Breaking the Fall: Building Local Safety Nets

Sharon November 18th, 2008

Well, the bad news keeps on building up, doesn’t it?  One of the most worrisome bits of bad news are the heavy burdens being placed upon already under-funded safety net programs.  Think about the statistics.

11.1% of American households regularly experienced food insecurity with hunger (32 % , or a full 1/3 of all Americans experience food insecurity, in that they don’t know if they will have enough food, but generally manage to make do – the 11.1% is the number of people who actually go to bed hungry on a regular basis) in the US in 2007, slightly up from 10.9% the year before.  That means that even before the recession hit, before food prices really spiked, we were already seeing a rise in real and serious hunger in the US.

But those statistics don’t tell the whole story.  Because between 2006 and 2007, the number of children who regularly experience hunger doubled.  Think about that.  We won’t have a full evaluation of the 2008 numbers for a year now, but they will be bad.

One out of every 10 Americans needs food stamps to get to the end of the month.  One out of every TWO infants in the US requires WIC supplementation.  Subsidized school lunch program rolls are rising rapidly, as much as 4% in some localities month over month.   At these numbers, we can no longer think of these programs as safety nets for unusual numbers of hungry – these are direct, government food subsidies to a nation that can no longer feed itself.  That is, it is now normal to need state subsidies to eat.

Now the good news is that the public and private safety net programs are mostly still holding. The folks who work for these programs and administer them generally are doing their best to get everyone who needs help under the umbrella.  I come from a family of teachers and social workers, housing advocates and eldercare workers - and people who often spend their weekends at the food pantry or the shelter. I know for a fact that while some of the people who do the hands-on work of making sure people have places to stay and food to eat and a decent education are jerks, most of them are totally committed.  They usually are paid badly and do difficult, stressful work because they don’t want to see anyone go hungry or cold.  And they are trying to stem the tide of crisis – and they are failing, and in the long term, bound to fail,  because no one can stop a tidal wave with linked arms.

For example, during the biggest donation season of the year, food pantries all over the country, including these ones in Ohio are short of turkeys, as well as basic food staples.  Most charities rely on donations made between Halloween and New Years all year ’round – that is, this is when people are most opening their purses, and the charities know they have to make what they get now last during the long winter and spring, when people donate less.  So the fact that their cupboards are bare now bodes very, very badly for the days to come.

Or consider the situation with state unemployment funds.  Right now several states, including my own New York (which is disproportionally dependent on Wall Street for funds), Nevada, Ohio and California may well not be able to pay unemployment claims within a very few months - just as the great wave of unemployment hits. Meanwhile, most state subsidized social programs, including the ones that help at-risk kids, the homeless and the desperately hungry are facing budget cuts, hiring freezes and occasionally the complete axing of a program.

 It is likely that the federal aid will be brought in – and just as likely that the scale of the economic crisis may well exceed the ability to remedy the problem.  The federal government has already spent trillions bailing out Wall Street – and now comes everyone else – states, counties, social service programs, nearly every industry.  They’ll all have a hand out, and the reality is that we can’t save everyone.

That is, we are only just seeing the beginning of the wave of unemployment and the economic crisis.  What has been largely a Wall Street Crisis is only now really percolating down into most of our lives.  And the changes that are coming are huge – changes in our culture, changes in our economy, changes in our sense of ourselves.  David Brooks, a New York Times conservative commentator who often annoys the heck out of me but is sometimes really, really right, put his finger beautifully on the issue in his column yesterday:

“In times of recession, people spend more time at home. But this will be the first steep recession since the revolution in household formation. Nesting amongst an extended family rich in social capital is very different from nesting in a one-person household that is isolated from family and community bonds. People in the lower middle class have much higher divorce rates and many fewer community ties. For them, cocooning is more likely to be a perilous psychological spiral.

In this recession, maybe even more than other ones, the last ones to join the middle class will be the first ones out. And it won’t only be material deprivations that bites. It will be the loss of a social identity, the loss of social networks, the loss of the little status symbols that suggest an elevated place in the social order. These reversals are bound to produce alienation and a political response. If you want to know where the next big social movements will come from, I’d say the formerly middle class. “

I think Brooks is right on the money here – and I don’t think it will just be the former middle class.  The baby boomers, who bought the idea that security comes from affluence, that that their future was more about money than their ties to family are likely to be angry and betrayed as their pensions and retirement funds vanish.  The unemployed are coming not just from service industries and new jobs, but from old, high paying ones in finance and insurance. 

And the safety nets will break, if this is bad enough.  They’ve been undercut for decades, going back to the Reagan administration, and we’ve already allocated a lot of our wealth into the vast black hole of Wall Street.  They are already strained, and things have only just begun.  Simultaneously, people will lose first their jobs, then the benefits they expect to sustain them, and finally very basic things like food security.  And the one thing that could have mitigated some of that suffering – community ties and social capital – are precisely what growth capitalism has spent the last 60 years ripping to shreds.

This is a lot of gloom and doom, but the key to mitigation is the restoration of the social and communal ties that Brooks is talking about.  There are two important reasons for this – the first is that as Brooks points out, there’s a big difference between staying home and eating beans and rice alone in your chilly house and getting together with your neighbors and sharing that meal.  The sense of loss and deprivation is very different – I know I keep mentioning this, but social scientists have confirmed what Timothy Breen the historian observes – that “rituals of non-consumption” can replace our rituals of consumption – if we come together.  That is, it can be a lot easier to bear tough times if you are working together with other people, and feel that they are in the same boat.

The second, and perhaps more urgent issue, is that our stability as a nation depends building layers of additional safety nets underneath the ones that break.  Think of poverty as a fall out a window.  Right now, there is a layer of safety net that catches a majority of people, although by no means all.  But what’s under those?  What happens if the traditional nets break?  We need those nets not only because protecting others from hunger, cold and suffering is the ethical thing to do, and not only because, as they say, the life you save may soon be your own, but because all of our personal security depends on our community security.  In hard times, crime rates go up, and people get angry.  Brooks is right to anticipate a movement of angry and frightened people, and when people are angry and frightened, we’re all vulnerable.

In a rational society, there are more layers to break your fall, and we’re going to need them.  First, there are formal structures at the community level – if your town never needed a food pantry because people could drive to the neighboring city, now is the time to propose it at your church, school or other possible site.  Think about ways you could adapt existing infrastructure – could the schools start distributing extra school lunches to the needy after the day is over?  Could your school establish a backpack program, sending food home for the weekend with the neediest kids?  Could you start a local gleaning program, or a senior lunch program?  If you have these structures, but they are struggling, what can you do to reinforce them?  Can you make another donation?  Start a fund drive?  What about setting up a bulletin-board system to bring families struggling to keep their homes together with people who need housing.  There are a thousand good ideas – yours is probably one of them. 

The next layer is the neighbor and community layer. I know we all worry about looking like busybodies, but now is the time to start looking in on your neighbors, and offering to help.  The way to do this is to talk to people, even before it looks like they need anything.  That way you’ll know if your elderly neighbor can no longer afford to drive to get her medication and you can offer to pick it up, or if a neighbor is out of work and might be glad to get a day’s pay helping a friend of yours winterize her house.  Being neighborly, and also gentle and unjudgemental is how you are going to know if someone in your neighborhood has no food in the pantry.  For every person who signs up for aid and accepts help, there are several who will rather go hungry than take institutional charity – but who will gladly come over and share a meal with their neighbor, or do you a favor and take that loaf of bread that you’ve got no where to store.

One of the most important things we can do is when we do spend money these days, spend it in our communities if at all possible. I know most of us aren’t going to be buying a lot of holiday gifts, but every dollar you can pass on to a neighbor, a local farmer or a local business that enriches your community is one that makes everyone more secure.  So maybe hire the out of work neighbor to plant and tend a garden for your sister, or give your best friend a farmstand gift certificate.

Finally, there’s family, or the people who function like one.  Those are the people who are standing there with their arms out at the base of your fall, and are prepared to risk something to catch you.  These are the people you can depend on when you have no place to go or no food in the pantry.  And as long as you have food and a place to sleep, try hard to be that person for close friends and extended family.  In fact, try hard to extend out the circle if you can a bit – there are a lot of vulnerable people out there who could use a hand up.  You don’t have to take in everyone, or treat everyone like family, but if each of us expands the category of people we will not allow to fall to the ground by one or two,  well, there’s hope for us yet.


37 Responses to “Breaking the Fall: Building Local Safety Nets”

  1. [...] See the original post here:  Breaking the Fall: Building Local Safety Nets [...]

  2. Thanks for your post Sharon, and the forum provided here. Whether a gift of a curse, mine is to look at things from the perspective of Geologic Time, or Deep Time. From that perspective, humans are social beings and thus mutually interdependent for survival. In effect, this is what you advocate, getting through the tough times via “mutual interdependence”. For many years I have questioned why we cling so strongly to civilization, especially the modern Western version, in that it rewards and therefore selects for undesirable human traits. These traits I list as greed, selfishness, dishonesty, or maybe just generally ‘sociopathy’. From one important perspective, we have just been through an extended period of some 30 years of looting our collective wealth by small but powerful groups of sociopathic cronies. From a Deep Time perspective, I do not believe these are the dominant traits of humans.

    I do not intend to minimize anyone’s suffering. However, the present situation I believe does offer us an opportunity to once again become human. Our problems are great. But if we can all work together to develop the necessary perceptions to see our problems clearly, then perhaps we can address them in ways that increase the probability of leaving a reasonable world to all the children of future generations. I invite those interested in this work to visit for further information. Contact me if you have questions.

  3. Lance says:

    I read this article today:

    It hit home

    As young as I am now, 48, I was raised with the memories of the Depression so real in my family, and occasionally even as an adult, it felt like I was raised back then myself. My grandpa had to quit school when he was 10 when his dad died, to go pick corn; that was even before the Depression, in 1922. His brother lived with their family in a dugout place in a riverbluff. They farmed out the kids to work. Then my grandpa got a job diving for drowned people in the Missouri, and after that, he operated a jackhammer. When he was courting my grandma, they used to filch potatoes and coal that fell off the railcars. They were ecstatic when FDR got voted in, and grandpa got work through the WPA working on river erosion in the midwest, making willow riverbank mats.

    When I was a baby, my dad collected pop bottles by the road so we could eat; the neighbors left us milk so I could have some as a baby. Things were tough as a kid, as my dad worked as a housepainter and I also have had my time in poverty in my 20s, living in my car at rest areas, and gleaning apricots from trees in public parks. Here in Montana at the time, there were 200 people in line for one gas pumping job, and the only day labor I could get was occasionally mowing a lawn. I learned about wild plants not because it was interesting, but so I could eat when I was in my 20s in the 1980s (cattails, milkweed, chokecherries, greens, squirrel, etc.), and some short term work. I did finally succeed in getting a few decent jobs in my 30s and into my 40s, but it was always soft money work in government labor and technical stuff, and nothing that was a career or would build me a pension. So I am mentally prepared for a hardscrabble life, as high living I have experienced a time or two, but I know the bad times very well.

    I was raised to believe that if ANYbody got a piece of cake, EVERYbody got a piece of cake. There was no such thing as not enough to go around. I never got a whole stick of gum growing up, my dad always tore the single Wrigley’s stick in as many pieces as there was people. Selfishness has always not only baffled me, I always have seen it as a great sin. So the last couple of decades, beginning in the 1980s when selfishness became a sort of twisted virtue (“Just Do It” “Have It Your Way” “Greed is Good”) I have always felt out of the stream. It was so unreal to me always to see that the only people that helped me out in bad times were the ones who didn’t have much themselves, while the well-off were the stingiest. That was my experience, the poor helped each other, but the rich only helped themselves (or those they thought they could get something from). When you walked along the road, the rich guys and women would yell “get a job” “get a car” and swerve close to you…while the ones who stopped to give you a lift were the suffering souls. So the days we had so much, ironically we were the stingiest.

    So to the folks who had it good in the high rollin’ 80s, 90s, and 00s, hope you enjoyed your good times, …now welcome to my world :-) It ain’t so bad once you harden up a bit, and get used to it, use your brains, share what little you have. Learn to be a human to fellow humans again. Help, share, care, be humble and grateful. If you gotta suffer, it’s better suffering with a fellow than alone. You’ll find that you may have very little, but the eye of the needle is that much bigger (Biblical reference for those who read the Good Book)

    -Lance Foster

  4. Susan says:

    This is so very depressing. As I posted on Peak Oil Hausfrau’s blog, I feel as though the tape rewinder is getting close to the end of the tape, things are speeding up and I feel like things are so out of control! (as if they ever really are in our control)

    I have been talking with my neighbors about starting a community garden and the response has been universally positive, but questions about the details are always the sticker. Like for instance, what to do about those who expect a share, or are willing to take a share, but aren’t willing to do the work? Just the fact that people are getting excited about the possibility and trust me enough (I am the tin foil hat society president in my neighborhood) to get behind me on this gives me hope that we can make it work.

    I don’t belong to our community association because it’s a voluntary social club for blue hairs who really only want to pick on people – we all live in a VERY lower middle class (or even upper lower class…is that a category?) subdivision in a rural area, but they expect people to maintain their yards like they’re in downtown Scottsdale. Eh. BUT. They are the people with the time to help me in starting and maintaining this project, and I am working up the courage and patience to approach them about this. Your post today is giving me reason to start putting one foot in front of the other about this.

  5. Kathy D. says:

    Your comment on schools sending food home sounds great. However, unless then have changed (since my mom quit cooking in the schools 10 yrs. ago & I quit teaching 6 yrs. ago), government regulations stipulated that food could not leave the premises. Books are/were routinely audited, and cafeteria managers had to account for all food supplies received and used. As a manager, mom had to account for every ingredient used in every dish cooked or prepared in her cafeteria. If there was food left over or that couldn’t be used, it had to be thrown out–talk about waste. She hated it, especially when she worked at a Head Start and often saw children she knew were hungry. She regularly told of watching children on Monday morning “scarfing down” food because they hadn’t had a real meal since the previous school day. Unfortunately, some of these regulations were implemented during an administration that wanted to declare ketchup was a vegetable and a packet or one of those tiny cups could count as a one of the required vegetable servings. All of this is to say that programs such as you propose (extremely great ideas) won’t be done until these rules change–perhaps by people seeing how ridiculous the regulations are and demanding their change.

  6. Ani says:

    Yes, agreed and well said. I do think that we as a society are structured very differently than we were during the Depression years and David Brooks is spot on (amazing that!) when he notes how changes in our family structure have likely left us less able to weather the storm. As someone who has only marginal family ties other than a child, I can well agree with this assssment. I have tended to turn friends into my “family of choice” and will continue to do just this.

    It’s interesting because as Lance points out, some of us have known tough times and as such recognize how bad things can get. I wonder how it will be for those who haven’t and who are judgemental over those who are struggling. I can think of some people I know who seem to consider themselves immune to this or something as they are superior beings I guess. When they do offer any assistance it comes loaded with charitable obligation baggage and is so truly offensive- I can think of one such person and her take on “assistance” to another neighbor who is unemployed……. Wonder how these people will fare if/when their boat springs a leak as well…..??

  7. WNC Observer says:

    Formerly Middle Class people on food stamps and sitting home alone watching TV: Panem et Circenses

  8. Shelley says:

    There was an article in the newspaper this weekend (Anchorage Daily News) that chronicled the experience of two social studies teachers who tried to live on $1 a day like most of the rest of the world does. They did this experiment for one month. They were only able to by corn flour, oats and dried beans. They could not afford fruit of any kind, canned, on sale, fresh, ect. or syrup. They ate a lot of tortillas and pancakes (home made of course) Following that story was the story of a few governors of states who tried to live on food stamps only for a short period of time. THAT worked out to be $3.50 a day for one fellow and $5 a day for the other. Again, buying fruit and veggies was an impossibility. The article concluded with this little economic tidbit…junk food prices have FALLEN about 1% and fruit and veggie and milk prices have risen 17%. Poor people who have soaring diabetes, high blood pressure and so on simply cannot afford to eat anything other than junk foods and starches.

    So THAT, my friends, is the US food safety net.

    If I were living somewhere else and had some kind of influence, I would advocate a nationwide “Victory Garden” program and give out free seeds, organize urban community systems to use vacant lots, provide rototillers to be borrowed, and use Americore, or some such organization, to help the poor living on said safety nets start gardens. That semes to be the only way to get folks fresh food. Plus it would:
    1. build community
    2. give people who are struggling a huge boost in pride…they are feeding themselves
    3, improve the health of folks who exercise by digging, planting, weeding and harvesting

    So….since I’m stuck in ice land…..can any of you in the lower 48 think of some way to get this idea out there?

    I’m sure I am not the first person to have this idea. Do you know of someone or some organization who is already doing this on a large scale?

  9. WNC Observer says:


    At the community garden in my town, about half the plots are dedicated for food bank production. Students from a local college provide the volunteer labor. Food bank clients are given vouchers which entitle them to harvest food (under supervision) from the plots.

    This doesn’t provide them with fresh vegetables all year, but it helps.

  10. Shelley says:


    I know I’ve heard of small groups in various places doing this before. But I mean….this could be a movement if it had the right leader. I know it wouldn’t supply people all year, but people used to eat seasonally before refrigeration anyway. In Alaska, we could grow strawberries, broccoli and cabbage, potatos and carrots. Maybe Master Gardener programs could get involved… mind is whirling! But seriously….do youthink it would work if it was nationalized like WIC is?…Does WIC in the lower 48 give out coupons to farmers market like it does here?

  11. KatJ says:

    Good article, Sharon! My husband calls this my “gloom and doom” site – he’s not a believer yet! He thinks that Obama can save us from this disaster, but I don’t think the president-elect is omnipotent, however good his intentions, and that, I think, is what it would take. However, having a forum like this, with good (inspiring) information is a tremendous help because it gives us a direction and goals to focus upon. Thank you for taking the time to inform us, and I think your book is awesome, as well! I’ve been recommending it to everyone!

  12. Anonymous says:

    Kathy D. (and others),

    My town sends food home in backpacks for the neediest children. My understanding is that the food is provided by the local branch of the state food back. Therefore, it avoids potential school budget/hygiene/accounting problems that would arise from using leftover school food.

  13. homebrewlibrarian says:


    I’m in Anchorage, too. I was browsing through the info on community gardens through the muni website and it doesn’t look like the Food Bank is formally involved. However, I was pleased to discover that the number of community garden areas has increased. Now there’s a community garden in Fairview (not too far from where I live). The muni also maintains a donation/food-giving list for people with excess produce. Unfortunately, the link is dead so I can’t see what might have been listed there.

    I’m all for expanding food opportunities in Alaska and Anchorage in particular. You have good ideas! Want to put our heads together on this? Contact me at kacanepa AT


    I’m not quite the tin foil hat wearer in my neighborhood – yet. But I understand your predicament. I haven’t done a survey to see if my neighbors would be up for food gardening but I can tell by their responses during over-the-fence chats that they have a positive, if quizzical, opinion of my gardening efforts. Few of the vegies I grew could be identified by my neighbors so that turned into an educational opportunity on my end. But then, none of my neighbors seem to eat kale, kohlrabi, brussels sprouts or collards. They would have been hard pressed to pick out the broccoli and cauliflower until the blooms started to develop. I wasn’t able to share garden produce this year because, frankly, I never got around to harvesting everything before winter hit. There are plenty of frozen greens still on the plants but I doubt they’d be very attractive as a gift. Especially since no one would know what to do with them anyway. I’m toying with the idea of creating little cards with two or three easy recipes using [vegetable] so that next year I can hand a bunch of kale and a card to one of my neighbors. They might not be very vegie-savvy but at least they don’t look at me funny – much.

    Kerri in AK

  14. dewey says:

    Re: “there’s a big difference between staying home and eating beans and rice alone in your chilly house and getting together with your neighbors and sharing that meal.”

    I think you’re talking about Red Beans and Rice Monday! A great traditional New Orleans ritual of nonconsumption.

  15. freeacre says:

    In my little town, the Special Needs kids have a wonderful program where they start seedlings in a big greenhouse at the high school and sell flowering plants to the community for very cheap prices. I am going to call them and see if they can begin to sell vegetables in addition to flowers.
    Also, maybe shop classes could produce rabbit hutches and chicken coops that they could sell cheaply to the community, or make available to the community kitchen.
    Since donations of food are down due to lack of money for donors, perhaps it could be re-organized so that recipients become part of the production of localized food. I am going to approach my community kitchen leaders and float the idea.
    I have found that working on these projects and bartering and gifting things leads to a much greater sense of connectedness and community and fights isolation and loneliness. Just a simple batch of muffins brought to a neighbor can reap unexpected rewards.

  16. [...] Casaubon’s Book » Blog Archive » Breaking the Fall: Building Local Safety Nets Well, the bad news keeps on building up, doesn’t it? One of the most worrisome bits of bad news are the heavy burdens being placed upon already under-funded safety net programs. Think about the statistics. [...]

  17. Jenn says:

    It feels like there are a lot of restrictions that come into play when different groups, for whetever reasons, won’t or more likely can’t work together and get around their limitations to get things done. We run into this issue all the time, where regulations prohibit how food is handled and distributed, and so much of it winds up wasted as a result.

    But I wonder how much of this is the result of that ongoing issue of not having enough community networks in place. In addition to not having enough networks to augment the safety nets as they currently are, in a lot of cases, we don’t seem to have the capacity to change them either, so that they function effeciently enough that less people are able to fall through. We’re encouraged to not act out, not question the system, and not come together in ways that might effect some real change. In the words of Eldridge Cleaver, “They are discovering new ways to divide us faster than we are discovering new ways to unite”. I’m hoping that by coming together, even if it is to augment the safety nets that are already starting to fail, that we’ll also be strengthened enough to create some kind of meaningful, effective change.

  18. David says:

    Thank you thank you thank you, Sharon! This is the message we need to keep hearing. Funny how we’ve gotten ourselves into a place where we as a society believe that gummint can’t really solve our problems… and yet at the same time most people aren’t prepared to solve those problems at the community, neighbourhood, or family levels either.

    As soon as the rubber band keeping western gummints together goes twang for its last time, we’ll all start to realize how much was being held together by tax dollars and legalized gambling (stock/bond markets). And we’ll wish that we had more functional local communities.

    I live in a remote-ish place, so I expect the effects of economic flame-out to be worse here than elsewhere; conversely, though, the vestiges of community and neighbourhood solidarity are likely to be stronger here than in more central/urban communities.

  19. Hausfrau says:

    Before the gov’t took over the job of providing for the poor, out-of-work, sick, and disabled, people formed mutual aid societies, or fraternal orders, for example the Odd Fellows. A person who belonged to the society would pay in a set amount every month and then, if they had need, would receive a set amount of money every month. According to John Michael Greer, over half of Americans and Canadians belonged to one of these societies in 1900.

    These societies were very effective and sustainable, but failed over time as the consumer model replaced the civic and political participation model as the predominant focus in our countries. (according to the book The Long Descent.)

    Might not work for immediate assistance, but could be a model to consider for the medium to long-term.

  20. Verde says:

    I got half way through your post and remembered that it had been on my “to-do” list to go see how our local food bank was holding up so I could report back to my church. Before another thing got in my way, I stopped reading and went out to the food bank. I stood in line and watched and listened. It was a busy place becuase they are only open 12 hours a week.

    This is a boom town so there was an absence of family folk but there were elderly ladies who were divying up what they’d recieved saying, that’s too big for me, I don’t need it all, you take some with you.

    The lady in front of me in line wasn’t young and had an air of hard times but this was her first trip to the food bank and didn’t know to bring proof of her husband’s income. She was told to come back with papers but as she was getting ready to go they said, do you have food at home? And she replied, all “I have left to eat is one can of tomatoe sauce and some rice, we’re hungry”. So they gave her a to-go box.

    As I stepped up and told they why I was there (and everyone listened to my conversation as I had theirs) they said they were in pretty good shape because of the oil and gas boom, people had been generous. I commented on the giant squashes – about 1 1/2 times the size of a basket ball and said, “I don’t think I’d know how to cook that.” To which they replied that it’s a bit of trial and error once you break into it. They offered me one but I declined knowing my own pantry is now full.

    As someone who only a year and a half ago was in pretty bad shape, I do know what’s it’s like to know myself as middle class, with a master’s degree and to find that there isn’t enough to keep body and soul together. That the pantry only has food that doesn’t go togehter and that in spite of two working adults, there isn’t enough to pay the bills and feed the family. When you have a very strong sence of your place in society, not paying your bills doesn’t seem like an option. But not feeding your children isn’t an option either and so sometimes you don’t feed yourself to try and ease enough to go around. It’s hard to face job pressures when your belly is pinching not because your are on a diet eenn if you have tried to disguise it as that)

    Perhaps I’ll have to blog my experience so that others may learn to recognize that what every else you think of the middle class, in a regular house with two cars and the regular stuff, they too may suddenly find themselves without enough and may endure the pain of hunger rather than the pain of asking for help. It’s that hard. But what’s even harder than that is the when the pressure drives you to have to do something and ask for help, you get turned away because you don’t look the part.

  21. Shamba says:

    After reading todays’ post, I went to our local foodbank association online to see where they are located and what they’ve got posted.

    Link is at

    There is a pdf announcement there from one of the board members of the Arizona Association of food banks saying that requests/demand for food from the banks is up 77 percent from mid-summer! :(

    Correction to above: I also visited the Desrt Mission and St mary’s food banks websites so I ‘m not sure now where I read that letter/press release. I was astonished at that much of an increase even though I had expected the demand to increase the past few months.

    Now, I didn’t go there to check on getting food. I don’t need to thank the Good Powers of the Universe, but I went to see how they were organized and what kind of donations they might prefer. They seem to prefer anything: financial assistance and all kinds of food contributions.

    I also thought the gleaning project might be of interest generally. They glean from neighborhood citrus trees growing in yards. My parents used to have 18 grapefruit trees at their house and food bank people often came through and picked whatever they could get to take. I think they juiced most of it and froze it.


  22. Maeve says:

    My husband and I are in our 30s and belong to a fraternal order. The orders haven’t died out, though there certainly aren’t as many *different* ones as there were a hundred years ago. Most of the various orders are top-heavy with members who are becoming quite elderly, and would love to have younger members join. We really enjoy our participation, and the cross-generational friendships that we’ve gained because of it.

    Elks, Freemasons, Oddfellows & Rebekkahs, Grange, Knights of Columbus, etc. are all currently active organizations.

  23. There are lots of folks stuck in the middle. I wish I could eloquently explain what I want to, but fear my words will be misconstrewed.

    We are not “poor” by most standards, especially on a global scale. But our former 1 income/SAHM/homeschool family status changed this year when my husband lost his full time employment and went on short-time.

    I went back to teaching. We are a family of five, living on about $40K right now. Which isn’t bad, but it isn’t really good either. We are struggling.

    I hesitate to even say this—but I have skipped breakfast or lunch so that my kids are fed. Not that I am going hungry or starving, but if we have 6 slices of bread, and it is 2 days left until payday, I’m packing my kids lunches and I’m going without. I figure I can handle it.

    We are too “rich” for help—-we make too much $$ before taxes to qualify for any assistance….and as horrible as this may sound, we are awfully proud and hate to ask for much help. Even most of our local church programs have income threshholds you must meet to get assistance. We just barely make too much money for any help anywhere.

    And before anyone starts shouting about us living beyond our means, I’ll tell you we have no debt outside our home, and that most of our financial ruin has come from medical bills for our special needs child. I am not your McMansion brat with a starbucks habit. I’m a brown bagger who wishes that was her biggest problem!

    Just wanted to throw this in there. There are alot of lower-middle class families like myself out there who can’t really get much assistance.

  24. Shira says:


    You might have to be the change that you want to see in the world. Perhaps you have a knack for organization at the community and government levels. I don’t have the patience for it, so I focus on what I can do myself.

    I’ve been giving away seeds, starts and gardening advice since 2003, saving seeds, sharing seed, trading seed. I used to give enough seeds for a whole small garden to low income gardeners but lately it’s been anyone who wants to grow a food garden, until I run out, 23 last spring.

    Back in the last recession, 2002, I was very happy to have a little garden so that I could have fresh green stuff and herbs and whatnot with my beans and rice. I was impressed with how big a difference even a 75 square foot garden made in my attitude and well being. I kept gardening as things picked up, mostly because fresh vegetables and homemade tomato sauce are so good, but also because I am self-employed, hence also self-unemployed. I read lately about a self-employed mother going to the food bank. I’m still giving vegetables to the food bank here.

    I have more space at my present house and I’m still pushing the envelope. This year, besides the raised beds in the former front lawn, I grew crops for seed in the “planting strip” between the sidewalk and the street. The garden is certainly attracting attention, and lately the attention has shifted from What IS THAT to people asking how to.

    So Shelley, if big picture projects are not your thing, consider grabbing a shovel and setting the example.

    Shira in Bellingham, WA

  25. Shelley says:

    You know, I think you’re right Shira. Change begins with me, right. I do need to just get a shovel and do it. We have a local pick your own farm and I try to send my money that way, and also the local cow farmer and the local cow milk lady. I agree with Sharon that one of the most helpful things we can do is keep the money local. That can be a real trick up here sometimes. There aren’t a lot of local farmers.

    But I’m going to see about connecting with Kerri in Anchorage. The time to think about organizing is now before the push to get things planted hits. We have a program up here called Master Gardeners….maybe they have some ideas on community organizing for gardening.

    And dear normal middle. I’m right there with you. We do qualify for state medical care for kids and WIC and home heating assistance. We also have 5 kids and make about the same as you do. But we don’t qualify for other things like food stamps. It is hard to think about reaching out for help, but that is what it’s there for….to get you through the rough spots until you can get your feet under you once again. It’s weird that so many people are living so close to catastrophe on so much money….remeber when 40,000 a year sounded like so much money?!

    Verde has a great web site with pictures of things she is doing to save money like grinding grain and baking bread. I bet a lot of you who visit Sharon’s site do that . We do too and it saves us so much money in food costs. It’s the other incidentals that kill us…laundrey soap, dish soap, toilet paper. Verde you really should chronicle your journey.

  26. Ani says:


    You made a good point re: not looking like you need help but do. I think that has been a problem to some extent in the past as many assume that the people who need help are “them” and “they” look different- you know, poor and dumb or something. To an extent that has been true but there are also many exceptions to this. I think we will find as this economic crisis deepens that it will become more and more a crisis of “the formerly middle-class” a la David Brooks. This is impotant to remember as many of these people(who are many of us) are not used to asking for assistance, feel ashamed to have to do so and don’t know how to work the system at all.

    Working the local Food Shelf I have seen how some regard those who appear to be well dressed and educated or even drive a nicer car as somehow ripping off the system but I doubt it, especially as I know many of these people-they are truly in need. As well, many people who work for agencies that deal with Food Stamps, Medicaid, etc are often not exactly respectful when dealing with their clients- many who are poor are used to this sort of behavior from them- not saying it is right- they are just used to this stuff being dished out to them. But those who have not had to avail themselves of this assistance will find it hard to take.

  27. Rebecca says:

    The Normal Middle, there are a lot of families out there like yours, and more everyday. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. Have you thought about checking the local food bank? They usually don’t have income limits. Also, you might want to look into baking your bread or read books like the Tightwad Gazette to see if there’s anything you can use. Amy and her husband raised six kids and bought a house on less than 30k a year.

  28. Sharon says:

    Normal Middle – Thank you for reminding us of this, and no, I don’t think that you should be embarassed – frustrated, maybe, that it is so impossible to manage health care issues on what should be a decent salary.

    Two things – I know Rebecca knows this, but just a point about Dacyzyn’s managing – the 30K was in the 1980s, and because her husband was in the military for much of the time, they had health care benefits. My family of six lives in the low 40K – but we have good benefits, and I don’t know if we could do as well if we didn’t. IMHO, health care may be the most urgent thing we need to get to some kind of manageable new system.


  29. history says:

    Not looking like you need help sounds pretty close to not judging a book by its cover. My granny used to say ” there is a difference between being poor and being trash”…..keep in mind she lived through the depression and if she were alive now she’d be well over a hundred. Clothes and body were kept mended and clean! To her it was a mind set.

  30. Karin says:

    Our UU church’s food pantry budget is nearly depleted. It has always been funded by gifts from the aging, dwindling, rural congregation. So this past month members were asked to donate non food items so that the remaining monies would be spent on food. We are instituting a share the plate service every month to try to replenish the fund and the youth group is going to help with adding some money to it.

    During the summer I volunteer for a community garden that donates organic produce to low income seniors. But many of the residents of the senior housing development were saying that they may not be able to afford to stay in the subsidized housing because their rent was raised twice this year to help with increasing fuel costs.

    There are many newly middle class folks that are taking a step backwards but there are many already poor that are suffering even more. I think about the promises in the nineties when welfare reform was all the rage. Remember The Contract with America; with the promise of a minimum wage job, less time with your young children and stress of trying to find underfunded subsidized childcare. But there was always the hope that you could raise yourself up out of poverty. There was always hope that with some job training or higher education you would get your slice of the American Dream. Instead, dreams denied by many for many and no safety net left for all. geesh…

  31. Elizabeth says:

    Our local WIC program gives out $20 vouchers to the farmers’ market every summer. It’s not much, but it helps folks get fsome fresh fruits and veggies, and also helps out the farmers and creates a more diverse atmosphere at the market (which would be pretty upper-middle class otherwise). When I was an AmeriCorps volunteer at a local community center, we would get the snacks for our free after-school program from a big centralized food-bank. It was always kind of fun to see what came and to devise snack menus based on what we had.

  32. WOW Trainee says:

    Lance, I’m glad you are still here. I recently read about a couple who committed suicide. Their history included bankruptcy, job loss, no money or hope. I admire your getting through those tough times.

    I don’t know how people learn resilience and gain a sense of hope that gets them through really hard times Family stories, history, help, faith and of course my own efforts have helped. The ongoing theme of doing the best you can with what you have seems to run through many lives.

  33. Pony says:

    Loved reading this post and all these comments. Since the kids grew up and finished college, we have been pretty comfortable, so it was good to be reminded of those who are not so. And reminded of how we got by when we were very pinched, and to be aware that many people still are.

    After 45 years of living on two consecutive small farms just beyond the suburbs, we moved to an over-55 condo community in a town that is now very suburban. I really missed my vegetable garden. Fortunately our community has a pea patch area so I can grow some of the essentials and there is enough space in our patio area for lettuce tucked in amongst the flowers, tomatoes in pots and plenty of herbs.

    At the Pea Patch plots I have found that the average gardener doesn’t know what kale is or how to use it, but all the Europeans (and there are quite a few of them) are thrilled to get my handouts of kale or chard if they haven’t planted it themselves (most do). One Italian lady told me that she eats it almost every day -for her health. There isn’t much growing at the Peapatches right now, but my plots still have plenty of chard and kale because they will be growing all winter. (zone 7B)

    Actually, if I were ambitious, I could be still be growing lettuce and other cool-weather greens under plastic-covered hoops. OK, maybe later.

    We have an active Kiwanis club here and the members have a regular routine of picking up food , especially produce, from the grocery stores and taking it to the foodbank. Our condo community library has a book sale every year and the extra books go to the foodbank (“man does not live by bread alone…).

    It hurts my heart every time I am in the produce part of my store and see the big bins being filled with all the trimmings from cabbage and lettuce and other veggies because I ask them once if anyone picks up the discarded vegetables and they said no. Years ago I used to pick up big boxes full at my store and raised a lot of chickens and rabbits on them. As a matter of fact, there were often perfectly good whole veggies in among the trimmings. Those were “diverted” to the house.

    I imagine those barrels are emptied into the dumpster. Ugh! Waste is a shame.

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  37. Nerissa Tims says:

    News Dots: The Day’s Events as a Social Network. Six degrees of news separation.

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