Growing up, I always got just enough food. If it was the weekend I got three meals. No one made sure I had breakfast or lunch so I often went without. I even remember a teacher buying me lunch one day at school. Friends would share their lunches with me in middle school and high school. But I got dinner at night. I never went to bed hungry, it was just the whole day before.
Food was always a strange beast. It was governed by a lot of unspoken rules. It was more about the fact that we weren’t allowed to do much without permission. During the summers as a little kid I remember being scared of making myself food but also hungry. So I would take saltines and butter them. I’d eat a whole tube. No one ever seemed to notice when saltines went missing, so it was okay.
I didn’t struggle with hunger as a child because there was no food to eat. I struggled because of all the rules that seemed to surround it in my dysfunctional household.
It wasn’t until I was an adult that I really understood what it was like to go hungry. When I was too ill to work, my husband also lost his job. I remember going to the food pantry for the first time because we didn’t know what to do. We were living off of a credit card that is still haunting us. Walking into the warehouse to get my allotted food felt strange. I remember not being able to look anyone in the eyes. I remember dutifully following the instructions on each sign that told me how much of each item was allowed.
When I got home I felt as if a burden had been lifted. We had food. So we could use our money to pay the bills that were piling up.
We moved to Oklahoma to look for work and try to get ahead somewhere less expensive than Northern Virginia. We applied for food stamps. We waited and waited and were finally approved. The first time we went to the grocery store we were in awe. We could get milk and cheese and vegetables! We could actually buy healthy food! We could buy enough food!
Checking out with our groceries was another thing. The looks we got for having a full cart and paying with an EBT card taught me a bitter lesson. Shop in small quantities. Don’t buy pop tarts or soda no matter how healthy everything else is. Just get what you need so you don’t have to stand there too long. I learned what does and doesn’t count as food. Sometimes it’s vitamin infused waters.
Not being hungry was worth all the looks and comments we got. Slowly, we were catching up. Doug was working seven days a week. Our bills were getting paid.
But then, a piece of paper didn’t make it from the front desk to our case worker, so our food stamps were cancelled. I remember crying at the Department of Heath Services. I remember being told I didn’t qualify for emergency assistance. I remember our application being denied even though we made well below what was listed.
My second trip to the food pantry didn’t end with the sense of relief that the first time did. After bringing proof of address and two forms of identification for both my husband and myself plus Doug’s last two pay stubs, I was denied. I was told that I needed a note from a doctor that said I couldn’t work or a note from unemployment. Everything else checked out, but because I couldn’t afford to see a doctor I was sent home.
They gave me two “emergency kits”. Inside each was a Meal Ready to Eat, fun size candy, a granola bar, and –I kid you not– five packs of gum. It solved part of the problem, but it wasn’t a real solution.
Doug and I continued to struggle with food. We’d try to go eat dinner at people’s houses so we could get a meal. I felt like I lived on black coffee and Ramen.
One November morning, there was a knock at our door. I opened it and two cheerful men pushed in a laundry basket full of Thanksgiving food. Someone had nominated us to receive food from the town food drive. I stood up to give it back and say, “No we’re okay!” and the irony hit me. We weren’t okay. We were sleeping in the living room to be near the radiator. We couldn’t afford to turn up the heat to keep our bedroom warm. We needed that food.
While we owned our bookstore, people caught on to the fact that we were hungry more than I’d like to admit. They brought burgers, pizza; anything you could get in a drive thru. I never turned them down because that was my opportunity to eat. We were hungry all the time. We went to bed to forget how hungry we were.
Before the store closed, someone nominated us to receive food from the Christian Motorcycle Association. They brought in bag after bag of food. I thought they were just bringing in the food assuming that we were a donation spot. But when I learned it was for us, I cried.
When we had food, we could take control of other areas of our life. When we didn’t, it felt like everything was spinning out of control. Food wasn’t a priority anymore. Having a place to live, a car, heat; these things became more important.
Even now, money is hard, I have been out of work. Food can feel like a luxury when eviction is a real threat. Food takes a backseat to having a car that gets you to work so you can keep a job.
People laugh at me because I like to say that food is my love language. I laugh too. But it’s because when you share food with me, you share life. When I can feed others, I feel like I have my life under control. I know what it is like to be hungry.
I like to say of people that I greatly disdain,
“If they are hungry, I will make them a sandwich. If they are thirsty, I will give them some water. If they need a place to stay, I will find someplace else.”
Hunger to me was harder than even my mental illness. I don’t wish it on anyone. It was a fog over everything that made it impossible to focus, be positive, or see a way out of my circumstances. I don’t share these things for any other reason than to explain why when you hear things like “1 in 6 people in America struggle with hunger,” you know that it has a face and a name.
I have been hungry. As a white, American, woman; I have been hungry. Hunger is bigger than demographics and charts. Chances are you know someone struggling to put food on the table.
Donate to your food banks, not just at holiday time. Make sandwiches for the homeless.
Visit the Hunger Is site to learn more about what you can do to help.
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