By Erik Talkin, author of Lulu and the Hunger Monster
Life is getting a lot more basic these days. How do we keep ourselves and our families healthy during the biggest public health challenge since the 1918 influenza pandemic? One key issue that we all return to is food. People have been stocking up like crazy on essential items (and some pretty nonessential ones too), and many of us find the shelves empty of basic items like rice, pasta, tuna, and sauces.
As CEO of a food bank in California, I have seen the need for our services explode because of the economic effects of COVID-19. As always, keeping families fed is at the center of our focus. We have set up drive-through pantries that allow people to maintain social distance in their cars, as well as vastly increased our delivery to isolated seniors. But as a teacher or parent, how can you ensure that your family and others have enough healthy food?
If your school has switched over to online learning using a platform such as Zoom, then this creates some opportunities for connecting with children and their families in addition to the many challenges inherent in such an approach. For one thing, you actually have a chance to see your students in their home environment rather than hear whatever version of home they might describe to you at school. This is still an incomplete picture, but you can get a sense of how they are doing and what their environment is like. Crowded? Noisy? Cold?
You can check in with kids at the beginning of class about whether they have all had breakfast yet and what they had to eat. It can be a casual conversation, but can reveal much about the food security level of the family. You can do the same thing in any session that might take place in the afternoon. Did they have a good lunch?
If through this subtle monitoring of your students’ home lives you get the sense that some households may be on the edge in terms of getting enough good food, then you can provide some general encouragement about making sure parents know that they can get extra food if they need it. You can also include a “Community Help” section at the bottom of any emailed work assignments for the day, with a guide to local distributions and other means of help. (Links about how to access this information are provided at the end of this post.) We need to remember that the need for additional food assistance will carry on for many months after the initial outbreak is contained and to remain sensitive to these issues once children are back in school.
One thing is clear in this situation: many people who would never imagine themselves having to find additional food assistance for their families are now facing this reality. And that is a hard thing for many to reconcile with when they are used to providing well for their families. With jobs disappearing by the millions, many of us are going to need to find a different perspective on our personal pride and responsibility in this area. This crisis is so big that the focus has to be on taking help that is offered (and offering help to others) so that our families can get through these trying times.
When I have conversations with those facing a job loss or sudden food insecurity, I explain to them that a food bank is quite literally a bank. You make deposits in the form of food or cash donations when times are good, and then when times are tight, you take withdrawals of food. It’s your and our food, there for all of us when we need it, and hopefully we can pay it forward in the future. You can explain this to kids as well, so they can gain a perspective that will help them throughout their lives. Trying times can also be something of an adventure for kids, as long as the family is working together to support each other and solve problems. Getting additional food and deciding how many meals can be stretched from it becomes an activity that utilizes many skills kids learn in school as well as more practical home economics skills.
Where to Access Food
I was inspired by my work with food-insecure families to write a picture book, Lulu and the Hunger Monster (forthcoming this September), which looks at how a young girl helps her family fight off the invisible Hunger Monster who tries to shame hungry people into silence. Over the coming months, many of us might have a brush with the hunger monster, so we need to know where to go to get help.
1. The simplest thing to do is dial 211 and ask for the food distribution nearest to you.
2. Feeding America, the nationwide network of food banks, has an online map that will help you find your nearest food bank. The food bank is a big distribution organization that will have lots of member food pantries offering service to individual families. Once you find your nearest food bank, you can click through to its website and look for the “Get Food Help” or “Need Food” section, which will have local listings.
This page from Feeding America offers many additional resources.
3. Food Pantries.org and Ample Harvest are two other sites that have listings of actual food pantries near you.
Erik Talkin is also a writer and filmmaker and has served as a principal in two production companies. His short film The Gallery, starring Helena Bonham Carter, was selected for the London Film Festival. He has won an International Television Association Award for writing and directing educational drama, and his theatrical work has been produced on the London Fringe. Erik lives in Santa Barbara, California.
Erik is the author of Lulu and the Hunger Monster.
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