Food Not Drugs

There's a grassroots group that calls itself Food Not Bombs. www.foodnotbombs.net. Sort of a community of mostly young people with a social conscience bent. They go to places where homeless people hang out and serve food to the people, vegetarian food. They don't have any agenda, like religious proselytizing, or curing drug and/or alcohol addictions. A year or so ago they were serving food in a downtown park around these parts, ran into objections by the local politicians, and at least one of their members was arrested. For trespassing or not having permits--something like that. A lawyer came forward and offered some pro bono help, and things came out fine, but I haven't read a word about Food Not Bombs in the local news for some time. That doesn't mean they're not still feeding people, however. And it sure doesn't mean there are no more homeless, hungry people around here. Why I bring this up is because I was thinking about food issues. Especially as it relates to poverty.

When I was a kid, people used to talk about the elderly poor who had to eat cat food because it was all they could afford. The Federal Food Stamp Program supposedly changed that. It was actually advertised on TV many years ago. But things changed over the years. The "safety net" for the poor got hacked with a machete. Rents went up, food stamps programs got pushed off onto the states, and things now are tough all over. Even some folks working full time can't afford food. Not if they want to pay their electric bills.

In 2002 I was unemployed, homeless. Lived in my 14 year old car all day, went to homes of different people at night to get a shower and sleep. Over a period of about 16 months, I "lived" in eight different temp homes. When I went to stay with Thelma in home number four, I decided to apply for food stamps. It took a lot of urging by others to get me to do this. I was unemployed, homeless, living on $177 a week in unemployment benefits, but I really didn't believe the system was going to help me. I'd already been told that because I wasn't HIV positive or drug/alcohol addicted, I wasn't going to get help. There are a lot of people out there worse off than me, I was told by one hotline worker. Sad but true. But since Thelma, a Teamster embroiled in a labor dispute, was also unemployed, and she was giving me shelter in her house, it seemed to me the food stamps could help both of us. I had to try, at least.

I waited in a line at the county office to get an appointment. Then I waited in line to hand over the papers they wanted. Then I waited in line the day of my appointment. Food Stamp offices are depressing places, wherever they are. Dirty walls, dirty windows, scuffed floors. Colors either bland or garish, or a jarring mismatched combination of both. Hard plastic chairs, crying kids, adults either angry or defeated. Everything about these places beats down your self esteem. I can't imagine why anyone would put themselves in one, unless they really needed some help.

Finally it was my turn, and the social worker called me into her office. She was cheerful, almost friendly. After a lot of paper shuffling, and photocopying, she looked at me across her desk and said, completely serious, that I would be eligible for $10 a month in Food Stamps. Then she asked me, almost with a sneer, if I wanted her to go ahead and process my application. I said yes, of course, and left.

I never went back. Which, of course, is what she wanted.

It gets pretty old, living on bananas and dried fruit and trail mix. At the end of my time of homelessness, my stomach was extremely messed up. I had digestive problems I'd never even heard of, and four years later, I'm still not right. So many foods make me sick: nausea, pain, fullness from small amounts, labored breathing. It's unpredictable, no rhyme or reason to it. The only relief sometimes is to just quit eating for a couple days. Sometimes eating makes me so drowsy, I feel like I'm slipping into a coma after a meal. I eat no chips, no candy, nothing fried, no orange juice, no spaghetti sauce. I read ingredients obsessively. I am a vegan. I'm no fun to go out with to a restaurant. With all the unwelcome surprises that ambush me from food, I'm sure not taking any risks with drugs.

But they're just so easy to get. The currently prescribed medication for Hepatitis C is interferon and ribavirin, taken in combination, and injected. It's very expensive, because there's no generic yet. Some side effects are: psychiatric adverse effects, auto immune disease, thyroid problems, extreme fatigue, blood sugar problems. (According to Be In Charge, a program of the Schering Corporation) Response rate for someone with my genotype is about 50%. Even if cleared, the virus can come back because it mutates, and if it does, it's often with added force.

On the other hand, there are liver friendly foods--lots of them-- and they have no side effects. They're also a lot less expensive than the drugs. And you don't have to inject them. So why will the pharmaceutical companies give unemployed people free drugs, but if you're too poor to afford food, you're out of luck?

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