The first time I realized my family was food insecure was when, as a child, our local church sent groceries home with me to give to my family.
This was also the first time I learned that being given food for free, even if you needed it to survive, was something that made people feel deeply ashamed. I didn’t see anything wrong with it. I felt thankful that I wouldn’t have to wonder where my next meal would be coming from for at least the next week. However, the scolding I received when I got home quickly changed my mind. My mother was furious with me for accepting the groceries. Although I hadn’t told the church that we needed the help, she assumed that I did, and she didn’t want to seem like she was a mother who couldn’t feed her children. Although the food they gave us was fresh, it left a sour taste in my mouth until it was gone. I couldn’t help feeling like it didn’t belong to us, and that I had done something wrong by accepting it.
The shame I felt that day was a feeling that poverty (and people’s reactions to it) wouldn’t let me shake. I rarely went on field trips unless my teachers paid for them. My clothes were always hand-me-downs. My relationship to food was tumultuous at best. Poverty is often talked about as a personal failing of the people experiencing it. What is rarely spoken in the mainstream, however, is how incredibly hard-working, resilient, and resourceful you must be if you are going to survive as a poor person.
It wasn’t until I had a conversation with the father of my boyfriend at the time that I realized how unaware middle-class and wealthy people can be to the daily struggles poor people experience. Seemingly out of the blue one day, his father said that food stamps should not pay for soda or other “junk foods,” signaling that poor people’s food choices, not the inequitable prices of healthy foods, were one of our many societal problems. As we began to talk about why he felt that way, he said that poor people spend food stamps on exorbitant things we didn’t need, like unhealthy sodas and expensive steaks. (Meanwhile, his son had managed to spend $100 earlier that week on groceries for a spaghetti dinner for four – a meal that I could have easily recreated for under $10.) While I had been taught up to that point to keep my family’s poverty as much of a secret as possible, I couldn’t stop myself from telling my story.
My family was lucky to have something other than hamburger helper with discount, buy-in-bulk, probably-not-actually-hamburger every night for dinner. We bought groceries once a month. When we got home, each of us could have the one “treat” we picked out (read: the thing that wasn’t hamburger helper or mystery sandwich meats but was still very cheap. Think a $2 frozen pizza or $1 bag of chips). Groceries are incredibly expensive, especially when they aren’t processed foods. Buying in bulk made them cheaper, and visiting the grocery store once meant that you wouldn’t be tempted to buy something another time that you knew you couldn’t afford. We knew we had to ration out our groceries so that we still had something vaguely appetizing (read: not totally inedible) at the end of the month when we were waiting for our food stamps to renew. But usually, it was more hamburger helper. Or hot pockets. Or something else that could survive an apocalypse.
The hardest part of that conversation wasn’t that I was having to be honest about what my family goes through to survive. The hardest part was that while I respected him as a person, I had to come to terms with the fact that on some basic level, he didn’t believe my family deserved to be fed.
The first time I went out for dinner with my boyfriend’s family, his dad could see that I was visibly shaken and told me I could sit with him while he walked me through everything. He was compassionate and caring, because he knew that this was the first time I had been in a situation like this one. He took care of me so sincerely, and I was so grateful to him for helping me feel less out of place. At the same time, that uneasy feeling didn’t go away, even after the meal was over. I realized later that it wasn’t because I was nervous about using the right fork or wearing the right clothes. I was anxious and deeply heartbroken because I knew the meal we ate could have easily paid my mom’s rent for the month. I called her crying when I got home and apologized for what I had done.
Food should not be a luxury. Everyone needs to eat. Poor people should not be shamed into hunger, and children should not grow up feeling like their basic human needs are burdens on the world around them. Poor people deserve to eat and eat well. Full stop.
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