Friday, August 12, 2016

The Food Pantry Handout Game, or Earnhardt's Law in Politics

“Free gifts of love” sounds so much nicer than “work and pay”…until you get up close and personal with what those words are actually used to mean.

I’m a writer—never out of work, often out of pay. I tell a friend I can’t afford to spend a day shopping in the city until I’ve done some odd jobs and earned some money. 

“Can’t afford to go grocery shopping at…” Incredulously, she names the big-chain supermarkets she plans to visit. Two of the three chains advertise their low prices. “You ought to go to the food bank. My daughter does.”

She’s comfortably retired. Her husband still works at a business in which he’s a senior manager. The daughter left a well-paid husband, who's been hanging around town on weekends ever since, and moved back into the parents’ big house in order to get in-state tuition rates for the college course she didn’t bother to finish before marriage; she has a part-time job, drives an expensive inefficient car, and usually wears the latest and most expensive clothes. It’s hard to describe the daughter as a yuppie, because her parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents were about as affluent members of the bourgeoisie as she aspires to remain. She’s just a rich chick. If she’s ever had to worry about money, it was about maintaining an expensive lifestyle, not about food or shelter. 

It occurs to me that, if this rich chick gets food from the food bank, readers might like to know who else does, or whether anyone is turned away from their biweekly food handout sessions. 

I resolve to check out the food bank, mix this experience in with a little online research, and see if I can get a Schwarm-worthy article out of it. I will, of course, get a blog post that will be too personal and too political for Schwarm out of it. This is the blog post.

Here’s what I take with me: canvas bags, in case I’m offered food, and a key to a storage building, in case I’m offered more than I can eat.

Here’s what I leave behind: any documentation of my real identity. If asked, I’ll disclose my legal name, since most people in my home town know it anyway. I won’t tell any lies about my circumstances. I will not disclose my address, phone number, Social Security number, or any information about anyone with or for whom I’ve worked.

In the small town where I work, where I grew up and went to school, where my ancestors have lived for centuries, I don’t anticipate any reasonable doubt about my being a local voter and taxpayer. Possibly if the food pantry weren’t being supervised, on the day I go in, by an old schoolmate, my entitlement to benefits that have anything to do with the U.S. Department of Agriculture might be questioned.

As things are, the absence of any documentation whatsoever, much less “press credentials,” is not a problem. I walk right in the open door. What I see is not a pantry but a junk store. I see racks of old clothes, shelves of old books, even shelves of bric-a-brac. Angel Receptionist tells me that people have just donated the books, clothes, framed photographs, children’s toys, even teen-to-adult toys like radios and video games. Everything is free to those who qualify for food handouts.

“Do you need food?” she asks sweetly.

“Everybody needs food. A growing teenager who’s not eaten since breakfast would say he needs food.” (It’s about 9 a.m.) “That's the kind of thing I'm here to find out about. Is there a cut-off point at which you tell people to buy their own food?”

A second cousin’s husband steps up to answer my questions about who qualifies for food handouts. They can remember one person, who reported a monthly income higher than my gross income for the year 2015 and claimed to be married to a well paid professional as well, whom they didn’t invite to come back for another food handout next month. They do have general guidelines for what constitutes a low enough income to qualify.

Here’s who might be earning too much money to get these handouts—a large part of which have been donated by people who’ve been told they’re donating the food to “poor, needy, hungry” people. In Virginia, where anyone who really wants to stretch a food dollar can eat tolerably well on $50 to $75 per week, a single adult can claim to need a handout if earning up to $342 per week. If you’re employed at an annual salary below $17,820, you may be surprised to know that you’re a “poor, needy, hungry” person by Virginia standards. For families, the final digit on the income figures varies for no obvious reason, but basically the food bank’s definition of “poverty” starts with $340 per week and adds $120 per family member.

Cousin's Husband takes my word that I earned less than $342 in the month of July. (Have I earned more than $342 in any month in the past, oh, five years anyway? I don’t think so. I remember selling a Rowan sweater I’d knitted for $880, but the person who bought it paid in monthly installments.)  He explains that some of the food is donated by local people and some is bought from the federal government for redistribution. If people report receiving tax-funded benefits, the food bank staff verify that. Otherwise, apparently they take people’s word for everything, or at least second cousin's husband knows he can take mine.

There’s a questionnaire to fill out. Contact information, identity information: I reply “Not applicable.” Date of birth: I give the correct year, no month. Address: I give the correct town name and old mail route number. 

Marital status and household information are on the questionnaire. There are separate spaces for “married, single, divorced, widowed, separated.” It seems an odd question in this context unless you remember that some of the churches who staff the food pantry traditionally had special rules about widows, recognizing them as qualified for a specific ministry. Claiming no qualifications for any office in those churches, I simplify matters by checking “single.” I don’t ask whether the food pantry plans to branch out into a dating service.

The questionnaire asks “Who is Jesus to you?” I write in “Christ the Lord.” No questions are asked.

The questionnaire asks those requesting handouts to break down their monthly income and expenses. The only reason why I’d need to falsify those numbers would be to add to them, because some people might not believe how low they actually are. This seems unnecessary. I’m bemused to note that the questionnaire asks “poor, needy, hungry” people to specify how much they spend on cars, cable TV, satellite TV, and tobacco.

After signing and dating the questionnaire I receive an invitation card. Actually it’s an appointment card, the kind dentists use, with a date in September on it. I can come back and get another load of food on that day, says Angel Receptionist. Meanwhile I’m now entitled to browse for books.

I expect that after seeing what’s on the shelves I’ll fill a canvas bag with whichever discards from the local children’s library aren’t actually falling to pieces. In fact I find about two dozen vintage Christian books that had been on my “look for” list for years. I think I will try to come back in September, if only for a load of children’s books. Dressing dolls to match children’s books has grown from a hobby I took up when one niece was little into my main source of income this year; I currently have, at home, all the dolls I’m likely to dress in the rest of August anyway.

A basket of name-brand candy bars is on a shelf. I take a Payday bar, the kind that at least appears to consist of more peanuts than candy. I like Payday bars, but as with so many other things I ought to be able to eat, I’m no longer sure whether it’s safe for me to eat. Syrup made from BT corn, also known as “Roundup-Ready” corn, and/or glyphosate residues that linger in the said corn, give me the same celiac reaction wheat does. 

Before I’ve scanned two shelves of books, a shopping cart is rolled out, my name is called, and I’m told that this is my monthly food handout for August.

Here’s what the local do-gooders have determined one person needs in the way of food for a month:
  • 27 cucumbers
  • 21 zucchini
  • 1 pound bag English walnuts, shelled
  • 2 1-pound cans “French style” green beans with added garlic, sugar, and yeast
  • 1 pound can corn
  • 1 pound bag white rice. Marked “long grain,” it’s as short a grain as I’ve ever seen; I wonder whether the grains are crumbling from decay or insect damage. 
  • 2 pound cans “low-sodium” spinach
  • 1 12-ounce can cranberry fruit punch
  • 2 1-pound bags “instant mashed” potato flakes
  • 1 pint sour cream
  • 1 pound can pork & beans in tomato sauce
  • 2 1-pound can peas
  • 1 pound can chicken noodle soup
  • 1 9-ounce box rosemary-flavored Triscuits
  • 1 pound box Special K Protein Bars, strawberry-yogurt flavor
  • 13-ounce box Ritz crackers
  • 7-ounce box macaroni with cheese packet
  • 12 mini-croissants in a plastic box
  • 2 frozen “chef-style kabobs” with chunks of raw chicken, raw pork, onions and peppers, on sticks

I am not making this up.

Well, obviously they don’t know how many people who come in may be celiacs. Probably they expect that everybody who comes in is already welfare-cheating, has stocked up on meats and sweets, and merely needs encouragement to eat the occasional vegetable as well. Nevertheless. Has anybody ever eaten twenty-one zucchini?

After typing the list into my computer, I return the baked goods to the food pantry. (It occurs to me later that I could have kept them and sold them in the Friday Market; “Protein Bars” whose main ingredient is sugar, closely followed by syrup, would probably sell faster than zucchini.) I eat the Payday bar and drink the cranberry punch, which is syrupy, intense, a fruit drink designed to make soda pop seem inadequate, and contemplate things to do with this bizarre selection of food. Possibly the food bank staff imagine that everyone has an oven to bake zucchini bread and a deep freezer to store it in. I have neither.

The cats are gluten-tolerant, and they seem to like pork as well as chicken. I suppose, to animals designed to digest raw rats, cooked hogs can’t seem much worse. Since I don’t have electricity, the kabobs have to be used up at once. I let them thaw all afternoon, then when the sun sinks low enough that I can bear to think about it I start the usual fire in the garbage barrel, throw in an oak stick, and flame-grill the kabobs. There’s exactly enough pork for the cats’ dinner. When the chicken is crusted black on the outside, firm and white on the inside, I eat the chicken and vegetables. They came from a store that’s known for careless handling of meat, but they don’t taste like listeria or coliform bacteria. In fact they taste pretty good.

The next day, on the way to work, I see what another family—not a welfare-class family—did with their bag of white rice. Most of it’s already been ground to meal in the gutter. By evening the town pigeons have made a good use of it. Anything that thins the town pigeon population is a good thing.

Did I need vegetables? Did anybody need vegetables? Scott County is rural. It’s possible to run out of vegetables in February. In August it takes effort to avoid having all the fresh vegetables anybody could possibly eat. People who don’t plant vegetables dig up and cut back vegetables in their orchards and flower gardens. If you keep grazing on them and don't poison your fields, you can have young, tender, tasty salad greens, dock and dandelion, purslane and plantain, watercress and field cress and some people are even blessed with miners' lettuce, almost all year; I do. Wild onions conveniently pass their peak at the precise time of year when Vidalia onions flood the market. Everybody knows someone who’s planted vegetables, and people who’ve planted vegetables are always willing to share zucchini. Even in the fruit department…we’re between the main fruit seasons, in August, but the only thing in nature that is as intensely sour and sweet as that cranberry punch is a summer apple, and August is the season for those. 

The land is fruitful. Everyone wants to repay all social debts with vegetables. Even though your own soil is thrusting fresh vegetables up at you every morning, in August, your friends press delicious corn, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, green beans, and squash upon you. Possibly there are some people in Scott County who needed vegetables, in August, and didn’t have them…but to imagine that shoving vegetables into those people’s hands would motivate those people to eat the vegetables takes the uniquely warped brain of a social worker.

I have a theory about social workers. The normal human brain does not develop much interest in other people as people before puberty. (As objects of curiosity, of course, we notice other people much earlier.) A healthy child who has not been abused basically sees the world in terms of “Me, Mommy, Daddy, and everything else out there.” Other children are primarily competition for adults’ attention; at best the child may be trained to think of them as participants in games. The child can, of course, also be trained to act in kind, nurturing ways if adults can arrange to make that consistently rewarding for the child. Preadolescent children learn good manners in the same way toddlers learn a jingle that goes “Ella-minnow-pea”; a few years later, the teenagers understand what good manners mean, in the same way the school-age children understand what “L M N O P” means.

Children who have been abused, however, develop a precocious, pre-empathetic sensitivity to other people’s moods. Relatively less damaged children grow up to be “tactful,” “sensitive” adults. Badly damaged children grow up to be control freaks. Control freaks who have no other talent, but whose parents want them to go to college, major in psychology. Psychology majors who are consistently at the bottom of the class become social workers.  

I have no way to test this theory, but it does account for the way social workers “think.” I don’t think they really do think at all. They learn how to manipulate numbers as necessary in order to claim that something they want to do is likely to benefit a majority of people in some category or others. What social workers really seem to operate on are feelings. They don’t think of asking people what those people need, want, would find helpful. They feel that people ought to need zucchini. Their feelings become upset when they’re reminded that, if there are people who can benefit from having any more zucchini than they already have, those people are on some other continent, not North America. Possibly in Zimbabwe, in the dry season, somebody feels a need for zucchini.

What do the people who come to the food bank need? The church group opens the doors twice a week and dispenses food to a steady stream of visitors for five hours a day. I didn’t stay long enough to count the visitors, but I saw Angel Receptionist signing them in on sheets of lined paper and using up a sheet in a little over an hour. Except for one coltish child, I think I may have been the only person in the building who wasn’t showing a medical need for a reducing diet. Zucchini, maybe, but I saw no need for sour cream and Ritz crackers.

In the bad old days before food stamps were invented, my father used to unpack, sort, and repack U.S.D.A. surplus canned goods at a “Free Food Place” a block or two away from the present site of the food pantry. I remember those cans and packages well. The government officials were careful to bring in no more than the local welfare recipients were supposed to need. Many local welfare recipients wouldn’t show up to collect their packages. There was always a surplus; Dad would always lug home a lot of cans and boxes, and Mother would try to find recipes that made it seem fit to eat. In those days “Free Food” was clearly marked U.S.D.A. free food, never a brand, and it was easy to see why. It was nasty food. The canned goods the food pantry hands out now are much nicer than those awful tins of greasy rancid peanut butter and chalky-tasting cornmeal used to be, I’ll admit. The green beans are "Del Monte Quality."

The idea of canned green beans…well, I like nibbling on a crisp raw green bean, or steaming or stir-frying young green beans just until the color brightens, but I don’t like them cooked until they’re saggy and soggy. Canned green beans are, to my mind, the most boring source of fibre anyone ever tried to sell as food. On a day when the whole neighborhood is full of fresh, juicy green beans, the idea of offering anyone a can of green beans seems downright insulting.

On the second day, I readjust my plan for eating up the cucumbers because they’re not freshly picked. To avoid wasting them, I’ll need to eat ten this day, ten the next day. I love cucumbers but somehow I don’t have much appetite. It’s been a hot day; I don’t have much energy either. I go to bed early. At midnight I bolt out of bed. I have never been able to identify a specific taste or smell with salmonella, so I guess that that’s what was in the chicken. It's not celiac sprue; it's something that was in the chicken.

I’ve never been seriously sick with salmonella, though, so in the morning I go into town and, after a mere four hours in the Friday Market (ninety degrees, ninety percent humidity), find someone to thrust the remaining cucumbers and the zucchini upon. Nobody, of course, actually pays for them.

The Friday Market itself seems sluggish. One particularly unfortunate shopper is wearing a T-shirt designed in aid of some disease research foundation, with a message like "Don't look sick? So, what does pain look like?" I look at the shopper and feel queasy--or maybe it's just residual food poisoning. You put on a T-shirt like that because you expect people to think you look healthy. This shopper does not look healthy. That face could well be the look of pain.

There are two operating philosophies about the Friday Market. Some vendors find it profitable to go in early, sell what they can before the heat gets to them, pack up and get out before they collapse. Tougher vendors find it profitable to stay open until midday, when the people who work in town can come out and shop. I've always been in the latter category but unfortunately the only regular vendor willing to share a space with me is in the former, and starts to wilt before ten o'clock. After watching a heat stroke happen at Duffield Daze last summer, I will never again push a friend to stay for the full length of time vendors have paid for. I tell myself the town yuppies probably won't come to trade on a day when that would mean breaking a sweat, and help my frail flower of a friend clear out at eleven, but I've not sold anything yet and I am not a happy camper. 

It doesn't help that a friend, not the same one who invited me on the shopping trip in the nearby city, has bought me prezzies from the trip. Nice, thoughtful prezzies. Gluten-free food, some of which I can even use, and nice little objects I might be able to...sell? Maybe? If people were, like, buying today? I like this woman. I like that she thought about me in the city. I also want to hit her with an overripe cucumber, because, if we grant for the sake of argument that I need to be alive at all, for the purpose of staying alive I need cash not unsold merchandise. I also need that cash to be exchanged fairly for things I do, or have done, not handed out with an unspoken message of "Nice old useless has-been, now go home and lie down and die." I want to scream, "Thank you so much, how did you not guess that the main pleasure of my middle-aged life is reading the obituaries of people who give me that kind of attitude?"

I'm fifty-something, not a hundred and something. I stand as straight and tall as I ever did, endure the heat better than some young people do, can still work a lot of them into the ground; I never wanted to be a nurse aide or massage therapist badly enough to shell out a thousand dollars a year to maintain certification, but I could still do those jobs as well as I did them when I was thirty, much better than when I was twenty. Don't see me staying home on account of a little nuisance like salmonella do you? Seen young people rush to the hospital with salmonella haven't you? Well, then. I swear, the only reason I've gone on eating this long has been to spite my latest official self-appointed enemy. Love, peace, good will, and public spirit are the privileges of people who participate in the exchange of goods and services that makes a community.

Children, I remember so well, think being allowed to shop in the Friday Market is a rare treat, and vendors always try to offer things for the children, but there aren't actually a lot of children in the market, most days, even in summer. Between eight and eleven a.m. there might be tourists, but today all I see are the retired-and-disabled crowd. 

Possibly someone in that crowd can use vegetables--fresh ones, anyway. We set the veg up front in antique containers. I tell people the fresh cucumbers and certified-organic zucchini are four for a dollar or free if they buy the pot. None of the retired and disabled crowd shows the slightest interest. At least two shoppers recognize these veg from the food bank. They won't tell before I do, but I know they know.

There's no real way of checking--I've thought of volunteering with the Samaritans Hotline just to get this kind of information, but I know this crowd have been training themselves for years to say anything, anything at all, except their true feelings. I wonder how many of them are in exactly the same situation I am. They're not stupid or ignorant people; the food bank, like the bookstore people managed to operate for a few weeks, obviously does a brisk trade in good books; plenty of people in Gate City will admit they don't read much, but you don't have to talk to them for long to realize that that's because they don't want to pay for a new prescription for glasses--or get used to wearing glasses. Many of them went to college, some to university. Most of the men are veterans; many of the women have taught school or managed stores; many are, as I am, "retired" or just plain tired health care professionals. Their bodies are no longer perfect, but I see only three people who have any trouble walking around in the hot sun, reading price tags, making conversation, carrying their purchases through the market, or driving their own cars. 

I also see that a full third of the people who even look at the merchandise and talk to the vendors, where I am, don't "need" anything any of us is trying to unload. They have stuff they'd like to unload, or projects they're trying to recruit people to support. Unlike me, they have incomes, probably from pensions or rental property; I think there's an actual farmer on the other side of the marketplace, but he's not shopping. Like me, they "need" cash and recognition if they "need" anything at all. They're not getting those things and so, although most of them have good hair and classic cheekbones, their faces are painful to look at; they wear a look that probably is the look of pain.

Gate City is an "outlier" in many ways, beginning with the way our small, underfunded, overcrowded schools traditionally dominate state competitions in every field...but y'know what? All around the world, in all the English-speaking countries...a few of my e-friends are young people who blog "socially" about their social lives, but the vast majority of them, both in the paid writing and in the Tea Party crowds, are in this same "premature retirement" and/or partial disability situation. This is not just a Gate City Thing. This situation is global.

Social workers have a grotesquely misplaced faith in numbers and large-scale "programs." Because the majority of poor people in the United States have addictions, or really major (meaning mental) disabilities, or both, social workers act as if, and tell religious people to act as if, anyone who's not wealthy by age thirty should never be expected to do anything or allowed to handle cash. Even Republicans blather about "rewarding work" in terms of "job training," as if I, as if most of the people I see in the Friday Market, just needed to be "trained" to compete with teenagers for student-labor-type jobs. That's the kind of idiotic idea a person gets by taking anything a social worker says seriously. 

Social workers don't have a clue what we look like, either, any more than they have a clue about how many cucumbers one person can eat. Really, Republicans, you need to verify it before you act on a social worker's report about whether it's currently raining outside. Social workers are likely to consult some sort of "program" instead of looking outside to find out about that.

What I need from our government (state, federal, or local) is probably what the other unhappy middle-aged people I've been looking at all day need from our government. It's not a concept that the brain of a social worker can absorb. Maybe elected officials, themselves, have enough working brain cells to understand a concept that's more like Earnhardt's Law: Lead, follow, or get out of the way

Leading, in this case, would mean--retroactively--keeping my late husband's vampire ex-wife from stealing his estate, and--retroactively--keeping people for whom I've done odd jobs from exploiting Virginia's lack of a small claims court and failing to pay me a hundred dollars here or five hundred dollars there. Any government that wants me to have any faith in government, whatsoever, needs to begin by paying me what has been owed to me for, in the case of my husband's estate, more than ten years--with interest. No drivel about "needs." We are talking about what I've well and truly earned. You may say, "Thank you, Ma'am." You may say, "I humbly beg your pardon that it's taken so long."

Following, in this case, would mean a policy based on asking people who actually have inadequate incomes what we need, rather than listening to social workers. Not that I want to be unkind--they hate me, and some of them have said so, but I'm not a hater--social workers are probably most useful to the world in the capacity of carrying heavy objects and cleaning restrooms. What those of us who've become "disabled" relative to one specific job but not others, or "retired" before we really are disabled, actually need is the opposite of what feeble-minded addicts need. What I, personally, need is a bookstore. And before anybody gets any ideas about loading me up with back issues of National Geographic, I have books by the pound, by the barrel, or by the cubic yard; what I need, for the purposes of opening the said bookstore, is cash.

Getting out of the way, in this case, would mean just quietly removing obstacles to productive self-employment, such as anything in the way of a business license costing more than a driver's license. (Managing a store is a lot easier than managing a moving vehicle.) 

And the politics my conservative heart can endorse are the kind that involve government leading, following, and getting out of my way.