Friday, June 28, 2013

Chicks in the Hood!

On Sunday, June 9, I participated in the 3rd Annual Chicks in the Hood tour of some of the city's backyard chicken coops. The tour was of the East End and North Side, which have the highest concentration of coops in the city. I recruited my parents, Christina and Ellis, to join me, and we decided to tackle the tour on bicycles. After picking up our maps at the Quiet Storm on Penn Avenue,we checked out some of the Highland Park spots, where we ended up seeing four coops.

I was somewhat familiar with the regulations pertaining to keeping chickens in the city (no roosters allowed!) before the tour, but was surprised to see the variety of the set-ups. Some chickens had permanent enclosures, while others were portable, so the birds could be moved to new grass to forage for grubs. Yard sizes ranged as well from a pretty small city plot to a sprawling expanse on the Allegheny riverfront.
Chicks in the Hood 2013
The common thread between them all was the affection owners had for their birds.The chickens had names and their owners talked eagerly about personality differences and quirks. All the chickens we saw were used for eggs, rather than meat, and even older birds which were no longer star layers, were allowed to roam around in peace.

This event has a lot to offer for varied audiences. It satisfies the curiosity of those who are totally unfamiliar with keeping urban chickens (and it doubles as a stellar garden tour!), or it can provide some practical options and answers for those looking to start their own backyard flock. For me, this event was an education in the practice of keeping backyard chickens in the city; you don't need a massive yard and you don't need fancy, ultra-expensive equipment. Seeing the chicks in person, raised by my Pittsburgh neighbors, made owning birds in the future seem not only highly rewarding but also more feasible than I'd thought.

Sorry you missed out? This year's tour benefited Just Harvest, so if you want to make a belated donation to us (always welcome!) you can do so here. And if you want to learn more about urban chicken farming, you don't have to wait 'til next year's tour. If you're on Facebook check out the Chicks in the Hood page – their ongoing posts are full of fun facts and humorous pictures, and they would be happy to help get you started! Or you can contact the folks at P4 who organized the tour.

-- Emily Schmidlapp, Fresh Access Coordinator (Learn more about our Fresh Access program.)

Friday, June 21, 2013

House votes down farm bill!

Our voices were heard! Yesterday, the House of Representatives voted down a version of the Farm Bill that would have cut food stamps by $20 billion over the next ten years. The bill also would have included a whole set of new barriers to food stamp access, from work requirements on many recipients to blanket drug testing of applicants.

You joined us in calling on local U.S. Representatives to protect the food stamp program and it worked. The U.S. Senate had already approved $4 billion in cuts to SNAP/food stamps in its version of the five-year Farm Bill. The House of Representatives had been proposing cuts of $20 billion to food stamps, a critical line of defense against hunger for 1.8 million Pennsylvanians living in poverty. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette called these proposed cuts "terrifying."

Yet some members of Congress still think the U.S. is spending too much on the food stamp program, and the House passed amendments to the Farm Bill that would have included a whole set of new barriers to food stamp access, from work requirements on many recipients to blanket drug testing of applicants.
  • Most Democrats, like Rep. Mike Doyle, voted against the Farm Bill and these amendments.
  • They were joined by 62 Republicans, including Rep. Keith Rothfus, who had voted for these amendments but then turned against the Farm Bill because it did not go far enough to restrict access to food stamps.
  • The remaining Republicans, including Rep. Tim Murphy, voted for the Farm Bill and these amendments.
Stay tuned for further action!

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Waste, fraud, and abuse in the food stamp program? Halfway through the SNAP Challenge, Ken M goes searching for the truth - Part 2

In my post yesterday I kind of ripped the GOP a new one for their "proof" that cutting funding for food stamps will save the nation from evil and destruction. (Don't get me started again.) In all fairness, the Democratic-controlled Senate also passed $4 billion in cuts to SNAP in their version of the Farm Bill. Most of those cuts were to the heat and eat program. But at least President Obama has finally spoken out against the House's planned $20 billion in food stamp cuts.

Here's another report on fraud and abuse in the SNAP program by the nonpartisan government body charged with assessing how well government is spending your tax dollars.

What is striking about this report is the clear decline in food stamp abuse it charts. Down to 1%. Given how much mud is being slung at the SNAP/food stamp program, and government in general, I was expecting the opposite. It points to a downward economy as a primary reason for the increase in food stamp recipients and it mostly points the finger at government error and private sector business engaging in illegal practices as the reason for any remaining abuse in the system.

How could government error be part of the problem? I am not a rocket scientist but I have spent a number of years in the private sector. If orders start flying in you better bring in more staff and resources or you can't meet demand. It's that simple. Yet our current state government administration has taken the opposite position by cutting staff. In Allegheny County the number of cases per caseworker exceeds 1,000 – one person responsible for helping a thousand individuals. Or maybe it's 1,200. The exact number is hard to pin down because of a very complex matrix for determining caseloads. Because what you want when the job at hand is helping people is a very complex bureaucracy for them to wade through. (*more sarcasm*)

This isn't sitting right with me. I'm going to eat a fake cheese sandwich, with tomatoes.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Waste, fraud, and abuse in the food stamp program? Halfway through the SNAP Challenge, Ken M goes searching for the truth - Part 1

Last night I did a stir fry and cooked all of my chicken. I was on the go today and had to forfeit my usual eating-out habits. My colleague seems to be faring worse. She was suffering from a headache and searching for aspirins when I saw her. In fact, she looked like she was tied to the back of a PAT bus and dragged here. I exaggerate. She did have a headache and looked a little worn.

Outside the office I bump into the usual locals. I start bragging about the challenge, being on only $6 dollars a day for food. "I couldn't live off that" they squeak. As usual, the conversation quickly moves to everyone's opinion on people cheating the food stamp system. I really can't trust common perception because I know if I used an EBT card during my shopping trip and people saw me stuffing my sack to the point I could hardly lift it, this might create a certain misperception about the amount of food you can get on food stamps. But this is all superficial. I need some data on the big picture, some facts on how such supposedly massive abuse of the SNAP benefits program can occur.

I consulted a report issued by the GOP: Reeling in Government Waste, Fraud, and Abuse—Replacing Dangerous Defense Cuts with Common Sense Spending Reductions.

Read it. Without realizing they're doing so, this GOP report (the seeming talking points bible for all current anti-SNAP talk) actually points the finger at the private sector marketplace - businesses that profit in trafficking EBT transactions. All food stamp funds are loaded onto an EBT card and can only be used for food purchases. Unless a merchant is fudging the transactions in the back office, the consumer is unable to use their card on anything but food. It's not news that the private sector can go astray, especially when it comes to tapping the public till. Look what happened in the housing, mortgage, banking, credit, and finance industries.

If this waste, fraud, and abuse is the widespread problem they allege, what's needed, then, is more government oversight, not cuts in funding to help hungry people get food on the table. And really - you mean to tell me there's no waste, fraud, and abuse among defense contractors taking government funds? Maybe related to, oh I don't know, their procurement process, salary compensation, or tax filing - to the tune of billions of dollars?! Yet you don't see the GOP tripping over themselves to cut defense spending.

The GOP report also points the finger at a lottery winner and two criminals in Detroit. Yes, these three individuals were egregiously defrauding the SNAP program. And because of that they were caught. But yes, because these three shysters tried to scam food stamps we should drastically cut food stamp funding for the millions of people who really need it. (*sarcasm*)

The GOP anti-food stamp talking points also cast a scornful eye on the "heat and eat" initiative. This was a technical fix designed to help states expand food stamp eligibility to those who weren't qualifying for sufficient benefits because they couldn't demonstrate they had utility payments (because their utilities were included in their rent). Ironically, "heat and eat" works exactly as the GOP describes it; they just view making sure people get the food stamps they're entitled to as "fraud."

The same goes for their attacks on "categorical eligibilty," which allows states to eliminate federal asset tests and raise the income threshold for SNAP i.e. removes barriers that keep people who need it from getting food stamps. Cat el also, by drawing on info from other government programs that help low-income families, reduces paperwork and reduces government administration costs. Funny, I thought increasing government efficiency was something the GOP would be all for.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Spreadsheets, Buses, and Automobiles: Ken Tallies What it Takes for the SNAP Challenge

My Food Stamp Challenge prep continues. Sunday comes and I begin to prepare for my second journey. This time no sunglasses, I don't want any collateral damage. Once again I was blessed with fine weather. I did the walk, the Incline, and one bus that let me off 3 blocks from the two stores. I got my goods and returned home. It was uneventful, other than spending 5 bucks on transportation to pick up 4.79 in groceries I was feeling pretty good about my chances of making it. I managed to make it outside of my food desert and nail some healthy foods at reasonable prices.

Here are my prep stats:

What I bought:
Even with my excel spreadsheets and iPhone I had some miscalculations but ended up with $1.34 left over. I was pleased with my take. It did require some preparation. I used my high-speed internet connection to race around the world trying to find the correct balance of nutrition for the price. I even made a trip in my car to get an idea of prices. I know this might be cheating since most people don't price out their food and then come back a couple of days later to buy it but I am a follower of Captain Kirk's philosophy (you know what I mean)*.

For my first night, I had a British dinner: eggs, boiled potatoes, baked beans and slices of tomatoes. Very plain. Sorry Brits.

*For those who don't know Capt. Kirk's guiding philosophy, it is as follows:
Never get into a situation you can't win.

Editor's Note: We realize it is now the last scheduled day of the SNAP/Food Stamp Challenge and all of Ken's posts thus far are about preparing for the challenge rather than actually taking it. It seems figuring out how to make do with less is an undertaking in and of itself, requiring ample research and planning to mitigate the hardship.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Ken Prepares for the SNAP Challenge - Part 2

After getting my groceries I'm standing there waiting for this bus. My back, my knee, my hip are all hurting. I live with chronic pain since the motorcycle accident and take great care not to end up back in the hospital. One wrong move with this sack of goods – my food for the week — could change my life forever.
Now more people are showing up at the bus stop. There's no way I can beat them to the bus to get a seat. I didn't bring my glasses so I can't even see what bus is coming.
It finally arrives and I get a seat. People are jumping on and off the bus with their two bags in hand, proper amount of content in each bag, looking at me like I'm some kind of a rookie. I'm just hoping all my stuff doesn't spill out on this dirty floor.
I get off at Carson and Smithfield to wait for my next bus. Taking the Incline and walking was out of the question. I'm not a religious man but I did take a moment here to kneel down and thank God it wasn't raining or snowing or 20° outside.
A minute seemed like an hour. But it finally came and I got a seat in the front leaving my sack of goods in the middle of the aisle for people to trip over. Then I realized: this bus is going to blow by my street leaving me two extra blocks from my home unless we catch a light and the driver has the mercy to let me off. As luck would have it we got a red light, I jumped up and made my request. "Please let me off."
Without comment the doors opened and I made my getaway. I carried the groceries the final block, neighbors staring at me as I inched my way home. Inside I went straight for the frig with the perishables, grabbed two aspirins for pain and laid down, wondering if I caused any damage to my back.
Then my eyes popped wide open. I have to make the trip again tomorrow, to get everything else on my list. See part 3.

Monday, June 10, 2013

SNAP Challenge 2013: Food Stamp Specialist Ken M. Prepares for 5 Days, 6 Dollars

It was a warm Saturday afternoon in June. I put on my iPhone earbuds, cranked up the music, and headed to the Incline. I was on a journey to buy 30 dollars worth of food that had to last me the entire work week. And according to the challenge rules, no other food allowed: nothing from the cupboard, no sneaking from the fridge at work, and no one buying me anything. Could I hack it for five days? People on food stamps do this for months.

Armed with a spreadsheet and pen I walked along Grandview Avenue dogging tourist questions and counting skyscrapers. The ride down the Mount was great - I paid 3.50 for the ride and two transfers.  I crossed the street to the bus stop and carefully eyed up my fellow travelers.  All seemed well.

I walked along Carson St. looking at the shops and people spending more money on lunch than I could for the whole week.  Inside the store, I pulled out my spreadsheet and iPhone calculator.  It could not have gone better: I was getting my items and saving .29 cents here and there.  I loaded up my cart and headed for checkout.

I took my items out of the cart and the cashier put them back in.  I wheeled my cart to the table and started to pack my bag. This stuff ain’t fitting in my bag.  I turned to the cashier for help.  He was already inpatient with me because I asked for my quarter back that was stuck in the cart.  I interrupted the line anyway.  “I need a bag...”  “There over on the shelf “ he said.  I went to the shelf and see the bags aren't free - the only one that would work costs $1.25.

I carefully packed the bag I brought.  It was so heavy I thought for sure the straps were going to break.  I carried the bag in one hand and two loaves of bread in the other.  I made it about a half a block and had to stop.  I made it another 30 feet and had to stop.  I quickly became entertainment for the people eating lunch outside.  I gave them the stink eye.

I made it to the first bus stop and that was it.  My stuff was falling out on the sidewalk.  People started to inch away from me.  I stepped on any ants that got too close to my food.

Then a thought crossed my mind: It's over 80 degrees out and the bus may be a long time coming. What if everything spoils?! I'd be ruined. No milk, chicken, or eggs for the rest of the week. I'd be living on carbs and canned goods and even less calories. I move the bag into the shade. See part 2.