Full Disclosure: I apologize if this blog post is a tad incoherent. I haven’t eaten an actual meal yet today (I know, self care fail, but some of you recent grads and those who are transitioning between jobs will definitely understand). The goal of this entry isn’t intended to be attention seeking, but is rather intended to help me unpack some of the experiences I’ve had to endure during this new phase of my life as a public servant.
I just completed my first week as a public health employee with my local government. Aside from a food security issue, it went quite well.
I spent most of the week on boarding. After being unemployed for 7 months, it was nice to have a place to go everyday with the assurance that I was back on a trajectory for getting my needs met.
After I ran out of money a couple of months ago (I stretched and lived off of one month’s pay for about 5 months before I got ‘desperate’ for money in any real non-romanticized way.
Prior to this week I’ve had to learn a lot of lessons in humility about asking for help. For those of you who have never had to adapt to food insecurity, you should know that living through it requires more emotional labor and mental gymnastics than you could ever imagine.
Take for example: How would you go about asking a friend or family member for financial assistance? What if you had to ask for assistance at your church? …Or if it was not your first time asking for help with food or utility assistance….
How would you go about even initiating that conversation?
I have the added complication of being allergic to everything. I have a lot of autoimmune challenges will I may have (or will have) mentioned in previous posts, so it becomes easier to tell people how the money will be spent than to pick up food from a pantry and have to explain all of the things that I can’t eat without seeming entitled and picky (oddly, gluten is not one of my food allergies — I am allergic to the hormones they use in meat, I’m severely allergic to tree nuts, peanuts — which are technically legumes — and soy trigger nerve pain and inflammation due to my chronic autoimmune condition, and I get anaphylactic reactions to eggs but don’t seem to notice the reaction in ‘trace amounts’.
So, I had to emotionally detach from a lot of shame to even be able to ask for help.
We place so much stigma around people who ask us for help with food out on the street that even if you ARE personally the kind of person who gives people money for food without any conditions, most people don’t. Cities criminalize those who hand out food to the homeless (often citing food safety concerns even in cases where the food was prepared in a commercial kitchen).
I’ve volunteered in soup kitchens to investigate grievances homeless people have made of mistreatment where hungry people were forced to listen to hour long sermons before they were allowed to eat. I’ve seen expired food stored by food banks for redistribution and receive government contracts in which they are the only institutions allowed to provide public food assistance — IN SOME OF THE SAME CITIES where other churches who feed people food they bought from the store have been cited for violating non solicitation ordinances.
So there can be a lot of hoops to jumps to through if you’re in a city that criminalizes poverty, has a longstanding history of redlining, or that grossly underfunds intervention.
So as I’ve been scraping together odds and ends from my pantry (and the combinations are starting to get really gross to make sure that I have the nutrients I need), I’ve also been trying to navigate my new role at my job (which will eventually make it possible NOT to have to worry about how I’m going to pay for basic needs), I’ve also been trying to navigate ‘who’ it would be appropriate to borrow money from (my mom broke her foot right after she helped me with my (very low cost of) rent, and my brother helped me pay for rent and bills while I worked a temp position.
I had another friend who works as a pastor who donated $50 worth of food that I thought I’d be able to stretch for 3 weeks, but as it turns out, that was a very optimistic estimate. But there’s something about receiving church assistance that pretty much ensures that you can’t attend that church anymore AND (or) that you will be donating specifically to that church as a form of reparations for bailing you out for the rest of your employment history. So that can be a weird power dynamic to navigate.
One co-worker commented at the abnormal speed with which I finished my sun butter and expired jelly sandwich. I told her I was trying to rush so that I wouldn’t be late to my next meeting, but really I was just hungry. I’ve been stretching a batch of pancake mix for dinner all week that I’m fairly certain may not be food safe anymore now that I start to feel flu-ey after I consume it.
Given that I once contracted mumps due to a compromised immune system from attempting a global south diet of beans and rice for several weeks (because I couldn’t afford to pay for rent, bus fare to/from work, AND food with what Geek Squad paid me at the time (the wages weren’t the issue but rather that my supervisor cut my hours so that Best Buy didn’t have to pay employment benefits).
So I have had a lot of fear about running out of food for this new role, haven’t been getting the nutrients I need to process fear as rationally as I’d like, and have been trying not to call too much attention to the fact that despite my best effort to make healthy, cost-effective options (technically I’ve been an economic mastermind throughout all of this), because I didn’t want my hardship to be politicized or to compromise power dynamics with folks whom I have collegial, transactional relationships if it isn’t necessary.
The Silver Lining
So consequently, I can say that although my first week was a tad stressful, the rest of my reentry process this week was very positive.
Aside from the food thing, this week has been kind of like a ‘Cinderella Story’… except that she’s acutely (and suddenly) aware that her personal success doesn’t change the systemic issues that created real hardship for her, yet in her new role she would literally be responsible for shaping local policy that would address the root causes of those kinds of hardships for others using the public health 3.0 model which is more health equity focused.
I was proud of myself. Through it all, I managed to maintain composure but also let my direct supervisor know (in a discreet way) that I might have a few financial barriers that impact my job this week (I was worried it was going to be longer but just happened to start midway through the pay period). I tried to make sure that those who offered coffee and lunch invites understood that I wasn’t in a financial position to cover those costs for the duration.
What was probably the most endearing part of this whole reentry process was fielding conversations about income disparities and poverty with funders and organizers WHILE I was hungry (and kinda foggy… and internally panicked). It definitely gave me a profound appreciation for how much I take for granted.
Discussing hunger as a concept or a piece of data with someone at the federal reserve who applauds work that you’re doing for being empirical rather than emotional can feel like a slap in the face when you’re nutrient deprived and at a luncheon where all of the food they served contained allergens. (That actually happened and I filled up on coffee, juice, and fruit).
You don’t realize how aware of food you become and distressing it can be to lack access when you’re surrounded by people who seem all but too enthusiastic to eat and talk about it.
One thing people don’t realize because the topic of health, poverty, and food access are so heavily politicized is that when we talk about how poverty affects different ethnicities, genders, and people with disabilities, a lot of these key metrics are not starting to also affect recent grads and young professionals who owe considerably more than they bring in.
As the job market shifts to more of a gig economy framework, because those are the most stable jobs available but don’t have any labor costs associated like workman’s comp or healthcare benefits, many young professionals and recent grads are slipping into the income demographic classified below the poverty line.
We’re starting to hear increasing amounts of stories about people who are dying because they couldn’t fundraise the cost of their treatment and meds now that the feds have defunded healthcare.
Poverty is really effing isolating. So if a friend confides in you that they are struggling, and they downplay it, they might be really embarrassed it but have shown enough courage to confide in you even though they may not know whether they can trust you to respond in the ways that they need or want.
So if you notice someone casually mention that they’re struggling financially, or if they directly ask you for help (like the guys on the street):
one way to offer to support is to ask the recipient what they specifically need (or how can you help).
It’s totally understandable if you can’t help out financially, but also keep in mind that it might be way less challenging for you to request assistance for an (anonymous) friend than for that friend on their behalf than it would be for them to advocate for themselves.
The physiological and psychological toll, shame, and stigma associated with economic insecurity can make poverty MUCH harder than it needs to be.
And any intervention on your part, no matter how small, may expand their opportunity to make healthy choices instead of desperate ones.