Thursday, October 20, 2011


It appears my new co-workers have me figured out. Today, after examining my lunch, one of them commented, "you're kind of a throwback...a back to the earth kind of person".

Contents of the lunch? A farmers market orange. Homemade tomato-basil soup. Homemade vegan coleslaw. Slice of homemade bread.

Yep, guilty.

I can (and have) said a lot about the economic, political, environmental, and spiritual reasons why I want to be as involved as possible in what I eat. But beneath all of that, there's what it does for me emotionally. In my considerable moving around in the last four years, I've noticed my first instinct after a move or a long trip is to cook. Something about stirring a pot of soup or kneading a loaf of bread helps gather all the pieces of me scattered in transition.

I'm finding I need that gathering now more than ever - new place, new job, new roommate, to be followed in about four months by another new place, new job, new roommate. Even the very space I live in is in transition - an extended-stay housing complex with constant turnover.

This past Sunday afternoon, I got to spend part of an afternoon manually prepping beds (read: scraping in the dirt with a hoe) on a local organic farm. As the farmer was showing me how to break up the soil, she described it as a form of meditation. By the end of my two hours, I had the beginnings of my old farming calluses, sore shoulders, one blister, and a deep sense of contentment and happiness that I've been missing in Phoenix.

I also had a very generous bag of free produce:

Monday, August 15, 2011

just in time

Last Friday was a slow day at work, and under the pretext of getting ideas for updating my resume I started browsing LinkedIn profiles. There they were, peers and former classmates two or three years out of college, with stable jobs involving things like retirement benefits, dental and vision insurance, and vacation time and paying something more than just-enough-to-keep-you-out-of-official-poverty. There were published articles, graduate degrees, professional headshots and promising careers in big-name companies. I started sliding into the same nasty mess of envy and insecurity I used to get reading through my facebook feed and looking at pictures of other people's vacations, weddings, babies, home improvement projects etc.

What do I have to show two+ years post grad? Two (very soon to be three) one-year stipended positions. No new degrees. Nothing published. Not much.

And then, from a client I've written about before, I received the following email:
HI Sarah
It,s joe just dropping you a line to say hi thing,s going good still looking for a job and no luck still so bye for now .Drop me aline once in awhile to hear from you BYE BYE JOE
And I took it all back.


Wednesday, June 22, 2011

clean and dirty

I think a lot about my food, where it comes from, and what the quality is like. So when the Environmental Working Group (EWG) released their most recent "Dirty Dozen" and "Clean Fifteen" (a list of produce with the highest and lowest levels of pesticide residues, respectively), I scribbled it down in the little green notebook I carry everywhere, between the grocery lists and subway directions. Make sure to buy organic when getting apples, celery and strawberries. Conventional is okay for onions, sweet corn and pineapples. Got it.

Except it's not quite that simple. Because often the produce with the least chemical residues (and therefore the least risk to the consumer) is the most dangerous for the farmworkers doing the planting, tending, and harvesting. Tom Philpott, who writes about food and agriculture issues for Grist and Mother Jones, explains that demand from consumers for less pesticides left on fruits and veggies when they get to the store has pushed growers to rely increasingly on fumigants. Prior to planting, the beds are covered with plastic and pumped full of poisons that kill everything (good and bad) living in the soil. Because fumigants are volatile and highly reactive, they break down quickly and don't show up on produce. But they are also very dangerous for the farmworkers who handle them, and have been linked to central nervous system disorders, lung and kidney problems, and birth defects. After all, what do you expect from pesticides originally designed as chemical weapons?

So is buying organics the answer?

Yes and no. Yes, because organic farmers are prohibited from using non-natural pesticides and herbicides, so no one has to handle these chemicals, and the soil and surrounding environment are able to maintain healthy biodiversity. I had the pleasure of witnessing this even on our little five acres in Oxnard. And no, because organic certification has nothing to do with the actual levels of pesticides found on produce. At the farm I worked on last year, a single lane dirt track was the only "buffer zone" separating our organic field from the neighboring conventional one. The Santa Ana winds would regularly blow dust for miles across the Oxnard plain, carrying with it everything that had been applied to other fields. Buying organics is a start, but it doesn't do much for farmworkers, most of whom have very little choice about where to work. They may be washing organic celery in the morning and picking conventional strawberries in the afternoon.

In the end? It may not solve everything, but I always feel better when I can talk to the person who grew it.


Tuesday, June 21, 2011

what I'm learning

This past year has made me conversant in a number of new subjects. Social welfare programs in the US. Things tourists do that annoy New Yorkers. Taxes. Taxes in Spanish. The subway system.

One thing I got an education in that I wasn't expecting: criminal justice in the US.

A year ago, I couldn't have told you with certainty which was more serious, a felony or a misdemeanor. I didn't know the difference between jail and prison. I'd never seen a stop-and-frisk. I wouldn't have believed that a person's right to vote could be taken away for life if they were convicted of a crime. I couldn't have distinguished parole from probation. I wouldn't have understood the signficance of "felony-friendly" employers.

I've learned all this on the job, from men who launch into a speeches trying to minimize their felonies as soon as they sit down to be screened for our services. From calling clients to follow up on their benefits applications only to be told that they are federal inmates and can't receive personal communication. From mothers, wives, grandmothers, aunts, girlfriends who can't include everyone in their household on their food stamps cases because felons and the families that take them in can be kicked out of public housing.

But I hadn't put the dots together until a sermon I heard a few months ago. The pastor used evidence from Michelle Alexander's book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness to talk about the unjust laws, practices and attitudes that have brought us to the point where one in three black men in the US is under the control of the criminal justice system. Alexander argues that changes in the criminal justice system in the last thirty years, particularly the War on Drugs have created a caste system in the mold of slavery and Jim Crow. Black men are no more likely to break drug laws than their white counterparts, yet they are stopped, searched, charged, and convicted at exponentially higher rates and their sentences are usually much harsher.

She describes not only the criminal justice system, but also what happens to those released from prison with felonies. The can be denied housing, jobs, public benefits, and the right to vote (among other things). I'd estimate that more than half of my male clients check "yes" next to the question "Have you been convicted of a crime". This is fair game on any job application, and for many of them it makes finding employment nearly impossible. Indeed, some of the only "felony-friendly" employment options are also some of the most dangerous jobs available - work in construction, commercial driving (with a focus on transporting hazardous materials) and environmental clean-up (involving removal of toxic materials like asbestos). It's no coincidence that these careers are a focus for my organization. But all the job placement in the world doesn't touch the injustice of the system.

The pastor ended that sermon with a quote from Martin Luther King Jr, and with the spiritual "Let My People Go".

Go down, Moses
Way down in Egypt's land

Tell old Pharaoh

Let my people go!

Read the book if you can. If you can't, at least read the sermon.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011


I had the privilege of growing up in what I believe is the most ideal climate possible. Nairobi has average temperatures in the sixties and seventies. I wore flip-flops almost every day and had my window open year-round, allowing for breezes in the dry season and sound of heavy rain in the wet months. It never got too hot, cold or humid. I might need a jacket in July and August, but otherwise my wardrobe didn't vary throughout the year.

Seasons have been an adjustment. Four years in Chicago and one of the snowiest New York winters on record mean I think I've got winter figured out (although that doesn't mean I enjoy it). And now, in New York City without AC, I'm having to figure out how to do summer.

A few of the things I've learned to do in the last couple weeks:

1. Move outside. The sidewalks and stoops in my neighborhood are now host to domino games, family gatherings, and impromptu water fights made possible by open fire hydrants (I saw three on my walk home from work today and it was only 85 degrees). In one apartment building I noticed two older ladies with pillows permanently placed on their window sills so they have a soft spot for their elbows while they watch the street and try to catch the breeze. I've taken to hanging out on the roof of my building, which has the added bonus of a great view of the entire Manhattan skyline.

2. Eat cold stuff. My roommates and I are avoiding anything that adds any extra heat to the apartment, so that means the stove and oven. I've started looking for the coolest days of the week and doing all my cooking then, and even so I'm switching to lots of raw or mostly raw recipes.

Dinner of apples, celery, cucumber, broccoli and avocado with tahini lemon yogurt sauce.

Other recent creations include cucumber salad with peanuts and lime, raita, dilly potato salad, and I'm looking forward to experimenting with different types of gazpacho. I've also started making cold-brewed coffee in my french press. It's great because it makes a concentrate that I refrigerate and dilute in the mornings with cold water and ice for iced coffee.

3. Wear less. The first thing I do when I get home in the evening is change into a tank top and shorts. Unfortunately this doesn't qualify as business casual, and it's been tough figuring out clothes that are both cool enough to allow me to walk to work, and warm enough to keep me from freezing in my way over air-conditioned office. One of the things I love about thrift shopping for clothes is how finding things I like that fit me is like getting a little gift from the universe. I knew I needed a black skirt for work, and within 2 weeks I had 4 (although this did nothing to address the fact that 95% of my wardrobe is black, gray or brown).

4. Ventilate. I love my apartment. I love the big windows and all the light and space.

Why yes, that is a hammock swing.

However, only one pane of the beautiful old factory windows opens. And the size of the space means it would be too expensive to cool the whole place (if we had a functioning air conditioner). And we just so happen to be on the top (and therefore warmest) floor of the building.

I live at the top of that ladder, on the opposite side of the apartment from the windows. My room gets really stuffy. So I have a large fan to point at myself, and a small one in the little space between my wall and the ceiling that is sucking some of the hot air out of my room (I hope).

But do I feel ready for the first 90+ degree day tomorrow?

Not so much.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011


Despite the moves and upheaval, what does it mean to live a home made life? Not in the briefest sense of the briefest pass of the term, but if you parse out "home" and "made", what does that really mean? How could that feed into a more peaceful and simple living?

A bowl of borscht, one of three soups made for a potluck-ish birthday celebration.

I'm probably getting too old for this, but I made my mom a drawing for her birthday.

Now it looks like this.

First attempt at bread from scratch.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

taken care of

A couple months ago I started to notice sensitivity on one side of my mouth to hot, cold and crunchy things. After pretending for several weeks that nothing was going on, I couldn't ignore it anymore. And I found myself in a situation I'd never been in before. I had to decide whether or not to get medical care based not on whether or not I needed it, but if I could afford it.

Growing up, this scenario would never have crossed my mind. As the child of a doctor and a nurse, my every pain and complaint was looked up in the Merck Manual and sent to a local specialist. The resulting diagnosis was then run by various medical acquaintances around the globe, just to be sure nothing was missed. Occasional sharp pains in my right knee? X-rays, orthopedists, and physical therapy. A day of vertigo? CT scan, MRI, and a visit to a neurologist and an ENT specialist. A nasty but routine case of a tropical illness? Med-evacc'ed to Singapore accompanied by an American EMT within hours of diagnosis. No potential problem was every left unaddressed, and cost was never an issue.

But here I am in the real world, with an annoying-but-not-debilitating sensitivity in my teeth that might (or might not) be an indicator of a cavity (or something even more unpleasant), which will almost certainly get worse (in terms of both pain and cost of treatment) the longer I let it go. And as for paying for it? I'm on my own.

And here again I'm getting just a little taste of the uncertainties and ugly trade-offs my clients face. It is absurd that dental and vision care are not included in regular medical insurance (as if the ability to eat and see were somehow non-essential). It is sick that people with incomes over $707 per month are expected to be able to pay for their own healthcare in New York City. (For a point of reference, that's a little bit less than what I pay for rent, utilities, and a monthly subway pass each month, and I'm not exactly living large).

As strange as it feels to consider forgoing a needed dental examination because of the cost, my situation is pretty tame. A few months ago one of my clients told me he had a growth on his neck that was getting bigger, but he couldn't find out if it was malignant or benign because while his unemployment benefits put him above the income range for Medicaid, they also didn't come close to covering the cost of a consultation or insurance.

My story doesn't turn out too badly. I figured out how to afford a dental check-up the same way I afford to get my hair cut in the city (letting a student do it). Turns out there was no cavity, so I'm probably off the hook.

But I wonder what happens to everyone else.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

follow up

A couple months ago I would, with some regularity, interrupt unrelated conversations with Mark by bursting into tears over the situations some of my clients were facing. I was taking in enough of the pain and difficulty people told me about that it started overflowing into other parts of my life. I knew it wasn’t healthy or sustainable, but as the pace and volume of my work began to escalate with tax season I found myself absorbing less and less. A few weeks ago I even caught myself being short with my blind or illiterate tax clients who hadn’t filled out their intake forms while waiting to be seen.

But apparently my capacity for compassion is back, and with an unlikely object.

I have sustained, long-term contact with only a few of my clients. Most of them I see once, call to follow up with, and that’s it. But there are a few. One guy in particular came in several months ago looking for a job and was immediately “one of those”. Sarcastic, self-deprecating, and disagreeable, I didn’t expect him to stick with our organizations’ program, but he did. He had gotten fired a few years away from retirement, was behind on his rent, and really needed a job. I kept badgering him over the course of several weeks to sign up for a free cellphone, and at some point he decided I wasn’t all that bad. He started stopping by my desk every time he came back to the office for a job interview. Over the course of the last few months he hasn’t found a job, has had to go on welfare (which means he has to spend 5 days a week at a dead-end city “job center”), and got evicted from his apartment. Worst of all was how I could see all of it in the new lines and hollows in his face when he stopped in a few days ago.

My teary outbursts are less frequent now, but I’ll admit I still don’t know what to do with the stories.

Friday, April 22, 2011

washing feet

I spent a good part of my afternoon yesterday in a meeting listening to higher-up administrators of some of the city's social services agencies give glowing accounts (accompanied by colorful charts and optimistic statistics) of the programs they operate for the city's poor. It was hard to believe these efficient, responsive, generous programs are the same ones my clients tell me about.

Yesterday was also Maundy Thursday, and I read these words from Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams on the blog for the NPR radio show On Being. He was speaking in reference to a medieval tradition in which monarchs washed the feet of the poor in commemoration of Jesus washing the feet of the disciples at the Last Supper:
What about having a new law that made all Cabinet members and leaders of political parties, editors of national papers and the hundred most successful financiers in the UK spent a couple hours every year serving dinners in a primary school on a council estate, or cleaning bathrooms in a residential home?
What if those administrators, the mayor, and the Wall Street bankers spent a few hours doing some of the assignments in the Work Experience Program, like picking up trash on the sidewalks and cleaning public restrooms without pay?

Thursday, March 31, 2011


I'll admit, I'd been a little disappointed by Mark Bittman lately. The NY Times food writer used to provide simple, easy recipes as The Minimalist. The only reference source I use more often than his How to Cook Everything Vegetarian is Wikipedia. His recent promotion to weekly Opinion columnist writing about a range of food and food system topics has, however, been less pleasant. He now bites off huge (and important) issues, dispatching problems like US agricultural subsidies them with simplistic solutions (subsidize veggies instead of corn!) in under 1,000 words. (Of course, I make the same complaint about Times columnist Nick Kristoff, who covers international politics and development, so perhaps my issue is with the column format in general.)

Nevertheless, Bittman just about restored himself in my mind with his most recent column, "Why We're Fasting". Earlier this week he joined activist and religious leaders around the country who are giving up food for a period of time in response to the current federal budget negotiations. Under serious consideration are huge cuts to anti-poverty programs like WIC (nutritional support for pregnant women and those with young children), Head Start (free preschool for kids from low-income families), food stamps, and international food and health aid.

I first heard about the fast through Bread for the World. I'll admit I dragged my feet on joining in, but Bittman's piece was a helpful reminder. I know from my clients how essential these services are for poor people here. In the case of food stamps, I know from my own experience how important they are. I believe these cuts are wrong. Today, I fasted.

Friday, March 4, 2011

further reflection

Two more responses:
What is more important to you now? What is less? Who knows you -- really knows you? How is prayer changing your life?

In what ways have I used my gifts to affirm my neighbors & friends and to encourage human flourishing both generally and particularly?

Wednesday, March 2, 2011


In preparation for a time of reflection on the year I am ending, I asked a number of the women whose thoughts, prayers, poems and silences have shaped me this year for questions:
In the last year, how have I been touched? How have I touched others (physically, emotionally and spiritually)?

Despite the moves and upheaval, what does it mean to live a home made life? Not in the briefest sense of the briefest pass of the term, but if you parse out "home" and "made", what does that really mean? How could that feed into a more peaceful and simple living?

What has given me life? How have I given it? What would it mean to live and love freely?

How did you perceive power as a child? What ideas, self-representations, objects, stories and people held power and meaning for you as a child? How did these ideas change and shift as your fire or power was tampered with?

What is the most important thing you have learned about yourself in the past year? a more self-critical vein, I like sometimes to think of what CS Lewis calls the "disordered loves" - how does what I crave or desire mask my transcendent desire for God?

What has been the time you felt most alive in the city? Series of moments? What is one city landscape that has really connected with your spiritual state of being?

What a gift.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

where are you from?

"Where are you from?" For most people, it's a fairly straightforward question. "I grew up in ______."

Not so for us third culture kids (TCKs). We are:
...individuals who, after having spent a significant part of the developmental years in a culture other than that of their parents,develop a sense of relationship to all of the cultures while not having full ownership in any. Elements from each culture are incorporated into the life experience, but the sense of belonging is in relationship to others of similar experience. (from Third Culture Kids: The experience of growing up among worlds by David Pollock and Ruth Van Reken)

...people who root themselves in ideas rather than places, in memories as much as in material things; people who have been obliged to define themselves - because they are so defined by others - by their otherness; people in whose deepest selves strange fusions occur, unprecedented unions between what they were and where they find themselves" (Salman Rushdie in Unrooted Childhoods)
Growing up, my answer to the hometown question depended on who was asking. When bargaining with Kenyan vendors at the crafts markets, I came from Kilimani (a Nairobi neighborhood). When traveling in East Africa, I was from Nairobi. To friends I made at youth group while we were on furlough in Georgia, I was from Kenya (though I often had to identify the continent for them as well). I embraced my TCK identity, and made sure that every new person I met knew where I grew up. It was a source of pride.

In college, that started to change. When swapping introductions with classmates I began dreading the standard "so where are you from?". My answer would usually either shock my new acquaintance into an overly-broad question ("So what was that like?") or provide a launching point for an enthusiastic description of his or her life-changing two-week trip to Zambia and subsequent "heart for Africa".

And in the last two years, I've found myself hiding my background. Once upon a time I eagerly shared my overseas upbringing, particularly with those from other cultures. I figured they would appreciate my global perspective and cross-cultural skills. And yet I've found something less than affirming in the responses of the Somali refugees, the undocumented Mexican farmworkers, and (most painfully) the Kenyans. There are polite questions about what my parents were doing in Nairobi, followed by silence.

Why? Because while I might have places or at least cross-cultural exposure in common with my immigrant friends, our experiences of change are entirely different. For me, moving between continents is easy. There is no walk through the desert, no wait in a refugee camp, no years-long visa application process. While our international lifestyle means I see my family members less often than I'd like, there are no legal or bureaucratic barriers to visiting them. And when I travel, money, med-evac insurance and white skin insulate me from the lived realities of the locals.

As my work has brought me closer to the poor in the US, I've realized that my TCK background can hurt rather than help my efforts to relate cross-culturally by highlighting my economic and social privilege. I've taken (somewhat ironically) to hailing from the Chicago suburbs.

So how do I now answer the question: "Where are you from?"

It still depends on who's asking.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

the happiness of chickens

Every culture has its' own set of unspoken rules governing interaction in public space, norms dictating how close you can walk behind someone, how many people can comfortably fit on/in the motorcycle/minibus/train car, and what circumstances justify interaction with a stranger. In New York, this last one involves a lot of non-interaction. Lots of trying to not make eye contact on a crowded train. Lots of waiting silently on subway platforms. Lots of passing people on the sidewalk without even looking up.

From my observations it takes something special to make a New Yorker engage a stranger - a particularly cute baby, an especially good book (like the exclamations I got while reading Jeannette Walls' The Glass Castle recently), shared frustration over some shortcoming of public transit (okay, so maybe that last one's not so special, but commiseration is still nice).

I find those moments are especially few and far between in neighborhoods like the ones I live and work in, where differences in language and race and the tensions of gentrification further inhibit conversation. So one of the bright spots in an otherwise dreary week (lots of tax clients + freezing rain + working every day), was reading this story from the NY Times. Set in Bed-Stuy (the neighborhood I work in), it involves not only one of those rare opportunities to break the code of non-interaction, it also features chickens.
And what's not to love? There's something intrinsically happy about a chicken. The name: a little hiccup in the mouth. The shape: a jaunty upswing of feathers, a grin. The ceaseless bobbing, scratching, pecking. It's nearly impossible to feel melancholy in the presence of chickens.

Thursday, February 3, 2011


In high school, I used to have math nightmares. I'd wake up anxiously trying to figure out a difficult trig problem, and it would take me awhile to realize I was in bed and relax enough to fall asleep again.

I had my first tax nightmares last night - same format, but with a filing statuses and 1099-Rs where quadratic equations and matrices used to be. They're the product of very full work days, of learning a different language (tax law) and trying to explain it in another foreign language (Spanish).

Nightmares notwithstanding, it's great work. After months where the best I could offer my clients was a list of documents they'd need for appointments at yet another office, it feels good to be able to actually provide a service. And to know it does something.

This video highlights the economic impact of the most significant tax credit we help folks claim - the Earned Income Tax Credit. Watch out for Yanira Rodriguez -- she's interviewed here as an EITC recipient, and she's another one of the tax preparers at my site!

Tuesday, January 25, 2011


As we're beginning to prepare tax returns at my VITA site, we see a lot of a certain type of client. While the employed are still waiting for the W-2s to arrive, our tax clients are primarily folks with no taxable income - those receiving disability insurance, social security, or public assistance. Viuda. Ciego. Discapacitada. Retirado. New York City provides a small school tax refund to all its' residents (although why we're giving back money set aside for an under-funded school system remains a mystery), and these folks are the first to file.

Unlike our general clientele, they're rarely missing any documents. Each carries a fraying, overstuffed envelope or a faded plastic bag filled with various ID cards, official letters, bills, divorce papers and receipts. These scraps of paper and bits of plastic, written in bureaucratic language incomprehensible to even those who are literate and do speak English, are their only source of security. One missed appointment, one misunderstood letter, and their only income could be cut off for months. They rattle off their birthdates, medical conditions and financial situations with ease after years of waiting in offices and being asked to prove they have nothing. For many of them, la vida es esperar. Life is waiting.

Their waiting heightens my awareness of my own. I'm having trouble moving on from Advent, trouble following the church calendar past Christmas and through Epiphany. I resonate with Heidi Neumark when she says
Probably the reason I love Advent so much is that it is a reflection of how I feel most of the time. I might not feel sorry during Lent, when the liturgical calendar begs repentance. I might not feel victorious, even though it is Easter morning. I might not feel full of the Holy Spirit, even though it is Pentecost and the liturgy spins out fiery gusts of ecstasy. But during Advent I am always in sync with the season. Advent unfailing embraces and comprehends my reality. And what is that? I think of the Spanish word anhelo, or longing. Advent is when the church can no longer contain its' unbearable, unfulfilled desire and the cry of anhelo bursts forth.
As my clients wait for me in the reception area, as I wait for them to sift through their papers to find the ones I need, as we wait together on the slow tax program to tell us what their refund will be, I am aware of my waiting, of my anhelo.

Every valley shall be raised up,
every mountain and hill made low;
the rough ground shall become level,
the rugged places a plain.

I'm waiting for that.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

hot or cold

Today I as I stood in line for coffee at the deli counter of the bodega down the street, I noticed a helpful handwritten sign announcing "No EBT currently".

There's just one problem: there was nothing at the deli counter that one could legitimately use EBT for. Ever. Even when their cash register was working. One of the food stamps rules is that you can't use them to buy "hot, prepared foods". Thus I could buy a jug of cold apple cider, but not a cup of it warm, and the same sandwich which I could not (legally) buy warm would be no problem cold and wrapped in plastic. Bodega owners skirt this regulation by ringing up warm sandwiches or other prepared foods as produce.

The sign brought up some sticky questions that I've been rolling around for the last couple weeks, since my most recent classist-comment-from-a-foodie encounter. A well-off self-confessed "food movement" member, upon hearing about my work, asked me if I saw a lot of people trying to defraud the food stamps system. The short answer (and the one I gave her) is that I see far more clients who aren't receiving the full amount they're entitled to (never mind enough to feed their families), than I do people trying to use the system.

But is there stretching of the truth? Yes. Are household arrangements reported so as to receive the most food stamps? Sometimes.

Does that bother me? I'll be honest - not really. Why? Because for every person I know will be less than completely truthful about their situation in the social services offices, there are several whose honest circumstances would get them hundreds of $$ a month who refuse to go because of how they've been treated or because of the stigma attached, even in parts of this working class community, to receiving government benefits. Because I've seen very few people with the means to actually, adequately cover their needs get excited enough about a few extra $$ for food to even attempt the whole ordeal. And because I'm much more bothered by the fraud perpetrated by some of the world's wealthiest individuals across the East River than a hundred dollars here or there for groceries.

Is this entirely consistent? No, maybe not.


Tuesday, January 11, 2011

food stamps...I forget what numeral comes next

After reading my hungry season post, my most frequent and most staunchly anonymous commenter (my mom, of course), asked how I was doing on food stamps.

The answer: just great.

But as I merrily swipe my EBT card for fruits, veggies, staples and the occasional indulgence (olives! cheese!), I'm more aware than ever that I'm pretty much the most ideally-situated food stamps recipient ever, and that my experience is worlds different from the average. Why?

I'm white, educated, and speak English. The worst I encountered at the food stamps office was ignorance and disorganization. I wish I could say the same for some of my clients at work, whose experiences have been so bad that no matter how dire their situation, they refuse to return. Also, when my case was originally declined I was able to follow up with my caseworker and get the decision changed. Most recipients consider a rejection notice final and don't ever contest it.

I have the time and skills to cook from scratch, and I enjoy it. Cooking from scratch is cheaper. It's also not an option for folks who are juggling multiple jobs and family obligations.

I'm single. I'm able to receive the maximum individual allotment of food stamps - $200 a month. If there was anyone else in my food stamps household, our per capita allotment would be decreased (for example, 2 people = $367)

I'm a vegetarian. Meat's expensive. Beans, lentils and eggs...not so much.

Most of my income doesn't count towards my food stamp eligibility. Due to a special legal provision, my stipend does not count towards my income. What I take home each month would make me completely ineligible for food stamps if it were all included. And did I mention neither the benefits allotments nor the qualification criteria have anything to do with where you live? So the fact that food is more expensive in NYC than most places and that it's impossible to rent a room for less than $500 a month here does nothing to change what people are entitled to.

I have farmer/vendor friends. Even though my market is closed until April, several of my farmer/vendor friends have moved to a year-round market in Brooklyn and still insist on giving me free bread and produce.

I'm a US citizen. Undocumented and over 18? No food stamps. Got your green card? Well, you're eligible, but only if you've had it for at least 5 years.

I live in NYC. Although the city is more expensive than most places, almost all the farmers markets take EBT. That's unheard of most other places.

And this is by no means an exhaustive list. Mentioning that I'm on food stamps gives me a bit of rapport with some of my clients when I'm recommending they apply, but in reality my situation couldn't be more different from theirs.

Monday, January 10, 2011

"grayed in, and gray"

One of the biggest changes I've noticed as I adjust to city life (particularly city life in the middle of winter in the neighborhood with the second least amount of park space of any in NYC) is how my poetry appetite has changed. Old friends like Wendell Berry, Jane Kenyon, and Mary Oliver don't awaken appreciation or love for a cold, half-industrial landscape and its (human) nature. They don't make much sense of prison or public assistance. So I was thankful to stumble across this Gwendolyn Brooks poem:

Kitchenette Building

We are things of dry hours and the involuntary plan,
Grayed in, and gray. "Dream" makes a giddy sound, not strong
Like "rent," "feeding a wife", "satisfying a man."

But could a dream send up through onion fumes
Its' white and violet, fight with fried potatoes
And yesterday's garbage ripening in the hall,
Flutter, or sing an aria down these rooms

Even if we were willing to let it in,
Had time to warm it, keep it very clean,
Anticipate a message, let it begin?

We wonder. But not well! Not for a minute!
Since Number Five is out of the bathroom now,
We think of lukewarm water, hope to get in it.
My first client today was a (40 year-old? 50 year-old? what's that in street years?) army veteran, obviously mentally ill, upset and complaining vaguely about one part of the so-called social safety net after another. Grayed in, and gray.

Monday, January 3, 2011

what could be more beautiful?

I'm pretty sure the first question I asked after deciding to move to NYC this year was an anxious "But what will I eat in the winter?" A year and half ago I wrote about reading Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle and how that book got me interested in connecting the dots with this whole food thing. It also put southern California on my radar, because where else (at least in the US) can you have almost any fruit or vegetable, local and in season, available year round? So it is with considerable concern that I begin my first post-farm winter in a place with real seasons.

I'm no die-hard locavore. Lots of my food comes from more than 100 miles away and I'm okay with that. But after a year and a half of eating mostly fruits and vegetables I grew myself or got from a friend at the farmers market, my taste buds have changed. I'll easily cruise through several pounds of New York farmers market apples in a week, but since holiday market closures forced me to buy produce at the local supermarket last week I find I can barely choke down one apple a day. I can taste the difference.

As a pretty serious farmers-market-vore, I'm lucky to be living in NYC, where several markets both run all the way through the winter and accept food stamps. Even so, in an appropriate reflection of my least-favorite season, there's little at these markets other than root vegetables and apples.

So, I'm trying to heed the wisdom of Opal from one of my favorite Toot and Puddle books, Wish You Were Here.

While Toot is off exploring the world and discovering exotic flowers in Wildest Borneo, Opal wonders (paraphrase) "What could be more beautiful than a marigold"? What could be more beautiful than what is available here, right in front of me?

So in that spirit...dinner!
Quinoa salad with grated carrot and apple, pickled beets (and their lovely juice, of course) dressed with lemon juice, red wine vinegar, Dijon mustard, salt and pepper, and garnished with non-local-but-still-seasonal-so-don't-judge-me orange segments.

What could be more beautiful?

Sunday, January 2, 2011

the hungry season

When I first moved back to the US it was hard for me to hear the difficulties low-income folks face described using the same word, "poverty", whether we were talking about people in suburban Chicago or in the slums of Nairobi. Could the same term used for a family living in a one-room, dirt-floor shack in Kibera be applied to a family who might be struggling to make ends meet but owned a car and a television in the US? Were the predicaments of people whose annual per capita incomes measured in thousands of dollars really in the same category of those whose annual incomes were only in the hundreds? Could circumstances marked by the swollen guts of obesity be compared to those resulting in the distended bellies of kwashiorkor?

So I've been surprised, living and working in north/central Brooklyn, to find a lot of similarities between the smells, the stories, the situations of poverty here and there. I'm familiar with the "hungry season" experienced in poor rural communities in the global South, the lean months when the stores from the last harvest dwindle but the current crop is not ready. And I'm learning about a similar cycle of plenty and hunger in the US.

Walmart, Costco, and other grocery outlets throughout the country brace for the first of each month a bit like retail stores do for Black Friday: they stock up, hire extra staff, extend their hours, and prepare for crowds. Like on Black Friday, the shopping frenzy often begins at midnight.

Except rather than discounted clothing and gift items, these shoppers are buying bread and baby formula. The first-of-the-month sales bump, well-documented over the past couple of years, occurs when each months' food stamps benefits are deposited at 12am on the 1st. The purchases reflect that fact that many families' food stamps allocations are insufficient, leading to a monthly cycle of plenty and want. A study of family eating patterns in my neighborhood showed that most families make one big trip to the grocery store at the beginning of the month with their food stamps, and tend to rely on family members, taking out credit at bodegas (corner stores), and food pantries when they've exhausted their benefits at the end of the month.

While this cycle is only one element in the complicated set of factors that allows many of the US's most food insecure people to also be its' heaviest, it certainly contributes. The report showed that many families tend to overeat at the beginning of the month when food is plentiful. As stocks dwindle weeks later, parents will often give their kids cheap junk foods that can make them happy in the hungry times. Once-a-month grocery trips also promote consumption of processed foods, since most fresh items wouldn't last the whole month. And the majority of the bodegas where people shop most frequently don't stock fruits, vegetables, and other healthy foods. It may not be famine in the Sahel, but the hungry season is here, too.

And while poverty looks different in a Maasai village in Kenya, an informal settlement in Phnom Penh, the factory-fields of southern California, and the streets of north Brooklyn, the prayer is the same.

Utupe leo riziki yetu

Danos hoy el pan de este dia

Give us this day our daily bread