Understanding Poverty From the Inside: Food

This is the fourth installment in a series: "Understanding Poverty from the Inside."
Over the course of my research, one prominent theme that emerged related to diet and access to food, both at school and at home. Food stamps were the primary means families used to buy the families groceries. Even as children, the participants had a clear sense of the restrictions around making purchases using food stamps and other government food programs like Women, Infants and Children (WIC), which meant purchasing only what was "allowed," with specific guidelines for both consumers and stores alike. Such regulations on food and goods had and continue to follow proscriptions dictated by what that some critics have dubbed "the nanny state.." This certainty that the "government knows best" serves as a critique of the poor by enshrining the notion that they do not know what is good for them. In this vein, for many of the participants, the food stamp restrictions felt like punishment.
(For brief biographies of the study's participants and details about the criteria for choosing participants, see the first installment in this series, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/angelica-v-hernandez/understanding-poverty-fro_b_9988588.html)

I recall my own experience standing in line with my mother at the grocery store. Not only would the cashier not look up at us, but also you could feel the collective sigh as my mom tried to tear out the perforated paper money. Each sheet was brightly colored by denomination and requiring required great care on tearing out of its package. Depending on the cashiers' mood, he or she would not accept a torn coupon, even if they saw it tear right in front of them. These small gestures stirred feelings of guilt that we were trying to get away with something; that there was a suspicion cast upon us about the legitimacy of our need.

U.S. Government Food Coupon "Food Stamps"

My first official job at 16--beside shoe shining, selling "chicle" and candy bars on the corner in Chicago, pulling weeds for neighbors, measuring feet and polishing shoes at the shoe store, selling raspados along the potholed streets of Chicago, and being an errand runner for my friends' moms (I bought cigarettes, gallons of milk, and any other last minute forgotten items that a ¼-mile run would solve)--was at a grocery store. I, like the other women in the study, know how to work. I was struck silent when a co-worker, usually an adult (teenagers were box boys or box girls), would almost always critique the food choices and/or judge the person with food stamps. I had neither the words nor the strength to contest the judgment--until now. I remember.

Some participants noticeably struggled to picture what food stamps looked like as material objects. According to Shalah:

They were blue and red and there were different denominations, and I remember her paying, but I didn't conceptualize that as poverty because my parents have had their own business for 42 years now. Food stamps used to be like little papers, right? I remember my mom going to Johnson's and she would take out these papers but I didn't know what they were and I never asked.

Consuelo was ambivalent about knowing what aid her family had received: "I'm not quite sure we got food stamps, but I think we got like WIC and stuff like that. But I'm not positive about food stamps."

Monica had a vague memory of having used food stamps:

I just remember my mom had to pay with a paper that wasn't money. My mom was given assistance like in the form of food and I think they were called vouchers. I don't know where they came from, but all I know is that they were in the form of free food. I remember her using them to get stuff, but I don't remember a lot.

Carmen recalled her family's strategy to avoid being seen by others:

When we went to the market and we had to pay with the food stamps, I remember we would go at certain times where it wasn't too crowded because we didn't want to feel like we were holding up the line and that we ran into somebody we knew who would become aware of our situation and that would change their perspective of how they saw us. So we became very aware of sort of keeping it very--a very private and sort of unspoken sort of situation.

Carmen touched on the self-perception many women expressed: being an onus on society. For Carmen, this feeling manifested as investing energy and time so as not to "hold up the line" while the checker took the food stamps. For the poor, similar scenarios have played out time and time again; the food items cross the conveyer belt and go through the scanner; nonfood items get rung up separately. Next, the cashier has to tear out each bill from its booklet; each bill is then stamped and placed in a special section of the till. Meanwhile, the person or persons in line may have grown inpatient waiting for the nonfood items to be rung up, paid for, and bagged. A similar reaction is provoked when someone has grocery coupons. The cashier has to scan each coupon, making sure the customer bought the exact item that matches the coupon. It has to be the right size, brand, and quantity . . .

Monica recalled with poignant detail the anticipation of the food stamps, the date the food stamps arrived, and the restrictions the food stamps had:

Toward the end, we were very tight, like when it was getting the end of the month, I remember my mom would be like - it was beans, potatoes and rice for dinner. . . I knew that the food stamps were only for food, like for groceries, and they weren't like real money. You know, it was just that you could only buy this cereal or this juice or this cheese . . . I think we got paid like the first of the month and maybe like the middle of the month, the 1st and the 15th.

I remember we used to get food and we used to get - we could only buy certain food, like my mom never - we always wanted to buy - I didn't know at the time, but my mom never let us buy like the sugar cereals, like Lucky Charms or Coco Puffs. We only got like the plain Rice Krispies, the plain Corn Flakes.

We wanted to buy candy or chips or sugar cereal. And she was like, "No, we can't buy that." Cash money, not food stamps, and they only had food stamps left. So I remember sometimes they would exchange cash, like they would sell their food stamps for cash to other people. And also sometimes my mom would buy food stamps and give people cash if we needed groceries or is someone needed the cash. I remember, you know, I remember our food changed too because my dad, he worked in the fields. He used to bring us cherries and avocados and fresh fruits and vegetables. So I remember that we ate better, you know? My mom would make tacos. We had more meat, fruits and vegetables. [We'd eat] less Raman [and] cereal. We really had a lot of carbs, and what did we eat? Like bologna, hot dogs, and like top Raman noodles and to this day, we ate that so much, I don't like hot dogs. I don't like bologna, and I hate those top Raman noodles. So I never eat those. I never buy those anymore because I'm not that poor.

Monica related her current diet directly to the diet she had had when she was poor. Her own observations about the type of food she ate, the quality of the food she ate, and the lack of choice crystalized the experience of many of the women as they had struggled to secure enough food with their families. Monica also mentioned the exchange of food stamps for cash and vice versa, an illegal but necessary act.

I remember going into the corner store to buy a penny candy in order to get the 99 cents change for the bus. It was a common practice along with getting whatever coin combination for a dollar food stamp . . . the urgency I felt as the bus approached . . . the exchange seemed fair at the time.

Bending the rules seemed necessary. As a teenager working at a large grocery store chain, I could not tolerate the waste generated on a daily basis, discarding bruised apples, dented cans, and almost-expired loaves of bread. My own experience with deprivation took hold of me, as I would defy company policy. During my shift, I would place opened or damaged cans, pastries, and breads on the back wall. People would come to the store once it closed to get the food, so I wouldn't put it in the large dumpsters as instructed. I'd place it neatly in a cardboard box so they wouldn't have to pick through the trash in order to eat.

In 2004, the government changed the food stamps and created Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) cards, which look like a regular credit card. This served multiple purposes; it was easier to electronically deposit funds into a clients account instead of mailing checks, it cut down on mail theft, lost or stolen coupons and most importantly, it reduced the stigma for its users. http://www.nytimes.com/2004/06/23/us/electronic-cards-replace-coupons-for-food-stamps.html?_r=0

Eating Out

Many of the women discussed not having had the means to eat out like their peers. If they did go out to eat, they did not go to restaurants. They went to fast food chains like McDonalds, Carl's Jr., Burger King, or they ate from taco trucks, a form of dining only recently reinvented as a gentrified, trendy destination. For these women, eating from a taco truck was considered an extravagance. It was considered "going out" for dinner--a treat for the family.

Susana recalled her own family's ritual for going out to dinner:

We actually did go out to dinner every Friday. We [my brothers and I] always wanted burgers and just like clockwork, el viernes was Burger King night. But not just any BK, we always went to the BK that is in the University Village, close to USC [on Jefferson]. Not sure why we always gravitated to that one specific place but I remember liking that location because it was always nice and clean. I guess in comparison to other fast food restaurants in the hood, the USC BK would be the nicer one. When we didn't feel like burgers we would go to my uncle's taqueria on Broadway and Florence to get some tacos. So those two spots were the main places we went out for dinner on Fridays. Saturdays were usually spent in the park so we ate lots of carne asada throughout the city's parks.

Susana and her family made a conscious choice to go to a specific Burger King. Around that time, the area surrounding USC had been cleaned up for the student population--part of the university's attempt to create a college-like town; however, four blocks off campus, stores and restaurants had--and have--not been modified or gentrified for the local population.

In her testimonio, Patricia did not cite a specific restaurant but had indelible memories of the rare experience of eating out in the least expensive possible way; she explained:

Every once in a while we would go to a Mexican food restaurant. When we went to restaurants my sister and I had to share a meal based on a choice my mother gave us . . . it usually was based on budget. B and I would share a soda and my brother would eat off my parents' meal. My mom would ALWAYS order the least expensive thing on the menu.

Of course ordering the least expensive thing on the menu usually means ordering something you don't particularly want. Several of the women noted having carried this pattern of ordering into adulthood. The decision between want and need seemed to be clear-cut for many of the women, a lesson taught at a young age. Not only did the government tell them that they couldn't have sweet cereals, but also family-based economic restrictions would follow them throughout their lives. For many of the participants, eating out provoked feelings of anxiety, shame, and deep awareness of their socioeconomic realities.

As Vanessa said:

So a lot of my friends did eat out regularly. Usually, if I was with them, I would feel embarrassed if we went to go eat and I wouldn't have money to buy myself something. But their parents would be like, no, no, I've got it. And I always felt like I was a burden on to them, so I was very self-conscious of it . . . I was constantly aware of those kinds of things because feeding one other person; it's a big deal in my family.

I had never even went [sic.] to Jack-in-the-Box until after I finished high school. If we did eat out, it was like El Pollo Loco or something a little bit on the healthier side, but most of the time, we had to eat at home.

Likewise, Carmen recalled:

We never went to places where waitresses waited on us or where formal dinnerware was already set. If we went out, it was to eat tacos from a catering truck or we bought chicken from KFC or hamburger meals from Spartan burgers, a lot of home cooking, a lot of basic staples like rice and beans. Meat was sort of extra.

Charity Food: Churches and Food Banks

Churches and food banks were a resource that several of the participants and their families had relied upon to put food on the table.

As Maria recalled:

Sometimes it was hard finding food. You know, we didn't get stamps because we couldn't qualify, but we would go to church.

Here at least we could eat and go to the church to get food. In Guatemala, we couldn't go anywhere because there wasn't nothing [sic.] I mean there were some days where my family in Guatemala had to eat herbs, wild herbs from the los campos [fields], you know, where we lived. Sometimes we didn't know what we were eating, and like we would find a tomato or something and make something out of it. Like there we sometimes, we were really hungry.

Here, at least we had food banks and I mean the church, you know. We would go to church to get food. They would just give you, they were like pre-made bags I remember the rice. And sometimes they would give us cheese, and that was like, that was awesome. Like you know, like the mozzarella or whatever, the thick, the cheese that comes in the block. There were tortillas too in the package and rice or tomatoes, the tomato cans. There would be corn and you know, like green beans, and then it would be some like mashed potatoes, [there] would be a lot of cans.

Monica had comparable memories of receiving meals from charitable organizations, describing free meals her family had received in the local park.

Community resources like food banks and churches play a major role in feeding the poor. This practice is so common that many community service assignments in middle school, high school, and college involve students "feeding the poor." One event that makes the news rounds every year is the Los Angeles Mission's Christmas Event, which feeds about 5,000 people on Christmas Day.

I have one particular memory of food and its relationship to poverty from this time.
My daily staple was eggs, tortillas, Lipton Soup, and cereal. I remember opening the packet of the tomato or green pea soup and pouring the hot water over the powdered substance. I stirred and stirred until the powder unclotted. Eventually, the water and powder would mix and turn the appropriate color, red for tomato and green for pea soup. The only way to make the soup last was by crumbling saltine crackers in the bowl until you had what resembled a paste.

Throughout my life, I remember going to churches and getting bags of food. I also remember the holiday dinners at local churches from the flyers posted on a telephone pole in the neighborhood. That flyer was the anonymous invitation we needed and accepted. We used to go to a Seventh Day Adventist Church and have potluck after church. We never contributed to the potluck, but depended on the meal each Saturday.
I ate with feelings of gratitude and shame.

Home for the Holidays

The wait always bothers me. No one else I know waits in line for free food. There is a bunch of ladies carrying their baby's in their arms. Several of the ladies also have toddlers at their knees. One lady is trying to keep her kids from climbing on the railing and running up and down the stairs. She doesn't want to lose her place in line so she gives up after a while. There is an old man and five old women waiting, too. They have covered their heads with newspaper to hide from the sun. I wonder if they know each other or they just shared the newspaper? I have seen them before; I think the old man lives upstairs from the liquor store and one of the old ladies takes the bus we take to get to St. Mary's.

The five-pound brick of cheese is camouflaged in a cardboard colored wrapping with the words, "USDA GOVERNMENT CHEESE-Not for resale." Every adult in line gets a brick. Along with the cheese is a bag of filled with rice, beans, powdered milk, and creamed corn. It is the usual; unless it is around a holiday, which is when the extras came. For Thanksgiving there is a can of candied yams and a box of mashed potato mix. The Christmas bag has a can of cranberry sauce and box of stuffing. Stapled to the bag is a slip of paper with an invitation to Christmas dinner in the church gym.

Join us for
Christmas Dinner
Saturday December 25, 1979

Turkey, mashed potatoes and all the fixing's
Save room for the pumpkin pie
See what Santa Clause brings all the boys and girls!

I never like the Thanksgiving dinners at church. I am always handed a plate with all the food squashed together. I hate peas; they taste like dirt and feel gross when they pop out of their skin in your mouth. The cranberry sauce always stains the roll and makes it soggy. The gravy on the mash potatoes slimes the stuffing and makes it wet. The turkey is dark meat, and I hate dark meat. Dark meat has veins and stringy stuff that is stuck on it; the skin is always wet and jiggles when I move the plate. I hate my food touching. Everything gets contaminated with gravy or cranberry sauce. Why can't I make my own plate? All I want is a slice of white meat, stuffing, and a roll. I hate Thanksgiving (Hernandez, 2009).

My mother died eight years ago: 2007. Our inheritance was what was left in her saving account when she died, $333.00 to be divided among her 5 children. She also left a refrigerator filled with small cartons of juice from the "club" as she called it (The Senior Center), dozens of tortillas molding in the meat drawer, and a case of expired muffins she had received from the church. The food "was for the poor," she would tell me. I reminded her that we were not poor anymore. I had a job as a private tutor for affluent families in the Westside of Los Angeles. I could buy her all the fresh food she needed; she would never have to stand in line anymore for food, clothes, or anything else. She didn't believe me.

The next installment in the series is: Understanding Poverty from the Inside: School