All Are Invited to the Table

Preston Mears grew up in the Episcopal Church, attended a Quaker school, Haverford College and then seminary at the Episcopal Theological School in Cambridge, MA.  He and Laurie, a life long Unitarian, have 3 children and 7 grandchildren.  They have been members of the UUCSS now for 4 years along with their daughter Rachel and her family.  Preston was ordained in 1966 in the Episcopal Church and served in parish work for 8 years before transitioning to social welfare work. He worked on the federal Food Stamp Program (now called SNAP) from 1974 to 1984 as a welfare office supervisor with the New Hampshire Department of Welfare.  He transferred to the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service and served as a field supervisor and then as a senior program analyst until retirement in 2010.  He continues to be active in the field through his involvement in the Prince George’s Food Equity Council.

I chose the title “All Are Invited to the Table” out of my basic Christian belief that the Service of Holy Communion, with its roots in the Jewish Passover meal, makes a powerful affirmation of our belonging together.  It is a literal and metaphoric expression of the seventh Unitarian Universalist principle of our role in the interdependent web of life.  We all have the need to come together, to eat and be nourished: It is a moral imperative that each and every person has a place at the table—no one is too high or too low, too young or too old, too rich or too poor or too different.

People here appreciate and believe that it is a moral imperative, a fundamental right, that all should be fed.  So, I am singing to the choir, and wanting only to offer some insight and encouragement to do what we can where we can and with those we can.  I bring the experience of having found my ministry primarily in working on welfare and food assistance programs dating back to 1974 when the Food Stamp Program was fully implemented in all states.

The moral context in our society is right now and directly impacts how history is selectively seen and informs political decisions being made today.  I want to look at both.

First, the moral context:

Our moral context as a society is terrible.  Say what you want about what you do and don’t believe: Your moral values are what you base important decisions in your life and work and those you support in our larger society.  Our decisions should take into account what is legal: law is a way of providing a structure or framework for us all to function together.  Our decisions should take into account what is ethical: ethics are agreed upon guidelines to help us navigate some of the complexities of our work-a-day world, e.g., medical ethics, education ethics, legal ethics, even ministerial ethics.  But, over arching our laws and our ethics, there must needs be a moral commitment to life that is caring, kind and thoughtful.  But, look about you, listen to the words, the choices and decisions being made.  Far too often, what is around us and drives so many political decisions is materialism.

Put another way, people are what they worship and in our time materialism, or just call it money if you want, is the dominant god.  Regardless of who or what we invoke in our speech, our decisions and choices declare the true object of our worship!  And, let’s be clear, our having money does not necessarily mean we define ourselves by it, especially if we are able to share it with others.  At the same time, not having wealth doesn’t mean we aren’t materialistic and caught up with defining ourselves by the money we don’t have.  A person can be attracted to braggart with money by defining themselves by the money they don’t have.  By contrast, think of people you know because of their personal or artistic or work gifts they share with us—and you have no idea and don’t think of them in terms of the money they have or don’t have!

So what of our times.  There has been an election and what choices have followed?  The Office of President made an agreement on our behalf with the people who were brought into this country as children illegally.  The children kept their part of the agreement but the Office of the President unilaterally made a decision to break the agreement, supposedly on technical, legal grounds—and then proceeds to use them as pawns.  This is morally and ethically abhorrent if ones center is based on care and concern, not materialism.

But something else has been missing again and again. In all the debate, in all the reporting and commentary I have only occasionally seen or heard the language of moral outrage.  I watch and listen to conversations, news reports, journalistic writings and, with some exception, I do not hear ethical concerns raised or voice given to moral outrage.  I am glad to share, however, that I do hear it from some people but they are too few.  More and more and more voices need to be heard.  People whose god is not money had or not had, but the inner value of themselves and all others— and for whom the table should be set.

I do understand that expressing moral judgements and moralistic words are avoided by many of us for fear of being seen as a narrow minded religious bigot.  And, for that reason, I listen for values expressed in other words, in metaphors and images.  But with rare exception, I don’t see or hear people value centered outrage.

Sometime in the days ahead, our nation’s major food assistance program is going to be on the chopping block.  Congressman Paul Ryan in particular but not he alone want to block grant the program to the states.  The explanation, “Local is better than centralized big government.”  And, after those words comes the message, “More efficient and will cost less money.”  Money is the value of importance and not people who are hungry.  You have and will hear the condescending terms, “worthy” or “deserving” poor.  The question is how to cut the budget and not what do people need and how best to meet it.  Can the program be improved and what can be done locally to have it be supportive to people who are us and need a place at the table.

The program has roots going back to World War II when square, serrated stamps, called food stamps, were used, not unlike the gas rationing stamps.  The food stamp program then came back following the Poor People’s Campaign march in 1962 along with USDA surplus food distribution programs.  The programs were ramped up then in 1964 as part of the “War on Poverty.”  The stamps that were put in use were paper coupons, like monopoly money and were still called, “Food Stamps.”  States could choose to participate or simply stick with the surplus food program.  Interestingly, as a Rector of a small New Hampshire congregation, I drove some of our poorer parishioners to the monthly county surplus foods program for canned foods, canned meats, grains and flours and dehydrated milk.  Being poor as a church mouse with three young children, the older parishioners would pass the dehydrated milk to me, “Here, you need this worse than me!”  And we did and I really got very skilled at mixing the dry milk with water and then chilling it overnight.  Otherwise it would be lumpy and our children would say, “Yuck.”  So for me, the government food program, administered by the county was about people I knew and whose circumstances I knew and with whom I worshiped.  And, oh yes, about me and my family given the price of fresh milk!

By 1974, surplus foods had become expensive and congress had decided that all states needed to sign on to the Food Stamp Program in the Nation’s effort to address hunger.  New Hampshire was one of the last states to sign on and I, needing to move on in my ministry, took advantage of the opportunity to become an Assistance Payments Supervisor with the New Hampshire Division of Welfare, in the Salem District Office.  That was me, five eligibility staff and a secretary.  This was New Hampshire.  And, so hands on, at the local level, I became professionally and intimately involved in providing Food Stamp Program Assistance to people and families in need.

Interestingly, in the early going, when people heard where I was working, they would often tell me about, “One of those people” who was lazy or lying or were from Massachusetts.  One person complained to me about an elderly woman, the age I am now, who used her stamps to buy a birthday cake.  I mean, how wasteful is that.  Well, we were in a corner of New Hampshire and I could figure out who the woman was.  She was on a social security and only had a $10 benefit.  She explained, she stashed her food stamps for a couple of months so she could buy her grand child a birthday cake.  Was she, “Not Worthy,” “Not Deserving” poor?

Move ahead a couple of years, we had an economic crash in New Hampshire and the Boston area in 1978.  And, then, when someone heard I worked on the Food Stamp Program, they would tell me how great the program was because someone they knew had been hammered by the crash and the program was a great thing and a real help to their friend’s family.  A problem here is that few of us will want to stand up and identify when we are or were in need because of the pain and maybe feelings of shame.  I witnessed that when I would be involved in community discussions or our New Hampshire town meetings on food and welfare needs and issues.  The first people to speak up were those who wanted to hang on to what they had and to blame “those” people.  If you are or were in need, you were “other.”  The irony to me was that in the room, because of my work, I knew the people who were or had been on assistance.  Very understandably, they, with rare exception, would not stand up and state they were on Food Stamps and risk be categorized as other.  I didn’t blame them.

I speak of a “moral center” and we need to know it within ourselves and in others.  Maybe the Quakers say it best when they speak of there being that of God in every person and describe that metaphorically as “The Inner Light.”  We are to grow it within ourselves and seek it out in others.  And, yes, I know of no one who has lived very long at all that has not needed help at one point or another, myself included.

Moving forward in time, come 1984, our sons David and Daniel were in college and a State of New Hampshire salary was challenging.  I had also been studying part time for my masters degree in Public Administration.  Given my studies in theology and history, I specialized in program analysis and statistics, and I wanted to find new challenges and apply new skills.  So, I looked around for all kinds of work opportunities.  And, one that intrigued me was was a federal supervisory job with the Food and Nutrition Service in a Regional Unit focused on the Food Stamp Program for which I applied and was accepted.

And here is what is interesting about it. At the time the Food Stamp Program went National in 1974, it was heavy and bulky with detailed regulations.  I knew them well having worked with them for 10 years; they challenged my academic skills significantly.  There was more of them than there were for all the public assistance and medical assistance programs combined! What had happened was that people in the Agency understood that and actively sought to bring in people with state agency, hands on experience.  As I got to know people in the agency, I discovered that there were quite a few of us “staties.”

A transformation process was underway to make the program more flexible with room for state adaptation to many aspects of the program, the ability to tie in Food Stamp client certification procedures to state specific programs and computerized recipient management systems.  Benefits were still 100% federally issued food stamp coupons and the authorization of stores to accept coupons were still done by the Food and Nutrition staff.  But, the operation and management of the program was a federal and state partnership.  There can be both/and and not just either/or choices!

A very major dividend was an annual national meeting of key individuals from all states and some of us feds.  Part of meetings were the states sharing challenges and strategies and ways to address old problems with evolving technologies.  A key part was a presentation by the state or states that had a disaster area and how the program was effective.  What worked?  What didn’t?  Every year some part of the country had a disaster and there were things to learn from that experience.  Earthquakes in San Francisco to jammed ice in Winooski River flooding Montpelier, Vermont to Hurricane Andrew in Florida.  The Florida folk seemed to be hit more than most places and the people there contributed so much to the rest of us on what we could do and what we needed to learn how to do better.

This interactive practice enabled all of us together (us feds and the state folk—and, to their credit as well, major food retail stores, to work quickly and effectively to meet Louisiana peoples food needs in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.  I was fortunate to have a role in utilizing data analysis to help make factually based decisions.  Okay, I am a theologian.  I just made sure the right questions were being asked; there were others who did the number crunching to generate useful results.  A later assessment by the General Accounting Office concluded that the federal response was late and disorganized with the exception of the Food Stamp Program and the US Coast Guard.  The Food Stamp Program was effective because of the inter connectedness of the Food and Nutrition Service with the State Agencies. Do you know that we had 240 Food Stamp Households relocated and helped in our DC area?  There was cooperation with other states to help people from Louisiana.  It would seem when things work, there is no one person to give the credit to—just people helping people.  And again, the program and the interconnectivity worked again this list year in the face of our horrible multiple disasters but with a major exception—Puerto Rico.

In the states, recipients who lost part of the month’s worth of food to the disaster, for example, had their accounts refreshed with benefits for the remainder of the month within a day or two.  Emergency certification stations were set up for immediate help with minimal documentation requirements—it can be tough to bring household papers if you are flooded out of your home.  Paper vouchers are allowed to be used by stores that are operating on limited power and without internet connectivity.  The federal dollars are there automatically and people are fed.  Even if people have to leave their home area bunk in with friends and family, their benefits can be used whatever state they find themselves getting shelter.  You have read about Puerto Rico and the disaster response for those people versus people in Texas and Louisiana—and one part of that difference is the simple fact that Puerto Rico is block granted for the Food Stamp Program.

Does a state have the extra dollars to replace lost food in a disaster, fund an upsurge of emergency benefits to families out of work in a recession?  No, they do not.  One thing over the years I have observed since 1974, is that just like there is a disaster someplace or places almost every year, there are also economic upticks and downticks someplace in the country every few years.  Maybe in another year it will be our area and others will be able to help us with their federal dollars.  Some in Congress don’t like this arrangement.

An intriguing idea is also being proposed by some in Congress, and this is not a new idea, that those people who get the benefits—they are now called SNAP benefits—the name was changed from Food Stamp Program to Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program—should only be allowed to buy nutritious food with their benefits.  Sounds good and I do hear well meaning people say it thoughtfully, but the tone and phrasing is that of saying, “If those people, who are not us, are going to get our tax dollars, then they have to use them on only healthy foods.”  Well, interestingly, we don’t have real good studies on this but people on the program don’t shop that very much worse than all the rest of us when it comes to nutrition.  Agency nutrition folk will tell you that we all are not doing well when it comes to nutrition.  My moral sensibility tells me that if both of us, whether it is you or I on assistance, need to improve, then let it be that we both do it.  How far would I get telling a group of Unitarian Universalists they have to get it right…or else?  But, what if I were to provide you some suggestions, some ideas, some incentives?  Maybe?  Most all of us can do better in this arena and so let us have it be that we are all in this together.

Just to drive the point home: Back ground wise, Laurie’s mother and mine grew up on farms.  My mother, especially, was committed to our having home prepared food, the fresher the better.  My standard breakfast growing up was a bowl of slow cooked oatmeal sometimes livened up with some fruit or raisins.  And, it is what we have done for our breakfasts 5 days a week for the past 55 years.  And, guess what, whole oats cooked for 5 minutes is good, affordable and highly nutritious.  A bowl costs us maybe 12 cents compared to 25 cents for a bowl of…whatever.

So, let me show you.  Here is a container of whole oats, not instant oats, not one minute oats but whole oats that takes 5 whole minutes to cook (processing adds to the cost and decreases the nutritional value.  And here is a box of “stuff.”  It is less healthy, less nutritious and more expensive.  Next time you go to the super market, note that a whole isle will be taken up with boxes and boxes of “stuff.”  But look hard, on the bottom shelf, at the end of the row, there you will find oatmeal.  We “people” and not just “those” people have work to do.  We do need positive strategies for all of us.

Ironically, the Food and Nutrition Service had a nutrition education division that was eliminated by the Reagan administration.  The agency fortunately does have nutritionists “salted” through the major program divisions.  French fries with catsup does it, right?  I should add here that being able to define what foods are sufficiently nutritional to qualify for SNAP benefit is very challenging and is resisted by the food retail community as expensive to do.  It does get technical and involved; the industry perspective is not just self serving and needs to be heard.  Interestingly the WIC Program—Women Infants and Children—is restrictive AND it involves a strong, individualized nutrition education component and for a combination of reasons is very effective.  It is a 3 billion dollar program that approaches mothers to be and mothers of young children, not as other, not as objects, but as allies to improve the health of their babies.

Greeting people coming to the table to be fed is a core, fundamental value and it is an expensive one.  Laurie and I spend $300 a month on food.  Double that when a teenage grandson comes to visit.  Bulk agricultural food for emergency centers is counted in terms of ‘tons.”  The Great Recession hits and the program goes up to some 80 billion dollars, about 10% of food purchased in the country.  With the unemployment rate down, the program is also down close to 62 billion dollars.  It is a lot of money and it is helping a lot of people who need help to have a place at the table.

I want to affirm this morning everyone here bringing their voice to whatever conversation, whatever meeting, your people conviction, your moral core, your inner light to the fore.  We are not defined by how much materially we have or don’t have but we sometimes hesitate to use words that might be interpreted as narrow or religiously bigoted.  Find your words and give voice with them.  Listen carefully to the words that are used that seemingly justify treating the DACA young people as “other” or people who are hungry as other.  And, listen to your own voice and share it.  Our society, “we the people,” need your voice.

My closing three words are these:

First, I am thankful for this church because it is place where we come together to share, to deepen our own inner convictions and to nurture that in our children and young people.

Second, I am also thankful for people active in our Racial Justice Task Force for keeping before us important matters.  That had included a gathering this Monday night at All Soul’s UU Church in DC from 7 – 9 PM of the Poor People’s Campaign.  However, that has been postponed—maybe because of all the flu bugs and colds.

Interestingly, the Food Stamp/SNAP program started experimentally with the John F Kennedy Administration, gained traction as part of the 1964 War on Poverty and then major momentum with the Poor People’s Campaign and the 1968 march on Washington; Laurie and drove down from Morristown, NJ to be part of it.  Yes, there were Episcopalians and Unitarians and folk from all walks of life.  Stay tuned.  I believe we have more marching to do!

Third, there is a 60 page report on the USDA website entitled: “Design Issues in USDA’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program: Looking Ahead by Looking Back.”  It was just released this past January.  I have a pdf version of it I can share and also I am, with help, circulating the website link to it.  It is accurate, it is balanced and it is substantive.  You can deepen your own knowledge with it and, how should I say, confuse some people with the facts?  It is not a ideological study put out by some staffers or a skewed think tank “report” such as Congressman Paul Ryan and some staffers rely on.

Thank you for being here, for being people with a moral center helping each other and calling people our people and live caring lives. Our march continues!

The major policy and economic changes that have shaped the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program’s history are reviewed, as well as the factors influencing these changes and their implications. Six major issues that currently face the program are explored.