This week I conducted food interviews at Summer Hill – lovely, local Summer Hill. EVen though only half my appointments turned up I had a pretty good time. Everyone I talked to was interesting and genuine. I loved most of all hearing about the local initiatives happening so close to where I live. There is apparently a caravan set up by the indigenous community in Marrickville offering free meals a couple of times a week. A lot of the supermarkets and fruit shops in the area helpfully lump all the discounted produce together so my participants knew that if they shopped in the right place at the right time they could get a pretty good selection of cheap fresh fruit and vegetables to cook up into soups and stews. One lady even talked about occasionally picking herbs from the new community garden and public herb and vegetable boxes which have been set up in Norton Plaza.
“You know it? The one in Leichhardt?”, she said.
“Yeah!” I couldn’t help blurting out. “I used to work there!”
I love the idea that Norton Plaza, even in all its attempts to be polished and cosmopolitan, has done something so wonderful for the community!
However despite the positive stories and coping strategies from my Summer Hill cohort, there were also terrible tales of woe. I had one woman burst into tears in the middle of the interview and another who, while calculating the number of days she had gone without eating a meal, excitedly remembered that today didn’t need to be counted: “wait – I get that voucher today! I’ll get a feed right after this!”. Most of them were skipping meals (or sometimes entire days of eating) and losing weight but they weren’t actually feeling hungry because they were so used to it.
After the final interview I headed across to visit Yiayia and Papou who are only a few blocks away from the new community centre. I was excited to visit while Papou was home and excited to spend some rest time with them after the draining interviews. It’s not actually what happened though. It was time to me to experience a whole other unexpected and draning aspect of the food surveys: the opinions of others.
“No.” said Yiayia, when she asked about work and I told her about what I’d been doing.
“I don’t believe it. No one in Australia goes hungry.”
I wasn’t really sure how to respond.
“You know what it is?” she continued. “It’s the pokies, the powerball. People waste their money. People are lazy.”
I had conclusive proof that she was wrong. But I was stunned, I still didn’t know what to say!
She followed with a tirade. People don’t know how to cook their own food. People eat junk. It costs $10 to get a sandwich at the cafe. People spoil their children. No one saves for a home. People are lazy with their money. Papou even chimed in to tell me about the overweight woman in the Ashfield food court who eats an enormous breakfast there every day.
Oh my goodness.
I know that she and Papou have been through much worse than many of the people I have interviewed. I mean Papou’s village was cut off by the Nazis in WWII and they basically only had what they could grow for a couple of years! And they both knew hard poverty from a young age and they grew up and worked menial jobs in Greece and Australia and they sacrificed so much to make sure that their children had food and an education and a home. And now they live on a pension and they still get by. But I also know that everyone is in a different situation and lots of people I have spoken to have had no control over the things that have led to their lack of food.
I tried talking about people who have to choose between expensive rented accommodation and going homeless. About single mums in “emergency housing” who indefinitely live in motels, without kitchens, until a department of housing place becomes available. About people who have high expenses for health conditions and disabilities. But she wouldn’t have a bar of it, and I couldn’t push her. What right have I to tell her what hardship and poverty is when I was brought up so comfortably by my own parents?
So I ended up at home yesterday with twice the usual angst. Not only was I carrying the stories from the participants, now I was burdened with the words from my Yiayia. Both her own tales of poverty AND her adamant denial of all the other stories I have been hearing. In her eyes there was no way they could be authentic. How could anyone in Australia, a country that gives out pensions, ever go hungry? After all, she and Papou get on fine. In her eyes, if it’s happening to anyone it’s because those people have brought in on themselves.
Now I have to work out how to hear and affirm her own story without letting her discount the stories I have heard from everyone else. It makes my heart tired.