Zero-Sum Game: Food

September 24, 2010 at 9:24 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments
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All told, we are in a pretty strange situation. Across the country, it seems, people in financial trouble are preparing to elect candidates who want to cut government budgets, thus moving those same supporters into even worse financial situations. Consider, for example, what would have happened if Republicans had succeeded, back in the Dub-ya years, of privatizing Social Security, thus subjecting it to the recent economic downturn. Lots of us would have had to move in with our kids. Well, Republican and Tea-Party candidates are proposing it again.

And now we have food. There’s a bill moving through Congress to increase nutrition for children. Supported by Michele Obama, the bill will make a historic investment in school meal programs,” according to yesterday’s New York Times, by authorizing the Secretary of Agriculture to “establish nutrition standards for foods sold in schools during the school day, including vending machine items. And it would require schools to serve more fruits and vegetables, whole grains and low-fat dairy products.”  A no-brainer, right?

Problem is, the bill pays for part of the program by cutting future food stamp benefits. And, as the Times reports, “currently 41 million people receive food stamps, nearly half of them children. The number of recipients has increased 51 percent since the recession began in December 2007.”

And the average daily benefit is $4.41. Try eating on that for a day or two. Or just call the House switchboard at (202) 224-3121 and tell your Representative to take the money out of the war budget.

The Evils of Religion

September 19, 2010 at 5:15 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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As you’ve no doubt noticed, the battles between progressives and religionists are virtually endless. There’s the scientists vs. the creationists, the atheists vs. the evangelicals, the fundamentalists vs. the humanists, and my own special favorite, the spiritual vs. the religious.

I try, I must admit, to keep my mind focused on more productive conversations, but this is not always easy to do. Consider, for example, Deborah Solomon’s recent interview with Deepak Chopra, the spiritual guru, in the New York Times Magazine. Solomon sets up the polarity by asking Chopra, “How would you define spirituality as opposed to religion?”  But Chopra does not exactly resist her formulation. Spirituality, he tells us, is “self-awareness and awareness of other people’s needs,” while religion is the name the devil gives God’s gift of truth after having organized it.  And they continue: 

Solomon: At least religion is free to worshipers. Isn’t it costly to attend a meditation retreat at the Chopra Center?
Chopra: I hardly break even. It’s very labor-intensive, and insurance does not cover it, although there is some progress. Religions take donations and don’t pay taxes. Look at the wealth of the Vatican!

Let’s ignore here Chopra’s reference to “hardly breaking even,” he of the 887 hardback, paperback, audio, video, Kindle, and translated-into-foreign-language books and other items on Amazon.com and focus instead on the matter of the Vatican not paying taxes.  While I freely admit that the Vatican has serious problems, criticizing it for not paying taxes makes as much sense as criticizing the US government for not paying taxes. The Vatican is a sovereign state. If anything, it should be collecting taxes, though with 800 residents, maybe not…

What Chopra is suggesting, I believe, is that Catholic churches in the United States have great wealth and therefore should pay taxes. So I want to take a few moments to tell you about my extremely wealthy parish here in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, Our Lady of Refuge, at Ocean and Foster.

“Refuge,” as we like to call it, is comprised of three different language communities, Haitian-American, Latino/a-America, and Caribbean-American, as well as several handfuls of white-ethnic and Asian-American Catholics. Three thousand or so of us attend the five Masses on any given weekend.

And what else does our wealthy parish spend its time doing? Well, we have religious education classes for children and adults. This week we commissioned twenty new religious education teachers who will spend their spare time on most Sundays for the rest of  the year telling our black and brown kids that God loves them and that they should make all they can out of their opportunities. For adults there are things like the religion and film course taught last summer by a visiting priest from India, and the free yoga classes he led. On Wednesdays, members of the parish run a food pantry for three or four hundred people. Now that the Bloomberg administration has restored funding for homeless shelters in city churches, we are reinstating that service for local homeless women. To help reduce high levels of obesity and high blood pressure, the parish has also recruited members for a city-sponsored walking club. Next Saturday the Drug Enforcement Administration will set up shop in the rectory so members of the local community– religious, spiritual, and oblivious–can hand in expired prescription medications instead of taking them by accident and poisoning themselves or flushing them down the toilet and poisoning the water supply. Later that same day the parish and a local synagogue are co-sponsoring a square dance for families from both communities.  Several Sundays ago, the pastor of the parish, Father Michael Perry, invited a young man,  Jonathan, to get up and talk about finally joining Narcotics Anonymous and being three months clean. I was deeply moved, as were, presumably, the rest of the young people in the congregation. And when the pastor is not saying Mass or encouraging  former drug-addicts, he’s working with the American Civil Liberties Union and other New York religious leaders on a video defending the rights of all Americans, including Muslims in Manhattan, to religious liberty.

I’m not sure which of theses activities Mr. Chopra wants to tax, or how he imagines they are accumulating “great wealth” for the Catholic church. Refuge parishioners, myself included, do walk proudly up the center aisle to present our offering each week, but I know that this  money goes to support the ministries I’ve just described as well as others improving the lives of Flatbush residents. It may be, as Mr. Chopra argues, that the devil is out organizing things, but he doesn’t seem to be making a lot of headway at Our Lady of Refuge, and religion and spirituality fit together pretty well for us, thank you very much.

Watch Out for that Liquid Soap…

September 4, 2010 at 2:32 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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I’ve gotten involved with Pax Christi New York Metro, the local chapter of Pax Christi, the international Catholic peace association. Can’t go wrong working for peace is how I think about it.

We’re getting ready for the annual New York Metro Pax Christi assembly, on October 16. The theme is water and war, so I’ve been reading up on the world water crisis and its connection with armed conflict. In the process, as I mentioned a while back, I read a truly scary book by a journalist named Gwynne Dyer, Climate Wars, in which he predicts, among other things, a nuclear war between India and Pakistan over the diminishing water in the rivers that run through both of them thanks to the melting of the Himalayan glaciers.

As I’ve been reading around, however, I came across something a little closer to home. Seems that in recent years manufacturers have been putting an antibacterial substance called triclosan into a lot of household products, claiming it kills bacteria better than regular soap does. Trouble is, while research shows that claim isn’t true, triclosan does, in fact, do a lot of harm in other ways, for example, cutting down on human resistance to bacterial infections, poisoning the groundwater, and messing up hormonal balance in humans. You’d think the Food and Drug Administration would have alerted us to this; I guess they’re preoccupied with salmonella.

One group that does offer the public a heads-up on triclosan is Food and Water Watch, an activist organization with a very handy webpage. As a result of reading their material, I discovered that the half-gallon of Dial anti-bacterial liquid soap in my bathroom closet, purchased to fight off swine flu last winter, is full of it, as is the Colgate Total that I was brushing my teeth with three times a day. I even learned from Food and Water Watch that this stuff is so harmful that to dispose of it, I’m supposed to take it to a designated drop-off spot for dangerous chemicals. Zounds.

The Food and Water Watch fact sheet describes the problems with triclosan in more detail, and lists other products that contain it as well; you’ll be surprised by all the common household products that are on the list. Stopping  India and Pakistan from going to war over dwindling water supplies may be beyond our ken, but at least we can stop letting Dial and Colgate poison us.

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