Thursday, April 3, 2014

I Am On Food Stamps

Yesterday I stopped at Giant Eagle to pick up organic beets, oranges, oatmeal, milk, sweet potatoes and a small cart of other stuff. I scouted out the self-pay aisles, but there was only one open and the food mountain on wheels had just started. I know the checker at the quick-check lane; she’s fast and careful with my produce (a must), so feeling a little worried, I set off.

A guy I don’t know pulled his cart in behind me and made friendly small talk. Everyone was ‘up’—what a long winter that brought out the miserable in us, and this was the first day I was out without a coat. I’d found a skirt in the mending pile (score!) and was feeling quite skirty. The checker asked if all of my produce was organic. I said yes.

Then I flashed my EBT card, which I have to do if I check out with a person-stationed lane. I heard the guy behind me groan. Then my card didn’t take and she asked me to swipe it again. Then there was the total for items it doesn’t cover: deodorant and toilet paper (luxuries, of course) and by the time I was done swiping a gift card from a friend, I was undone. I slunk out muttering.

And the way my brain works, I’ve been talking to that guy in line ever since. You don’t know me, I say. I am Americorps VISTA. I am in a year of professional volunteerism (ok, that is kind of funny, but stay with me). My living allowance is $946 a month. Right. And I am strictly prohibited from any other income. So like tens of thousands of other VISTAs in active service, I qualify for food stamps. It’s part of my benefits package, to make sure I don’t starve, presumably, and I appreciate that.

But that’s just me. I could be anyone. I might have had my hours cut in half at my job, which, actually, I did, as an adjunct professor when my university limited by half the number of classes I could teach in order to keep me under the cap at which they would have to provide health insurance. Or rather, to keep me under the imagined cap, since the cap hadn’t yet been sewn. Or something. Even though I was making slightly more each month than my VISTA income, I made nothing during the summer or winter breaks, so I’ve actually qualified for food stamps for some time, I just couldn’t get them. Or I could have a child at home, or a severely disabled relative, or I could be a vet with PTSD, or really, in these hard times in this hard place I can think of so many things that might have happened to me.

You might be wondering why I’m buying organic food if I’m on food stamps. Well, I’ve thought about that, too. I believe that the way we spend our money helps shape the world we live in, and I believe in organic farming, in the good work it makes for families and the good food it makes for families. But I might have cancer, or a pesticide allergy, or another reason for buying organic. 

The way I do it is to make two big meals and eat them all week. I pack a daily lunch with one and sup on the other. And I make my own granola and my own bread. Note that there’s no packaged food, no recreational food, and little to no meat, so I save on what is missing. You wouldn’t know that this modest pile will last all week. It costs me my week’s allotment, but then I’m good to go.

But I’ve had to compromise. I’d rather be at the local shops, but they don’t take food stamps. I go to the farmer’s market, which does, and I buy at a co-op, which does, but I’m limited in what I can get right now. So I’m grateful to this grocery chain for carrying the organic foods I’m looking for.

You might think I don’t look like I should be on food stamps. But, honestly, head-to-toe that day, I was wearing resale clothes. I love thrifts because they’re local, and I can save on resource consumption, too. But even a VISTA can find a pair of dress boots at a resale. And what if I’d lost a great job, and had a closet full of great job clothes because I was looking frantically for another great job? And what if this outfit was a gift? Or the only outfit I owned?

You might think that I’m taking money away from you. But isn’t the reality that we all pay for each other’s lunch? When I patronize your business, some of my money helps you buy your lunch, and you do the same for me. And even better, food stamps takes tax money from all over America and brings it right here, to this store, where this cashier is smiling at me and telling me to have a nice day.

Which I will do. Because really, I am very lucky. I love my job, and it’s a privilege to be in a position that I can take a year to do some pretty meaningful work. Maybe Americorps wants me to know what it’s really like to struggle to make ends meet, to accept the help that’s offered me, and to find pleasure wherever I can. I have some experience in that department, but Americorps wouldn’t know that.

I still have my pride, and even though you don’t know how hard I work, I don’t like you thinking that I’m some kind of fungus living on the good, upright trunk of America. So I may still go to the automated check-out lane, which I don’t believe in, because that takes away someone’s job.

Or I may just smile at you and say, “I’m buying a little something for the kids at the orphanage,” or “Did you catch the price on that imported cheese? My food stamps won’t go that far!” or “Let’s hope the Ryan budget doesn’t pass,” or <whisper> “Organic beets are an aphrodisiac.”

Sunday, March 16, 2014

A New Cash Mob is Born!

I often have requests to consider visiting businesses outside of Youngstown and the surrounding communities. I hesitate to do so too often. Certainly locally-owned businesses in our whole region are worthy of our positive attention. But my feeling is that if we spread ourselves too thin, we won’t be able to do the work we set out to do. I’ve especially hoped that a cash mob would spring up in the Warren area.

My wish is granted! The Warren/Niles/Trumbull County Cash Mob will kick off at a joint cash mob event at One Closet at a Time Boutique in Niles on April 26. We were planning to head north in April, and we had some exciting voting with One Closet squeaking out the win. I know many of us will support our sister cash mob events. You can find the new cash mob on Facebook,  by email at Warrennilestrumbullcashmob@gmail.com, or by phone via the organizer April Howell at (330) 502-0867.

But before we hit the road for Niles, we’ll have an elegant meal of Indian cuisine at Bombay Star in Boardman next Saturday, March 22. The restaurant is wheelchair accessible and offers vegetarian/vegan options. I have eaten there several times, and everything I’ve tasted is delicious. My friends and I like to order a range of dinners and then pass our dishes around for sampling. If you don’t know Indian food, the waitstaff will help you select something perfect for your tastes.

Youngstown Cash Mob
Saturday March 22
Bombay star Indian cuisine
813 Boardman Poland Road
Lunch buffet 11:00-3:00
Dinner 4:30-10:30

Our plans for the Cash Mob in the City on June 14 are shaping up. We have crafted a letter for downtown merchants that we will hand deliver soon. If you haven’t been downtown lately, you’ll be surprised by all the activity and renovation going on. The unique local businesses are a big part of making our downtown so special.

The owner of Re-Arrangements sends her thanks for a fun and successful cash mob. Lots of merchandise went out the door that day, from little scrubbies to big pieces of furniture. The shop is so tastefully arranged that we were not surprised to learn that the owner had studied interior design. Thanks to everyone for coming out to show your support!

And thank you for helping us spread the word.

Cash mob: like flash mob, only the singing is optional.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Happy Birthday, Again, Youngstown Cash Mob

The Youngstown Cash Mob turns two! We celebrate a great idea, born in Cleveland and Buffalo. Leave it to the Rust Belt to come up with a fun and meaningful way to take care of our own, right? It’s been terrific meeting business owners and customers who care so much about the Mahoning Valley. There are some good things going on in our city, Youngstown, and I’m glad we can be a little part of that. Thanks so very much to everyone who’s come out to support our events, who’s tried a new business they heard about from the cash mob, who has made a go of starting a business here.

We celebrated our first birthday last February at Santa Fe Southwestern Grill on Mahoning. In March, we visited the Pretty & Plus Shop in Struthers. We enjoyed some tasty fare at Walrus Subs in Austintown in April. Our special north country cash mob took us to Niki’z Pub in Niles, and then we headed back to Austintown and Boardman to Maggie’s Magic Muffins. The YSU Festival of the Arts won the special activity cash mob, and a Bang! Hair Studio month-long cash mob in August was just in time for back to school. In September, we braved torrential rain with Carol Freeman and her tasty baked goods at the Northside Farmer’s Market. Next we spent the day at Imagine That! Emporium inside the Amish Market Place on South Ave. In November, our non-profit winner was The Bummer Fund, an organization that helps responsible pet owners with unexpected veterinarian costs. For December, we shared ideas for a Buy Local for the Holidays month long event, and in January we got our trees trimmed by Drop N Chop Tree Trimming Service.

We will celebrate our second birthday in two weeks at Re Arrangements in Boardman just south of the mall. This shop carries home accessories and consigns gently used furniture, from wardrobes to miniatures, from antique to fairly new. Is someone in your life getting married or moving into a new place? A gift certificate from Re Arrangements will give them a chance to pick out something special, after they know what they need in that little nook just under the window. Even if you’re full up on furniture, come out and have some cake and cheer us on.

Youngstown Cash Mob
Sat. 22 Feb., 11 a.m.– 4 p.m.
15 Stadium Drive, Boardman
Home Accessories and Gently Used Furniture

I am glad to see so many resale shops popping up around town. An excellent trend. From an economics point of view, much more of the money turnaround stays local, since the merchandise is purchased locally and resold locally. From an environmental stance,  minimal resources are required since the product already exists. And resale shops can often offer a much higher quality product.

I’m thinking back to when I began at YSU as a returning student, and I suddenly needed a computer desk. Not knowing better, I picked up a shiny black-skimmed pressboard two-tiered shelf arrangement for $100. I moved shortly after, and the desk broke clean in half in the move. Now, I know that for $100 I could have gotten a gorgeous, solid desk so well made I could pass it down to the next generations. And support a local business, to boot.

I now turn to resale shops as much as possible. I love the clothing resale shops we’ve cash mobbed:  Raks, the Encore Shop, and Pretty & Plus. It just makes sense, since we all change ages, sizes, styles, even climates, and many of the clothes we don’t need are still in good shape. Which is why they’re piling up at the back of the closet. Consider consigning them at the resale shop where someone will love them.

The Youngstown Cash Mob returns to Boardman in March, to Bombay Star which serves Indian food. My friends and I have enjoyed many meals there, so for me it’s an old favorite.

Cash mob: like flash mob, only the singing is optional.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

High Praise for Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness

I just finished Michelle Alexander’s fine, fine book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. I missed Alexander when she spoke in Youngstown, but was riveted by her interview with former YSU professor Sherry Linkon. You can find and listen to the interview here.

The title might seem like a movie trailer that gives away too much, but don’t be afraid. Alexander’s book is very readable, and will evoke a tremendous response, no matter who you are.  She walks us through a careful study of the social, economic and political forces that have led us to this place, where we are spending $200 billion every year to incarcerate (almost entirely) black and brown men for non-violent offenses.

It won’t be easy getting out of it. Some of the assumptions that underpin the War on Drugs are deep and widely believed, and the erosion of civil rights has been upheld time and again by the Supreme Court. And some of that $200 billion funds a massive army of individuals and communities. But whatever we have to do, we have to do it. Sure, that pile of money is draining resources away from everything that’s important. But more essentially, it’s deeply unfair to continue to oppress one single group of Americans. Unfair? What a mild word. It’s a tragedy, a travesty, a hypocrisy, a horrible way to run a country built on lies. Private prisons just add salt.

Even in a place like Youngstown, Ohio, where so much of our money-making schemes are in the misery industry: fracking, pawn shops, pay-day lending, demolitions, gambling, and, yes,  incarceration and post-incarceration; even here, we have to take a stand. Enough. We can’t afford to throw our rhetoric of equality and freedom under the bus any longer. We can’t afford to lose the bright minds of black men who have committed the same non-violent offenses millions of white men and women have committed (without consequence), and we can’t afford to employ people to house them in cages.

Michelle Alexander says we need a stronger America for everyone. She’s a good voice, a true public intellectual, and we will be a better country for what she has to teach us.