Volunteer Spotlight

We interviewed Mikaela to learn more about her experience in helping the SLO Food Bank. 

Name: Mikaela Curtis 
Program: Nutrition Education & Special Events
Number of Volunteer Hours:  40+
Please share your name, and a bit about yourself and your background:
My name is Mikaela Curtis and I am a 4th year nutrition student at Cal Poly. I will be graduating in Spring 2016, and couldn’t be more excited to start my career as a nutrition professional! I’m from a small town in the Sierra Nevada near Yosemite, called Twain Harte, CA. I moved to SLO a few years ago for school, and love being outdoors, snowboarding, going on hikes, hanging out at the beach and baking.
When and how did you first hear about volunteering with the Food Bank? What programs and events have you been involved with? 
I first heard about the SLO Food Bank when a few program staff came into a nutrition class in January 2015 to recruit volunteers. I needed community service hours and was drawn to the mission, so I figured I’d give it a shot. This has proved to be one of the best opportunities that could have been presented to me! I’ve since been volunteering on my own time.
I’ve been involved with nutrition outreach events all over the county. In October, I suited up as Sandy the Sandwich at the Munchkin March, and had a blast acting silly while representing a healthy snack.
What inspires you to be involved and give back to the community? 
I truly enjoy helping others. It makes me happy to see the joy spread across others’ faces when they receive food or a warm smile from staff and volunteers.

I remember talking to a man at the Friends of the Food Bank event, who told me that we weren’t simply giving him food, but were handing him a “bag of sunshine.” That moment made me realize my volunteer impact. I always leave with a smile as I think about the families who are able to enjoy a meal together.

How do you see Nutrition Education making a difference locally?
As a nutrition volunteer, we educate recipients on how to make healthy food choices and use their resources effectively. It is particularly important to educate the youth in our community, so they can start applying it to their lives at a young age.

Dealing with the drought.

The drought in California increasingly appears to be an introduction to a new way of life. Personally, I’ve shifted from hope and trust for lots of rain this winter (with rumors of El Niño on its way), to the numbing realization that this is likely to be the foretaste of much worse to come. While I’ve always loved the beauty of southwestern desert landscapes with their red and brown hues and the exquisite character of the plants that thrive in such climates, I’ve also felt the barrenness of it. Many who study climate and water are warning us that this is likely the future of our area, and most of central and southern California. Such a contrast to the abundance that we have enjoyed in San Luis Obispo County and the central coast with year-round growing seasons, seasonally green hills, and a climate that will grow just about anything. It is sad to think that it might be going away. For some, it’s a tragedy.

It’s easy for us to place blame, take sides, and go to battle over decreasing water resources, but that would only make matters worse. Economic interests are at stake here, of course, from a home owner whose well runs dry to huge industries, especially in farming and wine. We need to seize the opportunity to remember that adversity can be the cause of division and conflict, or the impetus for a stronger community spirit of creativity, sacrifice, cooperation, and kindness that leads to fairness among competing interests and appropriate access for all to increasingly limited resources. Indeed, we are in this together, and it appears that Mother Nature is inviting us to learn how to be a stronger and healthier community if we work together. This line of thinking is a core value of the Food Bank Coalition. You will see how the drought is affecting our services to the community in our edition of the newsletter sent today.

What comes to mind when you think of the month of May?

What comes to mind when you think of the month of May? Is it the image of children dancing around the Maypole and flowers everywhere such as the one you see here? Is it Cinco de Mayo? Mother’s Day? Memorial Day? Indy 500? Or how about the phrase Mayday! Mayday! (If I wrote it three times I might get in trouble because that’s the official distress call and you can be fined $250,000 for using it and not truly being in distress.) For the Food Bank, May probably feels closer to the distress call than anything else. People aren’t as focused on helping others as they are in the fall and winter holidays, so food and financial donations are more difficult to come by. This isn’t exactly a Mayday call, but we do need help! That’s why May is set aside for our Spring Food Drive as well as preparations for Hunger Awareness Day on June 6th this year. We’re trying to get your attention! These are very lean months for us, while those who hunger don’t get a break from it just because it’s a beautiful spring day in May.

Would you consider using the month of May as a month of preparation for Hunger Awareness Day? You can help us make the day a great success by making a donation starting on May 1st! You will be able to find a donation site in your community for you to go to on June 6th with a donation of funds for us to match ten times over with food for our neighbors in need. How about gathering your family, neighborhood, or friends at work? Take a collection and bring it to the site closest to your house or workplace from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Friday, June 6th. Maybe you’d like to skip a meal a day in May and bring what you’ve saved on Hunger Awareness Day. Maybe you’d like to offer to be the bearer of gifts from your service club or church. Let your imagination run wild and make your May one you will never forget or regret. You’ll be glad you did and someone having to choose between food for the family and a roof over their head will be happy, too – and greatly encouraged by your generosity. For every person who’s hungry in our county, there are five us to provide help. If we all do a little, it’s easy and yet this simple action brings so much good to our community. Join the outpour of concern! Join the fun! Catch the spirit of Hunger Awareness Day!

Obesity Kills

Obesity kills, it steals from our quality of life and the quantity of our years. It leads to other serious illnesses – the ones we dread the most: diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. It hits hardest with our children because they are in their formative years, establishing habits and lifestyles that will imprint the rest of their lives, contributing to how well they socialize, absorb their education, stay out of trouble, and think of themselves. Encouraging healthy eating and making healthy food accessible not only to low-income persons, but all people in the community, is probably the best thing we can do to create a better America and world. It will pay dividends a thousand-fold in the quality and productivity of our community life.

Eight years ago, as the new Executive Director of the Food Bank Coalition of San Luis Obispo County, I was invited to serve on the Childhood Obesity Prevention Task Force. Summoned by Supervisors James Patterson and Jerry Lenthall, it included a wide selection of organizations and persons involved in education, health, nutrition, food services, and non-profit organizations. We met regularly for a couple of years, created a strategic plan for the county, and an ongoing organization called HEAL SLO to sustain the work for the years ahead. It was my eye-opener to the problem of obesity in our country and closer to home in our county.

The Task Force was also an opportunity for me to meet the network of people in SLO County with concern for the not yet widely accepted problem of obesity in children. What I learned gave me the conviction that the Food Bank has to be part of the solution to this problem, a problem that was and unfortunately still is placing our quality of life as a community at risk.

This solution seeking movement was occurring nation-wide, of course, and now, almost 10 years later, we have learned from a Federal study reported on February 18th that there has been a 43% drop in the obesity rate among 2- to 5-year-old children over the past decade, the first broad decline in this epidemic that is threatening us.

Obesity often starts in childhood. Children who are overweight or obese at 3 to 5 years old are five times as likely to be overweight or obese as adults.

Barry M. Popkin, a researcher at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who has tracked American food purchases in a large data project, said families with children had been buying lower-calorie foods over the past decade; a pattern he said was unrelated to the economic downturn.

He credited those habits and changes to the federally funded Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), for the decline in obesity among young children. The WIC program, which subsidizes food for low-income women, reduced funding for fruit juices, cheese and eggs and increased it for whole fruits and vegetables. *

Another possible explanation is that some combination of state, local and federal policies aimed at reducing obesity is starting to make a difference. First lady, Michelle Obama, has led a campaign to change the eating habits of children and increase exercise, and 10,000 child care centers across the country have signed on. The news announcement from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (C.D.C.) included a remark from Mrs. Obama: “I am thrilled at the progress we’ve made over the last few years in obesity rates among our youngest Americans.” *

It is surprising how fast we can overcome such social ills once we put our minds and efforts toward the cause. It is a great gift to our children that will continue to pay dividends for the rest of their lives, and a great gift to the world to which they will contribute their productivity and creativity.

Looking back to that Childhood Obesity Prevention Task Force, I am proud of our county leadership and of our community to have taken this issue on and know that we are making great strides in the battle against hunger and poor nutrition right here at home. I’m grateful for the partnerships that have formed all over SLO county to address the problem locally, and I hope you are as excited as I am to see that it is working.

* Sources of information in this Blog are available upon request.

To Alleviate or to End, That is the Question.

To Alleviate or to End, That is the Question

Our mission statement at the Food Bank Coalition includes the words, “to alleviate hunger.” The question of whether we should change our mission from alleviating hunger to ending hunger comes up for us from time to time. Is alleviate a lofty enough goal? Why not end hunger? Many other food banks strive for that. Another way the goal of ending hunger is stated is that the goal is to put ourselves out of business by ending hunger. Makes sense, doesn’t it? Still, our mission statement remains as it is, “The Mission of the Food Bank Coalition is to work with a network of community partners in San Luis Obispo County to alleviate hunger and build a healthier community.” As we move into the second 25 years from the first 25 years of fighting hunger in San Luis Obispo County and after having led the Food Bank Coalition for about a third of our existence, I want to share with you why I think that to “alleviate” may be a better goal than to end it.

My premise is that the process of alleviating hunger is more important than the goal of ending it. It is not a perfect world, and the hope that hunger will ever be eliminated completely is chasing rainbows. It is good to strive for that, of course, but not at the risk of missing the true value, the real pot of gold that we have to offer the world in the process of alleviating hunger. Alleviating hunger is (or ought to be) so much more than providing food. It is recognizing an opportunity to make a difference in someone’s life through an act of compassion. To end hunger can be simply be to offer something to eat. But to alleviate hunger is to help transform the state of hunger into the experience of knowing someone cares, the recognition that one is valued, and that one has importance in this world. To alleviate is to ease the fears, the sense of dread and loneliness that one has when all seems lost and there is nowhere or no one to turn to for help. To alleviate hunger is to instill self-esteem, to inspire the goal of self-reliance and hope beyond hunger to new possibilities.

To accept the reality and stubborn endurance of hunger in the world is the first step toward meaningfully doing battle with it. The dragon we fight, however, is not the dragon of hunger alone. Rather, it is the diminishment of spirit, the shame piled on by society, and the fear of being alone. Therefore we need to feed the person as well as the body. In this process, it is vital not to act as a judge to determine the “worthiness” of someone seeking help and not to envy those who get something for free while we have to pay for it. Sometimes we may grudgingly give food to someone whom we believe has the ability to work for it. However, it is important to remember that every person matters and is valuable, and we don’t usually know his or her circumstance that has brought them to need help. Helping ought to demonstrate that we truly care and honor people as persons.

At the Food Bank we have dedicated ourselves to the distribution of what we like to call “real food.” By this we usually mean food that will help someone physically in positive rather than negative ways. But shouldn’t we also be open to the idea that even that doesn’t capture the full meaning of real food? Doesn’t the food become truly real when it is the means of exchange that brings two human beings together in community, seeking to share the hope and find the courage to build a better tomorrow, one life at a time? Isn’t it a matter of recognizing that this isn’t a perfect world, but there is an opportunity in the midst of imperfection that wouldn’t exist otherwise? Could it be that a bit of food given humbly and respectfully could actually heal, lift, empower, restore, and encourage far beyond what the basic nutritious food groups offer?

If our goal is to end hunger, we have little basis for celebrating after 25 years. Hunger is still with us, and likely always will be. But let our goal be to alleviate – to connect in a meaningful moment with a stranger that needs help and could be uplifted by the encounter. In this way, the food becomes so much more. If we are doing that, we have every right to celebrate because in the end, compassion and encouragement are the most important gifts we have to offer. The work of the Food Bank and in fact all human kindness is so much more than what it appears to be.

Remembering Martin Luther King Jr.

Our nation paused for an official holiday last Monday to remember Martin Luther King, Jr. We remember him for his vision of a time when all men and women will be treated equally, where all have opportunities to achieve the promise of freedom – and the pursuit of happiness. We remember him for his articulate and passionate speeches, and his courage in the face of danger. But what we remember most is what makes him one of the few – one of the very few – that he fought and worked for the fulfillment of his dream using peace, not violence.

Perhaps one day this holiday will include two other men in modern times who were cut of the same cloth, Mahatma Ghandi and more recently, Nelson Mandela. Each of them changed the world using only the courageous actions of love and respect for all men and women. They have proven in our life time (well, the lifetime of many of us still) that there is great power in non-violent action when enough people work together for what is right. That’s why they are honored. That’s why we need to remember them.

At the core of fighting hunger is the courage to do what is right. It is right to provide nutritious food for our children, as well as a first-rate education so that they will be healthy and have the opportunity to succeed. What comes with our freedom in this country is the reality that some of us make bad choices. Or others have made bad choices made for them. And some simply did not start with, or lost along the way, the ability to compete in a competitive economic system. Failure is no stranger to most of us. Regardless of a person’s reason to be hungry, they have the right to a nutritious meal, and when they receive that meal from a community that cares, the world is changed for the better. It is not a step toward a better world. It is a better world because of each act of kindness that makes a difference in one person’s life.

It’s just that we need more of these gestures of kindness that nourish not only the body, but the person. That’s why we have public education, public support for emergency food programs for people of all ages, and meals for children provided in our public schools by taxpayers. There is no freedom when there are no options to pursue life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, simply a society is not kind to those in need. Freedom and doing what is right go hand in hand, or not at all.

Let us all celebrate what Dr. King taught and showed us in his life and in his death – that we can do it, too. But it takes courage.

Real Hope Doesn’t Wait

As mild as the weather in our county is, we do have our seasons, especially in north county. We have been in the midst of a cold spell recently. It makes us think of those in our midst who have no warm space to lay their head at night. But of course, shelter is not their only concern; they also need nutritious food, which is our work at the Food Bank. And our work extends not only to the homeless, but to all who live in the cold fear and stress of not knowing where their next meal is coming from. 40% of them are children and most of them have working parents struggling harder during the winter holidays to provide family necessities.

Why then, is winter filled with messages of hope, peace, joy, and merriment? Is it because we know spring is coming? Is it only the anticipation of warmer, better times? I don’t think so. Harsh situations are not meant to be waited out in quiet suffering. The cold, harsh times in our lives are intended to be the happiest of times because they pull us together as a community to help and to share with one another. It is when an unknown neighbor encounters a rough spot that we hear that quiet voice in our ear that invites us, “Bring in the joy of winter! Be a light in the darkness! You can make a difference and bring hope into this person’s life!”

Of course, when we hear this quiet whispering in our ear, other voices of fear come quickly to make us feel safe. “What good can I do in such overwhelming circumstances?” “If I share a part of what I have, I may not have enough for my own family!” “It’s not my fault that this person has gotten into this situation!”

Winter is the season of hope because it is the season of concern for those in need. It is the season of gift giving at the time of year when those gifts may be the difference between life and death, or the difference between feeling alone and forgotten, or knowing that someone cares. Whether one gives or one receives, he or she participates in the fullness of our humanity that is ever hopeful through the simple action of reaching out into the cold and darkness with the warmth and light of human concern and action.

The holiday practice of great consumption of food and toys for all ages hints at its deeper meaning. There is enough for everyone to be at the table of hope. We learn when we give and when we receive what it is to be fully human.

The Eagle

I learned something about Ben Franklin the other day listening to the Dave Congalton show on KVEC. I usually learn a lot from Dave and his guests, because if it’s interesting and worth knowing, Dave will air it if he gets the chance.

This was the day he had the Bald Eagle on the program from Zoo to You. You wouldn’t think that a radio show would be the best venue for a Bald Eagle, but Dave and his guests made the experience moving and visual in the mind’s eye – as did the eagle. The majestic beast gripped the 3-ply leather glove of it’s handler with slicing talons, and flapped it’s wings, sending those in Dave’s small studio to the floor to escape the whips of the bird’s powerful filling Dave’s small studio. It brought tears to my eyes to hear them admiring the muscular, colorful, and ruling mascot of the United States of America. Dave seemed to feel honored as the recipient of the moment. How many desks can claim the distinction of the markings of the National Bird himself!

I also learned something from the folks from Zoo to You. They reminded us that there was at least one man, Benjamin Franklin, who wanted the National Bird to be the wild turkey. I knew that. But I didn’t know why. They said the reason was that you cannot put a turkey in a cage. He will not give up fighting to get out of the cage until he ends up either successful or dead. What a powerful symbolic inspiration for the formation of a new nation seeking to remove the chains of an oppressive king. Virtually no one agreed with Franklin, so the national bird became the Bald Eagle in all its power, beauty, and majesty.

So we are stuck with the Eagle, thankfully, after some scary years back in the 60′s and 70′s where we almost lost him forever. And he is stuck with us. Franklin said the eagle was a coward, because even small birds chase him away, and he doesn’t earn an honorable living. But as usual, beauty and muscles won the day, while the turkey only received one vote. Ironically, the turkey may have won after all, as we seldom think of the eagle, but we always think of the turkey at Thanksgiving. The turkey gives his life for the sake of others, albeit unknowingly and we can assume unwillingly, and draws us together around the table to count our blessings. What more could a national symbol do for us?

You’ll see in this newsletter the announcement of our Turkey Drive on Friday, November 22nd. This year we will distribute a record number of turkeys – especially if our donors and the public in general respond to our call to help us provide a turkey for every families table who would not otherwise have one.

Where is all the income going?

The Business Page of the Tribune on 9/11/13 carried this headline: “Rich-poor divide widest since 1920s.” The Associated Press article revealed that in 2012, 48.2 percent of total earnings went to only 10% of the population, and since the Great Recession ended in June of 2009, 95% of the income gains have gone to the top 1 percent of the of the population.

I’m happy for those who are doing well financially. But is there concern for those who aren’t? Apparently not much. To add insult to injury, the House of Representatives is likely to take up debate next week on a Nutrition Bill that includes a 40% cut in SNAP (formerly called Food Stamps, and now called CalFresh in California) over the next 10 years. Some believe that cutting the safety net for the poor – the very resources that are needed to help them climb out of poverty by eating well, and their children by doing well in school – is a legitimate way to balance the budget. They would like those receiving CalFresh to just get a job, ignoring the fact that most CalFresh recipients are working hard in jobs that provided a liveable wage, and that many jobs that use to provide middle-class incomes are gone. As the article states, “Workers now compete with low-wage labor in China and other developing countries. Technology is replacing workers in performing routine tasks, and union power has dwindled.”

The number of people we serve at the Food Bank has not declined, but increased as a result of this lopsided recovery. Many social services have already been cut drastically during and after the recession, driving families to us desperate for food. More cuts will only increase the chasm between the rich and the poor. We are doing our best to provide healthy food to those in need, and to help people enroll for CalFresh if they are eligible. We are grateful to our donors because we can only do this with the incredible support we get from our community. But as a community we need to expect more from our government as well. Only the government can invest in our infrastructure, creating meaningful jobs. Only the government can invest in those millions who need a hand-up, a good education, or affordable health-care just to have a shot at self-reliance and moving up the economic ladder. If we the people who elect our leadership don’t care about those in need, it is clear in this post- Great Recession era, that no one will. Closing the gap between the rich and the poor and re-creating a strong middle class can only be done by responsibly strengthening our social services, not by reducing them.If you agree now is the time to contact your representatives in Washington, contactingthecongress.org.

I have a dream…

50 years ago, I was 19 and a sophomore at Santa Clara University, aware of but not involved in the Civil Rights movement and the struggles of the poor and minorities in our country. As a young man who could be drafted, I was more concerned about Vietnam. There were very few black families in my hometown. I had no black friends, and as for my poor friends, they were mixed in with everyone else in the public schools I attended as I grew up. I was blind to any differences, but I’m sure they weren’t. There were “rundown” neighborhoods. The hometown culture as I knew it associated these areas with a lack of self-initiative and concern for the community. My assessment looking back is that poverty was viewed as the result of individual failings, not the failure of society to offer the promise of freedom and opportunity to all of its citizens.

I’ve learned through the years how easy it is to judge those who live in poverty. I’ve learned that I was born into a privileged life because I was white, middle-class, and given the loving support and opportunities in life that my parents provided. I’ve learned not all my friends had these things. Many of them simply vanished from my life after high school, and didn’t go to college because they couldn’t qualify or weren’t motivated by their family culture. I also know that many of them have overcome these early disadvantages and led productive and loving lives, and that they had to work for it a lot harder at it than I did.

The fact remains that poverty continues in our country at alarming rates, and growing. Attitudes toward the poor seem even more callous than they were in 1963 because we ought to know better. Whether we as a society should continue to provide programs that help people climb out of poverty is questioned, and, public schools have been on the chopping block. Minimal care for those who are physically or mentally unable to care for themselves has been cut back drastically by the government in recent years.

In my view, we are a long way from the fulfillment of MLK’s dream and the promises of our Constitution for all Americans. We have no obligation to create a society dependent upon the government for a successful life, but we do have an obligation to provide the opportunity required for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all. In an important way, the Food Bank Coalition fights for opportunity for people – with the help of our donors. At least our recipients and their children have healthy food available to them so that they can reap the most benefit from school and jobs. But even access to healthy food is on the chopping block in Washington on this day as we observe the memory of Martin Luther King’s Dream speech. Let us continue to struggle for that dream until it becomes a reality.