When I’ve had a particularly stressful day, I come home and either
pour a beer or glass of wine. Then I commit to spend my entire evening in the
kitchen. Making food is one of my great de-stressors. For those few hours with
the evening light cascading through my kitchen window, I feel in control and
creative. I feel that I am rejuvenating my mind and body. However, many people
do not have this luxury after a stressful day.
For the past three years I’ve traveled across the state each
summer talking with participants of food pantries. We talk about food, health,
bills, stores, community, benefits and federal assistance. So many of them do
not get that same peaceful respite in the evenings to “defrag” the brain and
emotions. Their stress does not leave once they leave work. They leave stressed
about how they can keep their job and get to the appointments they need to get
to for themselves or family members. They stress when they look into their
children’s eyes who ask for school supplies or new clothing. They find stress
in the mounting bills and not enough pay.
What I find disappointing again and again, are the strong
stereotypes that exist and directed at poor people. “They’re just not trying
hard enough.” “They take advantage of the system.” These are excuses and
assumptions laid out towards people that are not being fully understood. Not
only that, it’s messaging that is, at its core, creating a much worse story.
The story being told to us each time media or politicians repeat
this message is that the federal assistance programs don’t work because people
take advantage of them. Furthering the view to de-fund these programs. The
messaging also tells us that these people are liars and free-loaders – that they
don’t want to work. They abuse the food pantries by visiting multiple in one
Maybe some of these you’ve heard and with enough conviction even
found yourself believing. It’s hardly surprising with this messaging being sent
out by many mainstream media folks.
But here’s the rub: it’s just not true. I’ve talked with many
people that utilize federal assistance and food pantries. Individuals that aren’t
working are doing so because of health or physical injury. Some that aren’t
working have been shoved into the corner where the job that they can get pays
too little to feed their family, yet now they receive too much to qualify for
food stamps. They are stuck looking at their children trying to figure out how
to feed them and choose to quit their job so that they can do just this. I’ve
watched many mothers and fathers well up with tears when telling a story like
this. It’s hard for them. They can’t win for losing. They feel as if they can’t
get a leg up no matter how hard they try. Yet – we tell them to try harder
simply because we’ve done it.
In the four years of this work, I’ve not met a free-loader. I’ve
met people from all walks of life trying to simply keep their nose above water
and provide for their kids. I’ve met parents who cry as they say they haven’t
eaten in two days so that their child can eat. I’ve met fiercely strong people who
work with their neighbors and community to provide an informal support system.
No one else is helping them and they know the stereotypes placed on them.
I ask for a call towards greater understanding towards people’s
lives that are different from ours. Instead of believing soundbites on TV or
the radio, go find out for yourself. Volunteer at a local food pantry and meet
new people. Broaden your understanding and learn how other people live.