Friday, February 25, 2011

Faces of hunger; Day at a mobile food pantry

Today, the first half of the day, Agaptus and I spent at the mobile food pantry in Monticello. Most of our work was broken down into two tasks: unloading boxes and setting up food on the tables, and serving as personal shoppers for the clients of the pantry. These tasks in some ways were the other side of the "specific tasks" we have been doing at the organization, such as sorting food, packing them into boxes etc.

The experience of serving as a shopper was overwhelming in many ways. That individual shoppers needed to be guided through the process also meant that we had to tell them how many packages of meat, how many packages of ketchup, how many packages of canned corn/beans etc. they could pick up depending upon their family size. The family size was already figured out at the check-in desk by the volunteer who did the registering. This part of telling how many items to pick up felt difficult to do, particularly as one could tell the discomfort and the pain in the moment, the loss of face that was threatened by the question I asked, "What is your household size?". A simple question, and yet a question imbued with complexities, with the terrifying threat of disrupting the politeness of interactions in the mainstream, and with the potential to disrupt normative expectations of civility. And yet, it is also a question that became acceptable within the structures of the bureaucracy. The (im)politeness of the question took on a different meaning in the context of addressing food insecurity...

I realize that in the bureaucratic functioning of a pantry and with respect to the task being needed to be done, this is an important question. And yet, it is precisely in this moment of asking the question that I also realize how many other questions remain unasked, how many other stories remain untold, how many possibilities are foreclosed. The eyes filling up with tears, the face lowering down in the loss of dignity, the avoiding of eye contact...and the stories that remain untold. The moment of vulnerability in this interaction lies in the publicness of sharing that which is so private in the mainstream structures of capitalism. The moment of vulnerability lies in the erasure of suffering and structural violence that has been so effectively accomplished in the public sphere. I feel shame asking this question because my shame is attached to the positions of privilege I occupy within this capitalist structure. My shame is attatched to the material access that I have been blessed with. The act of offering food at a food pantry is constituted within these very tensions.

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