Hungry Eyes: Thoughts on Food Insecurity, Class Mobility and the Persistence of Poverty

My BA degree from U.C. Berkeley didn’t mean a thing to managers who saw employees as costs to be cut. I am in a more fortunate position now, with an MA from the University of Chicago (and far more practical/translatable work experience)- while it took 3 months to get an interview and a job offer, I still faced the daunting reality that most employers are not interested or invested in providing their employees with a living wage or sufficient hours for benefits eligibility- let alone training them. Indeed, employees are costs to be cut- human costs. I also faced the reality that barriers to access are very real- most positions are only shared with insiders within the management’s networks, and many require advanced degrees and credentials for positions that would have only required a BA degree a decade ago. Heck, even internships (mostly unpaid) are inaccessible without affiliations with an institution of higher education or significant means- and that applies to both the private and public sectors (especially the latter, which excludes interns from employee protections against harassment or exploitation).

That is the reality I face as a 25 year old Black woman with a hearing impairment. I am fungible. I am yet another sublimated laborer whose blood, sweat and tears oils the machines. In any era, it seems that this Black femme Self cannot escape the inextricable relations between exploitation, property and profit.  I am no one’s slave, but my choices are severely circumscribed by structural inequalities along the intersecting lines of race, class, gender, sexuality, and ability. It’s never about mere “choice.” Without equitable access to jobs, housing, and food, there is no mere “choice.”

“Hungry Eyes”

My countertop is covered with food. A bowl of potatoes foregrounds a wall of cooking oils and vinegars. Above that is a cabinet with 7 different kinds of beans and 6 different kinds of grains, and all the spices I could ever need. My freezer is filled to capacity with prepared meals set aside “for a rainy day.” My refrigerator is always full of leftovers and meals-in-progress. On the surface, this looks like abundance, but to me, it is a reminder of the ephemeral nature of my provisions. Nothing lasts. All food is prone to rot, and money is short. Sometimes it’s “just enough” and other times, I collect the change on my desk and count it.

I horde food because I learned that the next meal is not promised- especially not when you’re transitionally homeless without a support network like I once was. I horde food because even with access to institutions of higher education (class privilege- privilege reproduces itself), I still lived with the specter of food insecurity. In fact, someone once described me as having “hungry eyes.” I look in the mirror and see a body that changes, a belly that stores fat in lean times. I look in the mirror and swear to myself that I do not want to bring children into a lean, hungry world- not unless I am able to feed myself and them. I know too many parents who went hungry just to ensure that their children could eat and focus in school- because education is supposed to be a great equalizer (never mind that in the US, public school funding is tied to housing values- which means that the subprime lending crisis and foreclosures (which disproportionately affected low-income communities and communities of color) are linked with the defunding of public schools).

I kept it quiet, but the reason I was able to eat between June and September was SNAP. Apparently, I’d been eligible for SNAP since I enrolled as a graduate student, but I did not know that. The University did not provide that information to its students, because, presumably, its students were more affluent and had support networks. Presumably.  It appears that the “life of the mind” was not mindful of the appetites of the belly. So, I attended seminars just for the food- even planning my days around them, ignoring the hunger pangs that threatened to turn to growls. Other days, I weighed the money in my pocket, considering buying food or using it to pay for transportation to work.

In 2012, my budget left $190 for food and gas ($70 on the months that my quarterly student loan bills were due.) I was un(der)employed and making relatively steady money writing, but it was barely enough.  Worse still, I lived and worked (without pay- community organizing) in the sprawling metropolis of Atlanta, which covers 29 counties. Poverty in suburbia means that one is doubly taxed- the cost of entry and the cost to leave.

Now, my partner dubs my eyes “Bambi eyes.” Brown and wide-eyed with wonder, he says he could get lost in them. I stare into the mirror and see a dissimilar face- a thinner face with older eyes. Still, the hungry eyes look back at me, ever wary of the specter of food insecurity and slashed social supports around me. I may live in a gentrifying neighborhood near an ‘elite’ university, but I am a mere 2 blocks from homeless people living in tents and selling their possessions on the sidewalk.

I can’t feed them all. My charity changes nothing, and worse, it possibly props up a system which denies them their most basic needs. So, I keep change in my pocket and buy the street papers or buy hot meals and volunteer. But it’s not enough. It won’t keep me from being in the same place if my own social supports are destroyed. See, poverty is much more than lack- it is a destruction of communal resources. Poverty simultaneously individuates those it subjects and lumps them together. You are to blame for your poverty. You must pay the cost. But don’t forget, you blend right in with the rest of “the poor,” so you must distinguish yourself- perhaps with your possessions or your degrees attained through the borrowing of non-dischargeable student loan debt. You must prove yourself “worthy” of help, or else receive feckless pity and looks of scorn. Indeed, James Baldwin rightly said, “Anyone who has ever struggled with poverty knows how extremely expensive it is to be poor.” At what cost must we escape the cycle? How can we rebuild the communities broken down by intentional disinvestment in communal goods? How many worn out soles must we replace because we cannot afford the expensive, well-made shoes accessible to those with means? The cost is high indeed.

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