By Susan D. Harris
It was eleven o’clock at night and the lady in front of me in the supermarket line was buying jars of baby food and bottles of Pedialyte. The cashier pulled some of the jars aside and told the lady they weren’t covered under the WIC program. “But you didn’t have the ones I can buy, the shelf is empty. I can’t buy the other ones because he won’t eat them,” the customer said.
“I’m sorry, maybe if you call WIC you can get permission to buy these, but I can’t do anything about it,” the cashier responded.
“I’ve been trying to call them for two days and left messages. I can’t get a return call,” the woman said, now visibly shaken, her voice quivering. “My baby is sick and he’s not going to keep down anything but strained peas and maybe these,” she said pointing to some other jars. “He’ll vomit up anything else.”
Personally I had never realized there were strict guidelines with regard to what kind of baby food you could buy with WIC. Allowed brands vary from state to state. That night was a learning experience.
I’ve never told anyone this before because I don’t believe in trumpeting good deeds; but I bought that woman’s groceries for her that night. We talked briefly about her little boy; she was embarrassed to accept help but conversely desperate to help her child. I went away silently praying the baby would keep his food down.
There isn’t much difference when feeding the elderly. When we are young and healthy, most of us can eat just about anything, if we need to. But both the young and elderly are much less able to gulp down anything that is offered them, often based on real physiological reactions, mouth or dental problems, or dietary restrictions.
When I was on Family Medical Leave Act to care for my elderly father, I got my first taste of the local food pantry. The guidelines were strict, and I was required to leave with about ten boxes of cereal to fulfill the pantry’s crazy grain requirements. You could not refuse any food, or you would be banned from all food pantries.
At first I was happy with the meat they offered: Tubes of plain hamburger or frozen chicken. My parents were both on salt restricted diets, and I could prepare the food the way I wanted. One day I walked in and saw that all they had in the meat category were Bar-S hotdogs… loaded with salt. I groaned and looked at another pantry visitor as I said, “Is that really all they have for meat?” The pantry worker heard me and gave me a very loud dressing down in front of everyone. “If you have to ask what kind of meat we have then you don’t really need to be here. I’ve been instructed to ban anyone who asks about meat from all food pantries! If you leave here right now without taking the food, I’ll see to it you are banned!”
I sputtered and stammered and was panic stricken, quickly taking all the food I was required to take. It wasn’t worth explaining to someone who clearly wouldn’t listen.
I was quietly fuming at the same time. Fuming as I wondered what poor people do when their bodies can’t tolerate salt; when their bowels can’t tolerate grain or seeds or gluten. What about people with food allergies?
Around this time, I also lived through a period when seeing someone buying a 10 lb bag of potatoes caused feelings of resentment. So much so that I wondered if I was guilty of breaking the commandment, “Thou shall not covet.”
When you are poor, potatoes are like gold. I remember anxiously waiting in line to advance to the table that held potatoes at the food pantry: Would I be allowed to take two…four…maybe six?
So when I began reading Michelle Obama’s “potato manifesto” in the New York Times yesterday, I found myself sputtering and stammering again; but there was nothing quiet about my anger. “Institute of Medicine be damned!” I grumbled. “Why is Michelle Obama writing an opinion piece on white potatoes? Stay out of our lives! Stay out of our children’s lives!”
Obama’s piece also made me think back to my childhood. I had a sensitive stomach. I only ate a few bites of food and took a couple of swallows of milk at lunch. The lunch lady took this as a personal affront, and would often instruct me to take my tray back and eat more; whereupon I would inevitably get a stomach ache. One day she insisted I drink my entire carton of milk. I did, but she regretted it when I vomited it all over her shoes. My mother visited the school the next day with a clear message: “Don’t you ever, ever, tell my child what to eat again. That is between me, her father, her pediatrician, and her. It does not involve you.”
As a child, I also had hemangiomas which caused minor bleeding in my digestive tract — a condition which is not uncommon, and children eventually outgrow. Through those brief years however, raw vegetables, fresh fruit, any kind of seed, popcorn or grains were carefully monitored by my mother under the guidance of my pediatrician. Some foods were completely off limits. One time, when the teacher told us to bring our own popcorn to watch a movie in class the next day, I brought mine too. My mother had taken on the monumental task of sitting and picking out every hull from the popcorn. I ate mine happily from my little brown bag, blending in with everyone else, and no one was the wiser.
I understand there need to be restrictions on government food programs; I just don’t understand why everything is turning into a government food program.
The comments under Obama’s NY Times potato piece were almost worse than the article. There is nothing more sickening than a bunch of rich people who think they are experts on what poor people should eat. Liberals think conservatives are the condescending “rich people,” but it wasn’t conservatives who were vehemently condemning the potato in defense of Obama. It was, as usual, the Birkenstock, hybrid car, solar panel, legalize pot, liberal crowd who can spend ten minutes lecturing anyone who will listen that McDonald’s french fries and 7-Eleven Big Gulps are the gateway to hell. These are the same people that say they want wealth redistribution to “raise up the poor,” while simultaneously lobbying to wipe out our food supply in an effort to abolish cow flatulence and those nasty smelling pig and chicken farms. And of course they are the same people who forcefully took the corn from the bread basket of America and put it in our gas tanks.
The worst part about Michelle Obama’s piece was the fact that the first lady of the United States once again exposed herself as nothing more than a growling, snarling political animal; assailing the House of Representatives for trying to defy her personal decree to keep potatoes from poor women and children. I don’t think it gets any more embarrassing or crazier than that.