Saturday, September 19, 2015

Have a Heart(land)

Last week I volunteered at Second Harvest Heartland, a food bank which serves 59 counties in Minnesota and western Wisconsin. September is National Hunger Action Month, and all throughout Bremer Bank is matching every volunteer hour at Second Harvest with a $5 donation. Having spent my last two years thinking about and seeing hunger and poverty in Malawi, I thought it was a good opportunity to explore the same issues closer to home. Plus, they made it super easy to do.

Second Harvest (@2Harvest) is part of Feeding America, a nationwide network of more than 200 food banks that helps feed people across the country. According to their website 1 in 7 Americans struggles with food insecurity. One in seven!

I’ve learned a lot about “food insecurity” in developing countries, but it never really occurred to me that the same terminology would be applicable so close to home.  From what I remember in my grad school days, food insecurity revolves around three things: access, availability and uptake. That is: is there food nearby? Is it affordable? Is your body getting what it needs? 

In Malawi, our program explored this through periodic surveys covering the three aspects. How far do you need to walk to find food? What could you afford? Were there enough calories available? The local staple was nsima and relish with every meal, so we also asked if they were getting enough dietary diversity (a fancy way of saying “balanced diet”).

In the United States, the three aspects still hold. Getting enough calories is less of an issue, but given the overabundance of cheap, sugar-filled calories, finding a healthy and nutritional balance remains a struggle. According to the latest 2014 Food Hunger Survey, 81% of clients in the Second Harvest service area choose inexpensive, unhealthy food.

Hunger is at once an uncomplicated and complicated issue. It’s relatively easy to improve access and availability – that’s what food banks like Second Harvest try to do. It’s harder to teach about what to eat. Adding to that, it also impacts so many other things: if you are food insecure, how do you have enough energy to learn? To work? To borrow a development phrase, this is called poverty ratcheting. Not having one puts you at risk for the other, which knocks you down another step, and then another, etc.

I enjoyed my afternoon re-packaging excess tortillas and sorting through boxes of semi-expired goods from local grocery stores (it is seriously fascinating to see what things get donated. Easter Eggs! Gluten free matzo balls!). It also helped that I randomly ran into my friend Curt, who was also there to volunteer. It felt good to spend time thinking of others, learning something new and putting myself to service.

It’s sexy to think about helping others in far off places. It’s easy to think about a poor hungry Ethiopian child with flies about her nose, but that is not necessarily the reality. It has been somewhat difficult during my return to reconcile the image of this land of abundance with one that perhaps has more in common with Malawi than it would like to admit.  Returning home, I feel more strongly than ever that “making a difference” isn’t something that is done to Another in a Far Off Place, but to each other, as we live our lives, every single day.

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