Food, Bombs and Poverty Policy

By Emily Gray Brosious | Originally published at Gapers Block | Nov. 25, 2013

(Featured photo: Food Not Bombs grocery distribution and mural at United Church of Rogers Park / by Emily Gray Brosious)

As millions of low-income Americans face reduced federal food assistance this winter, the necessary role of grassroots groups working to stem the tide of hunger in Chicago is clearer than ever.

One such organization providing food to Chicagoans-in-need is Food Not Bombs. The group started in Boston in 1980 and has since spread to hundreds of cities across the world. Food Not Bombs has three Chicago-area chapters in Pilsen, Humboldt Park and Rogers Park.

Community activists come together each week with their respective chapters to prepare and serve free meals in public spaces while promoting a platform of non-violent resistance to war and militarism, Dante, an organizer with Pilsen Food Not Bombs, explained in an interview.

“We serve our food, pass out literature and talk with people about wars and other things going on in the political realm,” he said.

The groups get their food donations from local, mom and pop grocers around the city, Dante said. He and other organizers gather Sunday mornings at the Magi Cultural Center in Pilsen to prepare food for that day’s serve at Plaza Tenochtitlan.

“We don’t have degrees in this, but we’re very skilled cooks,” he said. “We mostly do vegetarian and vegan meals.”

Rogers Park Food Not Bombs serves hot meals under the Morse Red Line station every Sunday as well. Following meal service, organizers distribute groceries at the United Church of Rogers Park down the block.

Phillip Robinson, a church liaison who helps coordinate Sunday grocery distribution, said about 80 to 90 people come to the church for groceries on a weekly basis.

Willine Glenn is a low-income Rogers Park resident who is considered too wealthy, by federal standards, to qualify for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits.

“I don’t even bother with it anymore,” she said in an interview at the Rogers Park grocery distribution. “I come here for groceries every Sunday, thankfully.”

There are gaps in state assistance for people in need, Dante said. Groups like Food Not Bombs help to fill some of those gaps by providing food in public spaces, where people can easily access it, he said. He estimates that Pilsen Food Not Bombs serves about 30 people on a regular, weekly basis.

Though that number might grow in coming months. On Nov. 1, Congress allowed a $45 billion federal SNAP spending stimulus to expire. The stimulus was authorized in 2009 to counteract effects of the 2007 economic recession.

SNAP is the largest hunger safety net program in the United States that helps low-income people buy food. The majority of SNAP recipients are children, disabled or elderly.

Feeding America, a national network of food banks, said in a statement that these cuts will result in the loss of nearly 3.4 billion meals for low-income Americans in 2014.

“That is more meals than the entire Feeding America Network of 200 food banks distributed through 61,000 food pantries and soup kitchens in 2013,” they said.

According to the Illinois Department of Human Services, nearly 2 million Illinois residents will be affected by these benefit reductions. Approximately 47 million will be affected nationwide.

SNAP program spending follows economic and poverty trends. This is why the federal government authorized a stimulus to compensate for the 2007 global recession. However, studies show that poverty rates are still relatively high in the U.S. Too high, some say, to merit billions of dollars in SNAP reductions.

The World Bank defines extreme poverty as surviving on less than $2 dollars, per day, per person, every month. A 2012 National Poverty Center study shows the number of households living in extreme poverty in the U.S. has more than doubled within the last 15 years to around 1.65 million, including 3.55 million children.

U.S Census Bureau data shows the nation’s 2013 supplementary poverty rate, which counts federal benefits as income, was 16 percent. This was up from 15 percent in 2012. SNAP kept over 5 million people out of poverty in 2010.

A recent UNICEF study reports the U.S. has nearly the highest rate of child poverty among the world’s 35 wealthiest nations, at 23 percent. The only economically advanced country with a larger rate of child poverty than the U.S. is Romania.

As food stamp budget cuts go into effect, millions of Americans may fall back below the poverty line. Children, who comprise the majority of SNAP beneficiaries, are especially at-risk.

Keith McHenry, a cofounding member of Food Not Bombs, points to a bloated national defense budget as one major economic policy contributing to insufficient social safety net spending in this country.

McHenry has seen the number of homeless and hungry people rise considerably across the country since starting the food distribution organization in 1980, he said in an interview. This rise in poverty has been notably accompanied by a substantial rise in U.S. defense spending, he said.

“Money that would be spent on healthcare, education and many other social services is diverted to the military,” he said. “So, cuts are made in the programs that once kept people from being homeless. We can see a big effort is currently being made take funds from social programs to fund the Pentagon’s programs.”

A report from non-profit news center Common Dreams echoes McHenry’s assertion. House Republicans have been pushing for cuts to social safety net program budgets to avert major cuts in defense spending, it said.

House Republicans say the SNAP cuts are necessary because the program has grown out of control in recent years.

Indiana Republican representative Marlin Stutzman, who led efforts to split food stamp spending from the overall farm subsidy bill, said these SNAP reductions are designed to “Eliminate loopholes, waste, fraud, and abuse, while ensuring those who meet the current income and asset eligibility requirements continue to receive the benefits they need.”

House Democrats disagree, saying these “draconian” cuts will plunge more Americans into poverty.

The House Democratic Budget Committee said the GOP’s 2014 budget proposes drastic cuts to non-defense discretionary spending, including food stamp assistance, while safeguarding a comparable majority of Department of Defense spending.

U.S. defense budgets rose significantly following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. However, defense spending has gone down somewhat in recent years. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, in 2012, military spending dropped from $711 billion to $668 billion, representing the largest decline since 1991.

Still, the United States spends more on defense and military programs than the rest of the world’s top 10 military powers combined. The U.S. outspends China, the world’s second-biggest military power, by about 6-to-1.

Food Not Bombs organizers like McHenry and Dante say that a good portion of that defense budget would be better spent on programs of social uplift.

Until that happens, local Food Not Bombs groups will continue doing their part each week to provide a food safety net for Chicagoans in need.

Commuters Find New Red Line South a Smoother, Quicker Ride

By Emily Brosious and Qudsiya Siddiqui
Originally published at The Red Line Project
Nov. 19, 2013

(Featured photo: Newly reopened CTA Red Line South Branch stop / By Emily Gray Brosious)

The El’s Red Line South Branch construction was different from other Chicago Transit Authority renovation projects. Rail service was completely shut down on May 19th, from Chinatown/Cermak to 95th, for the largest rail construction project in the transit authority’s history. During the five-month closure, crews replaced the entire 10.2 mile track bed and renovated six of the eight stations.

“The reopening has been a lot smoother than the old ride was,” said Deidra Williams, a commuter who takes the Red Line from 95th to get to school in the Loop. “It used to take me about two hours to get to downtown and now I reach downtown within 45 minutes.”

The new rail is much faster without “slow zones” that once troubled the South Branch. New trains can reach speeds of up to 55 miles per hour.

Lenard Richardson, a commuter at 79th Street, rides the Red Line because he doesn’t have a car. A lot of people, including himself, rerouted to the Green Line during the closure, he said. This meant Green Line trains were packed during the Red Line closure, he said.

“I think it’s good that they reopened the Red Line. There was too many people on one El and it scared me,” Richardson said. “I used to think the El was going to fall, so many people were on it.”

Red Line south branch commuters Lenard Richardson and his daughter get around easier since the Red Line reopened. (Photo/Emily Brosioius)
Red Line South commuters Lenard Richardson and his daughter say they get around much easier since the Red Line South branch reopened. (Photo/Emily Brosioius)

The $425 million Red line modernization project finished on schedule. Station and rail renovations provide 80,000 commuters with faster rides that commuters say feel smoother and more comfortable.

Among the station improvements are digital screens at every station platform that notify commuters when trains will be arriving.

Initiatives undertaken by the CTA to install security cameras at the stations have resulted in an improved station environment that El-riders say feels noticeably safer.

Rhondalyn Buchanan works in the Loop and takes the Red Line daily from 79th. She said the new trains are smoother, cleaner, and appear to have less “delinquent behavior.”

“A lot of undesirables are not around anymore because we have more police presence and it’s also just a cleaner atmosphere,” Buchanan said.

Commuters and business owners along the South Branch are relieved with the timely and glitch-free reopening.

The CTA provided free shuttle busses to help commuters reroute during the Red Line closure. Still, some businesses along the South Branch said they lost customers during the construction.

Phil Chen, manager at MingHin Cuisine, said business at his well-established restaurant known for late-night dim sums dropped by 15 to 20 percent during the rail closure.

“Many people use public transportation to get to Chinatown and the closure affected everybody,” said Chen.

He said business has come back a little since the reopening, but not completely.

“I don’t think that most people are informed that the Red Line is open,” Chen said.

CTA InfographicDada Hu owns and manages Oriental Art Imports in Chinatown, which sells decorative statuettes, ornaments, and small gift items. A sign in the doorway reads “store closing” and clearance signs fill the windows.

The economic downturn has been hard on profits, Hu said, and the Red Line South Branch closure was the last nail in his shop’s coffin.

Business hasn’t returned much since the reopening, he said. He doesn’t think the city has done enough to publicize the reopening, particularly for tourists.

“Chinatown is a tourist attraction in many cities, but it doesn’t do more attention here,” Hu said.

Businesses like his need the city to do more to promote tourism to Chicago’s Chinatown, he said.

But Sharyne Moy Tu, associate executive director of Chicago Chinatown Chamber of Commerce, had a different story to tell.

She said the Red Line South Branch closure didn’t hurt local business as much as many feared. People took advantage of the Wendella water taxis and free shuttle bus service to Chinatown, Moy Tu said.

We are pretty much a haven for foodies,” she said. “People come to Chinatown a lot for the restaurants and I think they will come down here no matter which way there is.”

A representative for CTA said that publicizing the re-opening to commuters was a huge component in the success of this project.

“We had extensive government community outreach, engaged with local alderman and communities to keep them informed of the project status,” an official said.

Along with numerous press interviews, the transit authority placed advertisements at key locations, specifically where people catch the shuttle buses, to let residents know about the re-opening, she said.

In an earlier interview with The Red Line project, Stephanie Hart, owner of Brown Sugar Bakery in Bronzeville expressed fears that the closure would go on longer than expected and decrease her business.

The popular neighborhood bakery is off the 79th Street stop. Hart said the closure didn’t hurt her customer base because most of her customers drive.

“The main way that I was affected by the rail closure was by my employees, I worked a lot of shifts,” she said. “Them getting to work, moving around, dropping off children at school, and having to reroute that way with shuttle buses.”

Hart said she was pleased, if somewhat surprised, that the project completed construction on time. Her bakery does the most business during the holiday season and she said it was important that the Red Line reopen before the holiday rush.

“I’m really happy that I don’t have to test the theory that the closure would affect me financially because they’re open before my holiday season,“ she said.

INFOGRAPHIC: Economic Snapshot of New Veterans in Illinois

By Emily Brosious

New veterans returning from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars face a number of economic obstacles when transitioning to back to civilian life.

According to U.S. Department of Defense and Census data, there are around 76,000 new veterans living in Illinois. That number is expected to increase significantly in coming years. Illinois has the fourth highest rate of unemployed new veterans (14 percent) in the United States.

Lindy Carrow of the Social IMPACT Research Center at Heartland Alliance said that just 22 percent of new veterans have bachelors, masters, professional or doctoral degrees. Seven percent of new veterans in Illinois live below the poverty line and 12 percent are low-income, Carrow said.

Carrow said young veterans, ages 20 to 30, female veterans and veterans with disability have disproportionately higher rates of unemployment, low-income employment and poverty in Illinois.

Young veterans have the highest rate of unemployment of all new veterans, with a rate 61 percent higher than veterans in their 30’s and 142 percent higher than those in their 40’s.

Female veterans make up 18 percent of new veterans but account for 23 percent of low-income new veterans in Illinois, Carrow said. Nearly half of female new veterans in Illinois are single parents, twice the rate of their male counterparts, she said.

New Illinois Veterans Infographic economic snapshot Copy Copy Copy Copy

Restore the Fourth Chicago Rally Against Mass Surveillance

October 26, 2013 | Rally Against Mass Surveillance held in Chicago’s Federal Plaza on the anniversary of the signing of the Patriot Act, organized by Restore the Fourth Chicago.

Video by Emily Gray Brosious

Song Credit: Digg CC Mixter- I dunno

Flickr CC Image Credits: Basheer Tome, Boaz Guttman, cliff1066™, Cometstarmoon, D.C.Atty, DonkeyHotey, Electronic_Frontier¬_Foundation, English106, FaceMePLS, Fibonacci Blue, Fort George G. Meade Public Affairs Office, Fredrick Jacobs, Gabitogol, Jared Tarbell, John Seb Barber, Jonathon Narvey, mattwi1s0n, MDGovpics, Mike Licht, Nolifebeforecoffee, Richard O. Barry, Steve Rhodes, Tim Parkinson, Tom Blackwell, Tony Austin, World Can’t Wait

Storify Report: U.S. Drone Strikes Kill Head of Pakistan Taliban

U.S. drone strikes Friday in the North Waziristan region of Pakistan killed five people including Pakistan Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud. Despite reports that Pakistan officials have been cooperating with U.S. drone programs, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif condemned these latest attacks as a violation of sovereignty and territorial rights. Public response to Friday’s drone strikes was mixed. Some were pleased that the U.S. killed Mehsud, who had been on most wanted terrorist lists for his role in a December 2009 suicide bombing that killed seven Americans. Others were upset by this approach to fighting terrorism, warning that drone strikes only create more anti-western extremism. Some are predicting violent retaliation from the Pakistan Taliban for Mehsud’s execution.