right on. And she has the right the idea to move the agenda forward to bring more awareness and to help and assist people in the community. Other things that I think that could be done is making this -- not necessarily make the SNAP challenge a year-long thing. I don't think that is what we need to do. But we need to continue talking about hunger and bringing awareness to hunger year round.
BANKSI think our local leaders or constituents, they can speak to the governor, and they could speak to our federal legislators as well about what they're seeing in their community to bring more awareness to the Hill. So federal legislators can look at these programs, the SNAP program, and others, so they can fund them. So people can receive the food and assistance that they need. Also, I think that it's important to -- and Valerie touched on this -- focus on resources, other resources in the community besides hunger.
BANKSHunger affects people in so many ways, whether the lights are on or the lights are off. Hunger is going to be there. So there are so many different ways to help people. As well the council could provide funding to organizations in the community if it's available where they can purchase more healthy, nutritious foods and provide it to the community, whether the funding is, here's a check, buy healthy, nutritious food, or here's a grant program.
BANKSApply for this grant for food, for refrigerators, for other resources. People who are hungry also suffer with buying toiletry items and Pampers and whatever else is needed to just live a basically life. And so there's a lot that we can do. And I think with people like the councilwoman and others, we are moving in the right direction. But a lot of work needs to be done.
NNAMDIWell, you should know that there are some people who probably feel that the councilwoman, as you call her, who might be able to do this more effectively as county executive in Montgomery County. Is that a position that you are intent to be running for, Valerie Ervin?
ERVINWell, let me just say I've been getting a lot of encouragement from across my community to look at this race for county executive. I'm taking it very seriously. I haven't made up my mind completely, but I am definitely in a serious conversation about it.
NNAMDIWell, make that a maybe. Valerie Ervin is a Montgomery County councilmember. Good to see you. Thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIBrian Banks is director of Public Policy and Community Outreach with the Capital Area Food Bank. Brian Banks, thank you for joining us.
BANKSThank you for having me.
NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, what a benefit corporation is and how they're doing in the Washington area. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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