This shocking story of the true cost of efforts to “protect” the charitable food system from people who need more help than they are offered comes to us from John Arnold, then the Executive Director of Feeding America West Michigan.
One day I saw one of the Food Bank’s board members talking to somebody when I was driving downtown in Grand Rapids’ “Bowery” area. It was always fun to talk with that board member, so I found a parking spot and went over to see what was going on. As I approached, the woman he was talking with had her back to me, and he saw me coming and got his little grin on his face. As I neared them, he kind of wrapped his arm around her and turned her a little so that she could see me coming, but his arm was there so that she also couldn’t escape.
When I got up to them he said to her, “Here’s somebody that I know would really like to meet you and talk with you because he supplies food to those food pantries that you used to scam food from to buy coke back when you were addicted.” She just blanched and turned beet red.
I just had to laugh and I said to her, “I am so sorry, I tried to bring him up right, but there was only so much I could do, he just turned out the way he is,” to try to take the embarrassment out of it for her. “Plus,” I said, “I noticed that in his introduction of you that everything was in past tense, as in things that were, that no longer are.” And she said yeah, that was right, that she had actually been clean and off drugs for a couple of years and had her kids back again and was doing ok now.
I said, “It’s really none of my business and I don’t mean to pry, but boy if I could ask you a couple of questions it would really help me understand some things that I need to understand and haven’t been able to get answers to.” She replied, “OK, I guess. I’d be glad to help if I can.”
So I asked, “This deal of getting food from pantries, and then selling it and buying drugs… how does that even work? I’ve lived in New York City, I’ve lived in Los Angeles and Chicago, St. Louis, and now here in Grand Rapids, and I have never had anyone approach me out on the street with a bunch of extra pockets sewn into the inside lining of their coat and kind of flip it open and say ‘Hey, would you like to buy some tuna fish?’ or ‘I’m running a special on cornmeal today.’ How does this selling food pantry food work?”
She looked a little thoughtful and then she said that actually, when she went to a pantry, she would pretty much bring home whatever they gave her. She had some kids, and they would go through it and they would sort out any of it they could use and they tended to eat that. Then, for the stuff that they couldn’t use, there were other drug users, obviously, that she was in fairly close and regular contact with; there was kind of a quid pro quo of ‘If you’ve got some drugs and I need some and I don’t have any, maybe you’d help me out, and here I’ve got some food, and maybe you don’t have any and maybe I could help you out.’ So there was some sharing of the food with other at-risk people.
I said: “But you didn’t actually go anywhere and sell it?” She said: “Well no, there’s no place. Where would you sell it?” I said: “And your drug dealer wouldn’t take it as payment for drugs?”
She laughed at the very suggestion, and said, “I don’t think so, ‘cause he’s gotta pay his supplier and I guarantee you he doesn’t want a bag of cornmeal!”
What came out of that conversation was a realization that this myth of food being sold and people buying drugs just truly really does not happen in the real world because it cannot happen. There is no secondary market for random bits of food, and no drug dealer is going to take a bag of food in exchange for the drug. In fact her use of the food ultimately put it in the hands of her own household or into the hands of other at risk people, so ultimately it went to where it was supposed to, with her passing it on.
My next question was about scamming pantries and getting food from more than one of them. She said that she had gotten some fake IDs and was drawing food from multiple pantries because there only was a certain amount that she could use from each of the pantries she visited and even if she had been able to use it all, it was never enough.
So she had gotten some fake IDs and did use multiple pantries a month. Had she ever gotten caught? Yes, eventually she did. What happened afterwards was that the pantries cut her off. A lot of the pantries share information back and forth, and, she said, “They put out the word on me and nobody would ever serve me again.”
I asked, “What did you do then?” At that point I didn’t even begin to imagine what the answer would be. The answer was that she turned tricks, she became a prostitute. In Grand Rapids, Michigan in the late 1990s this woman had been rejected, had been abandoned by the faith community, and had essentially been thrown to the wolves in order to protect food from people like her. So she had worked as a prostitute in the years that Grand Rapids had a serial killer who ultimately killed – I believe – 11 women who were believed to be engaged in prostitution.
What that added up to was that during the time that she was able to get food from pantries, there was a fairly good chance that what we were doing was saving her life. We were keeping her off the streets and away from that killer, not to mention AIDS and the other things that can come from prostitution even on its best days. When “the system worked” and a cheater was caught and punished by being cut off, the system, the church tossed this person to the gutter.