Have You Been Here Before?

By Dr. Tracey Deutsch

That was the question asked during an orientation at Simpson Overnight Shelter a local homeless shelter that also offers breakfasts and dinners.  I was there with my son’s religious school class on a service project. It was 5:30 am on a cold October Sunday morning—just before daylight savings kicked in. So it was dark and it was going to stay that way for quite some time.

The question was enlightening though.  I had thought of it in only one way: do you know how to run the kitchen here?  Do you know where the dishes are and how to set up a station in the dining room?

And a few families in the group answered, quickly, that yes, they’d been here before and could help set us up.

But two families said something that made me step back.  Yes, they’d been here before. They had traveled there to eat with their families.   

As I went about the work of the morning, nothing felt the same.   At once, an event that I had thought of as routine–at most an occasion to think about middle and upper class religious life– took on new significance.  

The honesty of the other parents was a good reminder that many people experience poverty and food insecurity.  We just don’t talk about it.  

What would it mean if we told our full food stories? What would it mean if we were honest about poverty that we have all experienced?  What if we told stories that took place in moments of poverty, but that were not defined by poverty?  What if we told stories that took place in seemingly wealthy spaces, but that were not defined by wealth?  

 

This post plays out some of those possibilities.

 

Food stories, in my experience, often follow scripts.  We remember exuberant meals with families, or the burn of hunger and fear and isolation.  But this meal had both; there was an impromptu dance-off between Vikings and Packers fans and a constant bubbling of conversation and even what seemed like camaraderie.  But it was not among blood kin (in fact, this shelter is difficult for families because men and women sleep separately and there are no accommodations for children.) And the people dancing were also facing eviscerating insecurity and poverty.  This moment of shared eating, this hopefulness and release, is difficult to integrate into the way we talk about food.  It is usually all or nothing—joy or pain.   

This can be reinforced by efforts to undo social barriers. Many wonderful ethnographies of food insecurity and the people who try to address it address the tremendous barriers in the way of food security.  Books by Janet Poppendieck lay out the ways that hunger emerged as a discursive problem, separate from the problem of poverty.  Kathryn Edin and H. Luke Shafer’s $2 a day is a powerful indictment of that system, in which the poorest families craft households that deploy every money saving strategy they can find (e.g. going without any public utilities) and find a way to make do.  These are searing indictments of inequality.  But they also reinforce the distinctiveness of this way of living, the “difference” of hunger.

Researchers rarely do ethnographies on the ways that food insecurity touches so many of us.  We don’t expect food insecurity to touch the institutions we inhabit.  Indeed, I’d venture that we don’t stop to ask whether it does.  It doesn’t seem like a question.


For instance, student hunger is often invisible. I taught a whole class on food history and discovered at the end of the term, via a student’s final paper, that they had sat through the class hungry. Dealing with a medical condition meant they saved their energy for class and not for traveling to the store (far from their student neighborhood) to get themselves the few items that they could eat. It turns out that nearly 10% of students on my campus run out of food with no funds to buy more before the end of each month and almost twice that number worry about this.  These numbers are typical of many four year colleges—they are far worse at community colleges.  What if those students’ stories were parts of campus life? What if they felt they could tell their stories?

And what about the rest of us?  What if we could talk openly about our experiences of poverty and precarity—not as something we had “gotten past” but as something that required help? As a series of challenges overcome not only by individual effort but also by collective endeavors and systems?  What if we expected, not only hunger and toughness and bootstraps, but also experiences of shared meals and safety nets?

What if we talked about how grateful we had been for shelters, or unemployment checks, or free lunches and breakfasts at school?

What if we talked about the shame and bureaucratic hurdles of using these?

What if we talked about how we needed it anyway?

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The summer before I started my faculty position, I set my alarm for 7 am for several mornings in a row.  I dialed the same numbers over and over, trying to get through to the caseworker who would approve or refuse my application for Minnesota Care.  I was four months pregnant and with neither health insurance nor income until 30 days after my official start-date later that fall. I had moved across the country to a city where I had no family except my equally unpaid spouse and certainly had no friends. I dialed numbers over and over, sometimes getting through and leaving a message and sometimes just a busy signal.  The outgoing message reminded all of us that a job was better than a handout.  I felt like no one would believe me when I said that I had the first, but still needed the second.  I left a message anyway.  I left a lot of messages.

Eventually my application was approved.  I was, and am, extraordinarily grateful in spite of the demeaning process of getting the aid.  I was able to get excellent prenatal care at the clinic where I have stayed ever since. The MN Care caseworkers eventually explained that my child would be eligible for medical care with no questions asked, regardless of what happened to my income or whether or not they were covered on my insurance.  I was able to focus on starting my new job, on finding my way around the city, on establishing a household.  

I was able to buy food for the refrigerator.  

I felt lucky.  I am lucky. And I also felt like this was going to be in my past.

What would it mean if we lived in a world in which we fully expected that anyone we met might have eaten in a shelter? What would it mean if we recognized the moments of rupture—the moments when boundaries of class are crossed?  What if we took our stories with us when we crossed?  What if we recognized that many professional people also are underpaid, inhabit precarious economic positions, and experience impoverishment?

Some of the changes would occur in public discussions of budgets and welfare programs. We would know that those public services were truly public—that they helped and touched far more people than we might think. Even poverty that was in our past might inform our narratives about the present.  We would know that even people facing enormous insecurity experience joy and dignity. The absence of these programs, the cut-backs, might seem more urgent—might seem like everyone’s problem.  We would know that poverty lives in our midst.

But other changes would occur in what we think we know about food, and what we have to learn. Anyone we met might have a full, complex, surprising food story. Anyone could have been anywhere before.