Disappointed. That’s the only way to describe how I felt after my first month of volunteering every day at the battered women’s shelter. It started out all fun and spy games, with the coordinator telling me to meet her on the corner of a crowded intersection and to come alone. Once I got to the shelter, I had to be buzzed in through the razor-wire topped fence by a guard on duty 24 hours a day. The rules were: no men (no male children unless they were under 13), no unapproved visitors, no alcohol, no drugs. Everyone had to go to mandatory counseling and parenting classes. Clearly these people were serious.
I was excited because thanks to losing my daughter Faith and only part-time work teaching at the college, I suddenly had a lot of empty time on my hands. I could either sit at home and stare at my empty nursery or I could get out and Help! People! I’m not sure what I was envisioning (comforting a woman sobbing on my shoulder? Holding a young child while her mom defiantly cut all ties with her abusive husband? Having a walk-on role in the Lifetime movie of the week??) but the entire first week all I did was write thank-you cards to the people who’d contributed money to the shelter. The second week they trusted me enough to man the visitor’s sign-in book. By week 3 I’d moved up to being in charge of the vouchers. And that’s when things started to go from Happy Liberal Fantasy to Crazytown.
Vouchers were tickets for everything from free bus rides to meals at restaurants to groceries to diapers. We did not under any circumstances give out cash. If I did – even if it was from my own funds – I’d be “fired.” This, the coordinator explained, was for my own good. “You’re new and they’re going to try to play you like a fiddle. Just stick to the rules.” I soon saw the wisdom behind her warning. Most of the women who stayed in the shelter were regulars. This wasn’t an emergency crash pad where they could stay until they figured out the best way to move to another state and change all their identifying information. No, this was where they lived until they reached the maximum time and then they’d pack up their myriad tiny children and move on to another shelter (or another bad boyfriend) until they could come back here. This bouncing in and out was their full-time job.
And boy were they good at it. I’ll never forget the first time a resident asked me for two Greyhound bus and four grocery vouchers. I was confused. “Are you leaving already?” I asked her. “No,” she answered frankly, “I can trade those for two bottles of rum at the liquor store. We’re having a party in room 6 tonight if you want to come!” I eyed her barely clad kids staring vacantly into space and considered my answer. Surprisingly when I refused, she didn’t curse me out but just sighed and turned around and left. The party in room 6 happened anyhow, thanks to the policy of the local Lutheran church to give out a one-time handout of $200 to anyone who asked.
I asked the coordinator one day if any of the women here were actually abuse victims or if they were all just working the system. She gave me a very stern look and said, “They’re all abuse victims. Generations of it. They’re also working the system because it’s all they know to survive. And that’s the problem.” I finally realized just a small part of what she was up against and I was amazed all over again that she could come in every day and do this job. Don’t get me wrong, most of the women that I met there were kind and funny and loved their kids. But most of them also had serious substance-abuse and mental-health issues. They weren’t looking to change their lives. Why would they if they’d never known anything different?
By the time I quit 6 months later – because I was pregnant again and the combination of my haywire hormones and seeing all the neglected and abused children was making me cry every night – I was seriously jaded. I don’t want to be uncharitable. Even now, writing about this, I feel as if I’m betraying a vulnerable sisterhood. I kind of want you to comment and tell me that my experience was a bizarre aberration and other shelters aren’t like the one I worked at. And yet, this is what I think of when I read about the argument over what people should be allowed to buy with food stamps. Because I handed out a lot of things like food stamps and I saw them used to buy everything from boxes of Twinkies to cigarettes. The only apples that ever came in the building were in the bowl on the front table and they were fake.
On Friday the federal government struck down Mayor Bloomberg’s proposal to forbid people in New York City from using food stamps to buy soda saying it was “because of the logistical difficulty of sorting out which beverages could or could not be purchased with food stamps and because it would be hard to gauge how effective the step was in reducing obesity.” Bloomberg responded to the U.S.D.A.’s decision saying, ““We think our innovative pilot [program] would have done more to protect people from the crippling effects of preventable illnesses like diabetes and obesity than anything else being proposed elsewhere in this country — and at little or no cost to taxpayers.”
On Friday I also read this opinion piece by Marion Nestle (thanks to Hey Joob for the tip!) about whether or not it is ethical to give unhealthy food like the popular free-meal McDonald’s coupons to the homeless or if we should only give what we would eat, even if that isn’t what they want. The comments are even more enlightening than Nestle’s perspective, especially in regards to what a polarizing and class-dividing feature food has become in America.
The bottom line is that the number one predictor of obesity in this country is not genetics, gender, race, or age – it’s income. The poorer you are the more likely you are to be obese. That’s the problem. So what is the solution? Honestly I’m not sure – a variety of programs from education to farmer’s markets in inner cities to gardens in schools are having promising results – but I do think that not allowing food stamps to be used for soda is a good place to start. (For the record, the government already does have rules for what you can and cannot buy with food stamps, specifically no “alcohol, pet food or heated food”.) I don’t think this is the best or only solution and I hope that NYC is investigating other ways to help people have access to and the education of healthier food options but it seems like a reasonable step to me.
edited to add: Something about this post is deeply bothering me but I can’t put my finger on it. Maybe I’m so opposed to soda because it was such a “danger” food to my eating-disordered brain? Maybe I am unsettled because telling someone what they can and can’t eat is such a slippery slope? I don’t know. I’m conflicted. What I’m saying is that if you see a flaw in my thinking feel free to call me out. I’m going to go to bed now and perhaps I’ll figure it out in the morning… many thanks to those of you who have already commented.
I really look forward to hearing what you think (because I’m sure the comments are going to be better than anything I wrote too) – should the government stay out of (further) legislating what food stamps can and cannot be used to buy? What about giving food to the homeless – should we focus on giving them calorie-dense meals like Big Macs or healthy fare like produce? Anyone else ever have a volunteer job that didn’t turn out quite like you’d expected?