Brooklyn Bodegas Thrive on Soon-To-Be Slashed Food Assistance

My bodega
My bodega

“All you motherfuckers look alike,” said the Yemeni man behind the counter at my local bodega recently, to a pair of middle aged African American women walking slowly out of the door, yelling loudly about his lack of manners. Minutes later, another African American woman, a bit younger, walked up to the counter and softly asked a favor. Could she have five cents?

“The cop owes me 5 cents too!” he responded with fury. “We’re not Moses, We’re not Jesus; We’re not Allah; We’re trying to make some money!”

And so they are.

Bodegas, or delis, like this one dot the corners along Nostrand Avenue through Bedford Stuyvesant, Crown Heights and throughout New York City. In this particular area they are largely owned by Middle Eastern – many of them Yemeni – families who, as new immigrants are wont to do, run a tight ship in a small business setting.  After all, in a new country, it’s sink or swim.

But when it comes to their customer base, to whom they are inextricably linked, it’s sour grapes. A brief trip for a soda and candy can result in some traumatic sociological confrontations over race, class, decency and self-worth.  A number of brief trips over a prolonged period reveals a relationship that is hostile, violent, government subsidized and on some occasions involves criminal activity.

The government subsidy is the key to keeping this arrangement together.

Signs advertising government food subsidy programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Women, Infants and Children program (WIC), and the Electronic Benefits Transfer program (EBT), dot the weathered awnings and windows of the decrepit storefronts that line poverty stricken streets throughout Brooklyn, where the aisles are packed with products that include the beneficiary of yet another agricultural government subsidy: corn syrup. A sign in the bodega mentioned above reads: “If you are using EBT, please check it before you order from the deli.”

Sun-bleached products line the shelves surrounding the meat case where the sign dangles, and nearby in a metal basket sit oranges and bananas that have turned blue and black, a withering parallel to the food subsidies that pay for them, founded at one point or another for the greater good.

On Nostrand Avenue
On Nostrand Avenue

The young Yemeni men there spend 12 hours per day or more manning the elevated plexi-glass structure that cradles the cash register, wearing bluetooth headsets – presumably calling relatives and loved ones back home – and trying their hardest to ignore the folks who deposit their dollars, dimes and EBT cards on the counter.  When they are not ignoring each other, yelling sometimes ensues. Other times, shopkeepers publicly deride their African American customer base as heathens. In response, some customers yell profanities, calling each of the young men who work at the store Muhammad. Overall, the disdain is routine and even on some occasions the basis for a humorous, if socially violent, experience on either side.

Overnight, the doors to most of the stores that line this particular strip are locked, and small, revolving plexi-glass boxes mediate the relationship between customer and shopkeeper. At my local spot, young African American men dwell near the ice cream case for hours, others leave with heavy brown paper bags, while others pass in and out in for a beer, a bag of chips or a Dutch Master.

On one occasion I stood in line as a young man in a stretched out undershirt and sagging pants leaned over the plexi-glass containers of nickel candies and handed over his EBT card as payment for two loose cigarettes. Masking illicit purchases of beer or cigarettes as food on subsidy cards has become common practice for stores whose lifeline is based on their ability to keep their customers away from their many competitors in order to receive taxpayer money on their behalf.

The WIC (Women, Infants and Children) program was put into law in as part of the Child Nutrition Act of 1966, which states, “The Program shall serve as an adjunct to good health care during critical times of growth and development, in order to prevent the occurrence of health problems, including drug and other harmful substance abuse, and to improve the health status of these persons.”

What is clear now, is that many local convenience stores have found a way to take advantage of the funds allocated for the nutritional well-being of our most vulnerable citizens – like pregnant women and children – through the arcane rules and regulations that govern what qualifies as nutritional foods and who should be the appropriate retail vendors that supply it.

Federal law regulates food assistance programs, but defers to the state to enforce them, leaving vendors and participants at the mercy of a barrage of bureaucracy.  According to federal regulation, vendors must apply and face inspection to qualify as a food distributor for programs like WIC. These contracts last approximately three years, and vendors must participate in an annual training on how to administer the program, facing sanctions for breaking the rules on what constitutes a qualifying item.  What is clear by looking at many of the establishments that offer food assistance services, is that the bar for nutrition and health in low-income areas has been set extraordinarily low.

On the flipside, nicer supermarkets that offer access to the same benefits – say Whole Foods, Associated Supermarkets or even Key Foods – are, for some, daunting places to redeem food assistance subsidies due to higher priced healthier food potentially beyond the means of someone trying to feed a family on a meager monthly allowance. Luckily, new city programs are being tested and put into effect, like the Green Carts program which uses government assistance to bring low-cost produce via sidewalk vendors to areas like Bedford Stuyvesant and Crown Heights.

On the federal level, last week the Washington Independent reported that in order to help pay for Medicaid and reduce costs to states, “SNAP benefits face a $11.9 billion rollback starting in April, 2014. A family of three can expect their benefits to drop about $50 a month.”

That bill, a states aid package intended to help stave off job losses and cuts to Medicaid – a health subsidy with a similar constituency as food assistance – was passed on Tuesday and signed into law by President Obama. In ‘aiding’ states, the federal government leaves social programs for the poor competing for the same dollars – in this case moving money away from food assistance towards health care – shrinking the size of entitlement programs by cutting their collective pool of resources.

However, Sec. 246.10 of the regulations covering SNAP’s supplemental nutrition benefits states, “The full maximum monthly allowances of all supplemental foods in all food packages must be made available to participants if medically or nutritionally warranted. Reductions in these amounts cannot be made for cost-savings, administrative convenience, caseload management, or to control vendor abuse.

It’s not surprising that the federal government is cutting back. It’s surprising that in times of economic woe and health care hardship, they are not directing precious dollars efficiently or supporting innovative and cost-effective solutions to hunger and health. Instead they’ve slashed a subsidy that feeds one in eight Americans, choosing medicine over groceries.

Nicole Brydson Written by:

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