Shares: A No-Hoops Hunger Project

(9:00AM EST – promoted by Nightprowlkitty)

We all know the economic situation sucks. We all know people who have lost their jobs, families – often in our own neighborhoods – who have lost their homes, their means of transportation, their health care, their sense of self-worth and ability to meet basic needs. We all want to help, but if you know anything about “the system,” you also know that politics only decrees focus. It doesn’t exist to actually help people, it exists to see how many hoops they’ll be able to jump in order to get the bare minimum.

And if you’re at all like me and ever dealt with “the system” yourself or for a family member, you also know a good handful of people who will live in a cardboard box before hitting the shelter, will walk double-digit miles to work rather than tell anybody the car’s been repo’d, will go hungry because there’s just no way to get to the county seat on-demand to jump hoops bi-weekly just to get food stamps. Why, you might even know some who have been given help, but are just too embarrassed to use them at the grocery store.

I’ve worked with several hunger projects over the last quarter century, usually grant-supported non-profit based or purely local and supported by area churches, community groups, fraternal organizations and businesses. They all try to reach the people who need help, and the people involved are more than willing to help with paperwork or details in order to make the hoop-jumping easier. But they all know, as I know, that there are many who aren’t reached because they won’t or can’t jump hoops. For any of a number of reasons they don’t want us to know.

When my family first moved to our mountain homestead 17 years ago, we were broken-hearted and flat broke. My son had died, taking our successful family business – clowning (juggling, fire-eating, dumb magic tricks and general foolishness) – with him. He and my husband were popular local celebrities, worked as a hilarious team, were regulars on television and had even done some films. SkyPup was 21 when he died.

So we chose our retreat carefully, then we set about trying to keep it. Taking whatever work we could find, supplementing here and there street performing, occasional birthday parties, a little mall work at Christmas, day jobs doing whatever. We LIVE here. Making enough money to stay is the trick, luckily we’ve some experience. It took us a whole year plus a winter to clear the garden enough to realize it was terraced, fence it in (actually fencing the critters out), dig it up, get the perennials under control, trim and support the 25-year old grape vines. It took me another 2 summers to find out what would grow here, and what not to bother with. I got advice from everybody willing to give, learned that my thumb is actually green-for-food. Amazing, since I’d spent my whole life to that point killing houseplants without even trying. Now I am an organic producer of fresh herbs, food for my family and friends, and value-added products for market.

I’ve been involved in the local town’s Chamber of Commerce, I know about half of the families in this county of about 38,000 people, and I’ve been successful in keeping our larger farms from going with GM corn or soy, convincing them instead to mine the organic markets for their production.

After we moved here we discovered there’s no such thing as garbage pick-up. There are dumpsters just outside of town in a fenced enclosure, we have to do the hauling for ourselves. It took me just a couple of dumpster visits before I noticed the “Dumpster People.” They were homeless, some of them young, dirty kids, living in the forest and picking through other people’s garbage for sustenance. It was November, so I started putting boxes of winter clothes and blankets next to the dumpsters. Usually with some cans of beans or other goods mixed in. Then other people noticed, started doing the same thing. Some days it was just food. Other days it was people’s old tarps and sleeping bags and even some serviceable tools. Nobody said anything, nobody “organized,” nobody funded, nobody came with paperwork or hoops. We just left what we figured the Dumpster People would need or could use, that we didn’t need.

Even better, we didn’t have to get too serious about anything. Didn’t have to talk in Chamber meetings about “the problem” with Dumpster People, or try to get them to the aid office on the arbitrary schedule, or help them figure out how to jump hoops, or feel badly that the last shred of their small dignity got squashed when they had to admit they couldn’t read the form or write their name. We’re THAT backwater.

So the county decided to put a gate on the dumpsters, install a paid guard for our garbage, and have it open three days a week on a banker’s schedule, when most of us were working. They call ’em “Convenience Stations,” we call ’em “Inconvenient Stations.” It put the Dumpster People even more out in the cold than they were before.

I had too much money to spend on too many seeds the first year I tried to plan Big for my measly garden. Had lots of leftovers. So I decided that rather than waste them, I’d pass them out. Took the envelopes in a basket and knocked on all my neighbor’s doors. Now, since my driveway’s half a mile long and there’s maybe 35 families between the National Forest and town on my paved road, it took a couple of days of tea and lemonade on porches and small talk and such, but I managed to pass out all the excess seeds. Then, unexpectedly, when harvest time came I started getting big bags and boxes full of whatever it was they’d grown from my seeds, didn’t feel like preserving. I’d come home from work to find two dozen eggplants, half a bushel of Indian corn, more zucchini and summer squash than anybody needs, tomatoes by the multi-bushel, and often a watermelon or some apples from their own place just to say “thanks.” It was nice, and made great compost. This was before I learned how to preserve.

Then hubby and I got a job running an after-school program for at-risk teenagers in the county seat, a state grant operation designed to cut juvenile crime and dropouts, do some family interventions and stuff. Had more than a hundred kids, did some tutoring and fed them healthy snacks, and had to come up with fun projects for them to do to keep them out of trouble. That’s when I thought of Shares.

I spent a tiny portion of the grant “projects” money on seeds, passed them out to the kids to take home and peddle door-to-door in their neighborhoods, with a nifty sales pitch. Deal is that we provide the seeds for free to everyone who maintains a garden (almost everyone here), they have to dedicate a row to the project. All the food grown in that row came to the middle school where we were housed. There the kids would re-box (I took the whole project gang with me to raid the boxes behind the Piggly Wiggly). Some of this, some of that, more of the other. I had purchased Marian Morash’s Victory Garden Cookbook, re-typed quickie prep, storage, preservation data and recipes from it and put a stapled couple of sheets in each box for whatever was coming in that week.

Many boxes went home with the kids, the Moms and Dads were always happy to take it (and some of our kids were indeed “food insecure”). The rest were deposited at town halls, community centers and yes, the local Chambers. From there they got distributed to people ‘known’ to need, and when word got around, others picked them up. No questions, no hoop-jumping, no means testing. Just “here’s the food – we grew it, we’re proud of it, come and get you some!”

The philosophy was, I think, sound. There’s a lot of food, a lot of people grow food, a lot of food goes to waste every season, and some people go hungry – occasionally or regularly. In seasons of abundance, no one should go hungry. Even my little town’s grocery store, which exists to make money selling food, volunteered to be a pick-up point for Shares. They knew a truth the gub’ment types and paranoid wingnuts don’t know. Most people will buy their food if they can. They’ll take a freebie occasionally, but they’ll pass right by a Shares box to go shopping, then drop off some canned goods in the free bin on their way out. Feeding people doesn’t cost that much, it’s not that hard.

Shares is still going, I still type up data and recipes I learn or find on the net and give the pages to Louise down at the Chamber, she gets ’em where they need to go. I don’t finance, distribute or any of that with seeds or produce these days, someone else does (but I do grow my row). Probably a lot of somebodies, churches have expanded both the growing and the distribution. The regional food bank benefits too, and there are now community gardens all over the place where people grow stuff for themselves and their neighbors and the food bank. Which never means tests or hoop-jumps anyone who shows up just for the Shares, as opposed to the corporately donated rejects and outdated goods. That’s just us. People. Doing people things.

It’s great that a side project on a whim took off, and that there are so many others who have been so willing to keep it going long after I moved on to another day job. It’s great that no one has yet tried to tie strings to it, to turn it into just another governmental hoop-jumping competition. It’s still going, available to anyone for any reason, nobody’s even asking why you want this food. They’ll just tell you to come back next week, we’re expecting pears and plums and sweet corn and collards. Next month pumpkins and butternut squash…

People still have to buy milk and bread and canned goods and pasta and soft drinks and coffee and… all the stuff we buy that we don’t grow in our gardens or can get from a farm truck on the side of the road. The grocers aren’t hurting because of Shares, and I’m always thankful when I see the Shares table right next to the canned donation drum. We chose to live in a region of natural abundance, and soil fertile enough to produce much more. No one should go hungry here.

Can something like Shares “grow” to other places? Would town and suburban dwellers plant a Victory Garden and grow a row? I’ve seen neighborhoods turn the strip between the road and sidewalk into beautiful veggie gardens, a chance for residents to get outside and hang out with each other regularly, put in a little work tending the plants, planning, prepping, and yes, protecting. It builds community. It lets people share their knowledge, their memories, their recipes. And it often leads to big block parties with grills going and kids playing and everyone relishing those wonderful watermelons grown in the traffic island of seldom-traveled side streets.

It’s a thought. No one should go hungry in a world of plenty.


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  1. A really wonderful essay.

    You have a very fertile mind — pun intended!

  2. … yes, it can, this is a “slow food, slow money” system that can spread.

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