Today was even more filled with even more excitement than yesterday.
Here is a quick run-down:
1. We volunteered at CitySquare’s food distribution center.
2. We ate lunch downtown at a marvelous taco place.
3. We sat in on a meeting between Larry James and some of his people with Audrey Rowe, who is the administrator for the Federal Food and Nutrition Service.
4. We met with Robert Foster who is Vice-President and Co-Founder of Get Healthy Dallas.
We arrived at the food distribution center around nine o’clock. We were greeted by the staff and volunteers. We learned that the center is closed to the public on Mondays, as Mondays are primarily for receiving the newest shipment and for organizing the center to properly distribute food on Tuesday through Friday. Part of the vision behind CitySquare’s food distribution center is to provide a means—and a location—by which those dealing with food insecurity and get healthy foods in a dignified manner. CitySquare envisions those who use their service as customers who are shopping for food—who are making choices. Making choices, you see, is one of the larger aspects of feeling worthy and dignified.
After helping the center get ready for Tuesday, we departed for downtown where we ate at a delightful taco place near CityWalk (the building which houses the CitySquare offices). Lunch was a lengthy affair filled with conversation. We then wandered around downtown for awhile—had some adventures with large fountains of water—and then headed back to the CitySquare offices for the meeting with Ms. Rowe.
Ms. Rowe and her team arrived around 1:45 p.m. We sort of sat around a group of couches upon which the conversation partners sat. I won’t pretend to understand all of the particulars of the conversation, but here is the gist: Ms. Rowe is currently traveling around the U.S., speaking to various mayors, business leaders, non-profit leaders, and community leaders. One such organization she chose to visit was CitySquare. A good deal of CitySquare’s operation is funded by grants from assorted government agencies, one being the USDA (along with TDA (Texas Department of Agriculture)). While Mr. James and Ms. Rowe discussed particulars, one theme was evident: Ms. Rowe wanted to know how the USDA could help. How could they tweak policy? How could they push for new and better legislation? How could they provide better targeted programs or funding? The general impression I received from Ms. Rowe—a very impressive woman, by the way—was of great desire to do what she could to aid the most vulnerable members of our society.
One program which Ms. Rowe was particularly interested in was the summer food program. The question the summer food program answers is this: what happens to children who are used to receiving 2 meals a day during the school year who are out on summer vacation? The statistic, I believe, is that 85% of students in the Dallas Independent School District (DISD) are on free or reduced lunch. These children need to eat in the summer. To this end, the USDA (along with TDA) makes funds available for meals for all of these children. They distribute the funds to other organizations, like school districts and CitySquare, who then sub-grant the funds to smaller outfits (like churches). CitySquare, it turns out, is the second largest provider of summer feedings in the State of Texas, just below the City of Houston. Providing these meals allows CitySquare to build contacts in the neighborhoods most affected by poverty and the food desert.
One area of concern that was repeatedly addressed, both in the first conversation about what CitySquare does generally and in the second conversation about summer feedings, was the notion of “bad actors.” Bad actors are those who cheat the system so as to make a profit. One of CitySquare’s leading concerns is the proliferation of tiny convenience stores with liquor licenses who meet the minimum requirements to receive snap payments (food stamps) but who provide little in the way of real nutrition (by the way, there are seven times as many of these stores in historic South Dallas than in any other part of Dallas). One reason why grocery stores balk at investing in these neighborhoods is that, aside from failing to realize the capital present among the people who live there (they have to buy food from somewhere) is that they would be forced to compete with these already ensconced shops. One suggestion is that policy should change regarding what food stamps can and can’t pay for. This concern was also addressed in the conversation about the summer lunch program. There are many vendors who are able to turn a buck from providing these summer feedings. To increase their profit margin, they often scrimp on what they provide. Such actors are considered bad, and much effort is put into reducing their ability to cheat the system.
The conversation with Ms. Rowe was absolutely eye-opening and fascinating. We walked away with a much better understanding of what role the government plays in making our society a better place. I, personally, was left with high hopes for the programs under Ms. Rowe’s direction specifically, and for the President’s Administration more generally.
After speaking with Ms. Rowe, we had another meeting to attend. This was with Dr. Robert Foster. Dr. Foster is the scholar in residence at the University Park United Methodist Church here is Dallas. His PhD is in religious studies with a particular interest in justice themes in the Bible. He is the vice-president of Get Healthy Dallas, a research driven non-profit dedicated to improving community health through awareness, education, and business initiatives. Most of our conversation with Dr. Foster centered on how he got involved with social justice concerns in Dallas and what he is currently up to. Currently he, and his research partner Stacy, are working toward creating culinary arts program at a local high school. The program is designed to teach technical skills and provide entrepreneurial training as well. The hope is that the program will help produce work-force ready individuals straight out of high school.
The first step in the process was researching “food paths.” Food paths are the ways in which people get their food. Dr. Foster discovered (his subjects were high school students) that his subjects had close to no home-cooking. Almost all food was consumed from restaurants and convenience stores. This research is in keeping with what is already known about food deserts in Dallas. He next researched the way his subjects perceived health and themselves. The overwhelming conclusion is that there is a connection between the state of their neighborhoods—ragged, run-down, dilapidated—and their self-perception. The assumption is that it’s not worth it to eat healthy because nothing else around is healthy. Everything is broken. Once more, then, we were exposed to a person engaged in restoration of the broken places—engaged in resurrection work. They have now developed the curriculum, had it approved, and are working on getting the million dollars they need to build a state-of-the-art cooking facility. I’m excited to see where they go from here!
After our conversation with Dr. Foster, we wandered around the arts district for a bit (too bad the museums were closed!) and then headed back to the hotel. We debriefed, talked about what struck us about our conversations today, and then headed off to rest up for tomorrow. Tomorrow morning we are working in CitySquare’s food distribution center again, and then at 3:10 p.m. we are flying to Charlotte, NC. I’ll hopefully post again tomorrow!