As unrestful as 2020 has been, many of us spent much-needed time bonding with loved ones over food this Thanksgiving. But what about those whose financial capacity to provide and maintain adequate sustainable food has become worse during the pandemic? Food insecurity is an issue for many School of General Studies and graduate students, and poverty more broadly has been a major issue for many people of color in New York who were surviving from paycheck to paycheck pre-pandemic. The sudden loss of employment coupled with entrepreneurship-straining public health orders makes it even more difficult to pay bills and keep the same amount of food on the table as before. Unemployment compensation is a temporary benefit and is hardly enough money for many who are depending on it today. The recent surge in positive COVID-19 test results shows no sign of financial relief in sight, and opportunities for establishing sustainable economic independence continue to be scarce while living expenses remain the same.
I believe that combatting the stigmas associated with poverty will encourage people who did not previously use state or government supplemental nutrition programs to take advantage of the food pantry and food program resources that they may need immediately.
In my pastoral role, I provide counsel and referrals to Harlem residents, families, and young parents suddenly dealing with food insecurity during the pandemic. I began to see that many of the same people who were advocating for the needs of people in their communities also have the same needs, but do not take advantage of the resources that address those needs. In these discussions, people were reluctant to resort to resources that carry social stigmas such as those associated with poverty, including food pantries and public school food programs. Hence, undoing the stigmas associated with taking advantage of food programs is more important now than ever because these stigmas prevent food-insecure New Yorkers from taking advantage of the available food programs that they need.
In many ways, the stigmas of poverty are inadvertently experienced at the hands of institutions and organizations that are in place to help. For example, thinking back on my own experiences with food scarcity, I remember that the first thing Child Protective Services did during a home visit was look in the refrigerator and cabinets to see how much food we had in our home. I found this to be very uncomfortable and scary, and I wondered if they believed I had enough food for their satisfaction. I also wondered if they had the parenting experience to be able to judge whether or not we had enough food to sustain the entire family with that one skeptical review. This uninformed judgment determined by a procedural look into my home made me question whether I was doing enough to provide more for my family and prevent food insecurity in my own home. Through my experience, I could understand that no one wants to be labeled “poor.” For many people, it is more than just receiving help: They don’t want anyone to label them as “unfit” or “irresponsible.” The most popular narratives people internalize about poverty are all myths, yet these misconceptions still prevent so many from taking advantage of aid that would lessen their economic stress during the pandemic.
The stigmas surrounding poverty act as a deterrent to accessing necessary services. However, these stigmas are best understood through lived personal experiences, and organizations and institutions must consider the public representation of the individuals whom they serve so as not to stigmatize them for taking advantage of the help and services being offered to them. Policies and programs created to address the complexities of food insecurity are often not mindful of the individual experience associated with its function. When targeting the realities and misconceptions of poverty, institutions of higher learning like Columbia; institutions of care, custody, and control; and community-level organizers must be mindful of the stigmas associated with the need for a public service, in addition to how stereotypes and popular narratives can deter people from seeking out the resources they need. This level of thoughtfulness and narrative shifting will encourage more people to take advantage of food program resources that may be needed to maintain ample nutrition in their households until adequate, sustainable income is available.
Pastor Isaac Scott is a three-time Change Agent Award winner, multimedia visual artist, and human rights activist studying as a Justice-in-Education scholar at the School of General Studies.
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