Monday, March 19, 2012

Communication and the Seasonality of Hunger

Rachel is the mother of Laura, who Soumitro had interviewed a few days earlier. Laura told Rachel about the project, and she had also taken several recruitment fliers to pass out to people she knew would benefit from taking part in the project. Though I did not realize it at the time, this simple (f)act – what us researchers call “snowball sampling” – was one example of the larger importance of communication in struggles with hunger. Speaking of the local food pantries, churches, and other organizations she has to rely on for food, Rachel said, “But I recommend a person— I always tell people you want something to eat you could go here and they’ll help you, they’ll help you... especially with peoples that got kids. Yeah, they’ll help you.”

Throughout our conversation, Rachel continually placed the conditions of others before her own concerns about herself. When she moved to Lafayette in 2009 after being homeless in Chicago for several years, she did not want to impose herself on her family members (especially younger ones) who, she said, had their own lives and their own things they have to deal with. While her family has remained important, she also insisted on making it on her own; and now that she has her own apartment, she is pleased that her family “don’t come around every day, see ‘em once a week, that’s fine with me.”

For me, seasonality in terms of food means a shift in the kinds and quality of fresh foods available in the grocery store, and how much these fruits and vegetables cost. As winter sets in, I simultaneously bemoan the closing of the farmer’s market and the grapes now being flown in from Chile piled up in the grocery store – and I don’t even glance at the tomatoes whose insides I know are more a mushy pink than floral red. However, what brings me a shift in convenience brings the hungry in this part of the country a dramatic change in the ability to get food and to simply survive. As Rachel and I discussed what she wanted to see change about the way food is delivered to the hungry in Tippecanoe County, she recalled an event from when she lived in Chicago that has had a lasting impact in her life, and now mine as well. Her telling of this heartrending story about an elderly neighbor who starved to death as she was snowed-in in her apartment profoundly struck me in a number of ways, and drove home the importance of communication once again, and also how those who are most at the margins will inevitably bear the brunt of our failings of social mindfulness. I asked myself, how and why does communication with the elderly, our parents and grandparents, become severed? This question takes on more significance when placed next to the discussions on this blog about the role of family and parents in taking care of one another.

Rachel, now in her fifties, has taken it upon herself to check on the older people who live in her building, and those she knows in Chicago whenever she goes back there. Sometimes her relatives even remark on it, saying that she checks on the old people but doesn’t come visit them, to which she replies “I don’t have no need to see you, you healthy enough!” I decided to put the transcription of Rachel’s story below because her own words convey the struggle and sadness of this event and the larger conditions that frame it much better than mine ever could.


K: Is it more difficult to get food in the summer versus the winter, or in different seasons?

R: I think the winter is more difficult because the weather, if its real real cold don’t nobody wanna be out in the cold tryin’ to get no food, so I think the winter is more. Better the summer, the summer is easy ‘cause it’s hot outside, you could always—especially at night, you could go to the— walk to the Speedway or something and get you something. But the winter time is bad ‘cause if it get a bad weather, we be stuck in the house, yeah. That’s why I think the winter is the worst part about getting food. It is. We have some winters—we had a blackout, I was up here when they had a blackout. The whole streetlights was out, I don’t know, some storm hit here. Speedway lights was out, everything. I went to go to Speedway to get a pop and couldn’t wait on me because they registers was down. Everything was out, it was just pitch black and I had just food in my apartment and all my house is electric, everything was out. So all I had—only thing I had was working was the battery clock. [laughs] So I just sit there and sit it out. And drunk some water. The water was runnin’, that was fine with me. Yep. Lucky I had some donuts and stuff, and some Lunchables I got from the Food Finder. They had the little sandwiches, the little lunchbox food, they gave us. I ate that ‘cause it was a minute before they put the lights on. Mhmm. I be feelin’ sorry for the old people. If something happened like that, a storm of something come through here, they ain’t able to get out, that’s what I worry about them, very bad.

K: And so do you think it’s different, you know, kinda different for different— depending on how old you are, does that affect how—how, let’s say, you now or in the past, or other people depending— or if things are different depending on how old you are and how you can get food?

R: Mhmm I think yeah ‘cause some people can’t get out. Some people be in there sick and don’t want nobody to know it, and they be in there starving to death, you know. I think they should come around to all the old peoples and check on ‘em, knock on the door and see if they want something. That’s what they have the meals on wheels for them, but I think they should check on them ‘cause— this was a lady up in Chicago, she was living on our block, and this lady had been about 70-something years old, and we’d see her all the time come on out on her porch, you know, sit on her porch. And this particular time ___ snow, it was snowing, you know, winter be so bad— this snow, you know we ain’t gonna pay no attention to see nobody out, but as the snow one day got cleared up, we was wondering ‘why’s she— why’s she— why we ain’t seein’ her come outside?’ And so what happened? I had everybody on the block to go check on her, and she was in her house. She had starved to death, died. And that freaked me out because she had nobody to come check on her to give her, nothing to eat. Everybody thought she was okay, you know. She was in there dead, that was crazy— sittin’ in her chair. And we had snow— you know back then when the weather was so bad, severe, when you can’t go outside, that was bad. And I said they should have somebody to check on them. That’s what I worry about.

K: And so how do— you said that was terrible, so how do you deal with those kinds and—

R: You can’t! All you can do is just pray to God that it don’t happen— you know that somebody could wake up and realize to don’t let it happen like that no more, but you can’t, you just have to deal with it. That’s life I guess. It just— it just got to me like that because out of all— that lady be on her porch everyday and then nobody out of all them peoples on that block, everybody, you know, we young and older people— that’s what made me start talking to my mom, you know. ‘Yeah I should check on these peoples’, ‘y’all don’t care, you don’t do nothing, you don’t talk to them.’ At least go knock on they door ‘Hey how you doin’,’ you know. Some people stay next door to each other and don’t even talk to each other, you know, but you— thats kinda messed me up. I seen that lady everyday. She would come outside, she just checking her mailbox and they didn’t even check to see—the mailman shoulda noticed if all the mail was piling up. She had been in there for a couple of days. That’s bad. She didn’t have nobody, nobody. And they took her body, and we found out that she had no— all her family members had gone, or left, she was the only one that— I’m like ‘how you gonna be the only left on Earth?’ It’s said to think about, but they took her body and, they buried her— what they call it, a city burial, or some kind of way they did it. Nobody at the funeral but a few people, but I know I was there. Didn’t nobody want to pay no attention to that. I worry about these peoples up here, you know with the building I live in I got— I see everybody and I check on ‘em, ‘cause there’s old people that stay there too. I always check on ‘em. But I got to see ‘em everyday, whether they walkin’ to the store, I just check on ‘em. ‘Cause that scared me, it did something to me about that, just think the lady was in there starving to death, she was— couldn’t even get outside when nobody knock on the door, you know, to see if she needed something to eat. Some people can’t get it. Yep. But, got to deal with that. And I just hope it don’t happen like that up here, you know. That’s what I worry about. Check on ‘em. But up here a lot people put they family members in these homes, so they can have somebody to check on ‘em and a lot of peoples can’t deal with they family members, they tell ‘em to get out they business, and they gonna stay in their own house by theyself. Don’t know what to do about it. Hope something change.

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