Political talk for Poor and Starving

I used to work in a food shelf in my early days; anyone working for a non-profit like that does not do it to get rich – not monetarily at any rate – but my Resume/CV was impressively diversified by the time I was done (how many database specialists do you know with customer service skills that can drive a fork-lift or operate a pallet-jack?), I started there fresh out of high-school, planned to work my way slowly through college and while I didn’t necessarily succeed as far as that went (a whole other story for another time) I received a lot of hard-knock life experience while I was there.

Between entering services into the database, I would help stock shelves, move things around in the warehouse and prepare food orders. There was a mathematical formula to making food orders; though it was also helpful if you knew how to cook yourself so that you could give them things that worked well together (pasta-sauce and ramen… yeah it just doesn’t work very well, and powdered milk, I swear, is only fit for baked goods but anyway…), the formula was this: 1 item per two people x number of people in the household x 3 days (which was as long as the food was supposed to keep them, and they could only use the food shelf once a month).

Why? “Because a can of tuna can’t be cut in half.” Long and the short of it, food orders for families of two people weighed about the same as for one, 3-4 people likewise, and this worked fairly well up until you got to some of the really large families that would come in (the biggest one I knew of before I left was something like a family of 12), then you had to recognise the fact that they do not need 6 jars of tomato sauce and adding more of them is just throwing them to make “weight.”

What does that mean, to make weight? Well someone came to a conclusion that three days of food per two people was about 25-30 pounds, and food orders for larger families needed to align with that. I was  short stalky person and I could carry boxes of food that weighed almost as much as I did, and would carry them sometimes in ways so that they didn’t look heavy – you know, when the gentlemen waiting with their spouses would start bragging with each other about how easy it had to be – of course they would fold over like a jack-knife once I let go. I was not a very nice person in that respect.

I remember there were good days and bad days to the food shelf. At one time, we could give two types of frozen meat in the food orders (we kept the vegetarian stuff to the side for those who requested it, but it was rare – people who couldn’t feed themselves weren’t generally picky eaters unless they really couldn’t help it), but with budget cuts, we often had to get creative on ordering through places like Second Harvest (http://www.2harvest.org/site/PageServer) and the Emergency Food Shelf Network (http://www.emergencyfoodshelf.org) because not only did our spending get cut, but so did theirs and they had to divide amongst all of the food shelves whatever limited supply they had.

In some ways, our clients (the people who would use the food shelf) liked that they had a choice. It helped them feel like they had some control in their chaotic and unpredictable lives.

Don’t let anyone tell you differently, even in first world countries like the United States there are people who are starving. People who are so down on their luck that people judge them without thinking about it. In my early days, I judged too much as well, and only got it when it was explained to me that sometimes it isn’t within their control – and should someone be punished for that?

There was Ms. M, for example; she had gone from having a great paying job, a new house, finally getting financially stable to… the crash, and her sewage system backed up into her new house, literally destroying everything. Her savings was wiped, she was now unemployed, and everything she owned reeked – absolutely reeked – of… well you know.

Not knowing, I asked, my co-workers, “How can she stand to show herself anywhere outside like that?”

The answer: she doesn’t have a choice.

Another woman, let’s call her Ms. A – because really, I can’t remember names now even if I could give them out – she had a job working in manufacturing. Unfortunately, she has a medical condition that requires her to take medication that makes her drowsy. She was working with a table-saw one day and forgot to use the safety equipment. She sawed off all except one finger and two thumbs from her hands.

“I didn’t even feel it,” I remember her telling me when I asked, “didn’t even know what happened until people were running towards me.  Fingers… gone, just like that.” It isn’t easy to get work that doesn’t use fingers that pays well enough to support yourself.

There was the H family, too. Migrants, who were not necessarily fully documented (our job was to feed people, not ask their immigration status; hungry children were hungry regardless if their parents were legal or not), came in with a baby that was barely a month old… and a cockroach crawled out of its damp blanket and clothing.

Don’t let anyone tell you that Migrants deserve to be exploited, simply because they come to a place to give their children a better chance at life. No one deserved what the H Family had to go through.

They were basically, we found out through another client who spoke their same language, being held hostage to a illegal landlord who was charging them extortionate fees for the storage space beneath a the restaurant – it didn’t have running water, heating, or even a bathroom or cooking facilities. The owner of this establishment (I am very happy to report that this jerk has lost the restaurant and it has changed hands a few times since then) was refusing to give them a mailing address and, without one, they couldn’t register their kids to go to school.

With no where else to go, they came to us, because they didn’t know what else to do.

So when I hear about how, in the US, they are cutting SNAP benefits (http://mtpr.org/post/daines-defends-cuts-snap-benefits-mt-food-banks-worry), when I hear about how, in the UK, they impose housing taxes for people with “extra” bedrooms and cut benefits at the same time (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-24058057 and http://www.poverty.ac.uk/tags/government-cuts)… I think of Ms. M, Ms. A and the H Family.

I think of how I would work one Saturday a month and prepare food orders for those who had to work during the rest of the week and couldn’t make it in if they needed help – people who worked full time jobs who couldn’t afford to feed themselves – I think of the senior citizens we would bring food to once a month because they were too frail to leave their own homes and unfortunately didn’t have family nearby to help look after them.

So the point of this shaggy-dog story is, once you strip it all back, is that there is a lot of pain and suffering right on our own doorsteps that we don’t even see. They didn’t ask for these lives, but these were the lives they were given, they aren’t doing it to be lazy, or because of some strange sense of entitlement (honestly, the only ones I think actually feel that they are somehow entitled to anything are those who never suffered in their lives – not me and certainly not any of the people that I’ve listed).

You could say that I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking. I’m doing what I can now, given that my current Visa doesn’t allow me to volunteer. A part of it probably does go back to my food shelf days, back then with as little as I could do for myself, I wanted to at least do something for someone else – kind of banking on that Minnesotan Karmic Balance that it would somehow come out in the wash eventually – perhaps that’s the part where I’m exceedingly self-centred.

But it’s hard not to do things, at least, if I could work towards some sort of goal, I could be doing something besides sitting and spinning my tyres like a rebel in desperate need of a cause.

Another part of me looks at how we, as humans, treat each other and I ask myself why: why do we do this? Why do we constantly cut each other down, why do we need to have others suffer below us just so that those at the top feel good?

I remember when they coined the term “food insecurity.” I was still working in the food shelf and to this day I still agree with my coworkers back then: “Food insecurity? BS, they’re poor and starving!”

What happens when you punish the few who exploit the system with sweeping policy changes to affect them all? Innocent people suffer. They are dehumanised and marginalised and if the statistics for mental health are any indication (http://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/help-information/mental-health-statistics/UK-worldwide/?view=Standard) they are suffering in ways that people don’t even realise. “Food Security” (however ridiculous that term is, we’ll go with it) plays a huge factor in mental health (http://www.elsevier.com/about/press-releases/research-and-journals/food-insecurity-predicts-mental-health-problems-in-adolescents), which really shouldn’t be a surprise, but there it is.

So to take a moment to be ironic: People feel anxious, nervous when they don’t know if they will be able to feed themselves or their families? Nooo, Get out. No way. -_-;

It is also not such a surprise that, on top of this, families with food insecurity are also more likely to have people who smoke (http://www.ajhpcontents.org/doi/abs/10.4278/ajhp.22.6.386 and – not because they blow their money on cigarets, mind, but because smoking releases stress.

Am I promoting smoking? No – I’m not. While it is within a person’s right to smoke, so long as they are aware of the risks and are old enough to buy them on their own, I object to smoking because of the fact that it has a bad habit of effecting people around the smoker negatively (second-hand smoke, anyone?). Second-hand smokers don’t always have a choice not to breathe it.

Are we really doing our people a service by cutting their lifelines? With decreased food security, there is increased instances of mental health and behavioural problems in adults and children as a result (http://www.pediatricsdigest.mobi/content/124/4/e564.short and http://jn.nutrition.org/content/134/9/2330.short) to say nothing about increased likelihood of abuse in the home, as food insecurity tends to go hand-in-hand with economic insecurity (http://scholar.google.co.uk/scholar?q=abuse+and+food+insecurity&btnG=&hl=en&as_sdt=0%2C5&as_vis=1 and http://ajph.aphapublications.org/doi/abs/10.2105/AJPH.81.9.1148).

And what about physical health? Those who are food insecure are more likely to suffer from nutrition deficiencies and poor health (http://nutrition.highwire.org/content/131/5/1503.short and http://jn.nutrition.org/content/138/3/604.short).

So by denying people of basic needs, we run the risk of setting them up for lives fraught with physical and mental health issues, likely increasing pressure on the NHS and the police due to the added increase of anti-social behaviour that also comes with it. Not to mention the lives lost from fatalities in domestic violence.

There was a bumper sticker my father kept on his car, I am reminded of it right now because it is very appropriate, it said: “Peace is Obtained When the Hungry are Fed.”

It seems to me, if the US and the UK want to cut costs, they ought to invest more in ensuring that everyone has enough food to eat. If you give people a minimum wage they can live on, for example, they wouldn’t NEED to use food shelves.

But I’m just an migrant, what do I know?


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