Originally posted on Eastern Illinois University Student Community Service:
As I mature, I am realizing that the best of me is more often than not directed toward someone else. As a professor, I am an educator and I continually strive to give to my students the educational experience they deserve. As a scholar and activist, I align my research with a subject matter – poverty and food insecurity – that is very meaningful for myself and others, and which is utilized to enact social change. In service – the definition of acting for and with others (not towards an other), my focus remains on presenting my best self for their betterment.
The difference in my service compared to my teaching and research is that I try quite hard to remain in the shadows. Lecturing and being a scholar-activist are very public roles, whether in front of a classroom or audience. Volunteering – giving back – for me is not.
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Today, I shared the following presentation with the Mattoon Public Schools faculty and staff for their Fall Teacher’s Institute.
You can download the presentation slides by clicking on the following link:
Today the Census Bureau released their American Community Survey 1-year estimates data for 2013. This data shows poverty, income, health insurance, and much other data, available for states and localities if their population size is over 65,000.
Because the counties within the East-Central Illinois Region, and important county subdivisions such as census tracts, have populations less than 65,000, the region is not included in this release. The two exceptions are Champaign County and Vermillion County, the two most populous counties in the Eastern Illinois Foodbank service area, are included in this release. However, the CCPDP is waiting until all counties within the region, and then all important subdivisions there within, are released to proceed with any reliable analysis.
Reliable county-wide American Community Survey data for the full East-Central Illinois Region is scheduled to be released on October 23, 2014; the most reliable and useful data for this project will be released on December 4, 2014.
Please keep checking back for updates.
As new poverty data are released throughout the fall of 2014, the Coles County Data Project is being updated to reflect the latest estimates available.
Further, an expanded area which covers the 14 counties serviced by the Eastern Illinois Foodbank will be a new feature to this site.
Please check back often for updates, or subscribe to be notified when new information is available.
September is Hunger Action Month, a nationwide campaign to stimulate the public to take action on the issue of hunger, food insecurity, and poverty. Organized by Feeding America—the nationwide network of food banks—this campaign strives to bring greater attention to the issue of hunger in America and promotes ways for individuals everywhere to get involved with the movement to solve it. Like most nationally-organized campaigns, Hunger Awareness Month attempts to inspire individuals to act within their own communities and play a role in getting food to those in need.
The need for elevated action is acute in Coles County and East Central Illinois. Nationally, Feeding America reports that 1 in 6 individuals—just under 17 percent of the population—are at-risk of hunger or food insecurity; based on my own research, in Coles County more than 2 in 5 individuals—40.5 percent—may not know from where their next meal may come. Further, over 35 percent of all families with children under 18 years of age in Coles County are at-risk of inadequate nutrition due to unstable and inaccessible sources of food. Therefore, this is not just a month for awareness locally, but a call for critical action to strengthen the social safety net county-wide.
As a researcher and advocate, I am often asked what can be done to strike at the heart of the issues of food insecurity and poverty. My reply is a simple one: donate money to local food pantries. Often, this is met with some reservation; research on charitable giving has concluded that private individuals and organizations get more satisfaction through the act of giving if we actually distribute the products or goods directly to those in need. This is why we see so many canned-food drives or the procurement of prepared meals at shelters and soup kitchens. While noble and very much appreciated, without cash donations, our local pantries actually miss out on maximizing the amount of commodities to dispense to their customers.
For example, when we spend one dollar on a can of beans or corn to be placed in a box or bag for a family in need, food pantries can take that single dollar and purchase ten dollars worth of food from the regional food bank; that is ten cans of beans or corn for every one we can we can buy at the grocery store.
A recent working research paper by Bethany Slater of the Rockefeller College of Public Affairs and Policy at the State University of New York at Albany corroborates this line of reasoning. She found that food pantries benefit the most and can efficiently increase the amount of food available for distribution through private cash donations; the best source of in-kind donations happens to be public sector entities such as local, state, and federal agencies. These public sector agencies are better able to commit resources for the long-term, not only through a one-time food drive or donation.
These issues are most acute as I recently learned of a shortage of meat-based commodities typically available from regional food banks. The federal government provides surplus commodities such as meat and poultry, as well as some dairy and canned vegetables, to regional food banks who then distribute this food to our local pantries and soup kitchens. It is projected that meat, poultry, and other animal-based protein sources, due to a national shortage, may not be available until December. Prices for meats—especially beef—have skyrocketed due to these shortages and the cost of all high-protein foods are elevated. The result is that meat will be missing from the dinner tables of some households who need this nutrition the most, and especially if our local pantries are already experiencing thin budgets.
If giving of money or food directly may be feasible, there are plenty of other ways to act. For example, one can volunteer their time at area food pantries, shelters, and soup kitchens. We can inform ourselves of these issues and help educate our family members, neighbors, and friends. We can even seek to break-down barriers to food justice and find creative ways to connect those at-risk of food insecurity and hunger with nutritious, quality, and beneficial food – even if it means simply opening ourselves up to write a check.
On June 30, 2014, the U.S. Census Bureau released a report detailing the growth of the U.S. Population who are living in “poverty areas.” As defined by the Bureau, poverty areas are any census tract where the percent of the population who live in poverty is 20 percent or greater; that is, 1 in 5 persons is officially counted by the government as poor.
According to the report, nationwide, there was a 7.6 percentage point increase in the number of people living in poverty areas over the past decade. This is important because as our economy struggles to gain steam, the spatial distribution of the poor are more likely concentrated in areas where economic growth, social support opportunities, lagging health and educational services, and middle-income stability has long been absent.
Over the past three years I have been researching the spatial distribution of poverty and food insecurity in Coles County, as well as the surrounding East Central Illinois region. Based on the most recent data available, as my research indicates, across Coles County 22 percent of individuals and 21 percent of families with children are officially poor. Moreover, the county has areas in which the percent of the population living in poverty is well over 50 percent.
County-wide, considering the risk of going without food, over 40 percent of individuals and 19 percent of families with children are at-risk, each day, of not knowing from where their next meal might come. That is, going to bed at night, these people and their families may not have breakfast the next morning.
Each of these indicators have also grown across the county in a greater proportion to the national statistics provided by the Census Bureau.
While these numbers should sound an alarm not only for our county, but for a state and nation as a whole, over the past several years our law makers have spent considerable time and energy rolling-back access to programs and services to aid in the safety and security of our most needy neighbors. For example, in November 2013, the Federal government passed legislation slashing the level of food stamp benefits while restructuring and raising the bar for how families can qualify for these benefits. Other important programs that have been targeted for cuts include unemployment insurance, social security, and funding for preventative health care.
Highlighting areas of poverty as well as the retrenchment of the social safety net is concerning, but it is also an opportunity. While state and federal programs may be more allusive now and in the future, there is energy locally to addressing these issues. In fact, when I write and give public talks discussing these issues, I emphasize the need to focus on developing, sustaining, and supporting a local safety net. This is vital because we, as a community, are increasing the livelihood of neighbors and the resolve of our cities and county as a whole; “think globally but act locally” is a most vital truth.
While there are many needs within Coles County and the surrounding region, there are many amazing opportunities growing, too. In the midst of summer, for example, when poor children are not able to access free and reduced meals at school, there is an important summer lunch program covering a majority of the county. Each day Eastern Illinois University’s Office of Student Community Service in Collaboration with the Salvation Army executes the Food on the Move summer meal program across six sites in Mattoon, at North Park in Charleston, and at the Ashmore Community Park in Ashmore.
Additionally, with the Mattoon Farmer’s Market on Fridays and the Charleston Farmer’s Market on the Square each Wednesday, a new community Farmer’s Market is blossoming on Saturday mornings at 825 18th Street at the Coles County Department of Human Services Building. While the other markets in the county are tremendous, having fresh, healthy food available more often is a positive step to connecting an important piece of our local agricultural economy to those who need more access to food. Moreover, the organizers of the 18th Street Farmer’s Market have designed this weekly gathering as a community event bringing in more than just food venders, but artisans, musicians, and local businesses as well. Finally, the organizers are in the process of obtaining the permissions and certifications for vendors to accept food stamp benefits from those who qualify and use this vital social support.
Local programs, services, and agencies—those that are informed on the impoverished conditions of their communities—are in the imperative position to sustain our collective livelihood, and we should support them. Additionally, local services can and should seize the opportunity to honestly solicit and incorporate the needs of our most vulnerable and needy citizens to ensure their voices are heard. The best social safety net is informed by those who actually utilize its services, not as a construction based on assumptions, projections, or stereotypes.
Coles County has a bounty of such entities, both governmental and privately run organizations, to continue to ensure that each of us gain meet our own potential as individuals, families, and as a community. Our food pantries, homeless shelters, health care services, educational institutions, and community centers in places of worship and other entities sustain each of us, whether living in, near, or far above poverty. Clearly, their importance is growing day by day.
As a call to action, we must continue to provide vital resources and work to reverse the growing poverty in our county and region; we are our most vital, important, and reliable resource.