Living with Enough
Each spring for the last four years, Civic Engagement Day has culminated the year-long exploration of a civic engagement theme at Bluffton. "Living with Enough: Responding to Global Poverty" was the 2010-11 theme, infusing activities in classes, student life programming, Forum presentations, religious life services and other venues.
On April 6, this year's Civic Engagement Day, nearly 40 individuals and groups—primarily students—shared presentations pertinent to the poverty theme with the campus community. Following is a sampling of their work.
Central and South Americas provide perspective
A view from Appalachia
The need next door
Ministering at the mission
Can restaurants take a bigger bite out of hunger
Travels in Central and South America have been eye-opening experiences for Christine Amstutz, Haley Keller and Beth Kuntz.
In Nicaragua last fall, Amstutz learned the plight of people affected by a pesticide banned in the United States since 1979. Through food, Keller saw poverty in a new light in Ecuador, and Kuntz experienced the hospitality of the poor both in Mexico and Colombia.
Amstutz, a junior from Cassopolis, Mich., was getting a tour of the Nicaraguan capital, Managua, with other students when they came across a community of people who had set up camp in makeshift tents in a park near a government building. Talking to one of them, she found out the group was protesting—and had been for years—banana-harvesting conditions wrought by the pesticide Nemagon.
Introduced to Nicaragua after it was banned in the U.S., Nemagon has been applied to bananas to protect them from a microscopic worm, improving production. But because it's derived from a chemical that targets the endocrine system, Nemagon has also sickened and killed many Nicaraguans, Amstutz said, quoting the number of dead from the pesticide's effects at more than 2,500.
Ten years ago, the country's National Assembly enacted a law enabling farm workers to sue the food companies that used Nemagon and the chemical companies that provided it. Dole Food Co. and Dow and Shell Chemical companies have been found liable in a Nicaraguan court and ordered to pay $490 million to Nemagon victims, but the companies have challenged the ruling and not paid any damages.
So, years after most banana plantations in the country have ceased to exist, Amstutz said, the people in the park are still seeking compensation, if only for hospital bills they have incurred as victims of the pesticide.
Some of them say the Nicaraguan government has helped them—about half of the site was under construction with government-built concrete-block homes for the people, she noted—but others wonder how helpful the government is actually being in the long run.
"I just feel like these people are given false hope," said Amstutz, who was in Nicaragua as part of a semester abroad for her Spanish major. Most of them just want food and shelter, and are getting by with government aid, she explained, but the multinational corporations still aren't paying and are longtime partners with that same government.
"It just comes down to the power these companies have," Amstutz said. Their liability isn't important to them, she continued, and most consumers don't know, or care, what's happening as long as they keep getting bananas. Eating those bananas supports companies that have hurt people, she said, adding that "these people are in poverty because of the choices we make."
She has written to the chairmen of Dole and Dow, and urges others to do likewise. Some people might say they can't make a difference by themselves, but even sharing information can help create a domino effect, Amstutz said. By raising awareness, added Kuntz, "we can begin to make a difference in one person's life."
In Ecuador last fall for a Bluffton cross-cultural experience, it was food that changed Keller's perspective.
Working with a community ministry through a church in Quito, the capital, she saw the reaction on one trip around the city while distributing food. "It was so amazing to me," she said, recalling homeless residents—sleeping on outside steps and under plastic—who were so grateful for the sandwiches and fruit offered to them. "That really touched me."
For the sophomore from Spencerville, Ohio, "poverty" had meant seeing someone receiving reduced-price lunches at school, the Spanish education major said, admitting she hadn't known what true poverty is.
She got another reminder at a day care center, where some of the children asked for a second sandwich to take home. Realizing it may have been their only wholesome meal of the week, she said "there are people who really know the meaning of living with less."
After transferring to Bluffton in fall 2009, Kuntz, also a Spanish education major, spent last fall at Veracruz University in Xalapa, Mexico. But that wasn't her first experience in Latin America. The previous summer, during two weeks that Kuntz said "changed my life," the junior from Covington, Ohio, was in Colombia with the Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) organization.
Ongoing conflict and human rights violations in Colombia were unnerving, she admitted, noting that the gravity of the commitment to peace in the face of possible danger hit home when she had to sign a liability waiver. But Colombia was her only Spanish-speaking option with CPT, and not only did Kuntz not feel as threatened as she had feared, but she also was enriched by her time with 123 farming families who had been violently forced off their land in 2009 so a palm oil-producing corporation could grow palm trees on it.
"Their lives were overflowing with love and hospitality," she said, recalling their care when she became ill in their remote settlement. She then had a similar experience in Mexico, where she again was welcomed in a foreign land.
"Coming home, it was so important to me to share love and hospitality, too," Kuntz said. "It always strikes me how the people with the least seem to be the most giving."
Coal is still king in West Virginia, Bluffton junior Jennifer Arnold said, but its domination of a "mono-economy" has left poverty in its wake.
Arnold, from Fort Wayne, Ind., saw that firsthand last summer, when she worked in Mennonite Central Committee's Sharing with Appalachian People (SWAP) program in the poorest county in West Virginia, McDowell County, at the state's southern tip. She returned to West Virginia during her spring break in March, helping with an Appalachian community health survey in Coal River, south of Charleston, and is serving with SWAP again this summer.
"SWAP is just there to be with people," said Arnold, noting that while program participants help with housing repairs and other basic needs, their most important task is to get acquainted with residents and listen to their stories while developing "mutually transformational relationships."
Longtime McDowell County residents no doubt have stories to tell. After years of coal mining expansion, its population reached nearly 99,000—one of the highest in the state in 1950—but with increasing mechanization in the mines came decreasing employment, and population. After losing another 19 percent of its residents from 2000-09, the county's 2010 headcount stood at just more than 22,000.
The county's high school graduation rate is about 50 percent, and roughly a third of its people live below the poverty level—about twice the level in Allen County, Ohio, Arnold said. Drawing another comparison, she pointed out that 64 building permits were approved in Allen County in 2008; there were two in McDowell County that year.
Health and safety also remain ongoing concerns in the mining communities, she added. Recalling the April 2010 explosion that killed 29 miners in the Upper Big Branch Mine just north of McDowell County, she said subsequent calls for better mine safety have stalled. Meanwhile, exposure to coal dust continues to contribute to chronic diseases that drive health-care costs higher, she continued. It's estimated that women in coal-mining Appalachia die 15 years younger than other American women, Arnold said, "but that's a hard thing to see when it's your livelihood."
That's been the case for more than a century in West Virginia, the second-largest coal-producing state in the United States, behind only Wyoming. West Virginia still derives 60 percent of its business taxes from the coal industry, which employs about 28,000 in the state, equally divided between underground and above-ground jobs, according to Arnold.
Among the more recent concerns fueled by the industry is blasting of mountaintops for mining purposes. Mountaintop removal contributed to devastating flash floods in McDowell County in 2001 and 2002, she said, explaining that because trees are removed by the blasting as well, there are fewer, or no, leaves left to distribute rainfall that washes away soil.
Like activists who have joined a fight against mountain-top removal, as well as her fellow volunteers in SWAP, Arnold urged her listeners to engage, learn more and open their "ears, hearts and minds" to the conditions in the region.
Megan Hargraves didn't have to travel far with her Bluffton degree in social work to find poverty. As a service coordinator for the Hancock County Family First Council's Help Me Grow program, the 2010 graduate sees examples only minutes away.
In one case "closest to my heart," she said, a family of five in which the father works almost 70 hours a week is thousands of dollars in debt due to the youngest child's multiple medical problems. But the infant's mother says "My God's getting me through this" with the aid of, among others, her mother, who helps watch the other children, Hargraves added.
With the family making weekly trips to doctors in Toledo and Columbus, the Help Me Grow program, through Hargraves' home visits, also assists with gas cards. That's because addressing needs of poor children begins with addressing their parents' needs, the Hartville, Ohio, native maintained.
From there, working with poor families requires growth in "cultural competence," such as realizing that some people don't have vacuum cleaners to keep a clean floor for children to play on, she said. It also entails finding ways to help parents relieve the stress that can manifest itself in so many negative ways with children, and create stress in them as well. "Brain development is affected by stress," noted Hargraves, whose early-intervention program aims to promote wellness and development in families, their at-risk children up to age 3 and in parents-to-be.
That includes, when needed, teaching self-sufficiency—in nutrition, problem solving and awareness of resources, for instance—and, in all cases, teaching parents that they, as their children's main caregivers, are also their first teachers.
"It's called early intervention for a reason," Hargraves said, pointing out the dual goal of successful parents who can teach their children and children who will be successful through school, and beyond.
A classmate's experience interested students in Bluffton's Methods of Biblical Interpretation class in conducting a worship service at the City Mission of Findlay. A child's exuberance helped the students connect with their audience there.
"I had gone to the mission for my Issues in Modern America class and have gone ever since," said Tyler Campbell, a senior from Sylvania, Ohio, who was encouraged by his professor, Jeff Gundy, and has been volunteering at the mission for more than eight months. He and Bluffton junior Joshua Bruner, from Wauseon, Ohio, were hired to fill in when a staff member at the mission is sick or on vacation.
That was the impetus for the class trip to Findlay, where students put on a service for residents of the shelter and repeated it for drop-ins who don't live there full time. The class, taught by Dr. Trevor Bechtel, associate professor of religion, chose the narrative from John 4 of Jesus at the well with the Samaritan woman, and led the groups in two songs, "All who are Thirsty" and "As I Went Down to the River to Pray."
"During the first service I was really nervous so I just hid behind my guitar," said Brent Schroeder, a sophomore from Continental, Ohio. "In between the services, I didn't get up to talk to anyone, either. I didn't want to come off as someone of privilege and, since I was scared I would say the wrong thing, I just didn't say anything at all.
"But during the second service, a little child came up and started looking at my guitar, and he changed the atmosphere," Schroeder added. "Soon after dancing around, he would come back to me and I held down the chords while he strummed the guitar."
After the students had worshipped and shared the Samaritan story, they asked the audience three questions: What do you thirst for? What word sticks out to you? What is the gift of God?
"When we asked what the gift of God was, someone from the audience said, 'There is your answer,' meaning the boy. The child became a figure we could all embrace. In that moment, we mutually embraced the joy and curiosity he provided, allowing us to be in community together," Schroeder said.
All restaurants, by definition, provide a form of hunger reduction. But corporate strategy students at Bluffton looked into how four of the largest restaurant chains in the United States could extend hunger-reduction efforts for people who can't afford to be paying customers.
While certain assumptions were involved, the students figured that allocating a percentage of short-term investment income or operating costs, along with a 1 percent tax credit for the cause at another corporation, could generate a combined $331.4 million to fight hunger in 2012 alone.
Seniors Jordan Childress and Benjamin Ilnicki estimated that Chipotle Mexican Grill and Darden Restaurants Inc.—which includes Red Lobster and Olive Garden, among other chains—could set aside about $662,000 and $369,000, respectively, by earmarking 25 percent of their short-term investment income.
"Partnering with Food Donation Connection—an organization that manages donation programs for food service companies—individual Chipotle restaurants and franchise owners regularly donate refrigerated beans, rice and other unused food to various agencies," said Childress, from Swanton, Ohio.
But that effort doesn't extend to the corporate level, she continued, saying it would be a good fit with "Food with Integrity," a "green" Chipotle initiative in which the company buys all its food from locally owned farms within 250 miles of its more than 1,000 restaurants.
The expanded hunger-reduction strategy would help Chipotle's reputation as a whole, she reasoned, assuming a resulting "reputation gain" in revenue of .1 percent and, based on financial records from 2008-10, annual revenue growth of 14 percent this year and the next two.
While Darden's net sales were down by 1 percent in 2010, its short-term investment income has been increasing since 2008, and Ilnicki expects that to continue through 2013. With those funds on hand, and in an expansion mode—Darden opened 53 restaurants last year, he said—the company has the opportunity to implement a hunger-reduction strategy, according to the Indianapolis native.
He said that "if they allocate 25 percent of that (investment) income, it can start to make a difference," reaching people not reached before and "planting a seed" in the company about the importance of the hunger issue to Darden's business.
Projecting Darden's annual revenue growth through 2013 at 3 percent, Ilnicki added that a more positive image stemming from its altruism would also help maintain its profitability.
In the students' proposal, the lion's share of the money generated for hunger reduction in 2012 would come from McDonald's (about $301 million) and Yum! Brands ($29.4 million). Yum! is the Louisville, Ky.-based parent company of such chains as KFC, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell and Long John Silver's.
The McDonald's money would result from diversion of 2 percent of its annual operating costs. Those costs have been decreasing in recent years, but that "can only go so far," noted Zachary Lauck, a junior who projected in his scenario that they will stabilize next year.
Lauck, from Cridersville, Ohio, pointed out that the corporation owns only about 12 percent of all McDonald's restaurants, and most of those are outside the U.S. Most of the roughly 32,500 McDonald's locations worldwide are owned and operated by franchisees, who pay a 4 percent royalty on sales, plus rent on the company-owned buildings, in return for product development, marketing and other support from the corporation, he explained. The owner-operators, he said, also make charitable contributions in their local communities as part of building relationships.
In addition to giving money to hunger reduction, McDonald's corporation could add restaurants in new locales around the globe, noted Lauck, who assumed corporate revenue growth at 1 percent this year and next.
Yum! Brands is heavily involved with hunger-relief programs now, having donated about $60 million since 2007, said Carter Sprunger, a senior from Berne, Ind. But a 1 percent hunger-reduction tax credit, coupled with yearly revenue growth of 5 percent, would produce another nearly $30 million just in 2012, he said.
The students' goal is to see hunger-reduction strategies in place, regardless of the company, according to Lauck. "We want them to recognize the need and then go out and act upon it," he said. "It could impact a lot of people and help fight hunger worldwide."