The answers to our pressing questions are within our communities and it is up to us to step up to galvanize each other and our resources to create solutions that serve us. As communities gather every month to discuss our universal challenges of child care, elder care, housing, transportation, food, nutrition, social isolation and more, we will uncover resources that we never knew were there. A few ideas follow:
The neighborhood diner, a relic squeezed out by chain operations such as Starbucks, McDonalds, Denny’s and others, is missing today. A diner, serving as a community gathering place, would anchor a neighborhood by providing a safe and affordable place to gather, to exchange ideas and to be nourished with food and sociability. The diner of my dreams is a cooperative owned by the employees or the patrons.
I envision a quiet corner or separate room where children could do their homework in the afternoon, tutored by a senior, a teenager or anyone in between. When their parents pick them up after work, they can sit down to an affordable meal say, beans and rice, and go home with homework, dinner and dishes out of the way. This way, their homework is completed while they are alert enough to absorb the material. Also, given the community’s stake in their learning, report card day could be celebrated as a special event.
Cooperatives are member owned, operated and governed. Because a co-op’s purpose is to serve its members, it can operate close to zero profit, if there is sufficient cash flow to cover the operations. Successful cooperatives operate on general business principles, plus the cooperative principles. See Keystone Development Center for more about how they work and the potential they offer.
The food service industry is physically demanding, not well paying and the hours are loooooooonng. Legions of persons have extensive restaurant experience, and cities are littered with shuttered restaurants and good, used equipment. A consortium of co-op restaurants can break the work into manageable parts and can attract and retain higher-caliber employees who have a vested interest in the restaurant’s success. Affiliating with sister restaurants, each could share personnel and equipment, could leverage buying power, and much more. Experienced food service workers number in the thousands, so the pool from which to attract employees is broad and deep.
When taking the bus or an “L” I often talk with young mothers. Several of them have confided that they commute two hours each way, taking their child to day care, going to work and then reversing the process at night. A colleague drove his son over an hour-and-a-half each way with the same scenario, because $350 per month for after-school care was completely out of the question. Because he spent so much time transporting his son, he wasn’t able to work the lucrative overtime hours. His marriage couldn’t take the strain and is headed for divorce court and he lost his job in the economic downturn.
Every neighborhood has reliable, trustworthy people, retired or unemployed, who genuinely like children and would be willing to keep an eye on them. They could possibly teach skills that a child would like to learn such as gardening, cooking, knitting, a musical instrument, singing… One important thing these neighbors and children surely could do is listen to each other. The children could help with chores, run errands, or lift something heavy. Undoubtedly, the child could program the electronics, teach computer skills, and perform other technical wizardry.
The obvious flaw in this arrangement is figuring out who is trustworthy. Anyone who thinks that she or he can protect a child from our sexually provocative culture must be wearing blinders. Sexy ads appear on everything from billboards, such as Bebe clothing and the bionic woman promoting Svenska vodka, to the Yahoo banner using young girls to advertise the personals page.
A more serious concern is child abuse. I don’t have children, so I’m not speaking from first-hand experience, but it seems that the way out of this dilemma is sunlight and frank discussions. Since children pick up on everything, surely they are aware and wary of this potential problem. If a child is informed and communicates with her or his parents, is this adequate inoculation from harm? What about the child who doesn’t have open communication? I don’t know the answer, other than it must be solved at the family and community levels. If we can’t turn to each other for support, and are left only to ourselves, we stay stuck and impoverished. Sunlight and frank discussion can only help.
Many of us have experienced the declining health of aging parents or spouses. We have navigated the confusing territory of assisted-living and nursing-home arrangements, Medicare, and countless other elder-care details. Someone who has faced the situation with their own parents has valuable knowledge to pass on to those who are being initiated into this difficult phase of life. The new initiate would be grateful for a road map into this difficult territory. Much of this advice will be freely given; but it seems logical to think that a good opportunity exists for those with this knowledge to create a lively consulting business. See more about this topic in Community Needs Meet Resources.
I estimate that 90% of the cars in my parking-challenged neighborhood do not move. A car is basically an expensive, rusting liability – an appliance. Obviously, someone pays for its maintenance, including license plates, city sticker, insurance, repairs, depreciation, and parking tickets incurred for forgetting to move it for street cleaning. The owner may hate the expense but find the idea of not having a car daunting. Car-sharing is an obvious solution. For this to work, an arrangement must be agreed upon for maintenance, insurance, and logistics. All parties need to know that they can they can rely on each other and that the car will be completely functional and parked at the appointed place and time.
All over the country, people drive within a wide radius of every metropolitan area. If we were to take advantage of that activity by transporting additional persons, fresh produce, arts/crafts, food stuffs, and other goods, we would increase the flow of goods and people while lessening the wasteful practice of one person per car, driving back and forth, back and forth.
In the Chicago area, the roads to Dubuque, South Bend, Rockford, St. Joseph, Galena, and many points in between are surely well worn. This commuting doesn’t seem to be anything more than a boring obligation, a burden. A database that identifies the commuters, their schedules, and their routes would leverage commuting into a valuable resource. Anyone who needs to get something or someone someplace could log on to a Web site or call a telephone bank to see who is going where and when, and the capacity they have for taking persons or goods with them.
The various social networking sites will facilitate this resource sharing.
Alongside the challenge of housing is the relentless task of feeding ourselves. It is a sad fact of life that one has to go far afield to find nourishing food. Agribusiness and food-processing companies have such a grip on food production and distribution that finding food that is not processed or genetically modified is challenging and, in some neighborhoods, impossible.
“Food desert” describes a community where the only food readily available is processed. A diet of primarily processed food slowly but surely saps health, energy, and intelligence. Millions of Americans hold two or more low-paying jobs just to make ends meet. This lifestyle depletes their energy and robs them of time with their families. It leads to health problems resulting from food choices that are quick and easy but costly and nutritionally bankrupt. Sadly, many people are unaware that processed food mostly looks like food but does not qualify as food that nourishes. Many think of Kraft cheese singles as “cheese” when in fact it is a combination of chemicals that resembles cheese but has scant nutritional value.
I recently tried to shop at a chain-store grocery near DePaul University, in the pricey, well educated Lincoln Park neighborhood of Chicago. It was chock-full of attractively packaged food of every imaginable variety. Every single item, even the produce, was processed and packaged for convenience: an entire grocery store, and not a nutrient in sight! Although Lincoln Park hardly qualifies as a food desert, the grocery store in question was deceptive; in the food deserts located in poor neighborhoods, junk food is not disguised as health food.
By adopting a cooperative model, we can serve co-op members and our communities. One solution may be for neighbors organize to send a few people to a produce market in a van, a few days a week, to purchase produce in bulk. Churches might offer another solution; disadvantaged neighborhoods seem to have a lot of churches, each with a van, and a scarcity of nourishing food. If churches organized to purchase produce in bulk and distribute it or prepare meals, their members could have access to nourishing food at a fraction of the cost to individuals.