Monday, June 29, 2015

Television Gets It Wrong

We have all heard the expression, "perception is reality." The idea behind this trite little snippet declares that whatever we see is true and real. Now, there is some merit to this perspective, but often it leads us to make rash decisions and snap judgements on situations and people without having all the necessary information to render an informed and accurate opinion. Face it... Sometimes we are lazy and it's easier to allow ourselves to just believe what we see or hear instead of what might be true.

Recently, some common stereotypes regarding the homeless were perpetuated on a television show called Rocky Mountain Bounty Hunters. The show centers on bounty hunters based in various locales in Colorado and Montana (Kalispell, actually). I watched an episode a few nights ago and the bounty hunters followed a tip that led them to a homeless camp in Marion. As they foraged through the woods to find the camp, they uncovered traps and fretted about the dangers of their situation. The ideas perpetuated were that homeless people living in these places were criminals and reprobates.

While it is true that some people who remove themselves from society and live in the woods in various camps are dangerous, the majority simply want to be left alone. The perception is homeless people sleep in alley’s on pieces of cardboard, with liquor or wine bottles littered all around them. The reality is if we see something on the television, then it must be true, and this is how television portrays the homeless.

By and large, most homeless people do not sleep in alley’s on cardboard. The perception is the homeless just panhandle and beg for money, annoying everyone passing by. The reality is when day labor jobs are available, the homeless are usually the first in line to get the work available that day. The perception is the homeless are criminals, and going to jail especially during colder months is a vacation for them. The reality is homeless people value their freedom just as much as the next person.

If we are going to treat people with dignity, then we owe it to them to not pass along negative stereotypes we learn from television (which seeks to entertain and not represent reality). The truth is that some people living in camps suffer from different disabilities and are in need of mental health treatment. The reality is we need a system that provides the help these people need.

Perception is overrated and unreliable if we rely solely on what we see and hear.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The Irrelevancy of Motivation

Why do people do good deeds?

I once had a philosophy class that focused on this very fundamental question regarding human nature. The intention of the course was not to reach an ultimate conclusion; instead, it made us examine what we thought about the matter. There were two basic opinions we wrestled with and fought over. It was a polarizing question and prompted some decent discussion so I thought I might revisit the topic just for fun. I suppose this relays my nerdy idea of what constitutes 'fun'.

The crux of the argument rested on the idea revolving around our motivation for helping others. Do we help people for the sake of helping or do we assist those in need because it makes us feel better about ourselves? In essence, is there any such thing as a a selfless act if we derive (any amount of) pleasure from what we've done? There were sound points supporting and critiquing each position and we spent a lot of time thinking about this idea.

The interesting thing about philosophy is it's ability to be either useful or inane. If we apply our energy to seek out problems and then address those issues then we are contributing positively to society. However, if we do nothing more than quibble about abstract ideas and theories without finding solutions, then we do little more than take up valuable space and oxygen. I won't tell you which side of the coin I landed on (because it changes all the time), but what was often left out of the discussion was the actual good deed. Fair enough, it was a class.

But since I work in the sphere of social services, I want to focus on the actuality of how many people are out there, in the Valley, doing good deeds. There are thousands of people in need in Flathead County who are either homeless, living below the poverty level, or just a step or two removed from becoming homeless. A few years ago I would have spent more time dissecting a person's motivation for helping than being appreciative of the help provided by that person.

Ultimately, to those in need, it matters little about why someone helps. If a person donates to a worthy cause because they feel homelessness is a communal issue that affects the while of society... Great! If another person brings a bag of groceries to the shelter or a trunk of clothes because it makes them happy... Awesome! It matters not why people help, only that people DO help. Whether it's obligation, guilt, responsibility, joy, benevolence, or empathy... People help for all manner of reasons. Our job is not to judge the motivation, but to be thankful for the act.

This is totally backwards in context to what we discussed in my class and I would have received a failing grade for what I just typed. Fortunately, we can adapt these ideas and postulations to life outside the halls of higher education. Every day we rely on donations and contributions from people just like you. We are thankful and appreciative and will never question why you help us.

We just humbly ask that you keep doing it!

Monday, June 22, 2015

One Step At a Time

I have a confession: I hate running.

Sports have always been enjoyable to me, but I need to keep score and compete so I can win against someone else. Running is a battle that pits me against me, so I get bored. Also, and this is most likely the real reason I don't like it... I get tired. My wife, however, is training for a marathon and I think that it amazing. I can't fathom running more than 26 miles.

Watching her commit to a strict training regiment made me think about exercise for the homeless or those at risk of homelessness. Over the years, I've met many people who try to stay in good shape in spite of being homeless. Here is one man's story and the positive results it yielded. My thanks to the Washington Post's health and science editor for passing this on.

Three years ago, when Tyrone Duncan was jobless, recovering from a spinal injury and a stint in a homeless shelter, some volunteers at his transitional housing site encouraged him to run with them as they trained for a race.

“I didn’t manage more than a block at a time back then, but I kept at it and they kept at it with me,” Duncan recalls.

Now Duncan, 53, is the fastest member of that running group, and he credits the regimen of training for helping him stay off drugs and alcohol. He also has a full-time job at a Giant grocery store, a position he says he got not only because of his newfound discipline but also because members of that same group helped him write a resume and learn the skills necessary for his work.

So it’s no surprise when Duncan says running turned his life around. He is far from the only person in sneakers to make that claim. A growing number of national organizations are using the sport to help kids and adults facing such challenges as homelessness, drugs and cancer. They have a variety of names — Back on My Feet, Achilles International, Alex’s Lemonade Stand, Run to Recover — but all have turned to running for the psychological and physiological benefits that training for a race can bring.

Any exercise, when done with enough vigor and for long enough, helps reduce stress and fuels the brain with chemicals that create a sense of well-being even after the sweating is done, says Michael Lehman, a researcher at the Laboratory of Cellular and Molecular Research at the National Institutes of Health. But few activities are as inexpensive and easy to do as running.

The link between exercise and better mental health has been well documented. A 2007 study of people with major depression in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine, for example, found that the effects of exercise were comparable to those of antidepressants. When the researchers followed up with the study participants a year later, they found that keeping up with exercise helped prevent relapses. And a 2008 study found that people with anxiety saw their condition ease after a two-week exercise regimen more than a control group that was not enrolled in the workout program.

Its obvious exercise can play a vital role in the physical and mental well-being of anyone, especially those who are struggling in life.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

How We See Things

Project Homeless Connect is over and soon I will compile some interviews to share with you. However, before I get started on that assignment, I wanted to share something with you. Actually, it's a question regarding our different perspectives on life and I owe it all to Dairy Queen.

Recently I was standing in line, patiently awaiting my turn to order. The particular location was not too busy and everyone, customers and employees, seemed happy and content with the world. There was only one person ahead of me and I was in the last throes of deciding what I wanted when the person ordering caught my attention. What happened was nothing earth-shattering or even anything remotely out of place. It was something I'd heard a thousand times but, for whatever reason, had never truly paid attention to until this moment. The person ordered, but it what what he said that got my (overactive) wheels spinning:

"Give me a ... " and he finished his selection. He was not mean or rude and nothing about him carried any appearance of unpleasantness. It was simply what he said that struck a chord. When I order things, I usually say, "May I have a ..." It dawned on me that people might fall into two (with some variances, of course) categories. There are those who expect things and there are those who request things.

I suppose there are countless influences on a person that shape this perspective. Age, economics, sex, beliefs, race, geography... The list could go on forever. And I'm not advocating one position as right and the other wrong; they're just different. Some people are given to make demands while others forge inquiries. It is really a very interesting phenomenon to just relax and listen to others talk. If you pay close enough attention, you can make some initial observations simply from listening.

After ordering and leaving the restaurant, I spent some time wondering whether or not people can change their default-settings. Just because I ask for something in one environment doesn't mean I won't expect things in a different scenario. We are complex and multilayered creatures, after all.

So, thanks to DQ for giving me pause to reflect a little on who I am.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Project Homeless Connect

It happens every year. People's lives from around the Flathead are irrefutably changed in a positive manner as a result of Project Homeless Connect.

A wide variety of services for individuals, families and veterans who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless will be available during Project Homeless Connect. This year, the event will be held at the expo building at the fairgrounds in Kalispell, on Wednesday, June 17th, from 11am to 7 pm.

Guests will be asked to fill out an intake form that will assess their situation, including whether they consider themselves to be homeless or at risk for being homeless (about to be evicted or foreclosed etc.) and whether they have struggled to pay housing costs such as rent, mortgages or utility bills over the past six months. The intake form will help direct people to appropriate services.

Previous services have included:

° Bicycle repair

° Child car seat installation

° Dental exam, cleaning and treatment referrals and hair care

° Employment assistance

° Financial education

° Identification services (Montana driver’s licenses and birth certificates)

° Medical services, including immunizations, hearing test referral, reading glasses and general health information

° Pet services, including vaccinations, basic health checkup, spay/neuter certificate

° Veterans services, including transportation and housing options, medical services, readjustment counseling, advocacy and employment for veterans

° Household items and personal care items, including clothing and accessories, backpacks and sleeping bags and food bags.

For more information, please contact Samaritan House at 257-5801. Thanks!

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

What a Waste

Chances are, a decent percentage of families won't eat everything in their shopping cart, and that food will end up in an landfill along with nearly 35 million tons of perfectly edible food Americans throw away every year.

But one country is looking to change that -- France just made it illegal for grocery stores to throw away edible food.

According to French newspaper Le Monde, officials just passed a bill in the National Assembly requiring food retailers donate edible, unused food to charity or to facilities where it can be broken down and reused as compost or animal feed.

French politician Arash Derambarsh sponsored the bill after he was horrified to see bleach being deliberately poured into supermarket garbages along with edible foods to stop people from rummaging through the trash.

The move by France is being applauded by food and environmental organizations worldwide, and the French politicians are hoping other countries hop on board.

Given that Americans toss out 20-percent more food than we did just 15 years ago, maybe it's time to throw our hat in the ring, and no more food in the trash.

Every year, the United States throws away one-third of all the food it produces — 133 billion pounds of food. And grocery stores are responsible for tossing 10% of that food. But why does this happen? On the surface, it seems absurd to waste food when there are so many people who go hungry every day. Here are some reasons food is thrown away:

1. Overstocked product displays:
Most grocery stores operate under the assumption that customers are more likely to buy produce if it's from a fully stocked display. This assumption leads to overstocking, as well as damage to items on the bottom of those perfectly constructed produce pyramids.

2. Expectation of cosmetic perfection:
Customers have been trained to expect perfect, identically shaped produce. Retailers stock their produce according to that expectation — even if the shape, size, and color have nothing to do with quality.

This preference leads farms to avoid selling the so-called “B” stock to supermarkets. Whatever does make it through the cracks to store floor is taken out of stock.

3. Sell-by dates:
Most consumers have no idea what expiration dates, sell-by dates, use-by dates, or best-by dates mean. Consumers (and many sellers) wrongly assume that food is no longer good after these days. Instead, sell-by dates are guidelines for sellers to indicate peak freshness. Most foods are good long after the sell-by date.

Fearing consumers will either not buy the food or think the stores are carrying old products, most grocery stores pull the items out of stock several days before the sell-by date.

4. Damaged goods, outdated promotional items, and unpopular items:
Often, product packaging gets damaged during shipping, leading supermarkets to toss products even though the food hasn't been compromised. The stores assume, perhaps rightly, that no consumer is going to buy a dented box of cornflakes if a pristine one is right next to it. In addition, items that fail to sell like overstocked holiday foods or unpopular new items are often tossed.

As you may have noticed, not all of these explanations are the grocery stores’ fault. A lot of the problem lies with consumers, whose picky tastes dictate what grocery stores sell. These issues have parallels in consumers' homes. In general, consumers buy too much food, throw it away too quickly, and pay little attention to waste. Food waste on the consumer level is double that of the retail level (90 billion pounds of food versus 42 billion pounds).

A lack of education of both consumers and sellers on food safety and food waste has led to bad habits and wasteful selling practices. A huge percentage of food waste could be mitigated if more Americans were willing to buy bananas with brown spots, or if they understood they can eat yogurt two weeks after its sell-by date.

Wow... Way to go, France.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Not All "H" Words Are the Same

While many people group hunger and homelessness together, the two issues are not as closely related as one might think. A look at the facts show that both hunger and homelessness have distinct causes, and impact different segments of the population.

North America is often regarded as the land of plenty, and yet Hunger is still an issue that affects millions of Americans every year.

1 in 6 Americans live on incomes that put them at risk for hunger.

Over 14 million American children rely on food banks for assistance.
Food insecurity exists in every single county in the United States.

A report from the U.S. Conference of Mayors found that only 11% of those requesting emergency food assistance were homeless.

In 2011, more than 31 million children lived on incomes that qualified them for free or subsidized lunches.

While awareness of hunger peaks during the holiday season, the summer months are the most difficult for food banks as children who receive free lunch at school are home. Here are some of the most common causes

Income Inequality – Unlike other parts of the world, hunger in the United States is often caused by income inequality and poverty. For many food banks, a large majority of their clients have at least one employed person in the household, but after the rent, mortgage and other bills are paid, there is not enough leftover to purchase sufficient meals.

Food Deserts – Food Deserts are areas or neighborhoods where residents do not have access to a grocery store that provides the healthy and affordable foods that are necessary for a healthy diet. These districts are often found in the lower-income areas of cities, where fast food and unhealthy options are the only food items available. While fast food items are commonly perceived as inexpensive, they are actually significantly more expensive than healthy food items that are prepared in the home.

According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, over 610,042 people experience homelessness on any given night in the US.

Chronic homelessness is the term given to individuals that experience long-term or repeated times of homelessness. The chronic homeless are often the public face of the homelessness issue, however they make up only 18% of the entire homeless population according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

About 57,000 or 9% of all homeless persons are veterans.

A survey of 29 cities in the United States found the homeless population to increase by 6% from the previous year.
The same report found that 26% of homeless adults suffered from some form of mental illness.

According to estimates from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, a family with a full-time worker making minimum wage could not afford fair-market rent for a two bedroom apartment anywhere in the US. The lack of affordable housing is one of the biggest factors behind homelessness.

Veterans are a specific demographic when it comes to homelessness, veterans often experience homelessness because of disabilities caused by their experience on the battlefield. Physical injuries, post-traumatic stress and mental suffering are just a few of the wartime after effects that drive the population of homeless veterans.

So, while it is easy to make hunger and homelessness synonymous terms, they are indeed different with individual systemic roots.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

No More Food Tips (Starting Next Week)!

Dispensing information without adding practical suggestions is not helpful. The past two weeks I've spent quite a bit of time writing about obesity and how to combat it. Today I thought it would be nice to provide some tips that can aid our eating habits. Whether you have a toddler or a teen, here are some strategies to improve nutrition and encourage smart eating habits.

Family meals are a comforting ritual for both parents and kids. Children like the predictability of family meals and parents get a chance to catch up with their kids. Kids who take part in regular family meals are also more likely to eat fruits, vegetables, and grains; less likely to snack on unhealthy foods and less likely to smoke, use marijuana, or drink alcohol

Also, family meals are a chance for parents to introduce kids to new foods and to be role models for healthy eating. Teens may turn up their noses at the prospect of a family meal — not surprising because they're busy and want to be more independent. Yet studies find that teens still want their parents' advice and counsel, so use mealtime as a chance to reconnect.

Work fruits and vegetables into the daily routine, aiming for the goal of at least five servings a day. Be sure you serve fruit or vegetables at every meal. Make it easy for kids to choose healthy snacks by keeping fruits and vegetables on hand and ready to eat. Other good snacks include low-fat yogurt, peanut butter and celery, or whole-grain crackers and cheese. Limit fast food and low-nutrient snacks, such as chips and candy. But don't completely ban favorite snacks from your home. Instead, make them "once-in-a-while" foods, so kids don't feel deprived. Limit sugary drinks, such as soda and fruit-flavored drinks. Serve water and low-fat milk instead.

The best way for you to encourage healthy eating is to eat well yourself. Kids will follow the lead of the adults they see every day. By eating fruits and vegetables and not overindulging in the less nutritious stuff, you'll be sending the right message.

Another way to be a good role model is to serve appropriate portions and not overeat. Talk about your feelings of fullness, especially with younger children. You might say, "This is delicious, but I'm full, so I'm going to stop eating." Similarly, parents who are always dieting or complaining about their bodies may foster these same negative feelings in their kids. Try to keep a positive approach about food.

It's easy for food to become a source of conflict. Well-intentioned parents might find themselves bargaining or bribing kids so they eat the healthy food in front of them. A better strategy is to give kids some control, but to also limit the kind of foods available at home. Kids should decide if they're hungry, what they will eat from the foods served, and when they're full. Parents control which foods are available to their kids, both at mealtime and between meals. Here are some guidelines to follow:

Establish a predictable schedule of meals and snacks. It's OK to choose not to eat when both parents and kids know when to expect the next meal or snack.
Don't force kids to clean their plates. Doing so teaches kids to override feelings of fullness. Don't bribe or reward kids with food. Avoid using dessert as the prize for eating the meal. Don't use food as a way of showing love. When you want to show love, give kids a hug, some of your time, or praise.

Most kids will enjoy deciding what to make for dinner. Talk to them about making choices and planning a balanced meal. Some might even want to help shop for ingredients and prepare the meal. At the store, teach kids to check out food labels to begin understanding what to look for. In the kitchen, select age-appropriate tasks so kids can play a part without getting injured or feeling overwhelmed. And at the end of the meal, don't forget to praise the chef.

School lunches can be another learning lesson for kids. More important, if you can get them thinking about what they eat for lunch, you might be able to help them make positive changes. Brainstorm about what kinds of foods they'd like for lunch or go to the grocery store to shop together for healthy, packable foods.

There's another important reason why kids should be involved: It can help prepare them to make good decisions on their own about the foods they want to eat. That's not to say they'll suddenly want a salad instead of french fries, but the mealtime habits you help create now can lead to a lifetime of healthier choices.

Monday, June 1, 2015

(Hopefully) Helpful Eating Tips

There will always be a healthy debate regarding the role genetics plays in obesity. A number of factors contribute to becoming overweight. Genetics, lifestyle habits, or a combination of both may be involved. In some instances, endocrine problems, genetic syndromes, and medications can be associated with excessive weight gain. But lets bracket that discussion for another day and focus on some factors that any kids are forced to deal with, especially in the summer when parents are out of the house.

Much of what we eat is quick and easy — from fat-laden fast food to microwave and prepackaged meals. Daily schedules are so jam-packed that there's little time to prepare healthier meals or to squeeze in some exercise. Portion sizes, in the home and out, have grown greatly. When kids are left to their own devices, healthy meals are rarely made. Microwaves become the defacto culinary weapon of choice.

Plus, now more than ever life is sedentary — kids spend more time playing with electronic devices, from computers to handheld video game systems, than actively playing outside. Television is a major culprit.

Kids younger than 6 spend an average of 2 hours a day in front of a screen, mostly watching TV, DVDs, or videos. Older kids and teens average 4.5 hours a day watching TV, DVDs, or videos. When computer use and video games are included, time spent in front of a screen increases to over 7 hours a day! Kids who watch more than 4 hours a day are more likely to be overweight compared with kids who watch 2 hours or less.

Not surprisingly, TV in the bedroom is also linked to increased likelihood of being overweight. In other words, for many kids, once they get home from school, virtually all of their free time is spent in front of one screen or another.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that kids over 2 years old not spend more than 1-2 hours a day in front of a screen. The AAP also discourages any screen time for children younger than 2 years old.

Many kids don't get enough physical activity. Although physical education (PE) in schools can help kids get up and moving, more and more schools are eliminating PE programs or cutting down the time spent on fitness-building activities. One study showed that gym classes offered third-graders just 25 minutes of vigorous activity each week.

Current guidelines recommend that kids over 2 years old get at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity on most, preferably all, days of the week. Babies and toddlers should be active for 15 minutes every hour (a total of 3 hours for every 12 waking hours) each day.

Don't reward kids for good behavior or try to stop bad behavior with sweets or treats. Come up with other solutions to modify their behavior. Don't maintain a clean-plate policy. Be aware of kids' hunger cues. Even babies who turn away from the bottle or breast send signals that they're full. If kids are satisfied, don't force them to continue eating. Reinforce the idea that they should only eat when they're hungry. Don't talk about "bad foods" or completely eliminate all sweets and favorite snacks from kids' diets. Kids may rebel and overeat these forbidden foods outside the home or sneak them in on their own.

Additional recommendations for kids of all ages:

Birth to age 1: In addition to its many health benefits, breastfeeding may help prevent excessive weight gain. Though the exact mechanism is not known, breastfed babies may be more able to control their own intake and follow their own internal hunger cues.

Ages 1 to 5: Start good habits early. Help shape food preferences by offering a variety of healthy foods. Encourage kids' natural tendency to be active and help them build on developing skills.

Ages 6 to 12: Encourage kids to be physically active every day, whether through an organized sports team or a pick-up game of soccer during recess. Keep your kids active at home, too, through everyday activities like walking and playing in the yard. Let them be more involved in making good food choices, such as packing lunch.

Ages 13 to 18: Teens like fast food, but try to steer them toward healthier choices like grilled chicken sandwiches, salads, and smaller sizes. Teach them how to prepare healthy meals and snacks at home. Encourage teens to be active every day.

All ages: Cut down on TV, computer, and video game time and discourage eating while watching the tube. Serve a variety of healthy foods and eat meals together as often as possible. Encourage kids to have at least five servings of fruits and vegetables a day, limit sugar-sweetened beverages, and eat breakfast every day.

If you eat well, exercise regularly, and incorporate healthy habits into your family's daily life, you're modeling a healthy lifestyle for your kids that will last. Talk to them about the importance of eating well and being active, but make it a family affair that will become second nature for everyone.

Most of all, let your kids know you love them — no matter what their weight — and that you want to help them be happy and healthy.