Thus says the Lord: Do justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor him who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the resident alien, the fatherless, and the widow, nor shed innocent blood in this place. – Jeremiah 22:3
The other day, I walked into a Whole Foods to pick up a few items, my WIC vouchers in hand. I have the luxury of thinking carefully about my food purchases. My husband and I do not want to support the torture of animals, and we do want to put money back into the hands of our local economy. We try to eat more in-season, locally, organic, fair-trade. We still, however, sit somewhat close to the poverty line, and we have had to make a few sacrifices. Less meat, more beans. Rice and pasta to tide us over. Eating what is on sale, doing without non-essentials like alcohol or snack foods.
The WIC vouchers help too (especially in more expensive stores like Whole Foods). I wandered the aisles, looking at the beautifully stocked shelves, until I found a clerk at the back of the store. “Do you participate in the WIC program?” I asked. He had never heard of it before, but his female co-worker was sure that the store did. I didn’t see any of the tell-tale blue stickers placed under the proper cereal boxes or bags of dried beans, but I took her at her word. As I queued up to pay and saw the look of confusion on the cashier’s face (male, hipster glasses) when I handed over my voucher, my stomach started to sink. As the line piled up behind me I tried to explain what the WIC program was.
The boy was interested, but he had never heard of it. He called his manager and confirmed what I already knew. Whole Foods did not participate in the program. I left my small bag of groceries at the register and walked out the door, trying to keep my smile bright. I went home and e-mailed the customer service team, who responded to me within several days. “Unfortunately, ” they wrote, “we cannot participate in the WIC program” due to conflicts with “quality” in regards to specific products such as infant formula. It was short, conciliatory, dismissive. It was clear that they did not need my business, nor the business of anyone who finds themselves in need of a little assistance when feeding their children.
The e-mail brought me back into those harrowing first months of my daughter’s life: due to a vicious medical emergency, she was born nearly two months early and I was left without the ability to breastfeed her. I was shaken up by my traumatic birth experience, grieving the loss of my ability to feed my own child. I remember the price of formula–the staggering realization that it would cost us upwards of $150 a month. Due to both my medical emergency and the financial strain of losing work hours, WIC was a godsend. I had never felt more vulnerable in my life, both physically and financially.
In a flash, as I deleted the e-mail from Whole Foods, I was reminded of my vulnerabilities all over again. And I did not like it.
I am not the only one who has depended on the kindness of family, strangers, and the government to get through tough times. For many others, it is the same—according to their website, the WIC program (which stands for Women, Infants, Children) serves over 9 million participants in America. Walking into a WIC clinic is like seeing a living, breathing poster for diversity: women, infants, and children from all ethnic stripes, showing up to collect their food vouchers. It is loud, messy, chaotic, and fraught with contradictions. People yelling at their children and cooing at their babies. Overworked employees and stressed-out moms. All of us doing whatever we can to take care of our own, receiving a bit of help.
A few years ago, my husband and I were young and in love, and we considered ourselves materially poor. We decided to have babies anyway. After I signed up for WIC, I sat through basic informational sessions on nutrition (Eat the Rainbow!) had my blood tested for iron deficiencies, and handed over my pay stubs to prove I was hovering near the poverty line. In return, I got vouchers that allowed me to get food from participating grocery stores: corn tortillas, beans, milk, cheese, eggs, cereal, juice. I also got a tragic and precious voucher for $12 worth of fruits and vegetables for me and my growing baby.
Every month I would get the vouchers, and every month I would go off to the grocery store. The clerks eyed me, sighing at the extra work I was making for them, snapping at me if I got the wrong item (No organics! You got the 14oz peanut butter instead of the 12oz!). Handing off those tell-tale vouchers became a lesson in embarrassment, so I anxiously tried to do everything right, to be the noble and righteous poor, just so I could collect my few bags of food.
“I don’t really need this, ” I would tell myself, as I watched the other people in the grocery store size me up, or as I sat in the WIC office and saw other women struggling to keep their three children quiet. I am not really, truly poor. I have safety nets. I have a support system. And yet, here I am, taking the vouchers handed to me. Qualifying, fair and square, for a little nutritional handout.
I teach English to speakers of other languages for a (small) living, and many, if not all, of my students qualify for some type of government aid: SNAP (food stamps), cash benefits, Medicaid, and WIC. It is a small commonality we share, the mothers and I, trying our best to feed our children. Most of my students are from the horn of Africa, countries that have been decimated by war, strife, and ever-constant hunger. I heard a long time ago that there is a pattern to those who die in a famine: first the crops and then the livestock, then it is the babies, the elderly, the children, and the mothers. Finally, only the men are left. As a result of the 2010-2011 drought in Somalia, over 260, 000 people died of starvation. 10% of the children in the country were gone in the blink of an eye. In the south, one in five children died of starvation. In the quiet of the night, I let myself think of all of the mothers, so many with empty arms.
This is always the pattern. Infants, Children, Women.
Currently, Somalia is again experiencing drought. To compound matters, there has been an increased presence of militants blocking towns, causing the most vulnerable to starve. In my own Midwestern, American city, summer means increased levels of hunger among children who rely on free and reduced-priced school meals to get them through the day. People who are not women, infants, or children are the ones responsible for over 80% of all violent crime, and they account for over 90% of all our lawmakers. The realities of our broken, hierarchical, violent world are laid bare when we stop to consider who are the most at risk in our world, and how we choose to perceive them.
Women, Infants, Children.
Some of us have the luxury of not understanding the vulnerabilities inherent in gender and age in our world today. Some of us can choose to be unaware of government aid programs that catch the hungry children before they slip through our fingers. Some of us, myself included, can slide up and down the poverty scale as it warrants us, choosing to live simply without ever experiencing the true crush of hunger. Some of us, myself included, would rather pretend that the world is equal and just, and that right living and right thinking will lead to right outcomes.
I wanted to write about how we all feed our babies. I wanted to write about how I do not like being reminded of how vulnerable we are, and how often I choose to look away. I wanted to write about about famines and government cheese, my neighborhood and community, all of us so hungry for a better world. I wanted to write about a God whose eye is always on the most vulnerable in the community, who longs for his church to be the shelter in a violent, hungry storm. I wanted to write about the orphan and the widow, about how so much precious blood is being wasted, how the most vulnerable are still oppressed everywhere we look.
I wanted to tell you a story about Women, Infants, and Children, but it turned out to be the story of all of us.
A version of this article first appeared on Christ and Pop Culture.