Australia: A horrific case study in closing borders

The question of resettling Syrian refugees has been a major talking point in our presidential election. Images of injured and hungry Syrian women and children are combated with questions of our national security that fuel American anxieties about letting them in. Trump has said many a time that the immigrants will undergo “extreme vetting” and that he’s going to be “so tough” on letting them in.

“We have no idea who these people are, where they come from,” Trump said of Syrian refugees during his speech in Phoenix on Wednesday. “I always say, Trojan horse. Watch what’s going to happen, folks. It’s not going to be pretty.”

This kind of rhetoric and the historical images that it evokes taps into the fears of the “others” and the “unknown” that Americans feel towards immigrants, especially those of Arabic-speaking countries. The Trojan Horse, as some may forget, is a myth. It was a story from centuries go that never actually happened. If one were to base the implications of extreme vetting, however, on situations that are actually taking place right now, perhaps the American people would think twice about turning Syrian refugees away. I’m talking about Australia and its use of torture on immigrants.

Yes, torture is an extreme word, one which happens to be perfectly suitable for the measures that Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and head of immigration Michael Pezzullo have taken in ensuring the boats go elsewhere. Their policy thus far has been to capture boats heading to Australia and send those aboard to camps in Nauru or Papua New Guinea indefinitely. Many who are stuck on the island have died or are suffering from medical inattention. Their acts have been listed as violations of the Convention Against Torture. Little of the Australian public is speaking out against this because the discourse is more more centered around how the refugees aren’t there and less around where they’re actually going. The sort of blissful ignorance is almost certainly what’s going to happen if we leave vetting to the hands of Trump or other administrators that do not have the refugee’s best interests at hand.

This thought would be incomplete without my saying that Syrian refugees aren’t the only refugees that we should be talking about, despite the focused rhetoric of the election. As Emily points out in Refugees Aren’t From Syria, a massive amount of refugees are forgotten in countries in Africa, where 17 million are displaced within the African continent. Of course, there must be a line drawn for the sake of America’s capacity for aid. But must that same line be drawn for our recognition and attention paid to crises beyond our shores?


Voting for Trump isn’t always black and white

Many of friends on Facebook have garnered up the guts to publicly denounce friends and family who support Trump as bigots, racists, and women-haters, largely backed by the knowledge that the majority of their circles will choose to hit them with a like or keep their opposing opinions to themselves. This group of silent readership, of course, always excludes an uncle Al or Auntie Helen who will unleash a tone deaf tirade about crooked Hillary, sparking a back and forth that I find myself simultaneously drawn to and repulsed by until I turn off my laptop and go for a walk.

My point is, Trump has said enough remarks about minorities, POWs, women, and immigrants to make the case against bigotry a harder and harder one to crack for his faithful supporters. As a Muslim, a woman, and an ally/friend to many of the groups he targets, I myself have found myself noting Trump supporters in my networks in a mental blacklist of “people I can’t trust with my rights and liberties.”

That was before I watched this Guardian video about McDowell County, West Virginia. McDowell is the poorest country in one of the poorest states, virtually forgotten except for the fact that during the primaries, they surfaced as the county with a higher percentage of people voted for Trump than anywhere else in the U.S. The video shows a grassy, gloomy landscape shrouded in silence and dust. Once a population of 100,000, the country now is home to 18,000, all who suffer from a life expectancy rate par to that of Ethiopia.  In the video, a woman, swinging on her destitute yet charmingly cozy porch, explains that she walks the road in search of aluminum cans, which earn her 45 cents a pound. “It’s not easy,” she says, with more defeat in her voice than complaint.

McDowell was once considered the coal capital of America, before technology and cheaper energy alternatives took work opportunities from miners one by one. In a town where everyone’s father, grandfather, and great grandfather was a coal miner, the residents are no sons and daughters that sit around, waiting for a deus ex machina that didn’t look like it was coming. Until, of course, Donald Trump announced that he was running for president.

“Hillary said, I’m going to put the mines and the miners out of business. That’s a hard one to explain, isn’t it? We’re going to put the miners back to work. We’re going to get the coal mines back open.”

Upon hearing these words, in the midst of their economic tragedy, it’s absolutely no surprise that 5 days later, Trump emerged with 91.5% of the republican primary votes from the county.

For the record, Hillary’s words were taken out of context. Her full quote:

“I’m the only candidate which has a policy about how to ring economic opportunity using clean, renewable energy as the key, into coal country”We’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business.”

Regardless, it’s easy how that could be misinterpreted by a community that has proved itself on being the spearheads of the same industry for decades. Change is frightening. What they are not told is that the platform that Trump feeds them is built on false promises. Needless to say, reintroducing coal as the primary energy source for the U.S. is both environmentally destructive and economically unfeasible. Coal is becoming obsolete, and pretending that the transition is not happening is serving as instant gratification to these families that is soon to be replaced by monumental disappointment.

My big takeaway from this video is that there is so much more to politics than the shocking sound bytes, the scandals, the personal vices of the candidates. For some people, it is a matter of life or death.
“They’ll do anything for a job,” says Sharon in the video. “They’ll do anything to feed their families. “They’re getting tricked, manipulated, and they believe that things are different than they really are.

Yes, the people in the country are overwhelmingly white. This county doesn’t boast the diversity, the color spectrum, the melting pot that the United States boasts in the coasts. They’ve likely not met a Mexican, a Muslim, a POC.

Paw Paw, Sharon’s grandfather, echoes this in a tone deaf yet somehow still endearing explanation. “I voted for that black guy two times. I’m a democrat.”

But in the context of the election (and I struggle to say this) I don’t think it matters. Ignorance is not their driving force of voting for a president that has the capability to harm many groups of people. The people of McDowell county are zoned in on one line, one promise of hope, one they haven’t heard in years.



Improving Nutritional Outcomes in the City of Dreams

Los Angeles: home to the fifteen dollar pressed juice, empire of Kalerribean smoothies, motherland of kombucha. The food culture of the city is certainly cultivated in a way to promote the health and beauty of its residents who strive to set the standards of health and beauty. But beneath the facade of the City of Dreams lies a nightmare for the 1.2 million Angelenos living in food insecurity (LA public Health Report). In Los Angeles County, approximately 17% of residents are food insecure, with seniors and children in particular being most at risk. In fact, a study found that out of all cities in the United States, Los Angeles has the largest population of food-insecure children, with a whopping one in four children unable to find enough to eat (Goldberg). The problem is exacerbated in the low income neighborhoods in South LA and East LA, where the lack of fresh produce and dense concentration of fast food chains has deemed both regions as food deserts and food swamps (Warshawsky). While hunger and malnutrition would be considered troubling social issues on their own, research finds strong links between food insecurity and countless other afflictions, including increased odds of hospitalization among children, greater prevalence of depression and suicidal thoughts among adolescents, and increased levels of stress and depression in women. Furthermore, people with limited money that are forced to choose between purchasing food or medicine may suffer exacerbated effects of their existing medical conditions (LA health report). This epidemic is a rumble in Los Angeles’ belly that it can not afford to ignore. Nevertheless, the government is trying its best to turn the other cheek.

Efforts to ameliorate the food gap in Los Angeles have largely been taken up by civil society organizations (CSO’s) that gain funding through donors, faith groups, and grants. However, considering the public officials Los Angeles County tout their commitment to welfare and their “many programs to protect, maintain and improve the health and mental health of its residents,” (LA County Website)  it certainly could put in some overtime. In areas like urban planning and education, two spaces in which the government has space to affect change, the city of Los Angeles has greatly dropped the ball in its efforts to fulfill the basic health needs of its citizens. The numbers of hungry residents have risen to such devastating amounts that it is impossible for the city not to acknowledge that not enough is being done. To what extent, then, are existing government efforts affecting or ameliorating the food insecurity crisis in Los Angeles, and why does it persist? Through investigation of current initiatives and an assessment of each’s impact, I have found that the persistence of hunger and malnutrition is largely due to the government’s framing of the issue as a simplistic problem with simplistic solutions, its failure to address the underlying mindset perpetuating LA’s food culture, and its neglect of acknowledging a peripheral yet powerful byproduct of this food culture— monumental food waste.

For the purpose of consistency, food security will henceforth be defined under the terms of The American Institute of Nutrition, as “access by all people at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life.” This includes not only the requisite of nutritious, safe foods on shelves nearby to these people, but also means to acquire them in socially acceptable ways. This terminology, I suppose, clearly draws a distinction between living near dumpsters of high end vegan markets and living in a place where such products are financially feasible. Furthermore, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) classifies these food insecure households as either coping with “low food security” or “very low food security,” which distinguishes between “diets with reduced quality, variety, or desirability” and “diets with disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake,” respectively (LA Public Health Report).

To begin with, the city Los Angeles faults by constructing simplistic policy to address food security, a highly complex byproduct of the social, racial, and economic makeup of the city. For several years, Los Angeles’ efforts in promoting better nutritional outcomes for its residents have been limited to opening more grocers and supermarkets with a produce section in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods. On the surface, this would seem like the sensible solution to combating food insecurity. After all, if food security is defined as safe and socially acceptable access to nutritional foods, putting them in an aisle seems like the easy, breezy antidote. On the contrary, a study conducted by RAND Corporation revealed that there was virtually no link between the type of food and drinks that Los Angeles County adults consume and the proximity of fast-food outlets, grocery stores and convenience stores to their homes, and adjusting these variables actually bore no increase of food security for its residents. This, upon further thought, proves more logical than the formerly held belief. For one thing, putting a Whole Foods in the center of Downtown Los Angeles and hoping that it enables healthy shopping is just as ineffective as putting a SoulCycle on Skid Row and expecting a slew of enthused bikers lining at the door. Lining streets with amenities of a different class is the flawed logic of believing gentrification benefits everyone. Replacing existing food supplies with upscale, expensive fruits and vegetables, conversely, may push more consumers into big fast food establishments that are more affordable and familiar than the introduced foods. Richard Sturm, the RAND researcher that spearheaded the study, submits that the food environment is not that important to the fate of a city’s food security, especially in a highly mobile society such as Los Angeles, where the city is spread out and people travel great lengths every day (RAND). Additionally, the plan failed to realize that such supermarkets offer unhealthy, processed foods and snacks in equal abundance. RAND researcher Strum showed that the cheaper, high caloric foods like chips and instant noodles, were more heavily marketed and thus more in line with consumer knowledge. In another example of misguided well intent, Los Angeles rolled out an ordinance in 2007 that prohibited new fast food chains from opening in the city of Los Angeles. Strangely, a study published in 2015 found that from 2007 to 2012, the percentage of people who were overweight or obese increased everywhere in L.A., but the increase was significantly greater in areas covered by the fast-food ordinance (RAND). The reason for this uptick is unclear, but one fact remains true: attaining food security and promoting health are complicated steps with no easy solution. Other programs that focus on actually providing free nutritional meals to needing families are proven more effective at providing food security, but exacerbate a system of unsustainable dependence. The LA Regional Food Bank, which works with 680 local agencies to feed 280,000 people in Los Angeles each month, is undoubtedly impactful in their efforts to ameliorate hunger. However, despite having the facilities and the volunteers willing to distribute food, the LA Regional Food Bank reports that 41% of its partner agencies reported not having enough food to meet the demand and 43% reported turning people away because they ran out of food (LA Public Health.) In another example, the Summer Meals program offers meals during the summer for students ages 18 and under who depend on the reduced price or free lunches offered during the school year to secure a balanced meal in their daily diet. Efforts like these, though immeasurably impactful, depend heavily on donations that can’t be promised with each coming year. Generally speaking, with initiatives like the Food Bank and Summer Meals, one sees that government programs are geared to flail at the branches of food insecurity, while none are constructed to identify the source at the root.

This root, this fundamental issue that keeps stomachs empty even if shelves are full, is the issue of education. The truth is, 12 percent of the food insecure people in Los Angeles are living above the poverty line, according to Feeding America (Goldberg). This speaks to two findings. First, the cost of living in Los Angeles is unmaintainable for many residents, even those making enough to pass over the line. Secondly, and more importantly, it shows that it would be naive to say that the lack of nutritious foods in diets is strictly a financial issue. Sure, LACHS results indicate that food insecurity increases as household income decreases. Sure, food insecurity is a greater issue among populations that are unemployed. Sure, food insecurity disproportionally impacts African American adults, a demographic with a longstanding history of being socioeconomically disadvantaged in the United States. On the other hand, a look at the data also reveals a prevalence in food insecurity among those who are not U.S. citizens and those with less than a high school education (LA Public Health).

Let’s look at those separately. Firstly, food insecurity among non-U.S. citizens hints at nutritional outcomes being tied to cultural barriers. A family from an ethnicity and a culture tied closely to its food may be predisposed against the introduction to five servings of fruits and vegetables a day that may be atypical in their traditional diet. As an Egyptian who was raised on heavy plates (and seconds, and thirds…) of buttery meats, rice, and bread, the taste I have developed for acai bowls and sugar snap peas since I moved to California continues to raise the eyebrows of my family back in the motherland. Secondly, the prevalence in food insecurity among those with lower degrees in schooling may indicate that malnutrition is, at its core, an education issue. The point of origin in this problem can be seen in the poor eating habits that are seen in children in low income parts of Los Angeles. Two in five children in the county are categorized as being an unhealthy weight, which is often a result of eating an unhealthy breakfast or skipping it altogether. The obesity epidemic produces a snowball effect for a myriad of other problems, including higher school absenteeism, poorer academic performance, increased disciplinary problems, lower graduation rates and poorer health (Business Wire). In an effort to enforce a healthy start, school districts around the county introduced the free and reduced School Breakfast Program, which provides every eligible student with USDA approved breakfast and lunches. Despite this fact, 742,000 low-income children across Los Angeles County do not participate. As a consequence, school districts in Los Angeles County miss out on more than $174 million of federal and state funding each year (Business Wire). This tremendous opt out rate could be one of several reasons. Parents may not think it is imperative for their child to eat a nutritious breakfast before class. Also, a group that investigated this disparity found that many children miss out on breakfast because it is served too early in the day for them to capitalize on the meal. Such an obstacle is more difficult for children of parents who work or do not have the means to accommodate around the meals. Finally, the same group found that children feel too ashamed to admit in front of their classmates that they need the free meal. The kids that leave the food untouched, then, leave school districts in Los Angeles County ineligible for more than $174 million of federal and state funding each year (Goldberg). Ultimately, all these facts point to the larger issue at hand — that misinformation, stigma, and cultural differences all feed into a broken food culture that makes it hard for progressive food reform to stick. Current government effort to offer nutritional information as food for thought are grossly misguided and out of touch with the demographic at hand. To make it easier to measure household food waste and overall health statistics of consumption, Roe and other researchers are developing a smartphone app with Louisiana State University’s Pennington Biomedical Research Center (Ramkumar). With this app, the researchers hope that food insecure residents of Los Angeles can educate themselves on the caloric intake and disposal that happens under their roofs. Such an attempt to keep the information accessible yet trendy is seemingly blind to the possibility that low income residents below the poverty line would not have an iPhone or Android at hand.

Even in places in Los Angeles where people are able to access vegetables, most are left being pushed around on peoples plates before being dumped into the landfills. Out of the 2.9 million tons of waste Los Angeles feeds to landfill sites, 28% is comprised food waste. That is 815,000 pounds of scraps of food, much of which is edible and fresh days after it is thrown away (warshawsky). The sites of food waste are aplenty and start from the minute farmers plant seeds into the ground. Due to overestimated supermarket demand, farmers feel pressured to produce tons more produce than is actually ultimately harvest, in order to protect against potential damages of unforeseen circumstances that prevent them from reaching the quotas of their clients. In this stage, the loss is classified as “food losses and spoilage.” The scene of food waste happens in the shelves of supermarkets and cabinets. Researches from the firm SSRS looked into this point of food loss, and found that in a simple of consumers, almost 70 percent threw items away once the package date on the foods expired, in the interest of protecting themselves from food borne illness. This would be well and good if the labels on milk, meats, and vegetables were tested and certified. In actuality, a closer look revealed that package dates are largely arbitrary and determined by some eyeballing on the supermarket end. It makes perfect sense as to why a grocer would overshoot the date the food goes sour, of course: the sooner the foods expire, the sooner Angelenos throw out the “decaying” goods and come back to buy another batch. Almost 60 percent said food waste is necessary to ensure that meals are fresh and flavorful (Bloomberg).

The current structure limits Los Angeles’ ability to implement changes, but leaves much room for the local government to step in. (Warshawsky). In its place, CSOs have implemented many programs that attempt to redirect surplus produce to hungry mouths through food banks and redistribution channels, like the program Food Forward. The fundamental obstacles with these plans, however, is that CSOs can not be certain of their financial support long term. The instability of their funds and operations thus compromise their mission and exacerbates their need for government support. The mass disposal of foods is also largely due to what is commonly called the “Wild West” system of Los Angeles waste governance, in which the government leaves food waste services in the hands of private waste companies that operate on a property by property basis. This inefficiency leaves the potential of recycling, composting, and environmental cautiousness by the wayside without oversight of involvement of public services. Additionally, the state of California does the landfill sites no favors with unfathomable laws to distinguish between trash and non-trash produce. According to Alex Helou, “If you have an apple that falls from your garden, you can put it in the green bin. If you eat an apple, the state considers that a food scrap and you’re not supposed to put it in.” Fruit fallen in a backyard is considered plant material and can be processed at green material composting facilities. The same kind of apple bought at an Albertson’s, however, is considered food material and can be processed only at facilities permitted to accept food material. Fortunately, LA County has taken the first steps in implementing a new model in which food waste recycling is a mandatory condition if the private companies want to continue operating (Washawsky). In another attempt, they’ve taken a stab at a curbside food waste pilot program since 2008. Unfortunately, this bore few solid results, with food diversion rates as low as 1-5%. In the sample of all residents familiar with the program, chosen participation is low “due to lack or interest or knowledge in food waste separation, inadequate city incentives or enforcement and lack of permitted facilities to process food waste.” Here, it is once more revealed that throwing money at a problem does nothing without changing the culture surrounding food waste and environmentalism. There is no reason a low income family should feel motivated to sort through trash and decomposing food when it’s framed at an extra task for the vague feel-good benefit of saving the planet.

As aforementioned, none of these programs can ensure success without a makeover of the ideational constructs that surround healthy food — and their expiration dates. Rescuing produce and overcoming paranoia of food borne illness require the ability of a person to look at a fruit or a vegetable and seeing it as not only a foodstuff that is edible, but also one that is nutritious and integral to a healthy lifestyle.

In the interest of painting a balanced picture of the fight against food insecurity, there are several notable projects implemented by Los Angeles County that have been successful at enacting change, as well as some I would suggest for continued progress. To begin, the Market Match program, born in 2009, works to double the benefits for EBT card holders in farmers markets. In other words, those eligible for the program receive a note that offers 10 dollars of credit for every 10 dollars spend on produce in the farmer’s market. The project has been adopted across the region— in fact, 39% of farmers’ markets in Los Angeles County accepted EBT in 2013. With a new grant from the Department of Agriculture,  it is estimated that $1 million in fresh produce will be added to the shopping bags of Southern California’s low-income families over the next two years under this program. In the interest of the 12% of food insecure people that exist over the poverty line, perhaps the benefits of the upcoming rise of minimum wage to $15 by 2020 could help ameliorate food insecurity.  A higher minimum wage per household would enable more consumers to afford more fresh fruits and vegetables and cover the cost of living.

Additionally, the government must identify solutions from the grocer end. As mentioned before, there are private market incentives to shortening the lifespan of fresh produce. However, as well as legal incentives but the public sphere has recognized the environmental detriment that it produces in the form of food waste. In May of this year, Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat, and Representative Chellie Pingree, a Maine Democrat, introduced a bill to standardize food labels across the country so that the dates offered are informed and accurate (Ramkumar). The implementation of this bill could save millions of pounds of perfectly edible foods from spending their lives decaying in landfills. With a more strategized approach to reshaping food culture and to combating food insecurity, I am confident that the food supply that could be offered to residents can become as bountiful as current attempts to affect sustainable change.


A note from a Muslim with no intel

The minute Martha Raddatz called upon Ms. Gorbah Hamed to ask both candidates a question, I knew we were in for a good one.

“Hi. There are 3.3 million Muslims in the United States, and I’m one of them. You’ve mentioned working with Muslim nations, but with Islamophobia on the rise, how will you help people like me deal with the consequences of being labeled as a threat to the country after the election is over?”

The audience in my living room was made up of seven girls, three Muslims, one immigrant (and I was the one in all three camps). All eyes were locked on Donald, daring him to show his true bright, blazing colors of bigotry once more. The first chunk of the debate was watching a duck and roll performance as Trump managed to turn every directed question about his horrifying, rapey remarks into one about how the Middle East was our main concern. I like to think that everyone watching found that his comments held no water, and that this opening question was one lap in his destructive race to the bottom.

And when it came time to address his stance on Islamophobia, he responded with unsurprising ignorance, but surprising focus on how to address Islamophobia.

“I mean, whether we like it or not, and we could be very politically correct, but whether we like it or not, there is a problem. And we have to be sure that Muslims come in and report when they see something going on. When they see hatred going on, they have to report it… And, you know, there’s always a reason for everything. If they don’t do that, it’s a very difficult situation for our country, because you look at Orlando and you look at San Bernardino and you look at the World Trade Center. Go outside. Look at Paris. Look at that horrible — these are radical Islamic terrorists.”

We looked around at each other in my living room. It seems that the Muslims on my couch have not been doing enough to report activities of ISIS that we’ve observed on the way to the campus center. Our duties as Muslim Americans have been unfulfilled in the fight against terror because we continue to be surprised and horrified when these attacks happen, instead of predicting them before the fact.

Trump’s stunning lack of insight was to be expected, coming from the man who continues to advocate for handing out Muslim ID cards to the 3.3 million Muslims in the States (or did he never say that? He didn’t seem to be sure). What was most disappointing, however, was Hillary’s echo of this ignorance, all the more implicit in its implications:

“First, we’ve had Muslims in America since George Washington. And we’ve had many successful Muslims. We just lost a particular well-known one with Muhammad Ali…. We need American Muslims to be part of our eyes and ears on our front lines. I’ve worked with a lot of different Muslim groups around America. I’ve met with a lot of them, and I’ve heard how important it is for them to feel that they are wanted and included and part of our country, part of our homeland security, and that’s what I want to see.”

On the surface, Hillary’s intentions seem innocent enough — she wants to ensure that Muslim Americans feel included in the country, welcomed into the coalition of Americans against terrorism, not banished under the fear of collusion with ISIS. And that’s all well and good. But this soundbite confirmed my feelings of uncertainty about Clinton’s new on Muslim Americans since her comments form the first presidential debate:

“Donald has consistently insulted Muslims abroad, Muslims at home, when we need to be cooperating with Muslim nations and with the American Muslim community.”

In this start, Hillary separates America into two pieces: a “we” and the “Muslim American community.” She frames her point in a way that implies Muslim Americans are not part of the American community, but an entity of folks that “we” need to cooperate with for the sake of national security. And she continues:

“They’re on the front lines. They can provide information to us that we might not get anywhere else. They need to have close working cooperation with law enforcement in these communities, not be alienated and pushed away as some of Donald’s rhetoric, unfortunately, has led to.”

Certainly, Donald’s rhetoric about branding Muslims upon entry to the states is alienating and harmful. But his rhetoric about insisting Muslims report suspicious activity, one that Clinton echoes in her belief that “they can provide information to us that we might not get anywhere else,” is equally misguided and phobic.

American Muslims do not  have secret intel on the next terrorist attack. Such beliefs are the consequence of media and political rhetoric conflating the term “Islamic” with “Muslim.” Such expectations are what cause Americans to think that Muslims are dangerous, inexplicably linked to hatred and violence. In a sense, Muslim Americans are on the front lines of the coalition against radical terrorism, not because we are armed with the code to crack the crime, but because we are the ones who suffer both from the attacks from the perpetrators and from the subsequent mistrust from the American people. Asking Muslims to be on the front lines to defeat ISIS is like rallying up Mexicans to defeat the cartel. It just doesn’t make any sense.

Ultimately, like any good American would do, American Muslims would be the first to report violence within our community. I can only hope that Trump would respond to such intel in a better manner than what he had panned for Muslims reporting violence against their families and friends after his election: “I am so saddened to hear that. And I say, ‘Stop it.’ If it — if it helps,” Trump said, turning from Stahl to another camera positioned inside his Trump Tower apartment. “I will say this, and I will say right to the cameras: Stop it.” It is likely they may have their own battles to fight, post election.