Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Give me five (percent)

So I've been hanging around outside my local Whole Foods a lot over the past week. Admittedly, I did sneak in for a bit after a shift of handing out fliers on Friday night to pick up a few goodies from the miscellaneous cheese bin tucked in the corner of the store behind the wine section, but mostly I have been freezing my toes off with my colleague Robin to promote "5% Day." It's kind of a big deal.

You see, two area Whole Foods stores are giving 5% of all sales on December 14th to support a bonus dollars program for low-income folks at 4 small farmers' markets here in the District (including two that I often work at, and which would benefit HUGELY from a partial matching dollars program). That's right, 5% of sales on anything from olive oil to nuts to wine to toothpaste -- all day and all night, 5% of whatever is purchased at the P Street or Georgetown Whole Foods stores today, Wednesday, goes directly to supporting food stamps. So if you're in the city and you need to pick up some groceries, come in and stock up on the things you need anyway and you will help make fresh, local fruits and vegetables more accessible to all.

Wow, that just rolled off the fingertips. I've said some version of it quite a few times these past few days, often speaking to the person's back as they brush past midway through the first sentence as if I were an annoying chihuahua yipping at them. "Excuse me, sir, do you know that this coming Wednesday is 5% Day? Whole Foods is donating 5% of...." The worst have been the ones with headphones who just put their heads down and shake their heads (something about the total lack of interest in engagement with the world/humanity really irks me about them), but there are plenty of other ridiculous antics I've witnessed. I feel like some kind of cultural anthropologist, studying the habits of middle-to-high-income urban shoppers and taking detailed notes on my mental clipboard: some pretend that they're talking on their cell phones (while others actually are), others give me a wide berth and hope that I won't have a chance to chase them down, and still others wave me away before I even open my mouth, as if I am some servant that has displeased them.

I am not a salesperson by nature. (My students laugh when I tell them I'm an introvert, but it's true!) However, this particular program is such a no-brainer: minimal effort is required of people and the result is such a tangible, direct public good. I swallowed my natural disinclination toward walking up to total strangers on the sidewalk and attempted to engage them. It's rough on the ego, I tell you, getting turned away time and again, but overall there were quite a number of friendly people who stopped to hear more about the program and ask questions. This was especially true of the more laid back Sunday shoppers, particularly couples and older, non-white, single shoppers. "Wait, so I don't have to do anything except shop for the things I need anyway? Sure, I'll come back Wednesday." I wanted to hug them. If I see them on Wednesday, I just might. (The post-work, hungry, busy-busy-busy professionals were definitely the least friendly; receptivity to me or my message did not seem to depend on gender.)

I'm a City Girl. I know it gets annoying with people asking you for stuff on the street all the time. Give me this, buy this, sign this, but sometimes a cause is worthwhile. I'm the person who more often than not will at least stop to listen to a canvasser's spiel. (Let me be clear: I'm all for advocacy and signing petitions, but I don't think stopping people on the street to ask for money is very effective... or appropriate, frankly. I have been known to purchase a copy of Street Sense from time to time, but that's different.) Standing outside a store someone is already going into or out of to promote a special program at that very store which benefits the neighborhood, I'm fine with that, but some apparently couldn't be bothered. "People," I would occasionally grumble, "I'm not selling anything or asking you to sign anything. I'm just here to help spread the word about 5% Day on Wednesday, when this Whole Foods is giving 5% of all sales for the day to help us increase food stamp programs at local farmers' markets." I tell you, if not for my belief in the effectiveness of the SNAP (food stamp) program at farmers' markets, I would've probably given up on handing out informational fliers about an hour into my first afternoon approaching strangers to encourage them to return to the store to load up on staples for the winter.

One guy paused to begin to lecture me about how food stamps are not the solution, how he didn't see why his tax dollars should go to feed people who didn't care to work. "Excuse me? People who don't care to work?" Boy did he stop to belittle the wrong outreach person: the twenty-something white kid got an earful about the atrocious levels of unemployment in the city, a tirade about how hard it is to make ends meet or find sufficient paid work even with a graduate degree and substantial experience these days, and a mini lecture on generations of disenfranchisement and poverty among low-income populations before meekly nodding and accepting a flier. (Not sure I'm going to see him at 5% Day, but I couldn't help myself.)

Food stamps are not the solution to the problem of hunger, they are something of a band-aid covering a small scratch on the much larger body of systemic power inequities. Sure, I get that. People shouldn't be on food stamps or other government programs indefinitely. We need to educate and empower people to be able to support themselves. But until there are sufficient jobs and authentic opportunities for folks to support themselves and their families, to nourish and nurture them in safe and secure homes, I for one don't mind my (currently rather meager) taxes helping folks less fortunate than me. And if I can help directly by buying a few things I was planning to purchase in coming months anyway, if I know that 5% of my purchases will go to a program in my city to bolster critical access to healthy food, I'll stock up on shampoo and almonds and a few other things after my outreach shift at the store later today. Maybe I'll see a few of you in the miscellaneous cheese section.


  1. I used to get those looks all the time selling Girl Scout cookies. People HATE to be stopped-even by a cute little girl in a Junior Girl Scout uniform!

    Sounds like an awesome program though! Too bad I'm all the way across the country.

  2. Woo hoo! We raised nearly $14,000 for expanding WIC and SNAP programs at farmers' markets this coming season! Those folks I recognized from my outreach earlier in the week got high fives and lots of delicious samples from the chefs on hand. Thanks, everyone who contributed to this effort!


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