Sunday, March 8, 2009

3/9 -- CITY Round 2 at Salem City Council

Be there to support urban chickens! Because hunger is returning to America:
Food bank representatives agree on one thing: the need for their services is spiking in a way none of them can recall. Again and again, they emphasize that lines at food pantries are growing longer, seemingly by the month, and that those in line are younger and often more middle class than ever before.

Families who just months ago didn't even know what a food bank was and would never have considered visiting a food pantry now have far more intimate knowledge of both. Embarrassed to approach institutions that they previously identified with the poor and indigent, many, say food bank officials, are also waiting far too long to seek aid. Other formerly middle class Americans who have never dealt with, or even thought about, food insecurity before simply don't know whom to call or where to turn.

These points echo a December 2008 survey conducted by Feeding America, a national hunger-relief charity. Its network of more than 200 food banks in all 50 states distributes more than two billion pounds of donated groceries annually to 63,000 local charitable agencies. Its survey found that, of 160 food banks, 99.4% of them reported seeing more first-time users in 2008.

For America's food banks this has meant one thing: that they, too, are needier. They need ever more fresh food, non-perishable food, and non-food items like cleaning products and toiletries from wholesalers, retailers, food distributors, corporations, charities, government agencies, local farms, and individual donors. They need ever more storage and freezer space. They need ever more volunteers. They need ever more food that can be made available on appointed distribution days at food pantries. And they need ever more emergency food supplies, available on demand for people who suddenly realize that they are hungry and out of options, possibly for the first time in their lives. . . .
Even as Americans who once might have donated food or money now find themselves in need, people still have the urge to help as best they can. At one West Coast food bank, a representative told me of a man who recently came in with a proposition. He needed six weeks of food assistance while he was putting together the money to travel across country and move back in with his parents. Until then, he suggested, he would work for the food bank to pay his way . . . .
But that communal spirit can only take food banks so far, given the troubling trends on the horizon. According to Valanti, large foundations are reviewing their "decimated portfolios" and trimming donations, leaving organizations like hers wondering what the future will bring. In fact, the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank's subsidiaries are already struggling to obtain needed grants to secure new freezers to store food for the increasing number of nouveau needy. At the same time, she points out, food donations are actually down in her area, while the organization's food purchases have increased by an astonishing 560% in the last two years . . . .
Tens of millions of Americans were already suffering from hunger and food insecurity before the current depression. In fact, in 2006, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated that 35.5 million Americans were "food insecure." Now, however, those numbers are bound to swell, thanks to the growing ranks of America's nouveau needy. "It's the new face of hunger for us. Before we primarily served the low-income population, the working poor, as people call them," says the San Diego Food Bank's Chris Carter. "Now middle class families who were in retail jobs, construction, the real estate industry… are finding themselves in our lines. Some of these people are those who would have donated food to us before, who would never dream they'd be in one of our food lines, and now they need help."

From his conversations with clients at the food bank's distribution sites, Carter sees bleak times ahead, especially for the staggering number of people who have, as a last resort, been maxing out their credit cards. "We've seen the credit crunch on Wall Street and the ripple effect that it's had on more vulnerable industries across the country. I think there's going to be a credit tightening at the consumer level. When that happens we're going to see a huge surge in demand," he said recently. "This is going to get worse before it gets better."

Such prospects will spell trouble in the years ahead. The Federal government is now pouring hundreds of billions of dollars into bailing out broken banks. If hunger and need continue to skyrocket, food banks may be the next banks to break. Who will bail them out?

Uh-oh -- a shoe poised to drop on Salem Center's head

Salem, by the standard of American smallish cities, enjoys an enviable downtown, with its beautiful old buildings preserved and a reasonably lively streetscape at night. It's dead in comparison to some much larger cities, but plenty of others are even more dead than Salem at night.

But it looks as those the retail collapse -- the end of the line for the "shop 'til you drop" mentality and the easy credit whirlwind -- could take out Salem Center's owner. The death of the landlord doesn't kill the tenants, but the tenants, especially the chain department stores are already struggling terribly, which means that Salem might have gaping vacancies in its downtown core within the next couple years.

One of the opportunities/challenges that groups like the Salem Transition Initiative for Relocalization (STIR) will face all over America is how to put dead retail spaces (both freestanding big boxes and downtown stores) to productive use.

As the consumer-driven economy runs aground, it's going to scatter a lot of flotsam and jetsam of empty stores that are peculiarly ill-suited for other uses, at least within the narrow range of thinking typically applied. We think in terms of replacing one failed tenant with a similar competitor, who refaces the building and continues on.

But in the world of tomorrow that's arriving today, the endless square miles of expensively lit and air-conditioned retail space surrounded by even more parking has little chance of success.

First of all, with the number of firms failing, it's going to be hard to find many Retailer B's to go where Retailer A's have failed. Secondly, the costs of operating those structures are already killing retailers now; when the effects of peak oil really kick in the low-margin retailers will likely not survive in anything like their current form.

Thus, people who are attuned to the problem now have a great opportunity: we need to start envisioning ways that former retail spaces can be reused in new ways. Obviously, anything with a big expanse of roof should be considered for rooftop gardens and distributed solar power production. How about housing? Can these spaces be used to house people inexpensively, despite the high ceilings? Is there a way to use these buildings to provide decent shelter?

Salem is likely to face some opportunities along these lines.

Mark this day: NYT Columnist Notices that "Mother Nature doesn't do bailouts"

Until quite recently, folks like Friedman were still all about the earth being "flat" and dreaming of endless growth, with a constantly increasing volume of goods and services winging their way around the world thanks to the wonderfulness of globalization.

But, give him credit, he has not only caught on to the fact that his little fantasy world is impossible, he is willing to rethink and recognize reality [mostly -- though he insists "we must have growth" still) in print before millions of people, which can't be easy.
The Inflection Is Near?

. . . What if the crisis of 2008 represents something much more fundamental than a deep recession? What if it’s telling us that the whole growth model we created over the last 50 years is simply unsustainable economically and ecologically and that 2008 was when we hit the wall — when Mother Nature and the market both said: “No more.”

We have created a system for growth that depended on our building more and more stores to sell more and more stuff made in more and more factories in China, powered by more and more coal that would cause more and more climate change but earn China more and more dollars to buy more and more U.S. T-bills so America would have more and more money to build more and more stores and sell more and more stuff that would employ more and more Chinese ...

We can’t do this anymore.

“We created a way of raising standards of living that we can’t possibly pass on to our children,” said Joe Romm, a physicist and climate expert who writes the indispensable blog We have been getting rich by depleting all our natural stocks — water, hydrocarbons, forests, rivers, fish and arable land — and not by generating renewable flows.

“You can get this burst of wealth that we have created from this rapacious behavior,” added Romm. “But it has to collapse, unless adults stand up and say, ‘This is a Ponzi scheme. We have not generated real wealth, and we are destroying a livable climate ...’ Real wealth is something you can pass on in a way that others can enjoy.”

. . . “Just as a few lonely economists warned us we were living beyond our financial means and overdrawing our financial assets, scientists are warning us that we’re living beyond our ecological means and overdrawing our natural assets,” argues Glenn Prickett, senior vice president at Conservation International. But, he cautioned, as environmentalists have pointed out: “Mother Nature doesn’t do bailouts.”

. . . “We are taking a system operating past its capacity and driving it faster and harder,” he wrote me. “No matter how wonderful the system is, the laws of physics and biology still apply.” We must have growth, but we must grow in a different way. For starters, economies need to transition to the concept of net-zero, whereby buildings, cars, factories and homes are designed not only to generate as much energy as they use but to be infinitely recyclable in as many parts as possible. Let’s grow by creating flows rather than plundering more stocks.