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Column: Direct Food Aid Is Only a Start

Listen Community Services serves between 60 and 100 people each night during the week in its dining hall at the River Point Plaza in White River Junction. (Valley News - James M. Patterson)

Listen Community Services serves between 60 and 100 people each night during the week in its dining hall at the River Point Plaza in White River Junction. (Valley News - James M. Patterson)

Plainfield

It’s been great to read about the success of the relocation and expansion of community dinners at Listen and at the Haven. Community dinners offer fresh food, good meals and one other important ingredient — camaraderie. Sometimes a community dinner can be just as much about not being alone as it is about eating.

Even so, community dinners, as successful and needed as they may be, are only part of the solution to the problem of hunger in our part of the world. Listen dinners provide only one meal of the day. What happens at the other two meals depends on two other key ingredients — access to nutritious food and knowing what to do with it.

Donated food in the Upper Valley often comes from food pantries and food banks. Another local source is the Willing Hands organization, which ferries donated food and produce to more than 58 locations. I’ve been on both the giving and receiving end of Willing Hands’ work. As a 10-year board member of the Hanover Co-op (which supplies a majority of the donations), I witnessed the inception and development of the idea for Willing Hands. As a volunteer cook at our church’s weekly community dinners, I watched Willing Hands’ deliveries round our cooking into a complete meal.

Crucial to food access is what the 3SquaresVT, Vermont’s nutritional assistance program, calls “putting healthy food within reach” — ensuring not only that healthy basic food is affordable but also easily available.

All of the New England states have seen dramatic increases in participation in their food stamp programs. Fortunately, changes have been made to increase access to healthy food. Over 40 farmers markets in Vermont now accept EBT cards, the electronic debit cards used by food stamp recipients, to pay for local produce. Food co-ops, though known for providing quality, fresh food, are often perceived as being too expensive and beyond the reach of low-income shoppers. To address this misperception and to make more food affordable to everyone, the Neighboring Food Co-op Association, a regional network of over 30 food co-ops, launched the Food Co-ops and Healthy Food Access project in 2010. By offering financial incentives such as discount programs and equity grants (free one-year memberships or reduced membership costs, for example) to customers who qualify, many co-ops are attracting shoppers who normally wouldn’t come into their stores.

Have the stores been hurt by offering these discounts? No, in many cases the financial situation of the store has improved; many of the new shoppers have gone on to become full-fledged members, and making a store more welcoming to the entire community helps both the store and the consumer.

Knowing what to do with healthy food is just as important as being able to afford it. A friend who helps immigrants in Austin, Texas, came up with the idea of teaching English through cooking classes. Food is a universal language that helps break down barriers. But her students’ struggles forced her to proceed at a slower pace than she had planned — not because they were having trouble with the language, but because many didn’t know how to cook. Many hadn’t been taught, while others were content to let their mothers or grandmothers do all the cooking. My friend had to go back to teaching basic cooking skills.

To help people know what to do with food, the Haven has been handing out recipes and offering a healthy-eating program that teaches nutrition. Willing Hands also provides recipes and cooking workshops, and recently provided a cooking program in West Lebanon aimed primarily at children. Some other programs designed to teach the next generation to cook can be found through local 4-H clubs and after-school programs run by the Cooperative Extension Service.

Teaching people how to help themselves is hardly a new concept. In 1936, the Japanese Christian reformer and labor activist Toyohiko Kagawa came to speak in Hanover. His relief work of providing shelter and giving surplus food to the poor in the slums of Japan had led him to the conclusion that even the better organized forms of charity failed to address the root causes of poverty, which he traced to injustices in the economic system. He advocated self-help, made possible in part through the development of cooperatives, as the most effective solution. “(I)f we intend to eliminate the urban poor, we cannot do it by charity,” he said.

As noble as his aspirations might have been, there will always be a place for charity. Any person can encounter circumstances where something — a meal, a friend, a helping hand — is desperately needed, but the idea is to get through the rough spot and back onto one’s feet. Charity is a means to the end, but not the end. Congratulations to the Haven and Listen and Willing Hands for all they do help fight hunger. Let’s hope that the nascent local efforts to provide food access and food skills will soon be just as successful.

Margaret Drye lives in Plainfield.