Chapter 6 – Beyond Emergency Food Aid

Everything we have discussed to this point has been focused on acquiring and distributing food to the needy in as efficient and pleasant a manner as possible. While that should be the focus of any food-oriented charity’s operation, here are a few additional things you can do to further benefit your community:

Communicate with your elected officials.

Three things are true of most elected officials:

  1. They want to do a good job for the people they were elected to serve.
  2. Their brains are hardwired to interpret any communication from any source on any topic as a plea/demand/request for action – if it is an issue that the official could logically be expected to know about, care about, and do something about, it doesn’t matter if an explicit request for action was actually made.
  3. They know next to nothing about the poverty situation in the area they represent, and almost always underestimate its magnitude, seriousness, and consequences. If nobody tells them that there is a problem, they will not figure it out on their own.

Fortunately, the first two points make the third relatively easy to remedy. Elected officials do not get as much mail as you might think, and a lot of what they do get is either isolated/bizarre (some guy is worried that Russia faked the fall of Communism to put us off our guard) or comes from obviously orchestrated letter writing campaigns. That stuff usually gets more or less ignored.

If, however, an elected official receives many pieces of mail from independent sources, all talking about the same issue, that tends to capture his or her attention very quickly indeed, and attention leads to action, even if none was explicitly asked for.

If every time your charity prepares an activity report (number of persons served, amount of help provided, etc., but not client names) you simply make seven extra copies, and send one each to: The President of the United States, your two U.S. Senators, your local member of the U.S. House of Representatives, your state’s Governor, your state Senator, and your state Representative, it can make a huge difference in the shape of public policy.

Promote available state and federal assistance programs.

Food stamps, unemployment insurance, WIC, workers compensation, and other state and federal assistance programs exist to serve those in need, but many of them are underutilized. By promoting these programs, you can bring significant additional resources to bear against poverty and hunger in your community.

A good way to start is to meet with someone from your county’s welfare department. Ideally, they will be supportive of getting more eligible people signed up for their programs and will provide you with information and materials – posters, brochures, applications, etc. If that doesn’t work out for some reason, you might approach a local Legal Aid organization, Community Action Agency, or Cooperative Extension Office.

However, if you are promoting programs, please do not tie them to your food distribution: do not require someone to apply for government aid to receive food, and do not deny food to someone who is receiving government aid. Every individual’s circumstances are unique, and one-size-fits-all approaches to this issue are invariably wrong.

Partner with other charities to substitute food aid when other help is not available.

People have many needs – besides food they need a place to live, heat in winter, electricity, clothes, a crib for the baby, medicine, and so on and so forth. Most communities have an array of organizations, both governmental and nonprofit, which work to help impoverished individuals and families get what they need to live in a reasonable way.

In most cases, people seek assistance from the agency most closely associated with their specific need, but what if that group cannot help them because of high demand, low donations, budget limitations, etc.? Does that need to be the end of the story?

For a community with well-run food pantries, the answer is no. If agencies addressing non-food needs partner with food pantries, the ability of the Food Bank/food pantry system to leverage resources very efficiently can be applied to other areas as well. For example, if a couple needed a crib for a new baby, but none were available, that family could be given food from a food pantry instead, which would free them to use the money they would otherwise have spent on food to buy the things they need to care for their child.

While the scale of the “substituting food aid for other aid” approach is limited by the amount of money that clients being helped were previously spending on food, it has the potential to be a very useful tool in your community’s anti-poverty efforts.

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