Saturday, November 22, 2014

A Trip to the Food Bank

He said also to the one who had invited him, "When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous." -Luke 14:12-14

“Our Lord was misinformed.” -Response to Luke 14:12-14 by Reince Priebus of the Republican National Committee

   Since the Republicans won the Senate on the 4th, and will effectively take control of the full Congress in January, the nation is anticipating major food shortages, especially here in Los Angeles where I live. Being proactive in nature, but poor due to the Republican Great Repression of 2007/2008, I decided to make a trip to my local food bank in order to stock up.
   Last Wednesday I hadn’t slept at all, staying up throughout the night watching re-runs of “Get Smart,” and “Mayberry R.F.D. (Rural Free Delivery),” until about 3:45 when I usually begin my normal morning routine, which consists of checking my E-Mail, tuning into “Morning Joe,” on MSNBC, then soon turning it off because Joe Scarborough can’t resist making an ass of himself, then my 20 minute exercise routine, a mixture of calisthenics and yoga. 
   First off a series of warmup stretching moves, then I ease into some back bends, head twisters, 47 count burpies, push ups and sit ups, some fisel fops, a couple of brass monkies, and a smattering of extended thistle whompers, then maneuvering into some smooth sun salutations, one quarter of an octopus pose, a quick series of forward facing dogs, downward facing dogs, backward facing dogs, diamond dogs, aladdin sanes, and panic in Detroits, then cool down motions.   
   I hosed myself off and dressed, and screwed around on my computer until it was time to go.
   I’d done this before, several years ago, so I knew the game. The idea is to be the very first in line at the food bank, which supposedly opens at 10:00AM. There are a lot of others with the very same idea, so it’s sort of a competition, with those getting there the earliest winning the prize. 
   But you don’t want to get there too early, or else you’re just standing around in the dark outside the facility with your thumb up your ass.
   So one makes a judgment call on when to leave, and thereby arrive at the bank. There are a lot of other technical factors involved as well, like the distance from your home to the bank, and mode of transportation, traffic, weather, and so on. 
   After a quick breakfast of grits and corn pone I was ready to catch the 5:45AM 720 bus west to Santa Monica.
   The bus stop is just a block and a half from my house, and it arrived right on time.
   The 720 is what is known as a Rapid bus. A $300,000 red monster, twice the size of a regular MTA bus, with a swivel joint located in the middle that makes it easy to turn and maneuver, and which makes fewer stops than the regular lines, hence the name “Rapid.” Very modern. I happen to use this bus a lot to get to the VA hospital in Westwood, but also for quick jaunts to the downtown L.A. area, and back again.
   I brought a book with me anticipating a long wait in line. “Some Bilateral Generating Functions for the Extended Jacobi Polynomials, in Blue, II (Internal report) Unknown Binding – 1980,” by H. M. Srivastava, an oldie but goodie that I kept it in my backpack during the bus ride, enjoying the trip in the cool, crisp, 56 degree morning. Watching the scenery go by, first along The Nickel, 5th Street, through the heart of Skid Row, which even at that early hour was already pulsing with a steady beat, on past downtown, past the Central Library and Union Bank Tower, the tallest building west of the mighty Mississippi, what George W. Bush, in his infinite wisdom, once called The Liberty Tower (it was actually once called The Library Tower before Union Bank got their greedy hands on it). Then past the 110 freeway into the Westlake area on Wilshire Blvd. 
   West, west, always west.
   I wasn’t going all of the way to Santa Monica, which lies next to the mighty Pacific Ocean, where the fish live, and where Jack Tripper, Janet Wood and Chrissy Snow, from “Three’s Company,” once dwelled. Oh no. I would be getting off at La Brea, in West Hollywood, then head north on a 212.
   It was beginning to get light when I arrived at the intersection, and I didn’t have to wait very long at all for the 212, which was a regular bus. Actually it would be a very good bus day for me that day. It isn’t always that way. 
   The bus was crowded. People going to work and school. It would take about ten minutes to get to Santa Monica Blvd, my final destination.
   I noticed a beautiful, young black girl sitting directly in front of me. This isn’t unusual. I notice things like this all of the time.
   I’d say she was in her early twenties, and appeared to be attached to a young black man sitting across from her. I was kind of surprised when they both got off at the same stop that I did, and soon found out why.
   As we crossed Santa Monica I could make out a blur in the distance, where the food bank was located, and I knew that I had lost the race that day, and so had my street companions, for I heard the young man say, “Damn... there’s a line there.”
   It was true. There were people already there. It was just about 6:30, and I hadn’t figured on others willing to wait three and a half hours for the food bank to open. But there were.
   The three of us began to quicken our pace, unconsciously jockeying for a position at the end of the line that had already formed, as at that point, the closer to the front of the line the better.
   The three of us were soon walking briskly, then fast, then the guy took off, leaving the girl and myself to fend for ourselves. The two of us looked at each other obliquely as we quickened our pace, at some points actually trying to trip each other up to gain an advantage. But as we neared the building we slowed to a normal pace, knowing there was really no more need for haste. There were already approximately 20 people parked in front of the building. It wouldn’t really matter if the two of us became numbers 21 or 22. 
   I gallantly let her have the position in front of me, and we settled into the beginning of our long wait, the busy morning traffic on La Brea Ave buzzing by on our right.
   We were at the West Hollywood SOVA Food Bank (the word SOVA being taken from the Hebrew word “savah” which means to eat or drink and be satisfied). SOVA operated two other facilities as well, one in West Los Angeles, and another in the San Fernando Valley. The SOVA people will tell you that they are a program of the Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles, a non-sectarian agency, dedicated to alleviating hunger and poverty in the community through food distribution and offering a wide range of other supportive services. 
   It was founded by Hy and Zucky Altman in 1983. They owned Zucky’s Delicatessen in Santa Monica (oh how this city keeps popping up. The comedian Harry Shearer (the voice of Mr. Burns on “The Simpsons”) used to call “Santa Monica, the home of the homeless.” Sadly, he was being sarcastic).  The Altmans fed needy residents for more than 20 years through their back door, and realized that more assistance was needed. They went to the director of the Bay Cities Jewish Community Center, a Jean Kaplow, and a community activist, Toni Reinis, about establishing a kosher food pantry. They were able to rent a bar from a friend, and it is said on  opening day the Altmans put all the food they had on the counter,  bagels, soup, canned goods, Matzah balls, whatever, and waited to serve the impoverished Jewish seniors they had gotten to know in the neighborhood. And wouldn’t you know it... a freaking Hispanic walked in looking for a meal. 
   "Hy looked at me and said, 'He's not Jewish,'" recalled his wife, Zucky Altman, 89. "I said, 'So what? He's hungry.' From that moment on, we decided we would just feed everybody."
   By the mid-eighties SOVA was open in two storefront locations, one in Santa Monica, and the other in the Fairfax area where the tar pits are. The client list grew exponentially, and they began to offer more services, for clothing, legal, and medical referrals, for example. In 1994 they opened the Valley site. 
   I remember the Fairfax location. It was very small, cramped, and always crowded. But I got nourishing food there, and I loved those Matzah balls.
   In 2001 financial difficulties led SOVA to be adopted by the Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles, which immediately began to make changes to strengthen the program and improve service delivery.  
   SOVA gets the food it distributes primarily from community food drives; the United States Department of Agriculture surplus commodities (such as canned and packaged fruits, vegetables, cereals, meats, dry milk), which is given free of charge; vendors regularly donate fresh bread, produce, overstock, products near expiration, and personal hygiene products, and purchased goods when necessary.
   A few years ago the Fairfax facility closed and moved to the West Hollywood location I was at on Wednesday, where at one point a little rain splattered on us, although it wasn’t really cloudy, and rain had not been called for. It ended soon, thankfully returning us to the usual dry conditions California is famous for.
   We’re proud of our droughts here in California. It's currently our driest period since we were granted statehood in 1850. Isn’t that exciting!
   The girl’s friend jay walked across the La Brea to a McDonald’s  and brought her back some tea and a  McGriddles, which she greedily consumed . I was jealous.
   In time we would strike up a conversation, and I would learn she was a website designer who had gone to university in Utah, and had just returned to California and was currently looking for work. She had never been to a food bank before and was not exactly relishing the experience, vowing to her friend she was never going to do this again. 
   She had some issues with the early time required to get a good place in line, and the ambient temperature, which was a tad cool, and which she had not prepared for. She had come on the advice of her friend who was an old hand at the food bank game. 
   I never really caught their names, so from this point on I shall refer to them as Kapono and Lakshmi.
   It wasn’t long before others arrived and got into line behind me. The demographic make up of line was a fairly balanced mixture of Hispanic people and Asian, a small percentage of European ancestry, four or five blacks, and as many white people. I was one of the white people. I’d put  the average age in the line at 55, which it is understandable that it would consist of older people, as a head of household can pick up food not just for themselves, but for their entire family. Two thirds of the line were female in nature.
   As lines go this one was very well behaved. Most of the time everyone kept to their correct position within, at times moving around to chat with others in the line, or to get refreshments, or whatever. That would change soon.
   After a few hours the food bank’s security guard came out and began to go down the line handing out numbered tickets, which would be the basis for who would be served first, second, third, and so on. I got number 22. Kapono 21.
   It being Lakshmi’s first time there she received special treatment, and was given a letter rather than a number, as she would need to go through a screening process once inside. Her number was “A.”
   The food bank processes about five new people each day, and no more. I don’t know why.
   Now that everyone had their numbers, the integrity of the line broke down completely, and everyone began moving around willy nilly, which I found disturbing. Most of the now 70 people or so, moved up and around the bank’s entrance, filling up the small courtyard area where the door was located, and the sidewalk surrounding it. 
   I found this disturbing because I crave order within my life, and chaos disturbs me. 
   It disturbed the security guard too, who had quite a bit of trouble managing the multilingual crowd consisting in large part of older Asian ladies, who didn’t seem, or pretended not to understand English very well. His attempt at crowd control was feeble, although he kept up a good natured demeanor. I admired this as his job was a difficult one.
   Others arrived and were given numbers. Still it was pretty much a clusterf--k at the entrance, which I knew would be a problem once the doors were opened, with everyone rushing to get in and find one of a limited number of available seats. The spillover would have to remain outside.
   I knew I needed to get inside quickly, as I was number 22, and would be serviced before most of these people, so I moved up as much as I could.
   Why were these people here?
   They needed food obviously, but why can’t they buy their own?
   Food security is a condition related to the ongoing availability of food. The World Food Summit of 1996 defined food security as existing “when all people at all times have access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life.”
   A June 2012 Health Policy Brief, from the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research, states:  “Food insecurity has increased significantly among low-income Californians over the last decade. According to data from the 2009 California Health Interview Survey, 3.8 million adults in households with incomes at or below 200% of the Federal Poverty Level (FPL) could not afford enough food at least once in the previous year. Low-income households with children and Spanish-speaking households suffered from the worst levels of food insecurity. Expanding nutrition assistance programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program [SNAP], could help reduce high rates of food insecurity among the low-income population.”
    3.8 million adults. That’s a lot of adults. 
   And that’s just in California. The Washington D.C. based Urban Institute declares: “In a country as wealthy and prosperous as the United States, one would think that having enough to eat is not an issue. However, nearly 15 percent of all households and 39 percent of near-poor households were food insecure in 2008. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program... is the cornerstone of federal food assistance programs and serves as the first line of defense against food-related hardship, such as food insecurity.”
   So the government, concerned for it’s low income citizens, should increase SNAP assistance to alleviate the problem, and thereby lessening the need to utilize these food banks, or pantries, which themselves utilize government giveaways anyway. So why doesn’t the government  increase SNAP benefits?
   Because we are, and I mean the government, not you and me, too busy reducing SNAP benefits.    
   Last February Congress passed the 2014 Farm Bill,  which included a $8.7 billion cut to the SNAP food stamp program (plus another $11 billion will be slashed over three years as stimulus funding for the program expires). As much as I would like to I can’t fully blame this on the Republicans. The bill passed in the Republican controlled House on January 29th, and in the Democratically controlled Senate on February 4th. The President signed it into law on the 7th.   
   Now this was a huge Bill. $956 billion, with a B, in spending over the next ten years. $756 billion alloted to food stamps and nutrition programs. Apparently the food stamp cuts were a condition set by the Republicans to get the bill passed, who had originally wanted cuts of either $20.5 billion or $39 billion. And to be fair, the $8.7 billion in cuts was balanced out by a $200 million increase in funds that go directly toward the food banks. 
   Why would the Republicans want to cut assistance, especially food assistance to our nations citizens?  Because quite frankly, they’re dicks... even the women Republicans are dicks. 
   Republicans consider food stamps as an entitlement program that helps to deny those who need them the privilege of being self sustaining. The same goes for unemployment benefits.    
   According to the Republicans those who are using food stamps are dependent on the government, and have no incentive to find employment if they’re unemployed, or to gain better jobs if they are. According to the Republicans they are doing the poor and hungry a favor by denying them benefits (the New York Times estimates the $8.7 billion in cuts will mean that 850,000 households will lose $90/month in benefits). And of course that’s $8.7 billion Republicans can shovel to large corporations and the wealthy if possible (the so-called job creators who don’t create jobs. Customers create jobs), and as soon as possible, the top 10% of income earners, the money’s rightful owners, as far as Republicans are concerned that is)).
   Take Indiana Republican Gov. Mike Pence... please.    
   His Indiana Family and Social Services Administration announced last month that beginning in 2015, it would no longer request a waiver to the federal work requirement for certain people who use the SNAP program.  That means up to 65,000 people could lose their benefits unless they are working 20 hours a week, or attending some form of job training. 
   Asked about how he felt about people saying he was targeting the poor, he replied, “I’m someone that believes there’s nothing more ennobling to a person than a job,” Pence insisted. “And to make sure that able-bodied adults without dependants at home know that here in the state of Indiana, we want to partner with them in their success.”
   How sweet. 
   One of the definitions of the word “ennoble,” is “lend greater dignity or nobility of character to.”  
   I’m almost positive that most  low income, unemployed, or underemployed would rather eat, than gain dignity, but that’s just me. 
   I’m also almost positive that Pence was elected to legislate, not pontificate. 
   Anyway, we probably shouldn’t be too harsh on Gov. Pence, and all the other Republican politicians who utilize the same talking points as he does (I often wonder if conservatives have evolved to a point that they have replaced neurons with talking points). Politicians who like to tell us how to live our lives are more than likely much more devout, ethical, and moral than the rest of humanity.  
   And what he is asking of his food stamp recipients isn’t that unreasonable really. 
   Except that there are two million people in the Midwest seeking jobs, with only about a million available. 
   So Federal Government and Gov. Pence, do your jobs and create some living wage employment opportunities, and by so doing ennoble yourselves (or self ennoble, whichever you prefer). That’s the best way to get people off of unemployment, off of welfare, and off of SNAP, rather than villainize the victims of your ineptness in order to gain political points with your base.   
   One of my favorite people, Cenk Uygur of The Young Turks agrees with the Gov, except he targets other people rather than food stamp recipients. 
   “I think we should ‘ennoble’ the bankers by cutting off their government assistance,” pointing out that the public not only received government welfare during the 2007/2008 financial crisis, but they continue to receive favorable, “near-zero percent” interest rates.
   “That sounds like that would hurt their nobility,” Uygur said. “I would like to ennoble them by charging them the same interest rate that we all pay. It would make them better, make them work harder, right?”
   “You know who else I’d like to ennoble? I’d like to ennoble the oil companies, that are the most profitable companies in the world,” he said. “I’d like to take away their $14 billion in subsidies. Conservatives, I know you agree with me, right? Those are wasteful. When we do it in regards to the poor, you hate it. You hate giving money to the poor and middle-class. You hate trying to educate people’s kids so they can have equality of opportunity. Why would you want to give government handouts to the richest companies in the world?”
   But Pence and... well all politicians, both Republican and Democrat, are bought and paid for by the wealthy. 
   As former Labor Secretary, Robert Reich points out, “The richest Americans hold more of the nation’s wealth than they have in almost a century. What do they spend it on? As you might expect, personal jets, giant yachts, works of art, and luxury penthouses.
   And also on politics. In fact, their political spending has been growing faster than their spending on anything else. It’s been growing even faster than their wealth.   
   Their political investments have paid off in the form of lower taxes on themselves and their businesses, subsidies for their corporations, government bail outs, federal prosecutions that end in settlements where companies don’t affirm or deny the facts and where executives don’t go to jail, watered-down regulations, and non-enforcement of antitrust laws. 
   Since the top .01 began investing big time in politics, corporate profits and the stock market have risen to record levels. That’s enlarged the wealth of the richest .01 percent by an average of 7.8 percent a year since the mid-1980s.
   But the bottom 90 percent don’t own many shares of stock. They rely on wages, which have been trending downward. And for some reason, politicians don’t seem particularly intent on reversing this trend.
   If you want to know what’s happened to the American economy, follow the money. That will lead you to the richest .01 percent.”
   So that’s why pretty soon all of us except that .01 percent may be getting up early in the morning to head out to our local food bank. We’re still lucky to have food banks. Soon the rich will be coming for those too.
   Speaking of which, they opened the doors a half hour early, at 9:30, and as I expected everybody tried to get in at the same time. Fortunately the young security guard kept his head and only allowed a few in at a time until the waiting room was full. I was one of them.
   I was lucky to get a seat in the back. The room filled to capacity quickly and was very loud in a multilingual way. The security guard repeatedly had to ask everybody to quiet down so they could hear what was going on.
   Very soon the facility’s manager, a man of indiscriminate age with long blonde hair, came out to make an announcement. 
   “Hi folks. I want you to know that tomorrow we’re giving out our annual Thanksgiving food bags, starting at eight o’clock. Now I have nine hundred of them, and only nine hundred, so please get here early to get one, because when their gone, that’s it. Okay? Thanks.”
   I’ve received one of these before, consisting of a chicken, with some other chicken making stuff. I wasn’t able to get one as I had yoga with Beth the next day, and yoga is more important than chicken.
   The first step in the food receiving process is to sign in. A pretty lady sat at a desk in the front of the room and began to call out numbers, starting at “1.” At times, as I’ve said, the security guard had to quite down the room so she could be heard. I sat, looking around helplessly.
   When she got to “22,” I went over to her desk and gave her my SOVA card which I had gotten on previous visits. I signed in on a sign in sheet, while she looked me up on her computer and made a personalized print out for the SOVA workers to use.
   Then I went back to my seat. I breathed a sigh of relief as the first step was completed. I could see  Lakshmi sitting down on the far side of the room. She seemed happy.
   The next step is to be interviewed by one of the SOVA workers. Today I spoke to Ed, a very nice balding gentleman, who took me to his desk in the back, and who asked me if I was still living at the same address. I was. How did I get there, he asked. Bus, I told him. 
   “Do you need any bus tokens/” he asked.
   I didn’t. I have a special pass for the buses.
   We then went down a list of the available items that I could have, and he asked me if I wanted this and that. I told him.
   They were out of peanut butter that day. That made me sad.
   I’ve not met many Jewish people, but those I have have always been kind to me, as Ed was that day. I am perplexed as to why such a kind and caring people have been continually persecuted by ancient Egyptians, physchopathic Aryans, and modern Egyptians and Palestinians. 
   The second step now complete all I had to do then was sit and wait for my number to be called and to pick up my food items. 
   I must say everything was running like clockwork that day. I was out of there in about forty five minutes
   My number was called and I went up to the window where the food was dispersed. This would be the hard part. I was handed four bulging plastic bags of food, plus 6 eggs, which I hurriedly tried to stuff into several tote bags I had brought with me, plus my backpack. The cloth tote bags were resistant to being stuffed properly, like most of the women I’ve known in my life, and I had to take everything outside to get the job done properly. 
   Lakshmi walked out with  Kapono. I asked her how she felt about the food bank now. She said she liked it. I asked her if she would ever come back. 
   “I don’t know about that,” she said.
   I made my way home on the same buses that had got me there, only backwards, and got to my room just in time to watch former Democratic Party nominee for United States Congress in Virginia's 1st congressional district in the 2010 election, Krystal Marie Ball, and daughter of 2012 presidential candidate Jon Huntsman, Jr., Abby Huntsman, on MSNBC’s “The Cycle,” at twelve o’clock.
   This is what I was given: 6 medium eggs of the oval variety, a 32 fluid ounce of organic, low sodium, chicken broth, 14 frozen chicken legs, 5 onions, 6 potatoes, 5 squashlike vegetables, many carrots, 64 fluid ounce bottle of unsweetened orange juice, 1 bag of unshelled walnuts, about 20 of them I’d say, 1 bag of assorted pastries, 1 small bag of powdered milk, 2 bags of white rice, two 7.25 ounce box of macaroni and cheese, one 15 ounce box of raisins, two  bars of pure vegetable soap (which I assume is soap that tastes like Brussels sprouts), 1 huge bag of dried cranberries, 1 large bag of romaine lettuce,  2 frozen Marie Callender’s pastry shells, four 4.5 ounce containers of natural apple sauce, one 14 ounce can of Ocean Spray jellied cranberry sauce, one 15 ounce can of sliced potatoes, two 6 ounce cans of tomato paste (one from Ralphs, and one from Hunts), one 14.5 ounce of Hunts diced tomatoes, one 5 ounce can of light chunk tuna, one 16 ounce package of spaghetti, and one 8.25 ounce of pineapple chunks. 
   Well dear readers, I took all that stuff out back into the garden and buried it in a nice safe spot. 
   With a few more trips I’ll be properly prepared for the inevitable upcoming Republican apocalypse. 
   I suggest you do the same.

Addendum: 11-27-14: Nation's Largest Food Bank Reduces Portions, Turns Away Needy After Massive Food Cuts
Addendum:11-29-14: Helping the hungry 
Addendum: 50 million Americans
Addendum: 7-26-15: John Oliver on Food Waste

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