Food, Food Everywhere...
By Sarah Godfrey
This weekend, the Washington Post ran a feature story about a Rhode Island town where SNAP is not only keeping families fed, but businesses afloat. In a long piece filled with heartbreaking statistics and anecdotes about the effects of the economic downturn, one detail is especially wrenching—the fact that two of the story's subjects, who are struggling to put food on the table, work in grocery stores.
Rebecka and Jourie Ortiz, a couple living in Woonsocket, R.I., are working hard to feed themselves and their two young daughters. After a period of unemployment—they both lost their jobs to downsizing—they find work in local supermarkets:
They had applied for jobs until finally, late in 2012, they had both been hired for the only work high school graduates were finding in a low-wage recovery: part time at a nearby supermarket, the nicest one in the area, a two-story Stop & Shop across the Massachusetts line.
She made $8 an hour, and he earned $9. She worked days in produce, and he worked nights as a stocker. Their combined monthly income of $1,700 was still near the poverty line, and they still qualified for SNAP.
Hungry and poor people are, more and more, finding themselves in the position of serving and stocking food that is increasingly out of their reach. The number of U.S jobs in food service—which includes grocery store clerks, restaurant staff, and warehouse and field workers—has seen growth during the recession, but wages for those positions has dropped.
Last year, the Food Chain Workers Alliance explored that issue in its study "The Hand That Feeds Us." According to the report, "[m]ore than 86 percent of workers reported earning subminimum, poverty, and low wages, resulting in a sad irony: food workers face higher levels of food insecurity, or the inability to afford to eat, than the rest of the U.S. workforce."
Spending all day arranging produce in alluring, glistening towers or bagging up hot, greasy fries only to get home and face an empty cupboard seems an especially harsh injustice. Susan Herman, who is writing about her family's SNAP budget challenge, recently blogged about this exchange with a supermarket employee:
“I wish I got paid enough to afford Girl Scout cookies," said the Raley’s employee when our Brownies tried to sell him cookies at a site sale a few weeks ago. He smiled, then coupled on several more grocery carts to the one he’d wheeled in from the parking lot, and clatter-squeaked back into the store.
“Oh. Hmm,” the girls nodded. Then, remembering their coached response they called to his red-vested back, “Thanks anyway!”
I’m not about to rant about how low-wage workers should be able to afford Girl Scout cookies....You can buy cookies at the store with SNAP benefits, but not Girl Scout cookies.
Still, the Raley’s cart-retriever struck a nerve. He may not actually be living in poverty or even approaching 130 percent of the poverty line–at which point he’d be eligible for SNAP–but many workers do. Why is that?
Federal nutrition programs help low-wage workers feed themselves and their families, but many of them still struggle. The Post article on Woonsocket shows just how difficult it can be for families to put food on the table, even on more than one income. The reporter catches a moment when the family is running low on food—it's the last day of the month and they are rationing to be sure their girls have enough to eat. Jourie turns down a simple snack before starting off on his mile-long walk to Stop & Shop, the food emporium that employs him.
Now [Rebecka] reached into the refrigerator and grabbed two string cheeses for her daughters. Then she reached back for a third.
“Do you want a snack for work?” she asked Jourie, who was getting dressed for his midnight shift.
“Do we have enough?”
“I think so,” she said, handing him the cheese. “But I’m shopping tomorrow.”
“I’ll wait,” he said, handing it back. He stood up and hugged her goodbye.
Sarah Godfrey is Bread for the World's associate online editor.
Write your members of Congress and urge them to ensure a place at the table for all people by providing adequate funding for programs, such as SNAP, that address hunger and help lift people out of poverty.
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