by Christina Alexander, Aug 2011
IT IS OFTEN SAID THAT LYNDON B. Johnson’s “War on Poverty” was lost. After all, we still have poverty. Nothing could be further from the truth. Johnson’s poverty programs sought to address poverty in America for the first time. Its goal was to reduce poverty by half. The effort exceeded all expectations. The Community Action program of which Oregon Coast Community Action (ORCCA) is a part is a shining example of that success.
On June 29 ORCCA celebrated the dedication of its new food distribution center and food bank – the first building of its new campus. This agency has come a long, long way from those early Great Society days. But one thing has not changed; ORCCA has never wavered in its mandate and intention to actively address issues of poverty, inequality, and social justice, and it does so by including and empowering those it serves.
It’s a place of nurture, a place of safety, and a place of support in a world that can be uncaring and disconnected from the problems many face, especially during this historical moment. For example, Oregon is one of the states with the highest levels of “food insufficiency” – a euphemism for those who do not receive adequate nutrition on a daily basis. In some of our local schools, over 80% of the students are eligible for free or reduced lunches.
Often people misunderstand the need for such programs as the food bank; after all, rather than giving a person a fish and feeding them for a day, isn’t it better to teach them to fish and feed them for a lifetime, according to the old saying? The answer is yes and no; one must do both. There’s a great quote by Frederick Buechner, “Man does not live by bread alone, but he also does not live long without it.”
So, there are two issues here – compassion and an understanding of human behavior. First, compassion: Huxley said that, “To feel compassion is to feel that we are in some sort and to some extent responsible for the pain that is being inflicted and that we ought to do something about it.” The Germans call it “verstehen,” the closest translation of which is “to have insight into someone else’s experience.” These are often difficult concepts for many of us; isn’t it peoples’ “fault” if they aren’t making it? In reality, there are many, many reasons why people may require assistance at a certain time in their lives, and it often has more to do with historical, medical, and societal situations than with personal failure. In fact, it is often those who work and struggle the hardest who find themselves in need.
The second point is what many of you know as Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs – in other words, it’s pretty hard to “teach a person to fish” when they’re in desperate straits – first you feed them, then you teach them to fish, because only then can they summon the concentration and goal-directed behavior to succeed. Wisely, ORRCA has programs for each contingency.
Food is life – it represents so many things to so many people – from home and mother, to the pleasure of sensory experiences of smell and taste, to memories inextricably associated with certain foods and holidays. For children it is absolute safety and survival – an assurance that all is well and that they are cared for and taken care of.
Now, more than ever, as we are so often told, we are all connected. Our world is a “global village,” but it’s important not to lose sight of the local meaning of interconnectedness; our responsibility to one another in our own community. The dignity and gifts that come from both the giver and receiver are powerful lessons, because none of us ever knows when we may find ourselves in need of respectful and willing help.
ORCCA’s food program, as well as its other programs, helps meet these needs in our community – in doing so it contributes to alleviating suffering, lifting people out of poverty and restoring dignity and respect. The synergy that exists between the agency and clients is a powerful force for change.
As demonstrated by the dedication of its new food bank, ORCCA is moving toward a new capacity for supporting and empowering its clients, and providing a model of compassionate and meaningful effectiveness and success.
This government program works!
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