Food Justice

Food and Social Control

This past week has seen renewed media focus on state governments deciding the type of food that individuals and families receiving SNAP (food stamps) should eat, and on whether some people should get any assistance at all. I have also read about people, celebrities and politicians, taking a “SNAP Challenge”, where they experiment with surviving on food stamps for a week, with the intent of illuminating the challenges poor families are faced with in affording food. My anger boils over every time I read a news story, comment, or tweet that supports the notion that the government has the right to control what and how much poor people eat, that poor folks are lazy and simply don’t want jobs, and that complain about their tax dollars being spent on helping the poor.

Food insecurity, food stamps, and social control of poor Black people hits close to home for me. Growing up in a family that received food stamps, we bought food that 1) we liked to eat and knew how to cook, and that 2) would last the whole month. And yes, we bought unhealthy snacks too, because we had a right to eat snacks just like everybody else. I bristle at the notion that poor people’s diets should be regulated, with laws being passed to deny people receiving food stamps the right to buy junk food and steak and seafood. We (yes I’m using we, even though I am currently not in a precarious economic position where I am eligible for food stamps, I will always identify with my working class/poor upbringing) are human too; we have the right to live, the right to access affordable and healthy food, and the right to eat or not eat whatever we want.

I know that social control of poor people of color is not new; the government has utilized public assistance programs as a form of punitive social control of poor people of color for decades. Welfare began in the 1930s, as Aid to Dependent Children, and was limited to white women, who were not expected to work outside of the home; even then, their eligibility hinged on complying with the gender norms of the times. After Black women fought for the right to receive welfare, state governments reinvented welfare into an even more punitive system of surveillance and control, with an obsession on behavior modification and work requirements. With the 1996 welfare reform act, time limits were set on how long women could receive welfare, and tens of thousands of women were pushed off of welfare, not into well-paying careers and/or college, but into low-wage work. States even attempted to use welfare as a form of reproductive control of Black women; denying families additional assistance if women birthed more children, and even trying to make sterilization or the taking of long-acting birth control as a requirement for receiving assistance.

I have had an up close and personal look at how public assistance programs are used punitively against poor people, trickling down from the legislators who craft bills to case workers at local department of human services offices. At one time, my grandmother had her food stamps reduced to $57/month, because, as the case worker who decided this said, that her daughter (my mother) should be taking care of her, therefore, she doesn’t need as much food stamps. Why did this case worker believe that she had the right pry into my grandmother’s and mother’s relationship with each other? There seems to be this sentiment that poor folks have no right to privacy if they are receiving assistance or services from the government. As if giving case workers all of your personal financial information isn’t enough, you have to constantly prove your worthiness to receive assistance. I was unexpectedly laid off last month, and as I was filling out the application for unemployment assistance, I was amazed at both the financial detail they needed of my previous employment, and the level of surveillance they imposed. I had to log in to the state’s job site and search for employment, to prove that I was looking for work, and they kept a record of every single job I clicked on. The people who crafted unemployment assistance rules seemed to operate from the assumption that if they didn’t surveil folks, that people would just stay on it, and wouldn’t look for work. What legislators and internet commenters fail to realize is that many people receiving public assistance have also internalized the stigma associated with it, justifying their reasons for needing it but at the same time distancing themselves from people they perceive as “lower” than them who also receive assistance.

When I headed back home from college, without a job, I needed to help contribute financially to the household in one way or another, so I reluctantly applied for food stamps. At that time, I had internalized the stigma of receiving food stamps, and I felt embarrassed that after four years of college, I was still poor and needed governmental assistance. If my home state had changed its food stamp rules like Kansas did in 2013, not reapplying for a waiver that allowed 20,000 unemployed and childless adults to receive food stamps, my grandmother and I would have had to try and survive on $57/month for food!

I’m working on a few visionary fiction story ideas, trying to imagine a world radically different than the one we currently live in. A couple of central features of a new world is one in which nutritious food is freely available to everyone and people share skills with one another (growing and cooking food, providing basic health care). Communities in which we all help and look after each other, instead of shaming and erecting barriers to folks getting help, needs to be more widespread. I know there are pockets of communities that are engaging in a humane way of relating to one another, I just want to see more of that.


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