Very few people are immune to hard times. Over the past few years, I'm sure a lot of you have experienced this or have seen a friend struggle. Unexpected home expenses, family tragedies, taxes, divorces, healthcare bills, working two or three jobs to get by. In my case, it was all of the above in a two-year period. I didn't do anything "wrong," life just happened and things slid out of control. Two things that were dangerously close to the point of no return were my eating habits and cardiovascular health. Despite my great education, love of great food, and geographic access to the best of the best, I was strapped for time and grocery money, eating in the car or at 11pm when I got home from work, and definitely drinking too much. I certainly didn't qualify for welfare (I was in that "makes too much but not enough to pay bills" donut hole, but some days, despite my prestigious workplace, I was just eating junk food because it was all I could afford and a source of cold comfort. Ironically, my main client at the time was focused on the "farm-to-fork" trend and putting healthier foods in workplaces and hospitals (but not mine)! I share this information in order to present a story that ended well, but might not have, if it were not for sisterly love, not being afraid to ask for help, and the healing qualities of fresh, nutrient-dense food.
During this really difficult time, not many people knew how much I was struggling (happy face at work, in public, pragmatron survival mode), but then I got really sick and ended up in the hospital with high blood pressure and heart trouble. The jig was up. My older sister showed up and moved in with me for a little while so we could support each other in privacy. She had recently gone through her own personal tragedy, and was in between teaching jobs. She was temporarily receiving food stamps, and honestly, she was totally unashamed of this. She taught me a lot about how to suck it up, get by, and move on in short order. She's lived in Europe, worked for organic farms before it was fashionable, and lived on budgets that made me cringe from the comfort of my DC condo. We were both very blue and missed the quality of life that we once enjoyed. We didn't miss Whole Foods or bougie restaurants: mainly the flavors, the dignity, and conviviality of sharing a nourishing meal. Taking bites of food that make you sigh and look at each other knowingly. Real food. People everywhere deal with this every day, and it can really strip out a very important part of your soul and health. So we joined forces for a few crazy-making months: I covered housing and she brought in the groceries. Together, we initiated "La Vie Malgret-Tout": THE GOOD LIFE IN SPITE OF IT ALL (and the phrase that inspired this blog).
Food stamps are often a subject of mockery in this country. A sign of the welfare state, fat poor people, abuse of the taxpayer. I learned firsthand that these tools, like unemployment, can help you get by and regain your dignity if you use them strategically and temporarily. Every case is different. I see a lot of people on food stamps buying soda, white flour, chips and cheap breaded meat. Because it's what the lowest-income families can afford and they aren't really informed about what else they can buy with them, or importantly, they don't know how to cook healthier food. And sure, some people are lazy, just like affluent people can also be lazy about their food (our Cheesecake Factory portions and percentage of food thrown in household trash, for starters).
The prevalence of processed food is one of the more tragic symptoms of poverty. A lot of folks have no clue that they can buy fresh produce with their WIC (Women Infant and Children) cards, let alone shop at the local farmer's market. (My dairy now cuts $5 wedges of grass fed cow milk cheese for WIC customers. We started with one or two WIC/food stamp customers and now have a bunch. This has also added to the diversity of shoppers at our local farmers market, now they know that they have access!)
Learn more and see if you or loved ones qualify:
WIC Foods List: http://www.doh.wa.gov/YouandYourFamily/WIC/WICFoods
SNAP (Food Stamp) and Farmers Market Produce:
The lowest earning workers eat food that does not give them the energy to work and think, and worse, keeps them on Medicaid forever because of obesity, diabetes, and hypertension. Their kids learn this from day one and enter the cycle early. Our elderly, on fixed incomes, are fed high-salt, fatty, and processed foods that counteract their medicines and create more problems that require additional meds. I'm swirling downward here, but I assure you it's important and yummy food stuff will be in Part 2.
We all have to pay for this in the end, regardless of our politics. The cost of processed junk food is paid for with the following dividends: early development problems, school concentration, workforce health, medications, dialysis, increased Medicaid and emergency care costs. While the bounty of processed food has been a sign of our nation's affluence and progress since WW2, its overuse and subsidization has created unintended public health crises, and the demise of small American farms. If we do not invest in access to affordable, nutrient-rich food, we all pay for it. There is no avoiding it. We are investing in crap and getting crap in return. That's how we get the society and ever-higher taxes we deserve!
Thank you for reading this and bearing with. Because of what I experienced in those hard times I changed my view of food, work and dignity forever. It was tough but it was a gift. I'm a lot more patient and compassionate for friends who are hard on their luck, and completely committed to improving food access in my own community.
Help me: Tell me if you disagree, have other ideas, or different experiences with food stamps or low-income nutrition. I want to move forward in my personal story and work in food. And I can't do it without good collaborators.