Eat It

I can’t stop ruminating about this article.

I think my obsession stems from several sources.  The first time I ever encountered food stamps, it was at a farmers’ market; Cleveland’s West Side Market, to be specific, long hailed as a model for a market which manages to capture upper-class income and interest without losing its lower-income customer base.  When I was eight years old I inquired about what the stickers on vendor cases meant and my next-door-neighbor explained to me the concept of welfare.

Fifteen years later, I was on welfare — well, food stamps, at least.  I was working as an Americorps with Habitat for Humanity, and in order to supplement the marginal living allowance provided by the Corporation for National Service, all Americorps members are automatically eligible for food stamp benefits.  By the time I came around to it, food stamps had transitioned from physical stamps to cards called EBT — Electronic Benefits Transfer — in order to, as the above link describes, reduce both the social stigma of using cards as well as food stamp benefits fraud.  In those regards, the switch to EBT has been wildly successful.  Use at farmers’ markets, however, which are disproportionately reliant upon cash, has tanked.

When I was with Americorps, I saw signs for San Francisco’s Ferry Building Farmers’ Market which advertised the fact that food stamps were accepted — but during that year, I only went once, and I paid cash.  Why, in liberal, food-loving San Francisco, was I so hesitant?  Well, because I just couldn’t figure out how it would work, and I didn’t want to go through the hassle.  The great thing about EBT cards is that you swipe them at a register just like a credit or debit card; they’re PIN-based and the cashier doesn’t have to do anything special.  In fact, you don’t even have to tell anyone you’re using food stamps.  There is essentially no shame involved.  Contrast this to a farmers’ market and its cash economy. 

It is, of course, a Good Thing that there are people out there attempting to find solutions to this dilemma — lower-income deserve equal access to fresh produce — but what really chapped my hide in this particular piece was that some of the solutions are just too damn creative.  I mean… wooden tokens?  Wooden fucking tokens?!  Has anyone involved in this idea ever been poor?  Because here is something that is often overlooked by the wealthy and privileged, when they rail against extending unemployment insurance benefits to all those lazy unemployed folks, or even when they attempt to craft solutions to food access issues at farmers’ markets: depending upon government largesse is uncomfortable.  Existentially.  To be poor is to be constantly justifying oneself, always asking permission to join real society and the real economy, the systems and cultures that have been deemed respectable and valuable.  Getting food stamp benefits is not an uplifting process — we have come to fear phantom “welfare queens” so deeply that any mechanism of public support is premised upon the assumption that fraud is a significant threat, that cheaters constitute a large percentage of applicants, that rigorous screening of prospective welfare recipients is more important for our nation’s long-term financial health than, say, rigorous screening of prospective defense contractors.  You are guilty until proven innocent is the take-away message of this, and all for the crime of asking for some help.  Those who doubt this need only spend a day in a social services building, not as some well-dressed observer with a full wallet but as a client.  It is dehumanizing, a profound mismatch of tremendous need and egregiously misallocated resources, forever inflicting a thousand little cuts to the dignity of all who pass through this system that has been statutorily limited to do nothing but apply a band-aid here and there.  As grateful as I was for the financial resource of food stamps I was ashamed, too, to be reliant upon assistance, even as my assistance was a reward for my public service, even as my poverty was voluntary, temporary, and oriented towards the greater good.  Such reassurances are rare among those who depend upon food aid, or aid of any kind, and as much as we should all work towards reducing such stigmas on a broader social scale I am especially frustrated with the food movement here, a movement with such potential for real agitation and structural change, a movement which I find myself regularly defending against charges that it is by and for the wealthy and helmed by folks like Alice Waters who are unconcerned by inequity (City Slicker and Spiral Farms near me both do phenomenal work; Will Allen is a national treasure; there are countless more organizations using food as a tool to combat poverty, and even Waters herself engages in real activism) — this same movement seeks to expand access to a vulnerable class of consumers in a highly visible venue like a farmers’ market, and the best they can come up with is to hand poor people a currency that would get you laughed out of Chuck-E-Cheese? 

This is not a solution; this is not equal access.  It’s cutesy and it’s clever and I’m sure some people are willing to put up with it, but even Monopoly has switched from its eponymous money to a credit-based version, and Christ, if someone can program a simplistic card-reader for transactions within a board game than surely we can do better than wooden goddamn tokens for people who are struggling to feed themselves and their families, because as it stands, the solutions put forth are no solutions at all.

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