Freeganism, Food Deserts, Free Markets: Where the Invisible Hand Fears to Tread

I help convene a monthly discussion series at the Allentown Brew Works called Beerituality.  Last week, we welcomed guests Cathy Frankenberg and Jon Geeting and wrestled with the topic of food deserts in the urban cores of the Lehigh Valley.  Cathy is a founding organizer of an initiative to establish a food co-op in neighboring Bethlehem, and Jon is a political blogger/journalist with a special interest in the urban transformation happening in Allentown.

As you might imagine, we had a very good time of discussion and participation.  I’ve been vexed by some of the realities we’re encountering on this issue, not the least of which being the problem of food waste in America, even in this awful economy.

Enter Jane Velez-Mitchell from CNN Headline News and a piece exploring “freeganism.”  Freeganism is dumpster diving for still-edible food behind restaurants and grocery stores and cooking those salvaged items for dinner.  For some reason, I’m reminded of Jesus picking wheat on the Sabbath as he walked through a field he didn’t own.  I’m also reminded of the practice we see in the book of Ruth, when grain that fell to the ground during harvest was left for the scavenging needy.  But at least that grain wasn’t thrown in the garbage for no good reason.  At least people who needed it didn’t have to scrounge in dumpsters.

We’d like to think we’re so much more progressive on so many fronts than our ancestors, but on issues of food and shelter, our older traditions have sometimes echo the kind of sustainable ethos that comes with living close to the land and the means of production.

This has everything to do with the problem of food deserts here and now. It has everything to do with how we will respond to the needs of our community.  For more commentary on the free market’s failure to bring healthful food to food deserts, read my recap of last week’s Beerituality gathering.

Cities and Prices (and Hockey), continued.

Friend of the blog Jon Geeting shared my Free Market post from yesterday with some good insights and responses at his blog today.  This is the kind of online discourse I really enjoy: people of good-will engaging each other respectfully across platforms. I encourage you to take part in the conversation at Jon’s blog, but I do want to share a small excerpt from my own response:

It’s fine by me that Rite Aid provides cheaper goods and medicines to Center City residents, and God bless them for it. But on the ground in Allentown, based on conversations I had downtown over the weekend, some civic leaders really are worried that it’s going to be hard to lure and place that kind of store in the near future. They’re not worried the same way about replacing the dollar store (which is also needed). Another question: why isn’t Rite Aid simply moving across the street or up or down a block? Why isn’t the efficiency of the market making it compelling for Rite Aid to stay in the city? And if Rite Aid won’t stay, why should we be confident that Walgreens will come? If the market worked exactly the way we wanted, there’d be no such thing as food deserts, or, in this case, prescription deserts, right?

For me, the immediate issue is also framed by the experiences some folks had at the three “arena open houses” last week.  For months, people have been complaining about the lack of transparency that seems to be guiding the hockey arena project.  Last week, open houses were held in which various stations were set up and the public could talk with city officials, developers, and the owners of the former Philadelphia Phantoms.  One of the problems with this format, well-intended as it might have been, was that there was no chance for real public discussion.  If I’m being cynical, I might suggest a sort of divide and conquer strategy at work.  In any case, the Rite Aid concern came to me from downtown religious and civic leaders following these open houses, and they are worried.  So am I.  I’m not at a point where I feel confident that the market, as such, won’t create a healthcare desert in Center City.

Thank you, Jon, for picking up this discussion!

At Christmas, a Tale of Two School Districts

Roosevelt Community School

A few months ago, I attended my first Community Partner meeting at Roosevelt Community School here in Allentown.  For those of you not familiar with the Community School model or how in works in this region, visit this page at the United Way of the Greater Lehigh Valley.

Because of state budget cuts in education, elementary schools in the Allentown School District (a district and tax base not nearly as well-off as the Parkland School District that borders it) don’t have year-round gym, music, or art programs.  Instead, they get nine weeks of each.  Nine weeks of art.  Nine weeks of music. Nine weeks of gym in a district where over 40 percent of elementary students are either overweight or obese. Keep that in mind.

At Roosevelt,  Allentown Symphony Hall is a civic partner providing free music education five days a week via the El Sistema program for the length of the school year.  While I waited in the hall for my first meeting to start, I heard children talking to each other candidly and without prompting about how excited they were to be able to start El Sistema.  At another ASD elementary school, fliers for after-school fitness clubs paper the walls.  Mentoring programs, art programs, financial planning programs…these are all being organized and run by teachers, parents, volunteers, and, in the case of Roosevelt, a Community Director.

At Roosevelt, supplemental education doesn’t stop with children.  There are classes for parents, too, classes on parenting, financial basics, and English as a second language.  This philosophy is at least two-fold as far as I can tell:  parents with more resources and access help foster a better environment for success at home, and schools that are open to the community become places where parents, despite real or supposed cultural barriers, feel welcome.  That’s essential.

I’m sharing all of this for a few reasons that are related.

  • It’s extremely important.  As our city schools face continued challenges locally and nationally, and as budgets are cut because of the ongoing financial crisis or political maneuvering, I do believe these kinds of models will be an important way forward.
  • As Director of Mission at First Presbyterian in Allentown, I work with volunteers at Roosevelt.  100 percent of Roosevelt students are on free or assisted lunch.  Many don’t have enough socks, proper shoes, or warm winter clothes.  If you want to help with that, regardless of where you live, get in touch with me.
  • A few days ago, a post went up on the Valley610 blog telling people to add the Parkland Educational Foundation to your holiday gift-giving list. Jon Geeting jumped on this with a rather provocative headline.  By and large, Parkland has money.  By and large, gifts to the PEF will serve to maintain and further enhance the district’s profile as top in the region, and will help Parkland students maintain and enhance their already jack-pot experience.  That’s fine.
  • I owe a lot to the education I received in the 80s and 90s as a student in the Parkland School District.  We had a lot of opportunity, and kids there now have even more.  We had a ton of resources, and I can’t even imagine the kinds of resources that abound in each of the district’s schools at all levels in 2011.  In high school, I was Debate Team president and the President of the Class of ’98, and I understand even more now how lucky I was to be where I was and to have had parents, friends, teachers, and administrators who all impacted my life in profound ways.  Parkland has a great tradition, and I hope it continues.
  • But….

Kids in the ASD don’t have socks.  They don’t have winter coats.  They don’t have year-round gym or art or music.  Many can’t afford school lunch.  A few miles away sit schools bustling with opportunity in communities with money.

If you have a few expendable dollars this Christmas, give it to Community Schools like Roosevelt in the Allentown School District.  I like the intention, in some ways, behind the Parkland Educational Foundation’s idea of giving in honor of your favor teacher and so on.  But seriously, why not donate to the ASD in your favorite Parkland teacher’s name?  That’s what I’ll be doing.