The varying aspects of poverty in the United States don't surprise me much, anymore. There was a time, when I first traveled the nation, living in homeless shelters, that I was surprised on a daily basis. Now, after numerous cross-country trips, after years and years of managing homeless shelters, it's rather difficult to rouse that old blank stare and feeling of slack jawed bewilderment. But happened it did, just last night.
I'm operations manager at Carlisle CARES homeless shelter. CARES is an emergency shelter in suburban Pennsylvania. Yesterday, I infuriated a mentally ill woman who shouted insults and obscenities at me. This poor woman dressed me down so loudly that everyone could hear her. Most folks are familiar with at least one command shouted in anger. But, she shouted a command I'd never heard before. "Eat Cat Food, _______!" followed by a pejorative term, oddly, not one used for a female cat, but for a female dog.
After the heated moment ended, the folks I work with who couldn't help but over hear her, chuckled mightily at the unique comment. It wasn't until later that night, at the shelter, as 50 or so homeless people bedded themselves down on the floor of a church, that I came to understand her intention. "Eat Cat Food, ______!" wasn't an exclamation of anger. It was a curse.
First, let's set the stage for any discussion of poverty so severe that it results in homelessness. Untreated mental illness is a big problem. Not because many people who experience homelessness are mentally ill and off their medicine. In fact the opposite is true, the vast majority of homeless people are the working poor and their families. But, let's face it, it only takes one person hearing voices, talking in tongues, or setting fires, to make a big impact on everyone in a shelter and the surrounding community. The hard-core delusional folks who strip off their clothes or scream at passing cars stand out.
So I stepped into the shelter where statistically, last night, 96% of the homeless population was lucid and doing fine - impressive considering they and their families have no home and no support team to shelter them as they endure heart-breaking poverty - and I started talking with folks who had overheard, "Eat Cat Food, _______!" Only, and here's the source of my complete and total surprise... they weren't rocking their heads incredulously at the absurdity of the comment, the way my co-workers and I had. No, a trio of women aged 34 to 61 was talking to me about - wait for it - how it tasted!
You read that right. These three women spoke to me without shame or even surprise about the fact that they had eaten cat food, "Some of it's like tuna, only less expensive. Oh, and crunchier."
How could I possibly be so stupid?
The youngest woman recounted her experience, "My grandma used to give it to us, it wasn't all that bad." Sadly, my face or my silence must have given me away. One of the woman looked at me and asked - now she was the one surprised - "What, you've never had cat food?"
I've spent the morning web searching statistics on the consumption of pet food by humans in the United States. Most of what I found dates back to the 1970's. A New York Times article archived by Google explained that a study spearheaded by then Senator George McGovern had been leaked to the media and that unconfirmed sources claimed that humans ingested 30 percent of the pet food sold in the country.
You can imagine how this horrified the companies that produce food for animals. According to the 1974 New York Times article, "The Pet Food Institute in Washington D.C., are busily knocking down the rumors, which dismay and even irritate them with the inevitable resulting question (and potential higher cost) of human food standards for pet food ingredients and processing."
So while I couldn't identify statistics supporting the anecdotes told by the women in the shelter, I could explain the crunchy quality they noted in their remarks. The same article reveals that according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, "Lungs, spleens, gullets, intestines, bruised or emaciated muscle tissue go routinely into pet foods. So do '4-D' animals (dead, dying, diseased or disabled); those with infectious conditions are chemically denatured and sent to rendering plants, to be turned first into meat meal and bone meal. The rest are decharacterized with ground charcoal to keep them out of human-food channels."
This week's State of the Union Address didn't mention people eating pet food. None of the front-runners for president ever talk about people eating pet food. But clearly they should. And if they don't, we should all go to their public appearances and curse them, "Eat Cat Food, ______!" You can fill in the blank as you see fit.