Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Rent, Food and Tossed Salad

Some days, just for the heck of it, I click on the blog links on other people's blogs. I was doing that the other day and came across this blog and a post about Rent vs. Food and one about Tossed Salad . They both really spoke to me. Actually they hit me in the gut because I could relate to them so well.

It's been nearly a year now since we came off the welfare rolls. It feels like a lifetime ago. I never kept a journal during that painful time. For that reason. It was too painful to live it and I didn't want to face it every day in the words on the page. But it's time to write about it because people think this kind of thing only happens to 'other' people. I never told my family. The shame was too great.

This quote from Rent vs Food says it well:

"If our clients had more money in social assistance the vast majority of them would spend it on food. I don't think the social assistance system was designed intentionally to keep clients oppressed by poverty yet this is exactly what seems to be happening. "

This came home to me one day when one of my kids told me that afternoon she had been talking with her brother and they were dreaming outloud about what they would buy if they had money. The conversation was halted when they both realized all they could talk about was what kind of food they would buy. They realized that in our 'other' life they would have been talking about music and ipods and luxuries.

I learned to see every bit of money as equal to so and so many loaves of bread or jugs of milk. I remember seeing my chiropractor after a prolonged absence and telling him I hadn't been in because paying him was equal to 5 jugs of milk and I couldn't justify the trade off.

Here is another quote I could relate to:

"Many must choose between rent and groceries. They are forced to purchase food items that are the cheapest variety available. This means they consistently purchase highly processed and nutritionally empty foods. They will also naturally gravitate towards fat-laden foods as fat adds satiety - a polite way of saying they stay full longer on less food, an important consideration when hunger is routine."

With only $400 left (after paying rent but not utilities) to cover all our other monthly costs we became regulars at the local food bank. I have never been so happy to open the bags and find a container of peanut butter or those little packages of ramen noodles. One day when things were really bad the food bank lady asked me if I could use a bag of flour. Flour can make so many things that fill a person up - although there were many times when I couldn't because I was either out of margarine or eggs or baking powder and the like. If a person goes into the grocery store with 20 bucks and you don't know how long it will be until you have another little bit of cash to buy food it is really hard to justify spending one fourth of it on a container of baking powder.

One day I asked the woman at the food bank what the support was like from people around town. She said it was low. She said that most people tell them that if people need to use the food bank they should just go get a job. Or they complained that they knew someone who used the food bank and they saw them at bingo the other night. I thought of our situation where my husband was off work waiting surgery and my own health problems had forced me to stop work as well. Many evenings we spent discussing if one of us should just ignore the health stuff and work anyway, knowing that doing so was putting us at greater risk for longterm problems and would be going against doctor's orders. One night I said to my husband, "This is so hard to go through without an addiction." We often talked about how thankful we were that we had a good support group around us - how we were thankful for our faith and that our situation had brought us closer together when it had the potential to do the exact opposite. We wondered how people went through it in isolation, without faith, without hope? We knew this time for us would end eventually(18 months later)but what about those for who this was permanent?

There were many people who helped us through this rough time with tangible gifts of money and groceries. It was really hard to receive graciously. It was really hard not to feel like a beggar. It was really hard sometimes not to feel like we must have done something wrong to be in this situation. There were Sundays when I sat on my hands during Adult Sunday School to stop myself from standing up and blurting out that the discussion didn't matter. That figuring out who was right or wrong didn't hit the radar screen because all I could do was sit there and try to figure out how I was going to put three meals on the table until Wednesday (the once a month food bank day) came. It was during this time that I lost a great part of my need to be right about everything in the world. You wonder why I didn't just stand up and share our need? Try it.

I keep one memory close to my heart from this time. After a day of appointments in town (a 50 minute drive from home) a friend invited me to have supper with her. As we sat down to a balanced meal(roast chicken, brown rice, steamed broccoli and slices of cucumber) I felt overwhelming gratitude. And guilt. It was hard to eat when I knew my teenagers at home were not eating a balanced meal. I also had to tell myself to slow down during the meal because I had an inkling that I was eating like a person who hadn't eaten in a long time. Dessert was slices of fresh, juicy, sweet cantaloupe. "Slow down," I kept telling myself. My friend must have noticed all this. She went to make a new pot of tea and bring out some cookies she had baked. In the end she ended up sending home with me the extra cantaloupe and the whole container of cookies. She had known hard times. She had learned what true gratitude was. She gave out of gratitude not pity. The gifts my friend bestowed on us that day and the spirit with which she gave them have never left me. (Well, ok the cantaloupe and the cookies are long gone but you get my drift). She showed me what it looked like to give because you had received so much and wanted to return thanks for that privilege.

There aren't many times these days when I sit down to a cup of tea or eat a piece of fruit that I am not thankful for the privilege.

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