Wilmington’s literary community keeps gaining accolades (two National Book Awards nominees in 2015) and attention in the press. With multiple established publishers in the state (Algonquin, Blair) and new smaller presses gaining traction (Lookout, Eno, Bull City), and a pair of well-regarded literary magazines out of UNCW, it is timely to shine a light on discussions around literary publishing. More so, it shows the importance of communicating a truthful story in our present world.
Welcome to Carpe Librum, encore’s biweekly book column, wherein I will dissect a current title or an old book—because literature does not exist in a vacuum but emerges to participate in a larger, cultural conversation. I will feature many NC writers; however, the hope is to place the discussion in a larger context and therefore examine works around the world.
FOODSTAMPS: Caseworker and Community
By Kelsi Arcos
“FOODSTAMPS: Caseworker and Community” by Kelsi Arcos is a piece of work I do not envy having to write. It’s an eye-opening short memoir of Arcos’ experiences processing food-stamp benefits for the Department of Social Services (DSS) in New Hanover County. Arcos acknowledges it is more of a pamphlet than a book (it is concise and short); and, frankly, it reads more like her explaining the nature of the problem than churning out nonfiction. She largely avoids statistics and citing others’ research; these are her experiences and observations. Nor does she really employ the tools and craft of a professional writer to paint the scene and transport the reader. She is sharing a personal story more than creating a series of case studies of recipients.
Arcos’ slim recounting enlightens and humbles. She starts with a pretty straightforward explanation of how the benefits work, who qualifies and who doesn’t, and what the process for receiving benefits looks like, followed by an explanation of what caseworkers do.
I had no idea caseworkers processed upward of 80 cases a day in New Hanover County.
Filing for benefits and re-certifying them monthly is tedious for caseworkers. The scope of paperwork for both caseworkers and recipients is surprising. Even more frustrating is the scenario of making just a little too much money to qualify for food stamps. Arcos takes the reader through various scenarios that make up the intricacies and heartbreak of her job. At every turn of the page, I learned more about something I have been privileged and blessed to not have to experience first-hand.
She also recounts learning about the residential programs for women and men coping with addiction in our county and her visits during the holidays. The process of figuring out food-stamp benefits for a houseful of mothers and their children in the recovery house is far from simple. There is rigorous oversight, and the division of resources is carefully monitored. There is very little leftover for luxuries, so trying to translate that into possible holiday gifts is difficult at best. Though heartbreaking, it’s also inspiring to learn of the brave and courageous young women finding ways to make better lives for their children.
Arcos transitions away from the DSS office and talks about the reality of food deserts in Wilmington, especially in the city’s core. The fire that burned down Everybody’s Supermarket and Spiro’s Restaurant on Greenfield Street becomes the focus of the last third of the book. With empathy and aggravation shaking from every word, she explains detailed changes in daily life that the loss of a grocery store in that area has meant for its residents.
Arcos started a petition on Change.org to try to get another grocery store to open in its place. She discusses the process of attending Wilmington City Council meetings and learning how to lobby for this service in the city’s core. As Arcos admits, she is but one person, and this process will require far more resources and networking than she has. Actually, the process of getting a grocery store into that space would probably require a pretty broad network and a serious lobbying effort from several nonprofits, churches and a strong citizens’ lobby. Mostly, it will require a shift in the economy to make it desirable and profitable for a grocery store to open again in that area.
As such, she raises a variety of really pertinent questions: How have food-deserts been permitted to become normalized? How is it possible to have clients that have worked hard their whole adult lives, yet still live in poverty? Many of her clients are grandparents raising their grandchildren, so food-stamp benefits are essential to feed the kids. She cites institutionalized and systemic racism and classicism that makes these inequities the norm, not the exception. White flight and the broken class perpetuates the cycles.
Parallel to the work Arcos does in seeing all members of our community gain access to food, she is donating proceeds from the sale of her work to Nourish NC, a nonprofit that seeks to feed school-aged children during school holidays when they don’t have access to school lunches. For an investment of a mere $5, locals can learn far more about the day-to-day working of the food-stamp and food delivery system, all while supporting Nourish NC.
Thank you, Arcos, for sharing your experiences and generosity.