posts tagged with 'poverty'
Sometimes when I'm driving on the highway I look at the cars around me and wonder if folks in them appreciate how nice it is to be driving something that you can trust completely to get them where they're going. Because I don't always feel that way. In fact, I think it's fair to say that for something like half of my driving life I've found myself in a vehicle that has something untrustworthy about it. We're in that half now. Our wonderful minivan, which we've had for almost six years now is showing signs that it doesn't have much left to give. At 233,000 miles that's not unexpected, but it is inconvenient... especially when it's not the only failing technology we're having to deal with lately.
I mentioned the couches and the oven a few months ago; the oven is still with us, and often it works like you would expect. But there are times when it doesn't, like this evening, which as you might imagine makes dinner prep kind of stressful. Leah spent the evening researching sub-$500 ovens, which might sound a little suspect until you think of how the only thing going wrong in our current model is the electronics behind all those fancy digital displays and push buttons. Maybe if we just go back to knobs and dials we'll be all right! (if we could, we'd go all the way back to wood and matches, but our kitchen isn't set up for that kind of thing). Then there's the fridge, which every couple weeks decides it's going to freeze the vegetables and thaw the freezer. All together it makes for a general background level of nervousness—interspersed with moments of existential terror. Which is about right for life here in the 21st century USA!
On Saturday evening the bigger boys and I accepted a friend's invitation to check out a West Virginia-themed event at a local church. Mountain music! Unhealthy food! How could we resist?! The reason for the theming was that the the church is sending a mission crew down that way and needed to raise funds, so naturally I expected to have to pay a couple dollars. But even with the best will in the world I wasn't ready to manage the $20 suggested donation just to get in the door. Isn't the cost of living a lot lower down there? 10$ should be fine. Once inside, we enjoyed some educational material about Appalachian poverty, kids crafts and coloring pages, a free cupcake from an everyone's-a-winner cakewalk (Zion didn't even participate and he still got a cupcake). And some good music, as pictured somewhere below.
Of course, just the cupcakes weren't enough food for the boys—never mind that they'd already eaten what I had presumed to be supper—so I splurged on a $6 kids dinner plate split between the three of us: a little pulled pork sandwich and a giant brownie. I also helped myself to some coleslaw, which was out on the table to go on top of the West Virgina-style hot dogs, but I think that was ok because we were meant to have a side anyway. Maybe? The young person manning the table was perhaps not entirely clear on the procedures. He also forgot to charge us—really, to record the charge on the piece of paper all the festival-goers had to carry around to record their purchases—so we could have eaten for free, but I'm an honest type (at least when there's no coleslaw on a table in front of me) so when the time came to "check out" I told them about the dinner and handed over my $6.
So $16 dollars for all the thrills of a fair at a suburban New England church. It may sound like I'm making fun—OK, I probably am, a little bit—but really, we love church fairs. And the money goes to a good cause, and it's probably not all that much compared to other entertainment options available these days. We just don't usually pay for entertainment, so it stings a bit when we have to. (At least we went in this time...)
And we had to again yesterday, when (different) friends invited us out to free play time at an indoor sports place in Tyngsboro. All three boys had a great time running around with lots of other kids and balls, sticks, riding toys, tunnels, and parachutes (and me—I did lots of running around too). It turns out Zion is pretty good at floor hockey!
It was all lovely, except that we had to pay $13 for two hours of fun. And then we had to clean up all the balls and toys so the soccer kids could come in and use the field! Any bad taste that detail might have left, though, was totally obviated when the woman who was running the place offered a packet of fruit snacks to all the kids who helped clean up. So the only issue was that I don't feel like I can be handing out that kind of money every day. Especially not two days in a row! Is that a crazy expectation these days?
It may be, but at least this morning the weather was fine so we got in a lovely long adventure in, totally free—well, besides the ice cream we bought. But that feels more worthwhile! Expect more of that story tomorrow.
This past weekend I took the boys on an outing to East Lexington, drawn by the promise of a Holiday Fair at the Waldorf School. We love fairs, and we're reasonably positive on Waldorf education, so it seemed like a sure bet. But when we were already in the doors, I was stopped in my tracks by a table positioned across the hallway and a sign announcing a $4 per person cover charge.
Sure, there was also a $15 cap per family, which as Harvey pointed out meant we would save a dollar; but since I only had $24 in my pocket and things inside the fair would cost additional money, I suddenly had serious doubts about the wisdom of proceeding. Zion wanted to go in; Lijah didn't particularly care; and Harvey wanted to make the right decision. So did I: the right decision that didn't involve us possible wasting a lot of money. I took them across the street to Wilson Farm instead and bought them each a treat, and then we visited Grandma and Grandpa and walked through walls in their delightfully under-renovation house. So it all ended happily.
But I can't help but think my extreme hesitation in the face of that cover charge might be a sign of a weakness in my personality. A holiday fair full of beautiful homespun Waldorfy crafts and games: it could have been totally awesome! But I just couldn't do it. And it's part of a pattern: while we explore lots of exciting places, I'm regularly turned away by spending money to get in anywhere. In the last month we've not gone in to an art sale and Buckman Tavern in Lexington, and those are just the ones I remember.
On the other hand, I did pay lots for apples that one time, and I let them ride the 50¢ merry-go-round at Market Basket. And I heard from other folks that I made the right call, and this particular fair probably wasn't worth it. But I didn't know that at the time!
What do you think... am I unfairly depriving my family of the possibility of joyous experiences because of my cheapness? Should I just loosen up and live a little?!
On Saturday while Dan filled the kitchen with steaming pickles I worked on my own food gathering project: organizing our WIC checks into a coherent shopping list. I've known for years that I'd qualify for this free food program, but I hadn't yet taken the government up on its offer because I'd heard it was a pain in the ass. Then Dan made a comment about me spending a lot on food, and I figured it was time to swallow my pride and apply. This week I did my first full shop with WIC. Long story short, it was a mega pain in the ass.
I'll explain for those who are unfamiliar with the program.
WIC stands for "Women Infants and Children" and it refers not to who should exit first from a sinking vessel but to who should receive free nutritious food from the federal government. This program exists separately from SNAP/Food Stamps. It provides checks for specific "healthy" food items to pregnant women, nursing women, and children under 5. Unlike SNAP dollars which pay for any food at the supermarket bar prepared items and supplements, WIC checks can only be used for VERY SPECIFIC things. The items approved by the USDA are published in a little booklet which I hear changes frequently.
As compared to other government services, applying for WIC was relatively easy. I didn't need to provide income verification because we already qualify for SNAP, nor did I need to bring any bills. But in terms of time spent applying, WIC takes the vitamin-fortified cake. When I called to schedule my intake I spent at least a half hour on the phone giving dates of birth, social and insurance numbers, medical history and demographic data on all of us. Them the in-person appointment for which I had to bring all my children took a whopping TWO HOURS. We had to all get weighed and measured, and there were so many questions to answer. It's hard to remember each child's exact gestational age when they're in the room beating on each other. My tip for anyone applying for WIC the first time is DON'T TRY TO DEMONSTRATE NUTRITIONAL NEED; BRING YOUR KIDS A BOAT-LOAD OF SNACKS.
After my intake appointment I got a wallet filled with WIC checks. These checks are what makes the WIC shop rather intense.
Each check has a list of food items typed on it. You must buy everything on the check at one time or forfeit the other items.
So to go shopping with these things you have to figure out in advance exactly what you're buying. For each month I have something like 20 checks, each listing several unconnected items. One gallon of milk, 36oz of cereal, 16oz peanut butter, 16oz canned beans for example. Then another check with a different amount of milk, a different amount of cereal, another can of beans and something random like oatmeal. So I add up all the checks to figure out what to grab in each aisle (hence the spread sheet) and then reconstitute it check-by-check at the point of sale. From the Dairy case I grab three galons of milk, but when I go to pay I put a check down on the belt and say, "Okay, here's one gallon of milk, here's one can of beans... where the fuck is that oatmeal? Under all these baby foods?"
Check out averages a half an hour, on top of the hour it takes to shop. I kept having to tell the people behind me, "Sorry, I'm paying with WIC checks, you may want to choose a shorter line."
A half hour is assuming you managed to pick the right items and the manager doesn't need to be called over to dispute brands of peanut butter. Within each category there are only a few specific brands and sizes that qualify for the program. These are the things the government nutritionists have decided provide the right intersection of health affordability. But I'm not exactly sure what signifies health to them... micronutrients? Vitamins? Why do Frosted Mini Spooners or Go Diego Go cereal count as "healthy" but Rasin Bran is barred from the list? Sure, Dan calls that personal weakness "sugar bran cereal" and he's pretty much right, but his favorite Honey Bunches of Oats is no less sugary and that's on the list. Good thing I don't like the almond clusters, because we now have two boxes in our pantry.
Which brings up an odd suspicion I have with this program. It's not making us any healthier. Quite the reverse, actually. We didn't eat cereal in the past, except for Cheerios as a snack in a pinch. Now we have four boxes in our pantry (Cheerios, Honey Bunches and Rice Krispies ready to transform into their preferable 'treat' form) and they all stand ready to replace our healthier breakfast options like homemade bread and jam, or toast and eggs, or oatmeal. Would we be better off as a family without the free cereal? Without Langers apple juice or frozen OJ? With expensive local milk instead of the store brand kind, albeit much less of it?
Our WIC allotment includes some money for produce, but it's a small portion of the total shop. $18 separated into a check for $10 and a check for $8. That means I need a group of vegetables that costs no more than eight dollars, and another group of vegetables that costs no more than ten. On Monday the Market Basket was so crowded that I couldn't get to the scale to weigh everything, so I only chose $6 of bananas and apples before giving up. Then I went to the frozen vegetable section to find $10 of things where the prices were easier to see. In the end I made a mistake on all my vegetable calculations, and I left about $5 of government money on the table. Dan suggests next time I do the vegetables first when I have the most energy. I suggested next time not doing it at Market Basket. Stop&Shop is closer and open after the kids go to bed.
When I added up the pile of reciepts (each check gives a separate receipt, sorry environment) we ended up with $125 worth of free groceries out of this month's shop. That's with choosing to forgo several gallons of milk and dozens of eggs. As well as 26 more bottles of baby food I just couldn't deal with. He doesn't even eat baby food yet, and now our basement looks like we're stockpiling against Armageddon.
I have an internal tension about my relationship to WIC. On one hand I am a stay-home-mother, and therefore a free-stuff-gatherer, and there is nothing I like better than delighting my children with something that cost no money. On the other hand I am a food hippy and a processed grains nazi and packaging-a-phobic, and a little part of me feels the need to repent when I serve my kids Honey Bunches of Oats with ultra pasteurized 1% milk.
The tension should not only be internal, this should be a collective discussion. Who defines "health" for the must vulnerable members of society? Kellogs? The US Dairy industry? I mean come on, eight gallons a milk per month to one tub of peanut butter? Those peanut farmers need to hire better lobbyists!
I am also aware that this is a very small program in a vast portfolio of government spending, and the conversation about our national diet should neither start nor end here. It's fair that the environmentally catastrophically price distortions which exist everywhere in the food supply chain also exist in the subsidized food chain. These problems will not be solved by me making fun of Go Diego Go.
Also, I'll keep you posted if the shopping ever gets easier with this thing. In two months I have to attend a state-mandated nutrition class. I can't wait!!!
I don't want to write about this right now because I'm not in a particularly complain-y mood. But I don't want to let it go. I feel like it's important. The most stressful day of the year came and went last week. The day I reapply for our SNAP benefits. It needn't be so horribly panic-inducing. Maybe if we keep talking about it, someday it won't be.
Every August I know it will arrive but I'm not exactly sure when. I have been saving up my paperwork in an easily-accessible yellow folder: pay stubs and tax bills and social security cards. I am as prepared as any person living at the poverty line can expected to be prepared. Yet the day the envelope arrives in the mail I immediately feel my stomach lurch as I launch into fight-or-flight.
"Your SNAP benefits are set to expire October 10th" the letter says.
"Your recertification paperwork must be completed by September 11th."
"In order to have enough time for our office to process your paperwork, you need to complete these forms and return the requested documents by August 27th."
It is August 22nd when I get this letter. It's a Friday. Mail processing within the DTA office takes at least two days. It is my responsibility to ensure my paperwork is in my caseworker's hands by the date she requests it.
All this means that if I get the paperwork to the post office by 8am on Saturday morning there MIGHT be a CHANCE it gets in on time.
More likely they'll send me a letter they're canceling my case. Last year they printed that letter before I even got the initial questionnaire in the mail.
I tell Dan he is in charge of the children and dinner. I tell him I'm not eating until I get this done. I haul up in the bedroom checking off boxes and making copies of documents. Good thing I have all the forms at the ready. Good thing we have a copy machine in house. Good thing we have a computer and an internet connection and a credit card so I can print a priority shipping label and give myself a fighting chance at meeting their criteria.
Of course, they could cancel my case anyway. I've been doing this for five years now, and that wouldn't surprise me. I've come to expect that after I do my secretarial best I still need to spend several hours on the phone advocating for me and my family.
I have wrote about it before and I don't want to waste my energy writing about it again. Here's me quoting me circa 2013:
To effectively deal with the DTA, or any government agency for that matter, you need skills only possessed by a few members of the human race who are advanced in both intelligence and maturity. You need a patient non-attachment; the realization that your government doesn't care about you personally and the self-confidence to accept that. You need the organizational skills of an executive secretary to save every piece of paper you receive all year and file it in a place that's easily retrievable. You need envelopes and stamps at the ready. It helps if you have a copy machine, printer, scanner, and internet access too. Is this what we expect of people who make under $20,000 a year?
We can look at this problem in two ways. One, we can say it's a gift horse and don't look in it's mouth. People like me should take the kind charity our society extends and not complain about the process we go through to get it. Whether that process be invasive or discriminating or stigmatizing or all of the above... don't utter a word that might smack of ingratitude.
Or two, we could say that an adequate food supply is the basic right of all members of our society. We could say that this is the least we can do to make up for the massive economic, social and environmental catastrophes foisted on our citizenry by business and government. In this light, we should do our best to ensure that this safety net, promised within the law, is actually accessible to those it's designed to help.
I have a friend living below the poverty line who didn't get SNAP benefits renewed because she had to go to her job instead of filing the paperwork in time. Another friend I know couldn't figure out how to prove he DIDN'T have a bank account. These are people with college degrees. I can't begin to imagine the countless others who don't feel confident even approaching the bureaucratic machine for reasons of language or education. It takes a certain mix of confidence and desperation to enter the machine and throw oneself on its grindstone. And another skill set altogether to actually come out the other end with flour.
I am not angry, I just want to face the facts together.
The fact is we live in a country where food benefits are provided and protected under law, and yet the procedures for providing those benefits subtly try to kick the poor off the roles every 6 months. These are the people with the least capacity to stand up for their rights. Mentally handicapped. Working poor. Mothers of small children. They deserve better. I deserve better. We as a society deserves better.
I got a call from the state of Massachusetts in the middle of reading a book to Harvey. I got up from the story to see who was calling, and when I saw the number on the caller ID I grabbed up the phone knowing it was important. It was my food stamps case worker calling about the income verifications I had sent in. She wasn't pleased. Why had I told her the church paycheck was weekly when it was biweekly? (I don't know, I didn't tell her anything about it as I can recall, I just mailed it to her as she requested). Why were Dan's two pay-stubs from the school system $100 different from one another? (Because he's a sub and he doesn't always work the same hours - regardless school isn't alway OPEN the same hours from one two-week period to the next) Well, what do you do if the school doesn't call him, how do you pay the bills? (I don't understand the question — are you criticizing our life choices, or accusing me of fraud?)
While I was trying to focus on the important conversation at hand, Harvey noticed I wasn't feeding his constant demand for attention and started beating on his brother. I couldn't yell at him while I was on the phone, so I pulled him off Zion while he screamed into the receiver. Then he started hitting me. I thought about spanking him to make him stop, even just threatening it would have done the trick, but the case worker probably had DSS on speed dial, what with her low estimation of her food stamps clients. She was already venting heavily in my direction and maybe accusing me of understating my income, a crime against the federal government. I let Harvey keep hitting me because I didn't want the conversation to go any WORSE.
Eventually she corrected my information on her computer. So much work. Sooooo many screens to fill in. Then she reminded me I have 10 days to report any changes to my monthly income over $2000. I did not say, "$2000 is a shit-load of money, what do you think we're secretly doing for work on the side?" I said, "Thank you very much" and hung up the phone.
Then I gave Harvey a stern talking to.
Than I went upstairs and cried.
It's not a big deal to get yelled at, I told myself. I get yelled at all the time. Drivers in their cars yell out the window, neighbors air their irritations about my dog, my children yell and yell and yell about juice. Not all of it makes me cry, but this particular interaction had me all but undone.
And then I thought, because I was in an impossible situation. The woman was demanding one thing and my children were violently demanding another thing and I couldn't get to my paperwork. I just couldn't do what she wanted me to do. And then I felt the same way later, when the dog was jumping at me over and over demanding to walk, even though it was freezing cold and I'd already walked him before Dan left and to walk again I'd have to take two children in the stroller neither of whom want to walk and one of whom refuses to put on a coat. I felt trapped in an impossible situation. I just can't DO what you're asking me to do.
I don't feel irritated righteous indignation in these moments. I feel absolute airway-closing panic.
I wonder if this is a 'thing' in my life.
I thought back to my first job when I graduated college. I had no idea what I was doing with my life. I moved out West to the land of promise. I wanted to get a place and get a job and do what adults do in the real world. I wanted to get started. I saw a job helping open new a retail store and I thought, well, that fit — they were getting started and so was I.
The first week of my job I found myself in a small staging area with a hundred boxes of merchandise. Me and three other young female employees. We had to check the merchandise tags on each item and cross them off from the packing slips. Simple enough, but each merchandise tag had a sequence of ten digits that was the only thing that matched it to the list. So one tank might be 0134501 and the fact that it was a tank gave it the first two digits, the style gave it the next three digits, and last two digits were the color.
To me on that first day, it felt like I was being asked to do long division in hieroglyphics. While the other three girls set to work matching tags and crossing things off on their lists, I sat staring at my box dumbfounded. They quickly got the gist of the system, saying things like, "01 is black, clearly" and "03 is shorts" and I sat staring at my list thinking, "Where are you even looking?" My eyes filled with tears and I started to panic. "I can't do this," I thought. "I just can't do this. What everybody else can do, I just can't do."
And I didn't just mean some bullshit retail task. I mean all of it. I meant maybe what other people can do in the entire scope of human existence, maybe I just can't do. Maybe I can't do WORKING. Maybe I can't do living on my own. Maybe I can't do being an adult. Maybe I can't do LIFE.
I had believed so hard the story, the american dream, I believed that life would just work out around me. I believed that if I applied myself to adult life like I had always applied myself to my studies that I would get straight marks in living. That everything would automatically unfold towards success.
But in that moment staring down at that meaningless list of numbers, my tiniest doubt now sent the whole house of cards crashing down. I did not have what it takes, whatever that is. If others can see meaning where I see nothing than others must belong to a world where I do not.
I excused myself to go drink a soda. I hadn't been eating much in general and that probably didn't help my concentration.
A half hour later I had figured out the numbers system. Turns out I had been looking at the wrong box of clothes, and the numbers on the tags really didn't match my packing slip. But the panic never left.
I felt it five years later at my first real corporate job, in a fancy office with a fancy single-cup coffee machine and fancy freezing air conditioning and fancy free bagels every wednesday. I could write a good-looking marketing plan and craft a killer subject line and take data from a web portal and make it look good in Excel. But I couldn't do that thing everybody else did that made them 'belong.' I couldn't like shmoozing by the Keurig machine. I couldn't like forwarding around some lame you-tube video clip. I couldn't like complaining about working but then staying there 10 hours. I couldn't bring myself to imagine climbing the ladder, even one little tiny rung to where there'd be more work and more shmoozing and more disgusting single-serve coffee. I just couldn't DO it.
I used my baby as an excuse to quit.
And I thought (though I hid it till now in the back recesses of my mind) maybe there is something fundamentally wrong with me. Maybe I just cannot do the things people do. Normal people. Working people. Maybe I am just broken in some fundamental way.
And at the same time while I feel a panicked rush to hide my brokenness, the other half of me is angry, no furious, no INCENSED at the bullshit bill of goods I got sold. Just work hard and everything will be fine. What if it turns out I hate the fine life you're selling? Do I not belong in this world? Not just the world of retail jobs or corporate jobs. Do I not belong in society? Do I not belong on the planet?
And what I feel, with the panic and the anger, with the "Just do this, it's easy" sloshing up against "I can't do this!" I feel trapped in an impossible situation. I just can't do what you're asking me to do
This is how I felt today on the phone. Maybe you are right to accuse me of fraud because maybe in life I AM ACTUALLY A FRAUD.
The government shut-down today did not close the food-stamps office. But it might as well have, because they seem to be working at shut-down levels. Or maybe they're just in the business of shutting people down generally.
Would you like to hear me complain for a minute about government bureaucracy? Of course you would!
I sent in our re-certification paperwork for SNAP benefits at the end of August. They send us this form once a year that says something like, We really have until October to process your recertification application, but we take a long time doing shit so please fill out this form and make copies of all your bills and have it back to our office by August 30th. Which is tomorrow.
I make copies, I fill out forms, I send everything back on time. I assume things are fine because to assume otherwise is to live for months with a stress-induced stomach ache.
Last Tuesday I get a letter that said, Hi, We actually need more paperwork from you. Please copy these additional 4 bills and put them in the mail by the end of the week. Giving me more than 1 day of turnaround was pretty kind of them, if unusual. I had everything in the mail on Friday to arrive by their due-date on Monday.
Just to make things clear, the additional paperwork they requested was due on 9/30. On 9/26, four days before the paperwork was due, they mailed me a notice saying they were closing my case. The letter actually includes a hilarious sentence, "Your case will close because we have not been able to fully process it."
Let that sink in for a second. Despite having two months to process a 4-page application, they take a month to tell me I need to make more copies, then give me negative four days from the due-date to get them in. Then they cancel my case because THEY didn't have enough time to process it.
That's your government working for you.
I called the offices today, and was surprised to find my case worker at her desk despite the federal government being shut down today. I guess she's a state employee. She had no problem shutting me down from a federal program, though.
Did you get the paperwork I sent in last week?
Should I mail it in again?
Should I fax it?
But I got a letter that you closed my case!
Mail in our office takes a long time. But it's your responsibility that I get it. If I see your paperwork, I'll work on it. If I need anything from you, I'll call.
So in other words, I have to sit on my hands and freak out, hope that their internal mail system works, wonder every day for a week if you should be calling, then call again on Thursday and see if I need to fill out a completely new application. And this is pretty much their standard operating procedure.
Two years ago they never got my set of documents, and I had to mail them in all over again. And I had to call two different case workers four different times to figure out that was what I was supposed to do. Working with the DTA is a process that takes stick-to-it-iveness.
If we don't get food stamps this year would our lives be over? No, we'd find a way to cope with our cash budget for the year. It'd mean less delicious and healthful treats for the pregnant lady. Berries and probiotic drinks and meat products don't fit into our cash budget. But children in Africa live on two meals of enriched rice a day, so my lack of free supermarket trips may accurately be described as a "first world problem."
On the other hand, I live in the first world and I would prefer it not to suck or to flip off poor people. I have friends who are poorer than me who haven't been able to get on Food Stamps because of the massive process involved. Even I, a woman with a masters degree and years of experience pushing papers, almost break out in hives every time I get a letter from Davidson Street in Lowell.
To effectively deal with the DTA, or any government agency for that matter, you need skills only possessed by a few members of the human race who are advanced in both intelligence and maturity. You need patience, non-attachment, the realization that your government doesn't care about you personally and the self-confidence to accept that. You need the organizational skills of an executive secretary to save every piece of paper you receive all year and file it in a place that's easily retrievable. You need envelopes and stamps at the ready. It helps if you have a printer and a scanner too, but if not you'd better be able to upload a file to a web server and print it out at the library.
Is this what we expect of people who make under $20,000 a year?
As much as I love the food pantry, it isn't always the best thing for us health-wise much of the year. We do generally give back the store-brand canned ravioli and chunky soup, but I'm unable to resist the allure of the white bread and Ritz crackers, to say nothing of the occasional Panera cookies. This time of year, though, the situation is totally different. Thanks to the fine folks at Gaining Ground Farm in Concord, we get to go home every week with a very respectable selection of local organic vegetables. Just this past week out take included swiss chard, beets, potatoes, basil, parsley, two kinds of summer squash, beefstake and cherry tomatoes, and a whole watermelon. Not too shabby!
Just like with a CSA, we don't have much idea what we're going to get from week to week, but that's no problem: this time of year we're more than happy to build menus around whatever fresh veggies we have in the house. And between the food pantry, the Lexington farmers market, and our own garden, we have plenty of veggies. Eggplant and tomato sandwiches, curry, beet greens and beans... summer time and the eating is easy!
They say beggars can't be choosers, and nothing brings home the reality of that aphorism like our weekly visits to the food pantry. Don't get me wrong—we love going, especially because the Bedford Community Table dinners are also part of the outing—but much of the food we come home with is not really what we'd pick for ourselves from even a moderately-stocked grocery store. We're eating more canned pasta sauce than we might otherwise, for example, and tuna fish has made a reappearance in our diet after being excised a couple years ago. But bread is often an exception: thanks to the generosity of the fine folks at Panera and a few other bread retailers, most weeks we have a wide array of fine bakery products from which to choose one or two. Last week I was delighted to bring home a loaf of pumpernickel.
There's only one reason I like to have pumpernickel around, and that's for cream cheese and olive sandwiches. Which I don't have very often! So I was super-excited on Saturday to make the first one in well over a year, but ran into my first disappointment when I cut the bread. Despite its fine dark brown color and roughly pumpernickel-like aroma, it was as soft and squishy as Wonderbread—and indeed a glance at the ingredients showed, in addition to high fructose corn syrup and caramel color (no molasses here), the dreaded "dough conditioners". Now, I'm not looking for traditional German pumpernickel here, but what good is bread so soft that it can't be spread with butter, never mind cream cheese?!
And then we didn't have any green olives, and I tried opening a can of black olives (from the food pantry; again, we'd never buy canned olives) only to find that they tasted like nothing more than vaguely salty rust. Alas. I put the sandwich together anyways and even ate it, but I was in no way pleased. And my discontent still lingers—thus this blog post!—although it was assuaged a little bit this evening when we picked up a half-dozen honey whole wheat bagels at this week's pantry.
Last Saturday we went to an open house at Concord's Gaining Ground. Gaining Ground is a volunteer-staffed organic farm which supplies produce to local food pantries. We've personally sampled their cabbage, squash and raspberries, so we were excited to take a look at the operation. When we arrived a hand-full of volunteers were planting garlic, the last crop to go in this year.
Dan helped spread marsh hay over the garlic while the boys and I wandered about the farm. I enjoyed messing around in an empty bee hive - I've read so much about bee keeping but never actually handled the frames before. The children liked seeing the tractor (obviously) and were amazed by the wide array of tools being stored outside.
In the pavilion where the workers eat their lunch there's some kind of swing hanging from the rafters. It sinks with a spring when Harvey gets on, so I feel like it might be some sort of scale.
We chatted with some of the farm bosses and then explored a field they are allowing to lie fallow. They preserve the soil on their 17 acres with a combination of crop rotation, soil-fixing plants, and animal assistance. I asked if they used pigs to help with some of the invasive plants species and the farmer told me, "You'd be amazed at how much poison ivy they'll eat."
Even though our children were not their happiest or walkingest selves during this trip, I found the visit to the farm incredibly refreshing. Just being on a big farm, looking out over beautiful fields and all those tool-filled junky parts in between, it breaths peace deep into the restless parts of my soul. I know some people wish they could live by the ocean, and when I visited the painted desert with Oona she said "This is MY COUNTRY!" I'm not very moved by the ocean and less so by the desert, but set me up in a nice farm field where it smells like poo and the horizon is obscured by a row of trees and I feel like I've come home.
But lest I get too wistful driving back into the suburbs, I took a picture of the chore list they had posted in their volunteer pavilion.
Spread compost in back 1/2 of middle field. Take the irrigation out. Paint composting toilets. And I shudder to think of what is indicated by the single line that just reads "barn." Yes, I may long for a farm one day, but my list of chores is plenty long as is.