A Quarter for My Thoughts

I left the confines of “Apartmentostan” early this afternoon, to run a few errands. After acquiring fresh cat litter, wandering Target for way too long trying on sundresses and rompers (with mostly underwhelming results), I reached the final item on my shopping list: quarters. I look forward to the day, just over the horizon, when my husband and I will move into our own home with our very own laundry machines, when quarters will regain their status as pocket filler. For now, they remain arbiters of convenience, holding the power to make or break the smooth operation of the household (as if that were ever even possible, given our talent for ignoring the basic maintenance of our surroundings).

Anyway, after the cashier ringing me up at Target rebuffed my request to trade the two fivers in my wallet for a roll of magical laundry-enabling discs, I tried the customer service desk, where a friendly woman informed me that “unfortunately”, corporate policy now forbids them from fulfilling such requests. The customer service attendant at the nearby Cub Foods reluctantly traded me eight quarters and three singles for one of my fivers, which when added to the ones I already have in my jar, will hopefully represent enough to do at least one load of laundry.

As I was standing in line, waiting for this transaction to occur, I started thinking about how the corporatization of businesses has removed any impetus for them to serve communities in a real way. Sure, they’ll donate predictable amounts of money to local schools and charities, but they can’t actually be human in their micro-dealings with individual community members. Doing so would result in variabilities in quantifiable figures in spreadsheets that would interrupt the certainty of shareholder value. This is understandable, in a certain light, but it also gives the lie to the idea that corporations should be thought of as people, absent the imposition of the same kinds of morality we ascribe to each other.

I noticed something, standing there thinking these thoughts, that if I’d noticed before, hadn’t revealed itself as particularly significant. To the right of the customer service desk was a locked display case, holding goods which required an employee to open. Usually, I see these cases filled with cigarettes or razors. These cases were filled with baby formula.

Baby formula.

The inhumanity of it all crested over me, and I thought, can’t we all just agree, in this day and age, that babies should get to eat? I mean, Cub Foods shouldn’t necessarily have to finance it by just letting people steal formula when they need it, though the Robin Hood in me kind of feels like they owe at least this small thing to the communities they profit from. Is there some kind of weird secondary market for stolen baby formula?

Sure, we have government programs for making sure babies get fed, but accessing those programs is often complicated and purposefully arcane. We rack up tax dollars and throw them at hopelessly tangled systems to ensure that those who receive benefits like WIC or SNAP “deserve” the help they get, and we lock baby formula behind glass, because a baby’s hunger matters less than what its parents are willing or able to do to feed it.

What if, instead of locking it up, grocery stores simply tracked their theft losses on things like baby food and formula, and the WIC program reimbursed them? Or, better yet, what if we did away with WIC and SNAP altogether and just put all that money into a fund to enable grocery stores to supply basic foodstuffs for people in need? Each store could just have a section with selected free items, which would be “rung up” but paid for out of the fund; like a food shelf, but publicly funded and not contingent on philanthropy (or enabling you to feel good about getting rid of that 8-year-old can of beans in the back of the cabinet).

I know the knee-jerk reaction to these questions is to think they could never work, because people would just take advantage of it. Maybe that’s true, but I’d at least like to see it studied. My instinct is that we’d end up spending about the same amount of money on a system that would actually serve the community instead of commodifying the health of babies.