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Archive for the ‘Food’ Category

I was reminded again today that I haven’t written in a while.  I can’t tell you why not.  I don’t mean that it is private.  I just don’t know why.  Anyway, here we go again.  Please – be patient and read to the end.  It really does tie together and it is important.

Life has a way of weaving separate strands together to make a beautiful cloth.  That’s what has been happening lately for me.  I wrote about feeling homeless because my kitchen was being remodeled.  It’s done now and beautiful.  So beautiful that it makes me feel a tad guilty when I mention it on Facebook.  Why?

A number of my friends on Facebook are folks who live on Pine Ridge Reservation.  If you’ve read any of my prior posts (and if you haven’t, why haven’t you?), you know that conditions on Pine Ridge are very difficult.  90% of the people there live below the poverty level.  I have been poor in my life but I have never faced that kind of poverty.  And now, when I have accomplished something so wonderful, I almost don’t want anyone to know.

The fact of the matter is that, while I may have felt homeless, I wasn’t.  I was staying in motels by choice to avoid the chaos of construction.  I had a choice.  And I had a home!

That was thread number one.  Thread number two is my “brother.”  He has begun to work at a shelter, counseling domestic abuse victims.  He saw abuse as a child.  He has a frame of reference and I am so proud of him for putting that knowledge to use in such an important way.  It is such an important thing for a victim of domestic violence to have a place to go where there is no violence.  Safety is so important – especially for the children!

You probably know that I “work” for an organization that tries to improve lives on Pine Ridge by providing sponsors, food, wood for heat, youth programs and whatever else we can manage.  I match folks on the rez with sponsors.  I get to talk to a lot of folks on the rez.

I’ve talked to plenty of women who have been abused — when they were children or by a man as an adult.  They have all touched me deeply.  But no story has touched me like the story I was told by a woman I am currently trying to help.

Thread number three started for me a couple of weeks ago when I got an email from our director.  She had been on the rez recently and was approached by a woman who asked for our help.  She gave me the woman’s telephone number and asked if I would call her.  I did.  This is her story.

I’m going to call the woman Jane – because I don’t think I have ever spoken to anyone on the rez whose name really was Jane.  Jane had recently left Dick (if you remember Dick and Jane, you learned to read when I did and you are probably my age) . . . because Dick was beating her and the 4 children.  You may think he is aptly named – I do.  She did not want the children to grow up seeing that and she would not accept it for herself.

If you’re standing up and cheering Jane right now, that’s great.  But wait.  After I tell you the rest of this story, you’ll have to come up with something better than that.

Jane left Dick.  Jane took the 4 children and not much else.  No clothing, toys or bedding.  She hoped to stay with a relative.  But all of the relatives had full houses already.  (I’ve written about the severe housing shortage on the reservation before.)  The best they could do for her was to lend her a tent.  So she is now living in a tent with her 4 children.  They sleep on the ground.  They eat bologna sandwiches.  She has no refrigeration so she must walk into town frequently for the perishables.  She is an insulin-dependent diabetic.  She is keeping her insulin and perishable food in a styrofoam cooler.  (Did I mention the temperatures have gone as low as 50 degrees and as high as almost 100 degrees?  Did I mention the severe thunderstorms with hail and high winds?) Everything was in the name of the abuser, including the food stamp claim.  Control is another form of abuse, don’t you think?

Jane has a cell phone but to charge it, she has to go to a tribal office and settle in with the children while she plugs in the phone.  Oh wait, I see what I have forgotten to tell you – the ages of the children.  The oldest just turned 5 years old.  Then there is a 3 year old and a 2 year old.  The youngest child is 4 months old.  The youngest 2 children are still in diapers.

Jane had no stroller.  So every walk for every task means taking along 1 child, 2 toddlers and an infant.  As Jane told me, “We travel very slowly.”  Jane told me she is trying to make it an adventure for the kids so they will not have bad memories of the experience as they get older.  She is sure she did the right thing by leaving.  Still … it is hard.

The wonderful people who support our organization have responded admirably to the needs of Jane and her children.  A stroller and many other things are on the way.  When I told her about the stroller, she was so grateful.  She said, “I’ve never had a stroller before.”  (Don’t forget – the stroller is for her fourth child.)  Still,  it will be hard.  There is still no home.

That brings me to thread number four.  Cangleska.  That is the domestic violence shelter on Pine Ridge that I wrote about early on in the life of this blog.  It was a fantastic place and the program there was a model for domestic abuse treatment and prevention across “Indian country.”  They built a large, homey shelter.  Many, including myself, contributed to its furnishings.  (If you must know, I sent a crib and mattress.)  There was treatment for the offenders as well as the victims.  It had the potential to change people’s lives.

If you are wondering why I am writing about Cangleska using the past tense, it is because it no longer exists.  The non-profit that ran the shelter was composed of folks who lived on the rez.  They received many grants and other donations.  As I’ve written before, when folks who have nothing have access to serious sums of money, the temptation to dip into the funds is always there.  Your own family has needs, too.  And greed is sadly an universal human flaw.  The shelter was closed down following a forensic financial audit.

This weekend I discovered that there will be an auction of all the assets of Cangleska next week.  Everything will go (even the crib I sent).  The auctioneer’s website listed “highlites (sic)” including like new office equipment, computer equipment, digital phone system, office furniture, home furnishings, flat screen TV’s, kids’ playground equipment, new chain link fence, tipis, pick-up trucks, cars, minivans, trailers, building materials, construction tools and shop equipment.  Everything will go.  It breaks my heart.

There is now nowhere for victims of domestic abuse to seek shelter and safety on Pine Ridge Reservation.  Nowhere in the 2 million acres that make up the reservation.

That is why Jane and her family are seeking shelter where they can – in a tent!

I don’t know what this cloth will look like when it is complete.  I don’t think all the threads are in place yet.  For many months I thought I was weaving a different pattern.  Now, I’m not so sure.  Perhaps it is all part of a larger design that I don’t recognize yet.  I’ll keep you posted.

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ABC NEWS Has Come Through For Pine Ridge

Over a year ago, I was contacted by a researcher/producer for ABC News.  She had found one of my blog entries (in which I was chastising ABC for not paying attention to the disasters in the west, especially on the reservations).  She told me they were working on a Diane Sawyer prime time special in her “A Hidden America” series.  The prior one had been on life in Appalachia.  This time they were planning to profile Pine Ridge Reservation.

Those of you who have been reading my blog will know that there is not much that fires up my hopefully righteous passion more than talking about life on Pine Ridge Reservation.  So talk we did, for almost an hour.  And we emailed – resources that they might find helpful.

I had heard that Diane Sawyer was out on the rez this past summer when I was there (no, we didn’t happen to cross paths traveling the approximately 2 million acres on the rez.  But I did here that she went up to KILI Radio one of the days I was there.  Try to keep that quiet when you’re talking to DJ’s.

I am giving you a link to the promo for the show.  Please, if you have ever enjoyed or been moved by anything I have written, I implore you to watch the 20/20 program on Friday at 10 PM.  See with your own eyes the good and the bad of Pine Ridge.  You may not find it possible but this place does exist.  I have been there and I suspect they will not tell you the worst story nor show you the poorest homes.  But it will still be worse than you expect.  After all, the living conditions on Pine Ridge rival those in Haiti and the life expectancy on Pine Ridge rivals that of Burundi.

I work for an organization that works to support self-sufficiency – not an easy thing to have on Pine Ridge.  Many of us work to keep the dam from breaking by trying to improve the life of one person at a time.  The big picture can be truly overwhelming.

If you can’t watch the show when it airs, record it or have a friend record it for you.

I will be honest.  I prayed for someone with greater reach than mine to focus attention on the needs of Pine Ridge.  I did not know (or care) who it would be.  I am grateful to ABC News because I know that if more people see the conditions, they will be moved to respond.  I believe in the American people and I know in my heart that things can improve.  I do not have the answers but I know it can be done.

Thank YOU for helping them to raise awareness.  You can do that by sharing this blog post with everyone you know.

Oh yes, here’s the link to the promo:  http://abcnews.go.com/2020/video/hidden-america-children-plains-14708439#.TpOhj9LOE2E.facebook

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Okay, technically Labor Day is tomorrow.  But it is Labor Day weekend, the final big holiday of the “summer season.”  And what am I doing?  Laboring!!  I guess I can at least be grateful it isn’t the kind of labor that comes with a baby at the end – been there, done that.  But yes, I am hard at work for the past 2 days.  I will be tomorrow as well.

What am I doing to take up all this time?  As usual, I am calling the rez.  Specifically, I am calling as many of the 44 households who were to receive food orders last weekend in the 2 areas I serve to determine whether the food was delivered or not, whether it was in good condition when it arrived and if there were any other problems with the delivery.

I had tried to meet with the food delivery volunteers for my areas when I was out visiting my Lakota friends a couple of weeks ago.  We were never able to connect (phone tag, even on the rez!).

You would think this would be an easy task.  You would be wrong.

I have not be able to reach 25% of the people on the list because their phones have been disconnected or are “no longer a working number.”  Do 25% of the folks you try to call lose their phone numbers because they can’t pay their bills?  I doubt it.

Another 25% are not reachable for a variety of reasons:  no one is home; they have never set up the voicemail box; the box is full; they don’t have a voice mail box; they are “not available” which can be code for “they have no signal where they are” or “they’ve turned off the phone to save power.”

There is a small percent, perhaps 10%, in which someone answers the phone but the person I ask for is not there.  So I try to check anyway, “Do you know if the food was delivered last Sunday?”  Nope, no idea.  It always puzzles me.  You are obviously at home enough to answer the phone for someone else but you don’t know if they got food.  (Pausing to shrug my shoulders – I know how loose home life can be on Pine Ridge).

Now we come to the rest, the calls where I actually reach the person I am trying to call.  It should be a simple task, a few quick questions.

If you’ve been reading my posts for a while, you will know there is no such thing as a “simple task” when it comes to the rez.  There are the people who want to know when they will get a sponsor.  Answer:  I don’t know.  The economy is bad, there a more natural disasters than we can keep up with and more people are torn among many places to be philanthropic.

Next question:  Can you give my sponsor a message?  Answer:  Absolutely!  A related question:  Do you know why I haven’t heard from my sponsor in “x” number of days, weeks, months?  Answer:  No, but I will try to find out.

Most people do not respond to the East Coast direct manner of completing this task.  They want to chat a bit, tell you about their lives and what’s been happening around the rez.  It takes time.  It’s probably something of a blessing in disguise that I can’t reach everyone.  If I did, with the average call lasting at least 20 minutes, I would have been on the phone for at least 15 hours!  Talk about labor!!

There are occasionally calls that take longer than the 20 minute average.  Like the call I made yesterday when I connected with a grandmother who had not received her food delivery.  Not a good thing, in and of itself.  But she proceeded to tell me about her 5 year old grandson who is just starting kindergarten.  He had no shoes that fit.  He needed school clothes.

She told me she had just been diagnosed with diabetes on top of her problems with asthma.  She thinks (and I suspect she is right) that the black mold in her home is responsible for the asthma problems.

She went on to tell me more about the house.  The heating vents are not in the holes where the heat comes out.  When the housing authority folks came over to fix them, the “fix” they proposed was to duct tape them in.  Okay.  She has so much trouble heating the home in the winter that she uses her oven for heat.

She moved on to her finances.  She is on Social Security and receives about $600 per month.  She must pay for everything out of that money.  She gets no support except for food stamps for her grandson.  That means she must pay for electricity, heat, clothing, cleaning supplies, phone, cable and the inevitable food and personal hygiene supplies not covered by the food stamps.  She told me her electric bill is around $250 per month and the cable is $50 per month.  She confided that the bundle – cable, internet and phone – was $113 per month, way more than she could afford.

With half her income used up by just 2 items, you can see how a food delivery that did not appear would be a disaster.  She is very worried.

I have one more day to complete this task.  Then I will send a report to the persons who direct the food program with the information I have gleaned.

But there will be no rest from my labors.  There is always something to be done for the rez.

 

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I actually have 5 sponsors on my desk (actually, their information, not the sponsors themselves) at one time.

How can that be?  I have never had that many at one time.  In some ways, it’s overwhelming.  I have to, in a matter of just a few days, contact all of them, get to know something about them and then call twice as many contacts on the rez to make an appropriate match.

Don’t get me wrong!  I am NOT complaining about having sponsors.  It’s just that the universe has a strange sense of timing.  I have these sponsors when I also have several other pressing tasks and a deadline – since I traveling out to Pine Ridge a week from today.  I feel like I remember feeling when I was in school and it was time for mid-terms or finals.

I’m trying to get organized.  It’s not usually difficult for me, but it seems that there is a lot of subconscious thought going on as well, which is making it more difficult to concentrate.  I can’t add the subconscious topics to the “To Do” list because I don’t know what they are.  Obviously they are important but touchy.  So they will live a life of their own while I try to organize the rest.

I’ve been trying to contact the Food Program drivers for one of the areas I coordinate all week as well.  I have had an interesting story about one of the food recipients and want to talk to them about it, to get their impressions.  If you think “phone tag” is no fun in your life (and you’re right), it is even worse when you do it with someone on the rez.  I have to do some more of that today as well.

Okay, time to get going.  My husband has gone out hiking for the day to “stay out of my hair.”  The cat is fed and so am I.  Time for some caffeine and the phone.  Oh wait . . . it’s 10:30 AM here . . . that means 8:30 AM in Pine Ridge . . . just a bit early to call people, even if it is about a sponsor.

Maybe I have time to enjoy that coffee and listen to the birds.

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One of the things I made sure to do while I was visiting Pine Ridge rez in June was to go grocery shopping.  No, I didn’t need groceries — okay, except for the crackers I bought because I needed a snack to hold me til dinner.  What I needed was information.

I’ve been in the convenience stores on the rez before.  The prices for items are generally a bit higher than you’d see elsewhere.  But that’s the case with most convenience stores, isn’t it?  You are paying for the convenience for which they are so aptly named.

This time I went grocery shopping at the “supermarket” or “supercenter” on the rez, Sioux Nation Shopping Center in Pine Ridge, SD.  I would ask you not to confuse this with a market that you would find in a more urban setting, such a Wegman’s that I’ve seen on the east coast.  This is more like a rural “mom & pop” type market with a general store attached.  It doesn’t even come close to a Wal-Mart Supercenter.

Sioux Nation is the only grocery store on the reservation and I have been told often that their prices are much higher than in a “real” grocery store — that is, a chain market.  I decided that it was a good idea to verify it for myself.  After all, it isn’t unheard of for people to exaggerate a bit, right?

Thursday, before the Crazy Horse riders returned, my husband and I parked and went into the store.  The first difference I noticed was that the front entrance was set up in a less that attractive manner — it was set up for security primarily.  There was a turnstile to enter the store and the doors were the only glass at the front of the store.  There were no windows to let in light and attract the shopper from the exterior.

Once inside, it was clear that this store had not been remodeled since it was built.  For us, it was a bit like stepping back in time to our childhood, before the big chain stores were in competition for your family dollars.

Sioux Nation carries Shurfine products as their “store brand.”  I remember that brand from when I was a child, in some of my local markets.  Sure can’t find it at home anymore.

I had brought my husband with me on this adventure because he is something of a “human calculator.”  He remembers numbers the way you and I remember song lyrics or family birthdays.  I knew he would recall the prices we pay at our market for the food items we looked at.  He did not fail me on this assignment.

The first fact about the prices was that, except for the sales, most prices were indeed higher than home.  Most sales were on processed foods and snack foods — but that isn’t much different from grocery stores everywhere.

We headed to the produce section to check out the fresh food.  The variety that was available was extremely limited, the quality was so-so.  The prices were definitely higher.  I am not talking a few cents higher here — I wouldn’t even bother to tell you about a few pennies.  I’m talking about 50 cents to a dollar per pound higher for fresh fruit and vegetables.

Next up, dairy — higher.  Let’s check meat — higher prices, with less variety and poorer quality than we are used to seeing.  There were very few lean meat choices available but there were plenty with high fat and sodium content.  (I’m starting to understand the local diet and the reason for the raging epidemic of diabetes on the rez.)

Interestingly, the generic soda/pop prices were about the same or lower than in our area.  Since the juice and milk prices were significantly higher than we pay, it made that gap in cost larger than usual and explained why so many children are raised on soda/pop rather than milk and juice.

Overall, prices averaged 20% higher than off-rez prices.  I understand the reasons for this from a business perspective.  Sioux Nation Shopping Center is run by the Oglala Sioux Tribe.  They cannot buy in bulk the way the big supermarket chains do.  They also must truck everything in to a rather remote location.  Just like “mom & pop” stores, you would expect their prices to be a bit higher (though if the tribe were run more soundly and in better fiscal shape, I would hope they would subsidize the costs for their people since they know well about the 80-90% unemployment . . . just sayin’).

What does this translate to in real life?  If you spend $100 for groceries to feed your family shopping off the rez, it will cost you $120 for the same groceries on the rez.  If that is a week’s worth of groceries, the $20 per week difference would add up to a whopping $1040 per year.  It already sounds like a lot, but when you consider that the average per capita income on the rez is in the $3000 range, you can see that it is a significant portion of your income.

Thus the fact is that those who can afford it least are paying most.

It is a fact that many, if not most, residents on the reservation receive Food Stamps.  Food Stamps (also known as SNAP benefits under the “Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program”, although I think that is a misnomer) are part of a Federal government aid program to provide those who meet certain poverty requirements with “help” to be able to afford food.

I looked up the requirements (US citizen, less than $2000 in resources unless you are over 60 or disabled, if so then under $3000 in resources).  Resources don’t include your home or the land it’s on, SSI or TANF benefits.  A vehicle depends on its use and value (not typically a problem on the rez).  Income limits vary based on household size and can change each year.

There was a tool to see if you might be eligible.  I put in information as if I was a young couple on the rez with a couple of hundred dollars in cash and 4 children (ages 6, 5, 3 & 1) to feed.  This imaginary couple rented, had to pay for heat and electricity, were both unemployed and did not get any SSI or TANF benefits.  They had a car valued at $500 (basic transportation).

The family qualified for $942-$952 per month as an estimated benefit.  That would be $947 per month if averaged or $157.83 per month per person or $5.26 per day per person.  That’s $1.75 per meal per person — wow, that’s gone up from the $1 per meal per person was a little while ago.  Personally, I’m not sure it’s gone up as much as food prices have in the same time frame.

If I were to feed a family of 6 like that imaginary family a nutritious diet where I live, I would estimate that it would cost about $250 per week or $1000 per month.  By nutritious, I mean a healthy diet with fruit and vegetables, milk or formula for the children and lean meat.  So that would actually put the government in the ball park — for a person living in an urban or suburban neighborhood with access to chain grocery markets.

BUT . . .

Let’s recall that we are on Pine Ridge Reservation.  We must shop at Sioux Nation Shopping Center or we must travel over an hour to reach a chain market.  If we shop at Sioux Nation, with the average of 20% higher prices, our cost for this family will be $1200 for the same healthy diet.  If we travel off the rez to shop, the savings in food costs must justify the gas used at a cost of perhaps $3.75 per gallon — in a car that definitely doesn’t get good gas mileage!

Another negative — we can’t carpool to the off-rez market.  I asked someone about that once and she laughed.  When you are shopping for a month for 6 people, there is no room in the car for extra families and their groceries too.  So you can’t defray the cost of the travel by car pooling.

All of the markets, Sioux Nation and off-rez alike, stay open very late on the day that Food Stamp benefits are placed in the EBT accounts.  But I am told that whichever you shop at, you need to shop early if you hope to get what you want.  Since everyone gets their benefits on the same day, nearly everyone shops on the same day.  Stores run out of staples, I’m told.  They can’t restock shelves quickly enough, if at all.  It sounds like a good way to make shopping even more stressful than it already is, especially on a limited budget.  I’m no expert, but it would seem that issuing benefits on a rotating schedule alphabetically (e.g., A-G week 1, H-M week 2, etc) would ease that problem.

As an aside, we need to remember that Food Stamps (and WIC, for that matter) covers only what can be eaten.  So food stamps do not cover: cleaning products for the home; personal hygiene products like soap, shampoo, conditioner or toothpaste; feminine hygiene pads or tampons; diapers.

My shopping excursion at Sioux Nation proved that prices on the rez are definitely higher than in off-rez stores.

All of this explains why I get so many calls from families who are running out or have run out of food for the month.  This is especially true when you recall that my imaginary family had 4 toddlers.  If you changed that to 4 teen or preteen children (especially boys, who have been known to eat you out of house and home as they grow), how much faster would you run out of food without the ability to “run to the market for a gallon of milk” whenever you need it.

It also explains why families are very pleased when their sponsors can order them food through the ONE Spirit food program.  The program, working with a South Dakota farmer, provides fresh produce and meat as well as a few other items, delivered to the door.  What a wonderful way for a sponsor to supplement the food the family can afford.  I have heard that ONE Spirit is working on a way to allow families to use their EBT cards to purchase food for themselves (they can already do this with cash, if they have any).  That would be an interesting development.

In the meantime, the choices remain the same:  higher prices locally or lower prices at a distance.

It’s a lot like being between a rock and a hard place.

 

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