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Friday, July 30, 2010

Up to 64 ounces of sardines.

As an extention of her midwife Praxis experience CLA signed on as a volunteer with an organization called The Priscilla Project. The group matches pregnant refugees with one or two people to assist them through pregnancy. As it happens CLA's woman had already (just) had her baby, but she still needs a hand, so CLA has been trying to find things that she can do to make the family's life and adjustment a little easier. The family (husband, three-year old and one month old infant) live on the West Side, about two miles from the nearest supermarket. Usually she takes the bus to go shopping, and CLA had the thought that it would be easier if she drove her there. I offered to go along to help with the process.

Process is the word for it. The family receives WIC checks for food, and although I had a conceptual understanding of how that worked it wasn't until I'd done some moccasin-walking that I really got it.

Here's how it goes. Every month the family gets several checks-- five or six, I guess. Each check is good for $X dollars, and specifies certain food items that must be purchased. Canned beans, for example, or bread or cereal. Each check is also good for a gallon, or sometimes two gallons of 1% or skim milk. All of the food items specified by the check have to be WIC approved. You can't just buy any canned beans, or bread-- the kind you buy has to be identified as the kind you are allowed to buy by a little blue tag on the shelf next to the unit pricing information.

It is a strange and arbitrary classification system. Ten bucks worth of fresh fruit or vegetables, for example, but a two dollar sack of white potatoes doesn't qualify. She had to buy four sweet potatoes instead. She had an stipend for "up to" 48 ounces of juice, but the WIC approved juice was either Juicy Juice or similar sugar-added stuff from concentrate. "Up to" 64 ounces of canned sardines, but they had to be the right brand of sardines.

The store we were in was a store I occasionally shop at, but the experience of shopping there for the items we were looking for was quite different than the kind of shopping I do. We were mostly in the middle aisles, where the canned and processed stuff is, and we didn't get anywhere near the meat or the poultry. Even the produce selection was grim-- $10 bucks of fruit and vegetables for a family of four for a month? A $2 bag of seedless grapes looks like a sack of emeralds when you are working with that kind of limitation.

We walked up and down the aisles filling our cart, and then got on the checkout line. CLA's client speaks no English, so I felt as though we'd done some good just by helping her navigate the store, but we were only just getting started. As each item was scanned we found that some of the things we'd picked were not approved. The damn potatoes, for example, and the brand of sardines. I thought about what this must have seemed like to this woman. The checkout person was, in effect, a government official, telling her what she could or could not have, in a place of abundance that could not have possibly resembled anything else in her life's experience. Interestingly though, the checkout people were polite and patient and even pleasant. There was no eye-rolling, there were no exasperated sighs. All around us other people were paying with WIC cards or checks also. When I'm shopping I don't see this, but now we were part of it, and it was okay to notice. My thought when I'd told CLA that I'd go along had been, in part, that sometimes it is useful to have a middle-aged white guy around, to cut through the hassle, but we didn't get any hassle.

We ended up with six gallons of milk. The checkout guy said that some people do their shopping once a week or so, but what that means is that one week you'll have your ten bucks worth of fresh fruit and vegitables, and another week it'll be sardines and cereal. And milk. Lots of milk, all the time. Aren't a lot of Asian people (and African-American people) lactose intolerant? And why sardines? I happen to like sardines, but I can't eat them because they trigger my gout. I suppose poor people are less likely to be gouty-- I earned the affliction the old-fashioned way-- but what do you do if that week's featured protean is something you can't eat?

It is shameful, of course. Richest country in the history of the word, but don't let anybody tell you we are generous.

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