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This piece was originally published May 2018.
Earlier this year, the Trump administration proposed to overhaul assistance programs by cutting the amount of food stamps that individuals can redeem at grocery stores, making up for the cuts with government-issued boxes of non-perishable food. The proposal has been met with skepticism. Purported to reduce costs and provide standardized nutrition, the "America's Harvest Box" program would strip recipients of the dignity of choosing the foods they and their families eat.
Our country has been around this block before.
I remember standing in a quiet line in Furman, an uneasy town in rural Alabama, with my mother and grandmother, who everyone called "Ma' Dear." It was the early 1980s. I was a young girl, somewhat mesmerized at the amount of people waiting to get boxes of food.
Every month, we would stand in the "Po' Folks line," as it was called, with hundreds of other women and children waiting to get into the armory. Once finally inside, grandmother would give her name, address, and phone number. Until this day, I can remember that number, no longer operational, but imprinted in my long-term memory. Then we'd stand for over an hour more, listening to names called off the long list.
Finally, "Mrs. Thomas." I looked up at my grandmother, in her flowered dress, and walked with her up to the table lined with large brown boxes.
Grandmother had a thick piece of cardboard paper in her hand with a numbered list of food. As the man read off the list, someone in the back boxed up each item: government cheese, peanut butter, and meat product are all that I recall. These were our monthly commodities, given to poor people through a government food program. I didn't know we were poor, since everyone in our community received these commodities. Even the school made lunch from the boxed government food.
Even after the boxed commodities changed over to food stamps, my grandmother still cooked from scratch, a kitchen warrior armed with fresh vegetables and fruit.
Grandmother's box fit snug in the trunk of the car, packed between other boxes for the carload of people who all rode together to pick up commodities. As we got back to her house, she carried the heavy box up the hill herself. Once in the kitchen, she let me help unload it. My job was to sit on the counter and put the canned items in the cabinets. I remember the peanut butter being so heavy that when it dropped, it rolled down the linoleum floor and hit the edge of the door with a loud thump. But mostly I remember the long, rectangular box, brown with black ink marking it as a pasteurized product cheese, provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Inside, it was hard and orange and barely fit into my grandmother's refrigerator. She mumbled something under her breath as she pushed the box to the back of the shelf.
Many might say that government cheese made the best homemade macaroni cheese, and the best cheese toast, ever. I would have to agree. However, it was thick, hard, and heavy. The peanut butter was even thicker, and extra pale, almost iridescent. The meat products and powdered milk were weird, and I don't remember my grandmother using them at all.
The undignified box of government food would sit in her kitchen for months, wasting away useless. Grandmother was the best cook this side of heaven, and she grew her food. She worked in her garden daily, planting seeds to supply food for her family and to help other families in the community.
And with us, she used real, hot, cooked food to tell the story of her life. She handed down the freshness of her ancestors in every bite.
Delightfully, she made balanced meals three times a day. I watched her trim the fat from chicken so we could have a protein. Healthy carbs such as potatoes, sweet potatoes, and fresh corn were always on the menu, with hearty vegetables like collards, turnip greens, and cabbage.
Even after the boxed commodities changed over to food stamps, my grandmother still cooked from scratch, a kitchen warrior armed with fresh vegetables and fruit. She would use food stamps at a local grocery store owned by local people, where she bought fresh food, hormone-free meat, flour, real cane sugar, cold milk, orange juice, turnip greens, sweet potatoes, apples, and oranges. Choosing meals for her family, with dignity, was her gift. Loving her family, feeding us good quality, tasty food, was the spice of her life.
The undignified box of government food would sit in her kitchen for months, wasting away useless. Grandmother was the best cook this side of heaven, and she grew her food.
Some may say that my grandmother was poor and dependent on the government for her health and well-being. I would attest that she was a woman brutally capable of making her own decisions, even when it meant shelving a box of government food and growing her own. She modeled perseverance to her family, prudently managed her household budget, put three children through college, and owned her land and property.
My grandmother was a strong, Southern, rural woman who used her voice to raise the community's consciousness about land and soil conservation, who gardened by day and made compost piles in the evening. Later, spending her aging days as a community organizer, she used meals to gather church women and neighbors together in her home, to advocate for resources that could help everyday people.
And with us, she used real, hot, cooked food to tell the story of her life. She handed down the freshness of her ancestors in every bite. She taught me about food sustainability, political ethics, and social dialogue. She is the embodiment of all that is and was good in this world, and her example fashioned my own resistance. The experiences I had at her table in rural Alabama shaped my drive for justice and healing.
My grandmother was a strong, Southern, rural woman who used her voice to raise the community's consciousness about land and soil conservation, who gardened by day and made compost piles in the evening.
You won't find a sprinkling of that life-altering wisdom in brown boxes of artificial, processed government food. By proposing to transform assistance programs back from stamps to boxes of state selected, nonperishable foods, the Trump administration is threatening to take away the basic rights of people to make choices about what they eat. To prevent them from building tradition in their homes, through food, is an injustice.
For those who have the pleasure of observing their mothers and grandmothers cook in the kitchen, and for those who do the cooking themselves, I hope they never have to look inside a box full of food that they know isn't healthy for their family. No one should be forced to choose between hunger and government rations – not in 2018, not ever.