On Sunday mornings, I go grocery shopping. It’s my weekly ritual. I roll out of bed, throw on some clothes and head out to Trader Joe’s. I go on the early side to avoid crowds or, more specifically, to avoid fighting for a space in their notoriously small parking lot. My Ford Focus is old and in need of numerous repairs. But for the most part, it gets me where I’m going. For that, I’m grateful. At Trader Joe’s, I peruse the aisles, picking up what I need and occasionally, a few impulse items. The store is bright, the employees are friendly and the overall vibe is upbeat. I move slowly, stopping to try whatever coffee they’re sampling that day or to read a label. After a beat or two of playful banter with the cashier, I pay for my groceries and head home. As quirky as it sounds, it’s one of my favorite parts of the week.
Juxtapose that with a typical day at my job. I work for food justice organization. At our no-cost market, which is located in the SODO neighborhood here in Seattle, we serve roughly 650 people a day, three days a week. Our guests wait in a line outside the market, sometimes in inclement weather, for their turn to come inside and “shop.” If they’re lucky, they’ll find items they’re looking for, like a jar of peanut butter or a can of tuna. But there are no guarantees. While our goal is to offer as much variety as possible, we’re dependent on donations to keep the shelves stocked. As such, our inventory isn’t the same as a regular grocery store. Most of our guests rely on public transportation to get to the market. Some come on foot. A few have cars or bicycles. The space is clean, modern and beautiful. More importantly, we center hospitality, dignity and building community. Still, when it comes to accessing food, guests at the market have a far different experience than I do…than many of us do.
Food insecurity is when someone doesn’t have reliable access to nutritious and affordable food. In Washington state, one in ten adults and one in six children live with food insecurity. Additionally, one in five families use a food bank as their primary source for groceries- one in five. Think about that. Across the United States, roughly 14.3 million households experience some form of food insecurity. The Trump administration has recently imposed new restrictions to the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP), which will result in approximately 700,000 people losing basic food assistance. The ruling imposes a “one-size-fits-all” work requirement for receiving benefits. However, it doesn’t take into account complexities that contribute to unemployment or underemployment, the difficulties in verifying some forms of employment – especially for those who earn income from a variety of sources – or how this will impact those who rely on the SNAP recipient whose benefits are being cut. In short, a lot of people will be hurt by these changes, which go into effect April 1. Needless to say, this will only increase the number of people experiencing food insecurity.
So what does food insecurity look like anyway? Food insecurity is often conflated with homelessness. However, this is an erroneous oversimplification. While many homeless people do experience food insecurity, not everyone who is food insecure is homeless. Many people struggling with hunger are working full-time jobs but still unable to make ends meet. Some are elderly with fixed incomes. Some are dealing with unexpected life circumstances that have wreaked havoc on their finances. Many have to make tough choices between paying utility bills or buying food for their family. Sometimes these are long term challenges. Other times, temporary. Regardless of the reason or duration, food insecurity hurts the psyche in ways you can’t imagine unless you’ve been through it.
I’m a case in point.
My twenty- year marriage ended at the peak of the recession. Divorce is a difficult experience. And divorce during an economic downturn is particularly dire. My housing and economic situation changed drastically. My freelance work wasn’t generating enough income to live on, so I embarked on a prolonged and grueling job search in a market that was brutal. I eventually found a gig at a preschool but was egregiously underemployed. I didn’t have enough money for a lot of essentials, including adequate health insurance and food. I applied for and received SNAP benefits. I also used a food bank. I vividly remember the first time I went. This particular food bank was in a church basement. I stood in a long line that extended down the street and around the corner. I felt apprehensive and alone. When I finally stepped up to the window for my intake, I was sunk in vulnerability. Thank God for the kindness of the woman on the other side of the glass. Her warmth and eye contact took the edge off the shame. I left that first day with fresh vegetables, dried lentils and a large bag of bagels. It was like a lifeline.
There’s a common narrative that people who receive government assistance are lazy ne’re-do-wells, trying to milk the system. I emphatically challenge that. Being poor is hard, and asking for help is even harder. Over time, it batters self-esteem and drains the spirit. It’s exhausting. Self-determination isn’t always enough. And there’s nothing worse than doing your best, only to come up short. While there may be a tiny fraction of folks taking advantage of programs such as SNAP, the majority would give anything to change their situations and live autonomously. What’s important to remember is that hardship can strike at any time. None of us are immune from the potential of food insecurity. In the almost five years that I’ve worked in food justice, I’ve heard story after story about lives that changed in an instant. We have a saying at the market that if you hang around there long enough, you’ll see yourself walk through the door.
Everyone has a fundamental right to food, and hunger is injustice. This is a tenet of the organization I work for and something I also hold to be true. The problem isn’t a scarcity of food, but a deficit of resolve. These are tumultuous times – politically, socially and economically. We live in a culture where it’s seemingly acceptable for our brothers and sisters to sleep on the streets or go hungry. Democracy itself is in peril. We’re fighting hard, but God knows we’re weary. Sometimes, the path is painfully unclear. All I know to do is to care for the most vulnerable among us, those most negatively impacted by inequity and injustice.
Activism can take many forms, but it starts at the heart. Regardless of what our fight looks like, we can do this much: Whether it’s a warm shower, a safe place to sleep or something as simple as a trip to the grocery store, be mindful of what we take for granted. And be grateful.
To learn more about how you can help in the fight against hunger, please visit the Food Research & Action Center: https://frac.org/
“Remember the living. Give them love, give them bread.”