Spank me and call me Cassandra…

first US food riot of the 21st century

Were we perhaps expecting the event to come to us pre-labelled? The first US food riot of the twenty-first century didn’t look like much, and there certainly weren’t large signs announcing it. But the scenes outside the main welfare office in Milwaukee in the wake of last month’s floods must surely count.

Like food riots past, the story involves both a demand for food and a demand that government live up to its obligations to provide. As with food riots past, the issue wasn’t the availability of food. Last I checked, there was still plenty of it swilling around the Midwest. The issue, caught accurately in the first paragraph of this report, is poverty. And, with little changing for America’s poorest, indeed with new data showing that inequality is increasing (also in the UK, Australia, South Africaand Canada), there’s every reason to suspect that things aren’t getting better any time soon.

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Frustration rises, officials caught off-guard as thousands turn out for flood assistance

By ANNYSA JOHNSON, LINDA SPICE and GREG J. BOROWSKI

Posted: June 23, 2008

The chaos that erupted outside Milwaukee County’s main welfare office Monday over disaster-related food aid had more to do with a weak economy and crushing poverty in parts of this community than the devastating floods that swept through the state earlier this month, local government and food relief officials said.

Many of the thousands of applicants thought they would receive vouchers immediately, and frustration mounted when some learned that was not the case.

About 3,000 people turned out for the assistance beginning at 3 a.m. Monday, creating a line that stretched several blocks around the Marcia P. Coggs Human Services Center at 1220 W. Vliet St. At least one woman said she was trampled when a crowd rushed the doors as they opened around 7:30 a.m., and dozens of Milwaukee police officers and sheriff’s deputies were called to quell the scene.

“The food crisis in Milwaukee and throughout the United States is worse than many of us have realized,” said Milwaukee Common Council President Willie Hines, who with other elected officials called on the community to support local food pantries.

“We expect long lines for free food in Third World countries,” Hines said. “We don’t expect a line of 2,500 people waiting for food vouchers” in Milwaukee. No one was seriously injured, and there were no arrests Monday, but those in line described the scene as chaotic. Many thought they would receive vouchers immediately, and frustration mounted when some learned that was not the case.

“They just went crazy down there, just totally crazy,” said Charline Britt of Milwaukee, who said she was trampled when about 200 people surged forward as the doors opened.

“They kicked me in my back, stepped over my shoes,” said Britt, who’d come to the center about 4:30 a.m. because her basement flooded in the recent rains.

“I fainted when I got through the door.”

Last week, Gov. Jim Doyle announced that seven Wisconsin counties, including Milwaukee, had become eligible for disaster FoodShare benefits, a federally funded program that offers a month’s worth of food stamps to residents who incur damage in a declared disaster and fall below an income threshold. For example, a family of four earning $2,295 this month could get a food voucher worth up to $542. Aid is provided within about seven days, according to the county.

Federal rules do not require applicants to provide proof of either flood damage or income, according to state Department of Health and Family Services Secretary Karen Timberlake. However, residents can be prosecuted for falsifying an application.

Timberlake announced late Monday that 15 additional counties, including Waukesha, Washington, Ozaukee and Dane, have qualified for the aid.

Milwaukee County Health and Human Services Director Corey Hoze said his agency processed more than 2,000 applications between Thursday and Friday without incident but was unprepared for the crush of people Monday morning.

“I don’t think anybody anticipated this kind of volume,” said Hoze, who called in additional staff to try to speed the process.

“I think with last week’s announcement, and Juneteenth Day, it just spread tremendously fast by word of mouth,” he said. “We have just been inundated.”

It didn’t take long Monday for state and local officials to begin pointing fingers as they struggled to understand how the Milwaukee situation devolved.

County Supervisor Elizabeth Coggs suggested it might have gone more smoothly had Milwaukee County been given more time to prepare. But the seven-day limit on applications forced the state to work quickly, Timberlake said.

Hoze said the crowd might have been mitigated had his department stuck to its original plan to dispatch its mobile unit into affected communities to process applications. It switched gears, he said, setting up at the main food stamp application process, after the governor’s office issued a fact sheet listing the Coggs Center address.

Doyle’s spokesman rejected the notion that its announcement might have been a factor.

“I don’t want to get to the point where we’re pointing fingers and placing blame,” said Hoze, noting that the state and county have both beefed up staffing to speed the process the rest of the week.

Don Walker and Alex Lundy of the Journal Sentinel staff contributed to this report.