Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Poverty, Charity, and the Web of Life

A friend and I sat out on the back deck in the cool evening breeze two nights ago while our sons played together. She is a very spiritual Catholic, very involved in political and social action. She and her husband had decided this summer that since the birth of their son 11 years ago, they had been doing less for the poor. There had been so much to do for themselves--especially since their son has Asperger Syndrome. She wanted to know if I had suggestions.

Yeah, so I didn't. I managed to mumble a bit and then kind of sputtered out.

Sure, I have my charities that I support. Most are international in focus--microbanks, social change groups, human rights, the environment, Quaker and Mennonite groups. I also support several political advocacy groups, like the Council of Canadians, the National Action Committee on the Status of Women, and Greenpeace: none of these are eligible for charitable tax deduction status anymore, so they don't get tallied up with the charities. I give often to the Green Party, which is eligible for handsome political party tax credits.

But except for some lump-sum donations at Christmas to a few local charities, none of the groups I support is really a poverty action group. Their visions lie elsewhere.

Lately I've been giving to some new groups. Like Avaaz.org. It seems like a funky, international, internet global action group--let's see what they can do. Like Fair Vote Canada, which is canvassing for the Oct. 10 Ontario referendum on proportional representation. And like the Canadian Council of Churches year-long campaign to stop the privatization of water. Sort of things as they come up.

My friend and I ended up talking about the place of poverty in a world of struggle and change. I find I don't think about poverty in terms of poverty, the way I did, say, 20 years ago. I see it now as one element in a broad web. I don't know if tackling poverty will actually tackle poverty. I think it's everything else that's making us poor. Poverty is the effect, not the cause: the symptom, not the disease.

That's not a rationalization: it's more a realization. The solutions to poverty don't lie in poverty: they lie in life itself. And when we are doing what we can to improve life everywhere through countless different ways, we are working toward ending poverty. It's all part of the same thing.

I'ts like the environment. Over the past two years, my husband and I have renovated our house for energy efficiency, gotten rid of the gas-guzzling car, changed all the lightbulbs for fluorescents, and switched our electricity supplier to 100% green electricity (wind and low-impact hydro). Due to better use of our extractor fan and our new ceiling fans, we have had to use our air conditioning only 8 days this summer.

But while all that does have an effect on our ecological footprint, it's only one part of the picture. The environmental picture isn't just how much energy we consume, but also what we buy, what we eat, where it comes from, how it gets here, whether our country is detonating bombs, allowing artificial fertilization crops and deforestation, giving tax breaks to importers, and hauling in immigrants to prevent the population from dropping. In effect, work on social and political action ends up being environmental action.

Recently a British Columbia couple spent a year on the 100-mile diet and wrote a book about their experience. It's currently a best-seller in Canada. For one year, they ate only foods that had been grown within a 2-hour drive of Vancouver. So cinnamon and brown sugar were out. So were tea and coffee. They had to make do with BC produce and meats.

They have said in interviews that what surprised them the most was the variety of foods they ate. When one is restricted to what is available locally, one ends up eating new things, all very healthy and fresh. This is how our pioneer ancestors lived. One also eats only what is in season, which means always eating foods at their best. Currently, the family is still eating about 85% local.

They said they missed lemons.

We too have been trying to live a more sustainable lifestyle by changing the food we eat. For the past three years, we have been eating meats from family farms. We place orders at the market once every two months. We buy local eggs. We purchase our produce from a produce store that brings in locally grown produce and promotes it. These are our food producers.

This summer, we took a bike holiday in Prince Edward County (a half-hour drive) and discovered 19 wineries that we had never heard of. Their wines are not sold in stores. We brought home a afew bottles. Soon we need to go back again to restock. These are our wineries.

There are three cheese factories in the three neighbouring counties. For specialty cheeses, Quebec (slightly outside the 100-mile range, but not too bad) has plenty. We are making an effort to buy all regional cheeses. These are our cheeses.

A part of me struggles with this. I grew up Italian. Good food is cooked with olive oil and sprinkled with real parmiggiano-reggiano cheese or pine nuts. Adriatic cooking contains a lot of fish--something that despite living on the shores of one of the biggest fresh-water lakes in the world, is not available locally due to water pollution. I don't buy food from China, California, or Chile; but I do buy pasta made in Italy (no, the Canadian brands just don't cut it) and ocean-caught fish. So despite buying local, I'm still trying to make it fit with the tastes that I grew up with. Somehow, this part of me has to die in order to live truly close to this area's food.

Regional cuisine develops when we give up on imports and imported thinking and focus on what is at hand.

Yet when I am buying from the farmers and venders I've come to know, and travelling a little here and there to pick up wines and specialty items, I am overcome by a subtle sense of My People. These are My People--not my Italian ancestors, whose culinary idiosyncracies I've inherited. My People and I are part of a web of life. We take from the same land and give back to it.

There is this same sense when one is working on polical change, social change, environmental change, global economic change, or military change. The internet makes it even more intense, because we get to see and hear the voices of My People, far away, doing the same actions as us. The result is almost a tenderness for each other, a global camaraderie. We know that if we pull any one issue in the right direction, it will tug all the connected issues along with it.

I didn't ever give my friend any suggestions. But I think we both left with a sense that what we feel nudged to be doing right now is the right thing to be doing.

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4 Comments:

At 2:13 PM, Blogger earthfreak (Pam) said...

I just read that book recently, quite interesting.

The local co-ops here are doing a "local food challenge" - trying to get folks to eat 80% local, I think it's a great idea, but I haven't actually tried to really pay attention to it. Apparently at least one of them has a breakdown on your receipt, which is cool, I hope they keep it once the challenge is over.

In MN it's particularly hard (esp. if, like me, you don't eat meat) but very do-able in the summer at least. We just started having local apples and cider, which is very exciting!

I have had a dis-ease with "charity" for a while now, at least as adressing things like poverty. I don't want to give money to poor people, I want them not to be poor. So, while I have volunteered when we host homeless families, or at the soup-kitchen (well, each once) and see that as an important stopgap, my interest is in how we change the structure of society so that people aren't poor.

Another big concern of mine is population, and I have to say that some programs really don't take that into account. If you feed a bunch of starving children in a famine stricken area today, that's a great thing, but it also means that all or most of them grow up and have children (where few would have before) in an area no better prepared to carry even the orginal population.

I'm somewhat of a crazy cat lady. I love cats, and mourn the plight of so many of them, but my priority is spay and neuter. Feeding a feral cat that you can't or don't catch and sterilize is not helping cats at all.

So, for me, my anti poverty giving is paying extra for fair trade shade-grown coffee rather than folgers, or other "regular" coffee - every time. It's an anti-poverty and an environmental program that changes the structure, rather than giving handouts without addressing the problem at all.

I grew up 3rd generation Italian too. I haven't eaten fish in 20 years, and the only thing I miss is bagna cauda, from my grandma's piedmonte region. Have you ever had it?

(also, anchovies are supposedly the only sustainable animal product - according to something a friend read somewhere, the best eco-food-policy is to be vegetarian with anchovies, huh)

 
At 3:22 PM, Blogger Nancy A said...

Hi Pam

Minnesota is so much farther north than here. I wonder that you can eat local there at all beyond harvest time. But how great it is to try all the same.

I too have been looking for a population nonprofit to support. Unless our species manages over the next few generations to pull the world's population back to 1 billion, all the environmental programs in the world aren't going to save us. And that includes us in the rich West.

The UN has one population program, reasonably successful. But initiatives like the US refusal to distribute condoms in Africa and the RC Church's refusal to approve birth control slows things down. So does our economic system that is predicated on constant population growth. Sigh.

There is also one US organization that focuses on population (I can't remember the name), but none international or Canadian.

One problem, I'm sure, is that many people think that overpopulation means "over there", so their donations might have a racist motive. Other people might be tempted to use population as an excuse for ignoring disease, famine, war, and disasters (as long as they are all far away). After all, it culls the population all that much faster!

So I think this is why there are so few population organizations.

The only humane solution is through contraception, which is slow, but can halve the population within a generation.

I've never had bagna cauda--that's sort of a Piedmontese fondue, isn't it? My family is from the north, the Adriatic side. So lots of fish, seafood, and greens.

From what I've read, bagna cauda isn't hard to make. It would make a great excuse for a party...

 
At 11:16 AM, Blogger Robin M. said...

I'm looking at local groups that work with poor people for another reason. We just moved to a new town, and at the same time, both my kids went to school all day for the first time. So I have some more free time and fewer local connections. I want to use some of my time to connect to the groups that are already in touch with poor people. I don't have much money to give away (or at least I perceive that we don't have enough) but I can be in some kind of respectful relationship with more local folks.

I live on the central coast of California, and it would be much easier to eat local here. It just costs more time and money to do. But I'm inspired by your example, Nancy. We could do better.

 
At 8:15 AM, Blogger Nancy A said...

Hi Robin

I found it didn't take long to set up buying local. It isn't always a case of going from market stall to market stall. Once we started knowing and actually seeing where the local stuff was, it was easy enough to just go there, instead of to the supermarket.

It's hard getting settled into a new town with young children. I found my best group of friends in a babysitting coop.

 

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