Friday, March 23, 2012

Loss/Risk ratios, external influences and Food Stamped

I went for a nap today looking forward to wheeling out in the March sunshine, but got up at 10:00 pm. It happens. That doesn’t stop the feeling of frustration. The only way to avoid that feeling is to not emotionally invest. I know that every time I open my heart to hope that the taste of sand in the mouth disappointment could be the outcome. Knowing the pain may happen, will likely happen in advance but in my head doesn’t stop me from looking out the window at the darkness and having the tear track drop my cheekbone which displays no emotion. Where then to lock that ache away and ask about Linda’s walk after work in the sunny eve?

I try to take the beat to lock all of the attempts to go out wheeling, how I struggled to try and get dressed Wednesday for going out, but ended up doing the water-bottle abdomen moan. It all lives in my mind in flashes and then I lock it down and ask how the walk was. It feels a bit like congratulating someone for getting a job or promotion you tried for, except I deeply love the person I am asking. I want them to have had a good time…..just wish it could have been a good time for both of us. And after a couple dozen of those experiences in a few days it gets harder to put my own baggage on the rack and focus only on her.

I miss sunshine. I miss the joy of it,these few days when I can enjoy it, when we both can without me risking overheating.

I think everyone knows this, like the experience of trying a new recipe and have it turn out horrid and unsalvageable. And moments from realizing that being asked, ‘So what’s to eat?’ doesn’t stop you loving the person who asked. The romantic weekend turned bad; the life on a budget big splurge night out which turns a disaster; the medical crud which rears its head when you most want to focus on everyone else; the wrong change back which frustrates more than $1.26 ever should; having your favorite TV show cancelled, or the package you’ve been waiting for arriving damaged – Do we all know that feeling?

One solution is to have low expectations, to openly plan so much for failure that no one wants you on their bowling team. Having good friends, particularly a close friend who can cheer you up, and make you feel special when situations make you feel otherwise: that person who knows when to keep hugging until your smile turns to tears and holds on until the tears turns into that feeling of a blank slate, ready to start again.

In the documentary Food Stamped a couple decide to take the ‘food stamp’ challenge and live on what is given to those on food stamps (quick aside: check to see if you qualify as billions of dollars of Federal Money already allocated is unclaimed, and today it comes as a swipe card you use at the store). Somehow this couple, a tall joking guy and a very serious, list-making, highly organized girl have managed to go through uni, get together, get the documentary ready and yet still not know how much milk or cheese costs much less know when coupons come out, or that different stores have sales.

The girl, Leah, makes a list of every meal because for the two of them they have $50 for food for the week. The footage of them at the store is unintentionally funny because they do almost all their shopping at Whole Foods. Leah’s job is to teach those ON Food Stamps how to eat healthy and balanced diets. She teaches the kids in schools in low income districts and ‘educates’ the parents on how to eat ‘correctly’. It is clear that she has a very fixed idea of how people ‘should’ eat, while her partner, Michael, is easy-going and ends up getting a lot of glares from Leah. For example, one morning he says, ‘how about eggs for breakfast?’

Leah: “You had eggs the last two days!” (with the ‘how could you ask this question?’ overtone)

Michael: “Okay, but…I like eggs.”

He gets ‘the look’

So, watching Leah, in late 20’s, going from her job ‘educating’ a group of 30+ year old parents to the store where she and Michael are shocked, astounded that ground beef is sold for about $2 a pound. First because the weekly restaurant brunch they had for the two of them cost more than they had to spend for the week, but second because the ground beef they get at Whole Foods STARTS at $10 a pound, but is usually $19.95 a lb. Then it turns out that they can’t have any fruit because apples, which are cheap, are on Leah’s ‘Dirty Top 10’ of foods most likely to have pesticides. I end up laughing as she deliberates between a kilo of cheddar cheese OR a couple ounces of ‘organic free-range’ cheese.

What comes through loud and clear as they interview those who run food banks, or food-aid programs is that those with ‘life experience’ have no connection to the programs. Which means that like disability programs, the people who need the help have to meet the values of those who have never experienced living on food stamps much less being hungry. In California the head of the centralized supplier of hundreds of food aid charities refers to those on food stamps in a openly demeaning tone, talking about the ‘food stamp cycle’ of how, getting one payment a month, towards the end of the month often food runs out and the charities have a higher demand. This is referred to as an example of how those on food stamps are unable to budget or be responsible. He displays to Leah the ‘pyramid of sins’ for food donation. Michael wants to know why Rosemary Vinegar is there.

‘Alcohol content’ he is told.

Michael is totally baffled. “So…uh, you think someone is going to drink a bottle of this in desperation?”

The head of the food agency holds up the liter bottle and says, “You drink 25 bottles of this and that would be quite a buzz!!” giving Michael a ‘look’ Products for children with sugar, brand name like Jello pudding packs are all on the ‘sin’ list.

Linda and I have received ‘food supplements’ when we lived in The Tower, and it changed how I gave forever. If there is a two for one coupon on good cereal, or soup, or pasta, or good pasta sauce then cut it out, and have one for us and one for the food bank. With month after month without a name brand of any kind, with no name lima beans, canned squash, canned pumpkin, and no name ‘beans’ made me realize that in the same way countries can be evaluated by how they provide to the poorest and most vulnerable, so can we.

I wrote an article after talking to homeless individuals as well as the local shelters and asked what the greatest need was. The answer was toiletries: tampons, pads, deoderant, toothpaste, new toothbrushes, nice soap, shampoo and conditioner in sizes that are easily carried, and can be used in various locations. So I wrote the article and set up a donation for the largest shelter in town with drop in locations.

There was an immediate ban called. How dare I imply that homeless are dirty, smelly and unwashed? It puzzled me how while dozens donated, hundreds to thousands banned because they didn’t want to accept that someone on the streets or near street living is human. Humans need to wash, need dental health care, need to deal with having a period.

When someone asks how we are doing, I say that Linda is doing an amazing job working 12 hours a day and somehow covering 92% of our budget. And she really does this job, which she never asked for, without grumbling. If she had a complaint, she is frustrated she doesn't do it better. But right now, there is no way to succeed alone. If not for the help and kindness of over a dozen people, I would still have the same toothbrush from three years ago. My hair, due to having an autoimmune disease, needs a particular shampoo, my skin needs moisturizers because I don’t produce sweat or oils to keep the skin healthy. Everything from digesting the food and extracting nutrients to cleaning the straws so the black bacteria which builds up in the mouthpiece to the Brita filters (as I drink almost 4 liters of water a day) are all ‘not in budget.’ Thank you. For helping me get vitamin D, for not drinking water that tastes like I licked the side of a railroad stock car, for having fruits and vegetables, for toilet paper which doesn’t cause bleeding: Thank you!

Meanwhile, in Food Stamped, Michael and Leah were starting to snap at each other. They had discovered ‘free samples’ but only that week during interviews realized that those on food stamps often don’t have cars. And like our move to the UK with a year of Linda and I biking down to Tesco’s and walking the food back: supermarkets and bulk markets are often located miles away. Because the US subsidizes the same crops they did in the depression (corn, peanuts, beets and wheat), while food prices have gone UP almost 20%, junk food prices have gone down almost 10%), sugars like corn syrup, fructose and items like chips, fries, and Twinkies are all subsidized. It is also why McDonald’s IS the one place you can eat out for only a few dollars.

Leah had not bought any of those as they were not ‘whole foods’. Michael had realized that they had not bought any desserts. If Michael was hungry, Leah took it as a criticism of her ‘perfect’ chart, drawn from years of teaching OTHERS about how to live they way they now were trying to. The happy couple of the intro disappeared into arguments about someone (Michael) eating a carrot as a snack, or Leah frustrated because in taking back veg while cooking, hoping to save some food for the fridge, the dinner was ruined…but there was nothing else.

That feeling and situation of having no choice, whether it is the pre-judgmental doctor or just having no extra, be it food to pain control is one is familiar to anyone with a disability or illness as well as those who live at or below the poverty line (those two groups combined are 1 in 3 in North America). From those in Congress who took the ‘food challenge’ to live on food stamps for a week, all reported hunger, fatigue, harder to concentrate, harder to do high level mental tasks.

While hunger, nationally and communally, might be a political condition, the repercussions are felt personally and in relationships. I can attest from years on student budgets: tight budgets make more arguments and it can make small things into big ones, and a situation which was just ‘what was’ into feeling like letting not just me but ‘us’ down. In all areas, community can make a huge difference.

For me, the failure of Respite, despite it taking a day and a half for the hotel to lower the temp in the room and other problems which just added up to a learning curve make me feel personally responsible. I am sorry, to each person who helped, donated, helped pack or participate in failing to have a time that gave me but equally importantly Linda, a true respite.

While it is hard not to let what occurred, and the daily ‘failures’ which are more oft the aspect of the disease, it is particularly difficult not to internalize it, to claim it is as my failure. And when a disease makes dozens of things out of my control every day, I ‘fail’ hundreds of times a week. Particularly when in a small apartment, with limited energy, the failures of yesterday are seen today, reminders are everywhere, making it difficult to distance myself and get a more balanced perspective. But either I keep trying, or I fail to try. The last one might insulate me from the emotions of loss, self-blame and pain but I would have intentionally steered into eternal doldrums, and decided that a safe ‘poor’/’livable outcome was better than fighting for anything more.

Right now, I might be very close to that stable, enjoyable life I have been fighting to obtain for two years, just as Linda, whose hundreds of applications might be one away from the job which is both satisfying but comes with sick days, vacation days, and the fiscal stability which would bring flexibility of solutions. But we won’t know unless we risk.

As for the duo from Food Stamped? They made it to the end of the week and had people over, something else which took extreme stress and planning on such a limited food budget, using ‘lifted’ samples for the cheese, and some dumpster diving, only to find everyone, including closest friends and a relative unable to grasp a) Why anyone would do this and b) what it means to live on food stamps. After several attempts, Leah and Michael’s week was laughed off as a sort of experimental art or radical protest: something likely not meant to be understood and thank goodness they had finished with THAT odd little rebellion.

Leah, who was pulling down some serious dollars ‘educating’ those on food stamps went to get their week assessed by a professional nutritionist working for the State of California. While Leah was worried about proving a person could avoid the label of overweight slacker and stigma that came with food stamps she missed the forest and tree for a branch: Hungry people are willing to sacrifice stereotypes for food (speaking of stereotypes, anglos, or WHITES, not minorities are far and away the number one users of food stamps). While higher, but still low on the number of veg per meal, there was almost no protein but most importantly, while she was almost 700 calories a day below her needs, her partner was losing a pound and a half of weight every two days. And if they had continued it for a month or longer, both would have been at serious health risk.

Will that translate into more of a balance when ‘teaching’ the families on the program? Hopefully. The documentary, was somewhat shallow, but did show what stress of living on food stamps creates. Among other topics lost, it avoided dealing with the increase of costs during winter, as well as the difficulty of fresh fruit and veg year round.

Watching the DVD did however have me reading the annual reports of Whole Foods, a grocery chain based on ‘organic’ and ‘free range’ or even more expensive, ‘grass fed, free range’. This trendy supermarket chain, in the US, Canada and UK weathered the 2008 downturn by eliminating upgrading stores for a year but continuing with all new 15 openings. A supermarket which is loved by the DOW, in an industry that is lucky to get a few pennies in gross profit per lb of meat, whole foods averages a NET profit of 12-15% AFTER all costs, including building and opening a dozen or more new stores each year. Put plainly, the organic and free-range food store chain isn’t passing the profits on to the farmers (though the stock dividends are back on), but have the type of profit, year after year which is unheard of in the food industry, indeed in almost any industry with competition. And as a consumer, you are better off spending a weekend comparison shopping (and charting) the most common items you would want to buy organic, or free range at the local supermarkets. Better to do that and donate the rest to a tax refund charity for those who are on food stamps than pay Whole Foods a massive mark-up simply because it has branded itself, like Body Shop did, as ‘better’.


Linda McClung said...

Thank you for telling us about Food Stamped. I, too, was shocked by the prices she was paying at whole foods, and more importantly that with so little 'money' she would forsake quantity for quality. I think if she were on the program long term, that would soon change.

I totally understand what you described about how the lack of food/financial stress made the couple start arguing. I know when I haven't eaten for a while I can be grouchy, and to be chronically underfed would lead to a lot of discontent. Financial stress - not having the money to buy the groceries - is also quite wearing on an individual or relationship.

I too wanted to say thank you to those who continue to help us out. It is really appreciated.

Oh, and a comment about toiletries. I have had a few people give us toiletries and they say they didn't know whether they should because they are things people don't feel comfortable talking about - especially feminine hygiene products. In both cases they were from women to no longer needed them and didn't want to throw them out. I was happy to receive them and if there were some I wouldn't be using I could always donate them.

I think your experience with the food/toiletries drive really demonstrated how out of touch the 'have' people are with the 'have nots'. When you only have a tiny amount of money, forking out a significant chunk for toilep paper, shampoo, etc is a hardship. I'd rather put the money towards food.

I should probably mention here that we have received a lot of bathroom sets (shampoo, body wash, lotions, etc) and they will keep us going for many, many months. Thanks to those for your generosity.

Your talk of charities really needing toiletries gave me an idea. Perhaps they could use all the empty pill containers for shampoo/conditions to hand out to people. They are small and have tight seals. I always feel guilty when getting rid of them - even throwing them in the recycling seems a waste.

I really like your idea of buying the BOGOF specials and donating the second one to food banks.

Vanessa said...

I sent you some stuff off of the wishlist... Hope you got them. :D

We used to be on foodstamps... I can't tell you how many Ramen I've had to eat. I'm just happy that the nutritional advisor for this county is happy to take advice and always asks for low cost recipies that she can share with others.

JaneB said...

That sounds like a really interesting programme. Food is always a tricky subject for me, for various reasons, but working closely with students I do sometimes see the effects of poverty-related poor food choices - that is time poverty as well as money/resource poverty, I think, but either way, having students express amazement at how much better they feel when, after a week of instant noodles and very cheap pizza/Macdonalds, they take the time to cook something healthy or (more likely!) their visiting girlfriend cooks something, or they go to a family member for a meal with actual vegetables etc. I always tell them that they must remember what they learn - that in 10 years time, when their lives are going well, they need to remember how hard it can be to make 'good choices' when you're tired, stressed and broke, and to be compassionate. The rhetoric of government about idle scroungers and the like is really repugnant... I just hope some of my students DO remember, and become thoughtful citizens not knee-jerk political correctness spouters.

But on the bigger point you were making, the point about how things entirely outside your control going wrong can so easily feel like personal failures, I just wanted to say how much I empathise with the daily battle to love yourself enough to accept that these things happen, and to still hope. You are such a strong person, and your ability to analyse and learn and grow as a person even as your health slides away is so impressive. Thank you for sharing!

Andrea S. said...

It always amazes me (though probably it shouldn't) how poorly so many people understand what it is really like to live in poverty and how severely that can restrict people's options. I can sort of understand how that disconnect happens--I've been very "privileged" compared to many in having access to not only the food I need but also the food options I merely want. So there are always new nuances about the challenges of poverty that I am learning from the experiences of others. But at least I know enough to know how little I actually know. Enough to realize that people living in poverty deserve to be cut a LOT of slack for the "choices" they make because so many of the "choices" they make are not really choices at all. And it frustrates me to see others be so oblivious to these realities that they can't grasp even this much, that they continue to be so arrogantly confident that poor people are to blame for their own poverty and lack of options.

And all this is WITHOUT accounting for the additional limitations imposed by things like celiac disease (allergies to wheat/gluten) or asthma attacks induced by even tiny amounts of dairy used in the bread you eat, and so forth. When the very cheapest food options available are food options that are literally poison to your body--well, that obviously forces you to go for the not so cheap options. When the cheapest options were already hard enough to afford.

Food stamp allowances should be higher, high enough to allow for your total daily calorie needs while still leaving room to add lots of fresh fruits and vegetables to that. And people with food allergies--especially the ones that impact the cheapest food options--need some kind of accommodations beyond that.

Elizabeth McClung said...

Anyone below the poverty line is eligable for foodstamps, and those with medical for more in foodstamps - I know we would qualify.

I am oft privilaged with food choices but lived years and decades with little to no food choices, the old 'we aren't poor, we just don't have any money' line. Sometimes getting a pizza coupon of $10 for the month WAS the big spending, the big 30 day treat. I used to, when poor and homeless, buy lettace and salad dressing, and eat the whole thing on a plastic bag. I was desperate for greens.

It is hard, when being on food stamps or being below the 'poverty' line (and all those who I know or knew who have been, were also hard, hard workers) is a national stigma, as is being ill or disabled. If there was some way to support people, so that, like the 15-20 years of the american depression, it was just people 'getting by', and that's it, not about good people and the demonized.

Neil said...

I know how you feel about the eotional investment. You say it doesn't hurt, but I know it does. Been there, doing that...

My sister-in-law took a group of low-income moms to a wholesale grocery store to show them how to shop better; the group all had coupons for milk, but when the store manager realized they had the coupons, they were excorted from the store with ONLY the milk. The store - or possibly that one manager - simply didn't want the welfare classes there to clutter up the place.

Our combined income doesn't let us save anything, and sometimes doesn't cover quite all the bills, and we're often short on vegetables. That's showing in our waistlines, and I'm trying to reverse that. But it's a hard row to hoe.

Better days WILL happen. Some day.

Love and zen hugs,