Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Food Insecurity is a Human Being Issue

How a Battle Creek food market could be.
When it comes to food, sometimes I ask myself the question: “Who is hungry in Battle Creek?” While the question seems simple, the answer can be complicated. That’s because there are a lot of men, women and children who live here that are food insecure. That is, they don’t know where their next meal will come from.
Sure, there are shelters, churches, food pantries and other places where food items and/or meals are given away. But there are a lot of people who don’t have access to those places. They might be too old (or too young) to get there. Then there are the ones who don’t even know these places exist or where they are located.

Still others don’t have the means to get there. Sure, there’s public transit. But that assumes a person can afford bus fare. Some might say it’s only a couple bucks, tops, and most everybody can scrape together that much. There are also free shuttle services that’ll take you anywhere in town; all you do is call and schedule a pick up. And we all have a phone, right?

Wrong. So many times we make assumptions based on how we ourselves live. I remember a time in my distant past when I was first starting out. I was barely making a living in Los Angeles as a freelance writer and one day I was riding with a friend around lunchtime. The conversation went something like this:

Friend: “Let’s stop at Jack in the Box for some grub.”

Me: “Uh, let’s go somewhere else.”

Friend: “Com’ on, it’s right there; the food’s good and I’m starving.”

Me: “I can’t afford to go there.”

Friend: “Dude, you can get an entire meal there for five bucks. Who can’t afford that?”


In short, we stopped at Jack in the Box, my friend fronted me the amount I was short and we filled our bellies. End of story. Except it isn’t. Today for me, eating is like breathing; I don’t even think about it. I take food for granted. Rather, I take my ability to gain access to good food for granted. By the way, it was years before I got to a place where I didn’t have to think and plan and scrape to make sure I had enough to eat.

It can be easy to believe we know the reasons why people go hungry. No money is at the top of the list. That might translate into “no job,” which for some then translates into, “doesn’t want to work” – which in so many cases is absurd.

According to information from the Food Bank of South Central Michigan, one in eight Americans are hungry. Often, they are hard-working adults, children and seniors who just can’t make ends meet. The result? They go without food for several meals; sometimes for days.

I ask myself, “In a rich country like ours, with so much, why do we allow this?

Following a certain train of thought, I tell myself (or used to) that nobody really has to go hungry because there are safety nets in place that catch those with the most need.

Part of my work in the community is as Coordinator of Good Food BC. GFBC is a coalition of organizations and individuals dedicated to informing and educating folks on issues related to food – in particular, access to fresh, affordable and nutritious food.

Malik Yakini: the food movement's Yoda
This Saturday, people interested in issues related to food are gathering at a community conference. It’s being held at the Calhoun Area Career Center. The keynote speaker is renown food activist Malik Yakini, Director of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network. He will help shed light on the important human being issue of food security.

Please join us and bring your assumptions. However, be aware that what you learn may compel you to rethink who’s hungry in Battle Creek.  

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Time to Move Past Our Siege Mentality

Battle Creek is under a self-imposed siege. It’s embodied by a sense of hopelessness that is staining the collective fabric of our community. Think about it. In recent months there has been the departure of key municipal personnel. Among them: the police chief, his assistant, and the city manager.
              That’s not all. There’s ongoing drama at Community Action, one of the largest and among the most impactful nonprofits in town: Its CEO was fired. And then fired again. Then there’s the not so grrrreat news that Kellogg Company is planning to fuel the economy of Grand Rapids by creating a new regional services center there. Oh yeah, and in the process diminish the workforce of Battle Creek, a city that has struggled with unemployment for years.

              Overseeing it all is a city council that has been operating with a business-as-usual posture. Yet nothing could be further from the truth.
              Not long ago, a rather youthful person imparted some particularly insightful wisdom: “The issue is not the issue.” That is to say, with respect to our community, the personnel purging and workforce exodus going on is just the tip of the iceberg. There’s much more going on than we can see at the surface.

              Some say all these events are independent of one another. I believe they are related and symptomatic of a larger problem – one that strikes at the core of how Battle Creek, as a system, has been working. Or rather not working.
              It’s human nature to engage in self-preservation and watch out for your own best interests. Many say do what you can for the little guy, but in the end it’s dog eat dog. You’re either predator or prey. That’s just how the world is. Or is it?
              Some believe instead that the world is what you make it. They affirm that life is hard, the world can be dangerous and if you don’t watch your back you can get hurt. At the same time, they also insist you don’t always have to meet force with force. The bottom line doesn’t always have to come down to the all mighty dollar. They suggest there are other ways of thriving; even when, materially speaking, the world is not your oyster.
              Some folks have a faithful devotion to community. They regard fellow others with trust, loyalty and as a spiritual (not religious) extension of themselves. They view the world through a lens that magnifies the wondrous concept that we’re all in this together. Like family. The human family.
              That said, some families are dysfunctional, with members that don’t value each other’s unique and special gifts. Right now, Battle Creek is such a family. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Our community’s meltdown isn’t the result of one company’s geographic business move. Nor does it rest solely on their employees not being physically ‘present,’ though it doesn’t help matters.
              There are other factors in play. Among them is the apparent inability of leaders to collectively inspire. Much of our current leadership perceives the majority of residents as liabilities rather than vital human resource partners. Want proof of how little material things can matter? Look at how much money has been poured into attempting to solve our economic and social problems.
              It’s time to think different and view our people and place with respect. Local citizen innovation has historically been poo-poo’d in favor of stale, rhetorical business and social models that may have worked in the past but fail to leverage all that is great about what’s happening today.
              Battle Creek is a jewel; a rare gem that’s been tarnished and fractured through years of spiritual neglect. How will you help repair it?

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Resist Accepting Patriarchy as the Natural Way of Things

You know the annoying movie buff who watches his favorite movies a thousand times and never tires? The nerd who recites movie lines before the actors deliver them? That’s me. Recently my cinematic obsession came back to haunt me.

              It happened while watching the Bruce Lee classic, “Enter the Dragon.” Lots of punching, kicking and chopping. Mayhem with a capital M. As a bonus there was also a plot.

Watching it this time was different though; I was caught off guard by something I’d never before paid any mind. At least consciously. And that’s the problem.

              Amid all the kung fu-ing going on was the obligatory sex scene. Most movies tend to have them. In this one, the caretaker of the palace was strolling room to room offering female servants to male guests participating in a prestigious martial arts tournament.

              When sex scenes appear in action movies, my mind typically throttles to idle until the fighting resumes. As I remember, that’s also how I was as a kid. It was different on this viewing; I found myself looking at the scene from the point of view of a female and found it particularly distasteful.

              Though nothing graphic or remotely steamy happened on the screen (it was all implied), I felt repelled. And I also remember as a teen watching, it never even registered in my mind that there was anything remotely wrong with what was going on. This was Kung fu movie and it was just the obligatory sex scene, right? Wrong.

              Such gratuitous, condescending depictions of female sexual objectification and exploitation play out time and again everywhere – in movies, magazines, TV and on the internet. And in many instances, women don’t even remove their clothes. Sometimes it’s the way the male actor(s) leer at female actor(s) or the submissive role they are often compelled to play. The verbal/visual movie messaging translates to something like this:

              “It’s the natural order of things for men to dominate over women and for females to ‘present’ and ‘submit’ themselves in ways that are attractive to men. After all, it’s what happens in nature with the birds and the bees.”

              The reverse is true in many cases. Yet in our society, flawed macho reasoning has been wrongly cemented into our culture by tradition. When this messaging happens in media, I have come to consider it a form of brainwashing.

              The trouble with media is that when you see/hear something over and over and over again, you can begin to buy into the notion that fiction is fact. Consider your favorite brand of something you buy when shopping; is it really the best product or is it ‘the best’ because it’s so familiar, thanks to the nonstop advertising you see everywhere?

              So it goes with conscious and unconscious messages. And strong is the person who can resist its influence. We all seem smart and rational enough to know when we are being manipulated. Trouble is, when it’s going on 24/7, one tends to get worn down. It’s like the Grand Canyon: it used to be hardened rock surface… until water (and time) wore it down into mile-deep crevices.

              Gender bias at a mass media level has had a corrosive effect on the ethical treatment of females as fully formed human beings in our society. And it’s not just happening in fringe rap videos. Instead, think about mainstream sitcoms like “How I Met Your Mother.” It’s one of TV’s highest rated programs and regarded as harmless humor. Sexism isn’t harmless and it’s never funny.

              Personally, I work to remain on guard against unconsciously objectifying women. That means constantly reminding myself of ‘invisible’ forces that negatively influence my thinking. Easier said than done in a culture drowning with patriarchy.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Before Helping, Ask What’s Needed

On a recent A.M. drive to work after an overnight winter storm, I came upon a harrowing traffic hazard. It involved a couple trying to negotiating a curve during their own morning commute. The road crews had done their job and streets were passable. Still, what happened that morning is one of the most dangerous dramas I’ve witnessed in recent memory while driving.

              Reflecting on that situation caused me to consider a different ‘near miss’ experience – one that those who have or have had young children in their lives might appreciate. It involved my 22-month daughter. Like many emerging toddlers, Rory likes to climb. And she’s good at it. She’ll climb on anything or anybody; ask around. In this case it was climbing stairs.

              Rory’s too young to descend stairs alone. So it was no surprise at church when one of her play-aunts saw her peril and dashed up steps to render assistance. Initially, the rescuer attempted to lift up my daughter in order to bring her downstairs safely. It was also no surprise that my daughter stubbornly resisted being picked up.

              Instead, as toddlers do, she indicated her desire with a broken phrase or two and nonverbal communication. In this case, the action involved grabbing the staircase rail with one tiny hand and extending the other toward her aunt. After careful consideration and assessment of the situation, the aunt took her hand and the two cautiously descended the stairs together.

              Back to the traffic drama. Turns out the couple in question were traveling on foot. Well, one of them was; the other was in a wheelchair. Many of the sidewalks this winter are impassable, which is why they were on the street. The pair walked close to the curb and faced traffic, like we’re taught.

              Here’s the rub. They were rounding a curve. That made it difficult for oncoming vehicles to see them. What made matters worse was the huge parking lot snow mound that made it impossible for cars rounding the bend to see what lay ahead. The term ‘dead man’s curve’ comes to mind.

              The road was forked at the curve and I continued driving straight but glanced back at the scene in my review mirror. As the person on foot slowly pushed his partner through the wind and slush, he desperately flagged each approaching car to make drivers aware of their presence. Some moved over; others didn’t. Or couldn’t because they didn’t see the pedestrians in time or were unable to change lanes because of traffic.

              The memorable drama playing out that day reinforced my belief in the compassion of people helping people. At the same time, it reinforced the seeming callous we have toward fellow humans. Particularly those who may have special needs but are so in the minority that we rarely think about their challenges – until we run into them.

              What does that day’s recipe for roadside disaster have to do with a toddler descending some stairs? Simple. So many times we parachute into a situation to provide assistance without finding out what is really needed. In the case of my daughter on the staircase, she needed a helping hand rather than a lift.

              In the case of the pair on the street, rather than giving them a lift, perhaps all they want is a helping hand when it comes to enforcing municipal policy to keep public sidewalks clear. Or, if there’s no such mandate on the books, maybe what’s needed is a community of residents that remembers to think about those who don’t want or can’t afford a vehicle and collectively decide to keep all our walkways (and other forms of access) clear.