Thursday, June 11, 2009

Walking Memory Lane

The following post originally appeared on my blog on October 16, 2007.

Ironically, not much has changed ... except maybe we're all a wee bit closer to being improverished ourselves.

But as I said back then, poverty isn't a "disease", and the way to help those without money is, really, not to give them more money, but to give them something they can call their own - like a little land on which to build a house and have a garden.

Without further ado:

The Right to Food

Today is World Food Day. Way back in September or something like that, the eat local yahoo group I'm on sent out a note asking people to blog about the Right To Food, which is this years' theme.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations defines the Right to Food as:

"... the right of every person to have regular access to sufficient, nutritionally adequate and culturally acceptable food for an active, healthy life. It is the right to feed oneself in dignity, rather than the right to be fed...".

Maybe it was my subconscious ponderings that led to the unanswered question, but it is a little ironic that today is World Food Day with the theme of "Right to Food", and yesterday I was pondering that very same thing with the conclusion that the solution was to ensure that everyone have a little piece of land to cultivate a garden and/or raise an animal for food.

To further compound the seemingly unconnected, but connected train of events that led to this post was a piece of mail I received yesterday. It was a solicitation from Heifer International for their Kids for Kids campaign. The goal is to provide goat kids to impoverished children around the world.

According to the literature, in many cultures, children take care of the herds. It's their job. So, the Kids for Kids program is building on this cultural practice by providing these children goats that will grow up and provide milk and cheese, and eventually more goats. Goats can be bred two to three times per year, and can be milked for up to nine months following a kidding, which means two goats can, potentially, provide milk and cheese for a family all year long. One dairy goat can give a gallon of milk every day.

After a couple of years, the children who have been gifted goats will have a large enough herd that they can sell extra milk and cheese to buy things their families need.

I don't think this program is a whole shade different from my proposal of giving a small piece of land for a garden. One 4'x4' garden bed can give one adult two vegetables per day for the entire growing season. I have a quarter acre. I have six 4'x4' garden beds on my front lawn.

There is room for at least three more in the space adjacent those beds. That would be nine total, which means I could feed nine adults two vegetables per day from July to October, and I'm not even using HALF of my one-quarter acre of land. The place where my garden beds are located is only a tiny portion of my entire yard. I also have several odd-sized beds in the back.

Theorectically, I could feed my family two vegetables per day, assuming I grow storage vegetables and have a place to store them (because of the climate in which I live) with just the garden space I currently have for half the year - six months. We have chickens, too, and if I someday get a goat, we could just about live on what I can grow.

We wouldn't be eating a lot, and we would have a very limited diet, but it would be very high in fruits and vegetables, and we wouldn't want for protein, even without meat, because we'd be drinking lots of fresh, raw, milk from grass-fed, organically raised goats and eating fresh eggs from our organically raised chickens.

Did I mention that we also have maple trees and fruit trees, berry bushes, a very small strawberry patch and a grape vine? Next year, I hope to add a couple of hazelnut bushes and a Kiwi vine.

I didn't grow up poor. But in 1981, when my father retired from the Army, he moved us from the suburbs in Alabama to Harlan County, Kentucky, where he grew up and where his family still lived.

Of the 100 poorest counties in the United States (per median household income), twenty-nine of them are located in Kentucky. Harlan County is number seventeen. The people who lived across the street from my grandma didn't have an indoor toilet or hot running water in their house. They lived, quite literally, in a tar paper shack. Seriously. They didn't have any siding, and the walls were covered with tarpaper to keep the rain out. The floors inside were linoleum or bare wood planks. They heated their home with a coal burning stove. The coal they picked up off the side of the road, and it was plentiful, as the coal trucks that ran up and down the hollows never had covers and little coal pellets would fly out in transit.

They had a television, though, and their children were fed and clothed - at least as well as I was.

But they were poor.

I knew them. I knew them very well. I even stayed the night at their house once or twice (but ran back over to my Grandma's to use the bathroom and to take a shower the next morning ;).

The thing that made them different from poor people who are destitute was that they HAD a house. They had a tiny piece of land, and they had a small garden. They were never going to starve, not only because they had their own garden, but also because they had a gaggle of wild, mean geese running around, that likely provided them with eggs.

I know poor. I've lived with it. I've held its hand. I saw it every day for four years, and in the end, I ran, not walked, to college, because that's the only way I knew to escape what would, likely, have been my fate, as well.

So, I've thought a lot about poverty for the last couple of days, and I guess the real issue is not what action I could take, but what I could do ... what everyone could do, and that is to stop treating poor people as if their financial situation were a disease.

Poverty is not a disease, like cancer or halitosis, and the people whose income falls into what is considered "poverty level" don't need some do-gooder like me feeling sorry for them. Often, they don't feel sorry for themselves, and they may not even think about their "condition" until someone points it out to them. Like the wart that's growing on my daughter's nose. She wouldn't even pay attention to it, if people didn't point it out.

As for how to help poor people, I still think the land idea is the best one - that and what Heifer International does.

Poor people don't want some middle-class, suburban white woman to come on down and "feed" them. If that's the option, they'd rather I just send my $25 check and stay at home feeling good about how much I've "helped."

What they do want is the opportunity to take care of themselves in a dignified manner without feeling as if their own solutions to their problems are substandard compared to what the monied people would do for them.

My friend, Mary, grew up impoverished without hot, running water or an indoor toilet. She ran around barefooted all summer long. She was the stereotypical hillbilly down to the threadbare dresses and the poor dental hygiene, but her family didn't have a disease, and if I had ever, in our relationship, pointed out to her how poor she was and then tried to help her, I would have insulted her so deeply that she would never have spoken to me again.

She didn't want a handout from me. She didn't want my pity, my tears or even my "cake."

Really, all she wanted from me was a friend, and that's all I was.

If our government can do anything to help people in this country who still live in poverty and don't have enough to eat, it would be to develop more programs like the land granting programs of the 1930's and fewer handout programs like AFDC and Food Stamp program.

And instead of social workers, hire master gardeners and visionaries, like Eliot Coleman, to teach the people who are granted land in Alaska how to cultivate that land - all year long with just a cold frame.

The way to end poverty? "Teach a Man to Fish." We've been saying it for years. Isn't it time we acted?


  1. Yup! What more is there to say that you haven't said? ;-)

  2. Amen, Wendy! I've got a coworker/friend whom I'm afraid I may have offended (at least, initially) when I mentioned I was sending her the link to the "Hillbilly Housewife" website. Like I thought SHE was a hillbilly housewife. (Ironically, she grew up in Ohio in appalachia, in poverty territory, though she never was. Now, as an adult living in Alaska, she IS living in poverty.) I pointed out to her that I'm having to learn to feed my family on very little, lately, making do, cooking with things I've not had much experience with (beans, mainly), and that this website (for me) was more about feeding a family frugally. That kinda smoothed things over, that I was sharing it because I know she's got a family to feed on a small paycheck, not because I think of her as "poor", even though that's what her life situation IS. And again, that's a LIFE situation, not who you are. We are not defined, at least not exclusively, by our life situation.

    Great post, Wendy. Now to learn how to gather that "2 veggies a day" from my little lot. Though, ironically, I've gotten more from the weeds this week than I have from the purposefully planted veggies. Had a "Lambsquarter salad" for dinner the other night, instead of spinach.