Lessons from Food Stamps

Background Information: I was on food assistance during the 10 months I served with AmeriCorps in Denver. Though the assistance was a need, my career change was a choice. I am not prefacing with this because of shame or embarrassment, but because I want you to understand that I cannot relate to or truly understand a person on food assistance without that choice or the guaranteed knowledge that food assistance is only a temporary aid.

I spent this past Sunday morning obsessively checking ESPN on my phone to stay current on the Broncos vs. Patriots game while dismissively picking at free hors d’oeuvres. I was waiting impatiently for my sister to meet me at the Presidio Celebrations Showcase. I was annoyed because:

  1. I was attending this event as a favor for my sister
  2. I was missing the game
  3. She was late. Two hours late.

The Presidio has long been a real estate magnet for the wealthy. The average price per square foot in Presidio Heights is $1,238, 31% higher than the average already overpriced San Francisco. Presidio Celebrations Showcase is a quarterly event held for brides-to-be and event planners that can afford spending a pretty penny to throw events deserving of the Presidio.

I walked in, head buried in my phone silently celebrating a Broncos touchdown within the first few minutes of the game while idly picking at a vegetarian dumpling. I silently judged the overly-healthy tasting sorry excuse for a dumpling and wondered what the heck I was doing there. Within 10 minutes I had finished feigning interest at the cake, photographer, and dance floor booths and tried every dish available at venue #1 (of 7). Sister still wasn’t there so I took a stroll outside.

I walked out to an unobstructed view of the Golden Gate Bridge, blue skies and fresh air after days of rain. Spirits somewhat lifted, I walked along a garden trail that led to dorm-like housing in the back. Two men energetically pushing a cart spilling with fresh vegetables yelled out “Hello there! Beautiful day!” to which I cheerfully yelled back “Where’s the party at?” There was a bench so the three of us sat down and chatted about the weather and the cart of vegetables they were lugging around. They told me that they received free “mature” vegetables weekly from venues and events in the area. Vegetables that would otherwise be sent to the landfill. I commented, “But they look so fresh and good!” “Yeah it’s pretty great,” they responded back and we went on our way. My mind immediately jumped to “How can I get in on that!?” and then realized, “Wait. I don’t have to, anymore.” There are some habits and thoughts you can never grow out of. Once you experience poverty and need, it never leaves you.

I received about $180 a month from Colorado Peak which equates to $45/week or just over $6/day to spend on food. The other day I nonchalantly bought a $90 dress to a gala despite already having an outfit planned for said gala. With a swipe of a card, I had a new outfit. Half a year ago, that swipe would have equated to two weeks of food.

I hate that there is such stigma and shame associated with welfare and assistance. I remember feeling my face burning and must have been bright as a tomato the first time I used my Colorado Peak card. I was convinced that the cashier and every customer were silently judging me. I wanted to jump on top of the check-out belt and scream “I’M IN AMERICORPS. I’M ONLY USING FOOD ASSISTANCE BECAUSE I VOLUNTARILY CHOSE TO DO THIS. I AM WORKING. I’M NOT LAZY, NOT A DRUNKARD, AND I DON’T DO DRUGS.” I felt like I had to explain and apologize even though I hadn’t done anything wrong. Over the months, my shame evolved to a different feeling. When friends from home visited, I would whip out the card and watch their embarrassment; it had become my private joke. Cashiers would ask me — a college-educated Chinese female — why I was on food assistance. Other than the fact that it was a very personal and inappropriate question, I was surprised by how little people in the grocery industry knew about food assistance.

Despite an increase in population, there has been a decrease in food assistance program enrollment in recent years. Officially, the Great Recession was from February 2007 to June 2009. Employment and GDP started picking up in 2011. We assume that when the economy picks up, everything else moves in tandem. Receiving assistance when everyone is a victim in an economic downturn is acceptable, when you are in the minority, it is not. This minority consists of 15% of our neighbors. A far too sizable amount to stay silent.

Media reports the one-off fraudulent cases. Voters are then inspired to pressure their representatives to make assistance even more inaccessible. We imagine good-for-nothings taking advantage of our hard earned tax dollars and by coloring in a bubble, demand that funds be cut, shelters moved further away from jobs, and for all requesting assistance to be drug tested. Media does not report the mother with three jobs, struggling to attend her children’s school events, keep food in the fridge, and help her ailing mother because they cannot afford hospital fees. Until you have filled out hundreds of tax forms for your neighbors because they cannot understand the wording, postponed Disneyland with your children for the seventh year in a row because your car broke down and you cannot afford both, or juggle two children on your lap while taking adult GED classes because you made one mistake at 14, you cannot possibly understand or have a valid opinion.

If you peruse California’s CalFresh website, you’ll find it difficult to navigate. Half the links are broken and the language is not in layman’s terms. After 10 minutes, I still couldn’t figure out the basic requirements for eligibility and gave up. Now before you call this laziness, step into the shoes of someone who does require the assistance. This person is educated but has fallen on hard times. In the past, if they couldn’t figure out something on their own, they would ask a friend. But this is food assistance. This is shameful. This is admitting that you have failed. So instead of asking or trying to navigate something they are ashamed about, they convince themselves that they don’t really need it. That they’ll figure something out. Sadly, this is the typical.

When it comes to aid and volunteering, we give so much credit to those who donate millions to foundations. We attend expensive galas and benefits (guilty!) because we love to dress up, take pretty pictures, and it’s all in the name of doing good. I miss the naive Lynne from a year ago that could attend such events with a carefree heart. Now I see how much time, effort and money went into creating these benefits that raises higher blood alcohol concentrations than awareness. We purchase expensive, organic, fair trade clothing in lieu of re-wearing or repurposing existing clothing. Companies have capitalized on the consumer’s “do good, feel good” mentality and justify exorbitant prices on a small percentage given back to an abstract good.

The past six months transitioning from AmeriCorps and food assistance to a paying job and no assistance have been much more difficult than the reverse. I felt the same feeling of shame a few months ago when an acquaintance derisively joked about checking out a sale at Old Navy. The conversation topic was whether Saks or Neiman Marcus had better holiday sales going on. Though well received by the majority of the audience, the joke reminded me that I didn’t fit in. I sat there, wearing a sweater I had bought just the day previous on sale from Old Navy, feeling heat creep up my neck and face and felt too ashamed to come up with a snarky retort.

It is easier for me to prune back to the necessities and be grateful, than to feel like I honestly deserve more and can justify my actions and spending. I feel a weird sense of affinity with the less fortunate. What have I done to skip through multiple socio-economic levels so easily within the span of a year? Being born to the right family and meeting the right people. None of which I had to necessarily work hard for. Food assistance to me was what volunteering abroad is to a lot of college graduates. We step into poverty as a tourist knowing that at the end of our term, we have many options to return to a life of relative comfort.

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