Food for thought

WOOF. All apologies for taking so long to post again. This has been the first week of AmeriCorps orientation, and I have to say that it has been wonderful meeting all my fellow members (or AmeriFriends, as our director calls us). Everyone is, as far as I can tell, smart, bright, funny, and genuine. I’m happy to serve with them.

This week has been all about getting to know each other (ice breakers for days) and getting ready to serve Rochester’s schools. As is probably no surprise at all, the latter is a heavy task. Any school district comes with its unique problems, but Rochester is particularly “needy.” The following are just a few statistics about RCSD:

  • 7th highest rate of childhood poverty per capita
  • 100% of RCSD students were eligible for free or reduced price lunch during 2012-13 SY
  • 5% of students were deemed “career ready” (above 80% on english and above 75% on math state tests, taken in 11th grade)
  • 5.6% of third graders reading proficiently according to Common Core Standards
  • (1st) Lowest black male graduation rate in the country

It’s hard to address statistics like this. For one thing, they are terribly depressing, and difficult to address positively. For another, measures like state-determined “career readiness” and proficiency according to new Common Core Standards are newly-implemented. That means that a veritable clown car of stakeholders determined that our old standards were insufficient, and raised the bar. Unfortunately, the result is an arbitrary change in standards that often punishes students who already attend underserved districts like the RCSD. As a RCSD administrator described it to us today, it’s like the line that determines a home run has been extended by one hundred yards. While the current needs of the RCSD can hardly be boiled down to only two factors, it’s safe to say that, like most public schools, the current tension is between “ideal learning” and “teaching the test.” Is there a way to do both?

As suggested by the last stat posted above, RCSD also suffers from de facto school segregation. This is a very complicated issue that I don’t fully understand yet, so I’ll have to address it in another post. I’m hoping to learn more, hands-on, as the year progresses.

Lastly, I want to mention something totally awesome that I learned about in orientation yesterday. A guy from Foodlink stopped by to tell us about their services, and to explain the nuances of perpetual hunger and “food insecurity.” Foodlink is basically a clearinghouse for donated food. They absorb donations, funding, and even recycled goods from local grocery stores and redistribute it to soup kitchens, homeless shelters, etc etc. Their website explains it better.



This is a photo of the Curbside Market, a roving grocery store that drives all around the city of Rochester, selling produce at absurdly discounted prices. Such services are especially important for people who have a hard time getting to a grocery store.

So, I’ll leave with two very interesting things the Foodlink rep told us about. Definitely check out their website if you’re curious to learn more. There are always opportunities to volunteer.

  1. Did you know that shelf-stable, canned food is good for about six months after the expiration date? It is! Apparently, expiration dates are put on canned goods mostly as a safeguard against lawsuits. That means that places  like Wegmans pass off their “expired” canned goods the day after they expire to organizations like Foodlink, and Foodlink gets to distribute that perfectly-good food to people who need it. Our presenter said, kind of offhandedly, “I guess that’s one of the perks of living in a litigious society.” And he’s got a good point. A loophole that benefits the food insecure is indirectly created by measures that intend to protect food distributors from lawsuits. In Merton’s language, we’d call this kind of loophole a latent function of what our presenter referred to as a “litigious society.” Latent functions like this can often indirectly benefit needy populations within cities, as they do for street vendors in Mitchell Duneier’s Sidewalk.
  2. Our presenter impressed upon us that, when push comes to shove, food is often the lowest priority for families that live in poverty. When families or individuals have a very limited income, they tend to spend their money on housing (i.e. rent or mortgage payments) and on healthcare (often the catalyst for poverty), but not on food. As someone who’s never experienced poverty, I had to wonder: among the “basic necessities,” how does food come to be a luxury? I didn’t understand why families in poverty would perceive rent as more important than dinner. The Foodlink rep explained to me that food is temporary. I took him to mean that, unlike a sweater or pair of sneakers, food is gone once it’s used. As a result, it may be the case that families in need don’t see food as a worthwhile investment, seeing as how they’re just going to need more come tomorrow (and to be clear, I intend food to mean groceries in this context — often, impoverished families will buy inexpensive, low-nutrient food as a stop-gap, which produces its own problems). He also said that you can be hungry. While this didn’t seem to make sense at first — how could hunger be a sustainable state? — I think he was saying that hunger is something you can get used to. When income is tight or nonexistent, healthcare is a non-negotiable cost, nor is housing, especially when young children are involved (and they often are). Going hungry, however, seems a small price to pay if all of the other important things are taken care of.




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