Access and a Space for Empowerment

Earlier this week I had an experience that left me feeling incredibly empowered. And of all experiences, it was a doctor’s appointment.

I don’t know about you, but normally I dread doctors’ appointments. I dislike them to the point that I am pretty sure the blood pressure on my charts is way off of what it normally is. I get poked and prodded. Someone else tells me the state of my body and what to do about it. You get a scant few minutes with a doctor, barely enough time to process the questions you want to ask. And then there is the bill for that few minutes. This is of course all compounded by the fact that I am VISTA and transient individual. Both those aspects of my life mean I don’t get much opportunity to build a network of trusted doctors.

It was still a clinic, with a busy Nurse Practitioner. But what was different is the conversation we had. The prescription she gave me she framed more as advice, giving me the chance to agree and choose. We talked about my medical history, diet, and lifestyle. She gave me resources. And she told me the things I was doing right. And she told me that it was my body to be aware of how I felt and when things were wrong, I was the first indicator. And the icing on the cake, was it was free, as it was a preventive appointment.I left feeling empowered, because she created a space in which I could take authority over my being.

Empowerment is one of those words often misused. I was just reading a blog by a fellow hunger advocate where she stated she enjoyed “empowering others to fight against hunger.” We cannot empower others. Empowerment is a feeling that comes from within. It’s an authority in your life. A sense that you have choice. The Nurse Practitioner at the clinic did not empower me. She gave me resources and created a space through which I could feel equipped to take control over my health. The empowerment part was a realization, from within. that I had that authority.

And this is exactly what scares me about the current fights in Washington. The Affordable Care Act helped to carve out that space for me to be empowered this week. It meant that my preventive medicine visits are free. It means that looking forward to the future I can keep up with them, and maintain this feeling of power over the state of me.

Health care is not the only aspect, of this fight, which I feel threatens the empowerment of individuals. There is also the food assistance programs. In Indiana, we are fortunate, at least for October, as the state government has decided to continue funding WIC, SNAP, and TANF. But if the shutdown continues through the end of the month, Indiana will likely not be able to keep this up. And this will coincide with the expiration of the 2009 stimulus law, which will decrease SNAP by 5%.

Federal food assistance programs, particularly WIC and SNAP, have the ability to carve out spaces in which individuals can be empowered. Despite misconceptions, there are few food restrictions for SNAP. In most states it is simply that they cannot buy hot, ready to eat foods. The increased buying power that SNAP offers low-income families and individuals is a tool they can use to take control of their diet. WIC, even with the restrictions, is yet another tool. These resources, along with other resources such as budgeting and nutrition education, provide a space in which individuals have authority over what they eat and how they use their personal resources. And this authority, this control over their being, gives spaces for empowerment.

Providing the needed resources, in accessible ways to low-income communities, is already a challenge. The threats to SNAP and WIC are threats to constant and needed resources that have been a cornerstone in increasing food access. It is a threat to the future empowerment of individuals.

Elise Springuel is an AmeriCorps*VISTA with the Presbyterian Hunger Program, serving in Indianapolis, IN.

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