Lydy Nickerson (lydy) wrote,

The Farm Bill

In 1981, I was 19 years old. I was living alone in a boarding house in Iowa City. I had been utterly unable to find a job of any kind whatsoever. The joke was that you had to have a master's degree to wait tables part-time, and be ABD to wait tables full time. McDonald's was only requiring a BA and a 4.0 GPA.

My support system consisted of my boyfriend, who was in college 50 miles away. My parents had disowned me. My other friends were college students, poor, and wrapped up in their own lives. I owed my landlord a truly astounding amount of money. The only reason he didn't evict me was because he was a terrible book keeper, and had no idea how much I owed him.

Usually, when I tell this story, I say that I had run out of food. This is not precisely correct. Life, as usual, is a bit messier than neat stories we like to tell about ourselves. I had two cans of soup, one of which I liked, and one of which I hated passionately, and about a half a pound of uncooked rice. I had been eating rice steadily for about a year at this point, sometimes varied with pasta. Just contemplating eating the soup I didn't like made me nauseous. On the other hand, I couldn't very well eat the soup I liked, because then I would have no food in the house. For reasons I no longer remember, I didn't really think of the rice as food. My solution to this dilemma was to not eat. At all.

It is relevant that I was very frightened, very alone, very lonely, depressed, and not completely in my right mind from stress with my family and my boyfriend. But it is also notable that what I had available to me was about 400 calories of food in the form of soup, and possibly another 400 or 600 calories of rice. Any way you slice it, that isn't even a full day's normal caloric intake. And I had no prospects of acquiring more. I had, I think thirty-five cents. Maybe. And no way to gain more money. So in a very real sense, it didn't matter if I ate the food today or not. It wasn't like I could just wait until the end of the month, and then there would be more money, more food, more options, more choice. I was at the end of absolutely everything. I was at the end of myself. So I didn't eat for three days.

Eventually, I started thinking about suicide. I spent quite some time wondering if I broke the plastic on the safety razor to expose the razor more fully, would I be able to actually kill myself. But, you know, what if I failed? There would be doctor's bills, which I couldn't afford. And worse, I'd look like a fool to all my friends. And what if I succeeded? Was that really what I wanted? Did I want to be dead, or did I just want to not be in the situation I was in? In all honesty, I was unable to answer that question.

Eventually, at about two in the morning, I took my loose change, walked over to Currier Dorm, went to the pay phone, and called the suicide hotline. A very nice gentleman talked to me. For a long time. At some point, the phone system cut me off. I became hysterical, weeping and pounding on the machine. A security guard came by to see what the ruckus was. I attempted to explain. I have no idea what I said, but eventually he reached into his pockets and pulled out some spare change and spilled it onto the counter. This is an act of kindness I remember vividly, thirty years later. The sound of the change on the metal counter. His dubious look, like he had no idea how to deal with this crazy teen-ager, but there was also the sense that he was doing his best. He went away. I called the crisis line back.

After more talk to the very nice young man at the crisis line, he sad, "You know, I really can't do too much about your parents or your boyfriend, but you know, it's four a.m. right now. The food bank opens at eight a.m. If you can wait just four hours, you can have some free food."

"Free food?" I said, utterly bewildered. It was as if he were speaking Swahili.

"Free food," he said, firmly.

I thought about this for long while. "Free food?" I asked again, tentatively.

"Free food," he repeated.

I thought for a long while more. Finally I said, carefully, as if trying to repeat a very complex rhyme, "Free food."

"Yes. Free food. Four hours. Can you wait that long?"

"Free food," I agreed.

Do you remember 1981? Ronald Reagan, the Evil Empire, Nuclear Winter, Mutually Assured Destruction, Launch on Warning? It was 1981. Bright and early, eight a.m. on the dot, I showed up at the food shelf. They explained the rules. I was given a grocery bag, and was permitted to fill it with whatever they had in their cupboards. In fact, since the bag they gave me was a little undersized, they gave me two. I was told that I could just pick and choose anything that was there. A vast array of canned and dry goods stared at me from metal cupboards. It felt to me as if all the wealth of Persia had been laid before me on brilliant carpets, awaiting my choice. Oatmeal seemed as beautiful and rich as rubies, that morning.

After I filled my bags, the receptionist, a scary battle-axe of a woman, iron-grey hair, heavy-set, with a permanent scowl, growled at me, "Are you on food stamps?"

"Um, no," I squeaked, terrified of her.

"Why not?" She had a growl that a tiger would envy.

"Um, too proud?" I suggested, not really sure. It sounded stupid to say that I had never considered that it might even be possible.

"Do you pay taxes?" she demanded, still in that gruff, authoritarian voice that I found so frightening.

"Um, when I have a job," I told her, very earnestly. I was very, very earnest at that age.

"It's not just for bombs, you know," she said in the most disgusted voice I'd ever heard. "You. You have an appointment at Johnson County Social Services at 10:30 this morning. They'll set you up on food stamps.'

"Thank you," I squeaked, again, utterly confused.

"Do you know where they are?" No, I didn't. She told me. "Do you have bus fare?" No, I didn't. "Here," she growled, and handed me four bus tickets. "Don't forget to go."

Which is how I ended up on food stamps. In 1981, a single person got $70 a month. It was a great bounty. But more importantly, it changed my life. It removed a very real, very persistent, and almost overwhelming fear. Eating on a regular basis also helped ameliorate (although obviously not cure) my depression. It gave me confidence and courage. It let me socialize with my friends again, because I was no longer constantly on guard against trying to beg from them. It is actually almost impossible to underestimate how huge a change this was in my life. It was the first step forward to being in charge of, and responsible for myself. It also got me into the system. I was referred to CETA, which was a jobs program for people between the ages of 18 and 25. It, like food stamps, worked exactly as it should. It got me on the job training, which made me valuable to my employer, which got me full-time employment (temporarily defining full-time as 40 hours a week with no benefits), which got me the experience to get a better job with the county, and so forth. For me, food stamps were transformative. There are ways in which it makes sense to look at my life before and after food stamps.

So, that brings me to the Farm Bill. Which the fucking Republicans want to pass without Food Stamps. A lot of very intelligent commentary has been written on how the Farm Bill has always been a compromise bill, wherein Food Stamps are traded for support for agribusiness, and how this compromise is breaking down. But you know, I don't feel intelligent or reasoned or informative on the topic. What I feel is fury and betrayal. I know, first hand, real live personal, how utterly and vastly important being able to eat can be. In the end, it seems to me that the fucking Republicans are saying that they wish I had died all those years ago, when I had run to the end of myself. It's hard not to take it personally.
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