As the White House announced plans to curb the food stamps system, cutting the amount of stamps in half and giving out food boxes to make up for the loss in value, I had to shake my head. That, along with decreased funding for HUD, and the closure of schools in Chicago, it feels that there are three major wars we’re fighting: The War on Terrorism, The War on Drugs, and The War on the Poor. Another reason this feels so personal to me is because I was that hungry kid, who needed the proper housing, with a massive thirst for a good school system in Chicago. Twenty-five years later, and I feel lucky I got out in time…because for kids these days, gangs and drugs may be the least of their worries.
I’ve seen this before. Mom used to bring home boxes from the welfare office. The powdered milk. The government cheese, with the texture and flexibility of an eraser. These were the things of my childhood dreams. I actually never imagined there was something better until I experienced something better—much later in life. I grew to love that stuff.
I was raised in one of the toughest projects in America—The Robert Taylor Homes were the surroundings that you just expected would kill you someday, as if the food wouldn’t also put you in an early grave. I remember having a treat one day, of the USDA-approved powdered mashed potatoes, whenever my mother had the motivation to cook us something. It tasted like Play-Doh, but with a little salt and margarine, boy, that was haute cuisine. Gunshots outside but emulsified, starch-filled, mystery fluff in our stomachs.
The illustrations on the box were simple: there were, what looked like hand-drawn raisins and a sun peaking over the top of the raisins, with the word “Raisins” in dark-blue, in case you didn’t know what you were looking at. The cornflakes…had an illustration of a bowl with a spoon in it: “Corn Flakes Cereal: Ready to Eat.” Yeah, they really put a lot of thought into it. Even the government didn’t care to brighten the day of kids with bleak futures. I guess I don’t blame them for that. We’d been taught we were the children of the corn—wild since we were born. And most of us expected to die that way.
I heard mention of potato chips that came in the food boxes. If I’d ever seen some of those bad boys I would have torn them to shreds! Apparently some houses even got ice cream. Did my brother eat them before I’d even gotten a chance to have a taste? The world may never know.
In a lot of ways, those boxes reminded me of the Dharma Initiative foodstuffs from “Lost.” In the show, the former residents of the island had all been brought there as part of research, a planned community away from the general population to test if Utopia, in the name of science, could be obtained.
Ridged cans of pork and beef had silhouettes of the obese animal you were about to eat in that same, government-issued lettering in that same government-issued font. I remember once, someone trying to describe Pig Latin to me while we handled a can. “Yeah, man,” the kid said, “it’s just like English but it’s like how pigs talk. The Three Stooges use it all the time!” It’s true, those three little piggies hilariously spouted off their gibberish language while smashing into lamp posts or gouging each other in the eyes. Not much was funny about whatever substance the government had prepared for us in those cans. It was great for keeping black people nice and fat, just like the pictures suggested.
What was supposed to happen to these kids? What was supposed to happen to that hope that I always hoped would come for so many years? Politicians have made the grandest of promises, and yet the city I love so much remains broken. That forgotten city that even the cops in the mob-boss 20s and 30s wouldn’t touch never seems to have had a rebound—a basketball analogy all Bulls fans can appreciate. Sure, if you were a certain color, it was easy to miss this plight, but, I mean, seriously…nobody in the Hood cares about the people who didn’t have to make it out. Not having to even face the struggle was no real accomplishment…make it out alive, and then you can boast about something. Especially if, after you got out, you weaned yourself off the government pig swill and started getting true nourishment. Because, as we all know, that stuff the government sent us was not really food, but more like cheap, government-funded, route to a heart attack. The war continues. I already know who’s going to lose.