As a kid, one of my favorite memories was going “to the country” for the weekend with my parents and sister. We would travel a few hours out of Birmingham, to rural Alabama, where my great Aunts lived in a modest barnwood shack. They were old, and of course, were eligible for various government assistance. One of the programs made available to them, was the USDA “commodities” program. A monthly truck would deliver to the county agency, a supply of various food items, peanut butter, flour, sugar, coffee, and government cheese. I remember the cold winter mornings, standing by the woodburning stove, smelling the government bacon frying in the kitchen, mixing with the smell of pine lightered in the stove. The peanut butter was gritty and raw, but tasted so good mixed with a bit of corn syrup on a sandwich. My favorite thing was the grilled cheese sandwiches, made with commodity cheese. It came in big blocks which were so hard, you had to heat the knife to cut it, but it was so good.
The past few months, I have been helping a friend of mine who owns a small grocery store in the town where I live. I work a few hours each week as a cashier, because he has trouble keeping and getting good help. I have been stunned at the sheer number of people who are currently using “food stamps” to make purchases. I put the term in quotes because they are no longer “stamps” but an actual credit card called an EBT. The various purchases I witness are amazing; frozen dinners, pizza, premium ice cream, gourmet coffee, sodas, candy and chips. One woman complained as she was checking out, she only gets $500 a month, and it’s hard because she has to feed 8 people on that. I’m thinking, my Aunts could have done it easily, in fact, they could have fed 25 people on that. Give them a sack of flour and some grease, butter and milk, and they could whip up some biscuits and gravy to die for. A little corn meal and some dry beans, and you’d have a meal fit for a king, or at least a strapping country boy.
Of course, these people grew up in a different era. My father endured the Great Depression, where he says they would only have meat on the table for Thanksgiving and Christmas. Most of the time, their meals consisted of vegetables they grew in the garden, and some manner of bread made from flour and meal, which was still somewhat available and affordable. So the concept of the commodities truck, was surely a godsend for the poor. It wasn’t the greatest of food, but it was better than nothing, and it did provide nutrition and basic necessity for those who were unable to afford much of anything at all. So what happened to this program? Well, the liberals decided back in the day, that the stigma of receiving “sub-par” government commodities, was too appalling for us to stand anymore, and they replaced the program with food stamps. Then, it became too stigmatizing to pull out these food stamps and pay for your groceries, so they moved to a credit card… like the rich folk have. Along the way, the provisions for basic necessity was upgraded to include all manner of groceries, in fact, there is no limit to what you can purchase with your benefits, as long as it is groceries. Of course, this doesn’t include things like tobacco or booze, and it doesn’t include household items or pet food.
One of my EBT customers is checking out, in his purchase are 5 large bags of rice. I commented, “You must be planning a wedding with all this rice!” He informed me, he mixes the rice with his dog food to make it go further. As another woman is checking out, I inform her that the 5 lb. bag of dog food she has, is not covered with EBT, she says, “Hold on just a minute” and rushes off back into the store, returning a few moments later with a 5 lb. package of ground chuck. I was pleased to know that her dog was going to eat better than me that evening, thanks to the government. The next customer has 5 kids, they have their arms loaded down with assorted candy, sodas and ice cream, I total up their purchase and she steps forward to present her EBT card. Day in and day out, I see this sort of thing, and I wonder, whatever happened to Government Cheese?
I realize we have a moral obligation as a civil society, to care for those who are unable to provide for themselves or their families. I certainly don’t want to see young children starving or people becoming malnourished because of a lack of social safety nets, but we have gone way over the edge with this. The abuse of this food program has gone completely unchecked for so long, it is no longer even a matter of conscience for those who are getting the benefits. They simply blow through whatever amount they get, and complain that it’s just not enough. Why can’t we return to the days of the commodity program, where poor people were given basic staples, and were happy as hell to have that assistance?
I recently heard a radio commercial, it was a small girl talking about how she was the typical little girl you see around your neighborhood, who you think is a pretty good kid, and she is one in four children struggling with hunger. “They say you can grow up to be anything you want to be, I just want to be someone who doesn’t go to bed hungry anymore.” I’m thinking… why the hell doesn’t your mother apply for her EBT card?