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