Friday, September 27, 2013

Hunger, homelessness and the George Foreman Grill

In the recent discussion of food stamps (see here, here, and here), one of the recurring points was that the price of food available in an area often played a relatively small role in the problem, particularly compared to the difficulties associated with not having access to flexible transportation or a decent kitchen.

Which brings up one of this blog's favorite villains, the dangers of having policy debated and decided by an economically and regionally homogeneous group. It's not just a case of not seeing things from other perspectives; it's a case of not seeing things from other perspectives and not knowing that you're doing it. When a well-meaning CEO recently tried to live on a SNAP budget for a week, he screwed up the easy part, but more importantly, he skipped the hard part, not because he was trying to cheat but because things like having a car were simply part of his world. 

I've been focusing on transportation, but having an adequate kitchen can be as or more important. I heard an interview with a man who had just gotten off the streets who explained it with the following example: if have a kitchen, you can get a dozen eggs for less than two dollars and have breakfast for a week; if you have to go to a restaurant, that same money will get you one egg sandwich. 

This 2004 NPR story illustrates the point beautifully and it also shows the resourcefulness people can show under difficult circumstances. 
So many immigrants, homeless people and others of limited means living in single-room occupancies (SROs) have no kitchens, no legal or official place to cook. To get a hot meal, or eat traditional foods from the countries they've left behind, they have to sneak a kind of kitchen into their places. Crock pots, hot plates, microwaves and toaster ovens hidden under the bed. And now, the latest and safest appliance, the appliance that comes in so many colors it looks like a modern piece of furniture: the George Foreman Grill. It is, quite literally, a hidden kitchen.
This story also led us to the streets. We called our colleague, Steve Edwards at WBEZ, to see if he could help us locate any hidden grills in Chicago. He contacted The Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, which in turn put us in touch with Jeffrey Newton. Jeffry has been homeless or in shelters most all his life, from boy's homes, to reformatories, to prison by age 17. Then he moved out on the streets, where every day he goes "trailblazing" — looking for food, shelter, work, the resources he needs to make it through the day.

Jeffry learned to cook from his grandmother. He feels an urge to cook, especially for other people — under the overpass on Chicago's Wacker Drive; on a George Foreman Grill plugged into a power pole; with a hot clothing iron to toast a grilled cheese sandwich.

We also called Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco's Tenderloin District. We knew they would know. They offer a stunning array of services to the poor, to those in recovery, to those needing assistance, both spiritual and physical.

Pat Sherman lived for quite some time in SROs with no kitchen, where cooking was forbidden. She now has a home and works in Glide's walk-in program. Sherman — whose recipe for "Hidden Beans & Rice" is linked to above — was quite ingenious when it came to cooking. Her Crock-Pot doubled as a pencil holder and a flower pot — nothing that would arouse suspicion. When nobody was around to check, she would slow-cook her beans while she went to school, then come home to a hot meal.

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