Ten years ago, I was so hungry that I stole a pound of hamburger from a neighbor’s freezer. It was humiliating and the only time I ever stole. Later that week, I went to a food bank for the first time. I remember coming home to empty cupboards and random non perishable food and setting my mind to the task of creating meals from the meager food I had.
Eventually, I gave up and applied for WIC and food stamps when my husband and I became unexpectedly pregnant. I remember the sporadic ingredients that I was given, milk, eggs, peanut butter, cheese and some times fresh produce, combined with whatever the food bank offered made meal planning a culinary impossibility sometimes. It was difficult to feed my husband and I and the kids in the early years and it hasn’t gotten easier as our two boys have grown older. I have, on many occasions, tried to create a meal from nothing – my favorite was using two slices of bacon, canned potatoes and instant mashed potatoes to make potato soup. I have become proud of my resourcefulness.
I have had to raise my family below poverty because I am disabled, but my life wasn’t always that hard. As a child, i used to live in a family that made three to four times what mine currently lives on. My parents had things like new cars, decent housing, access to farmers markets and the money and time for home gardens. I grew up eating whatever I wanted, and my body was healthier.
Even then, I had friends who made as much as ten times what my parents did and I remember being jealous of how they ate like kings. Their parents always had the best, most researched and healthiest diets. They either didn’t eat meat or they focused on ideas like hormone free, organic, free range, and dolphin safe food. They were healthy, thin, had clear skin and often participated in sports or physical activity.
I recently conducted a series of short interviews with three women of different economic classes and it provided valuable insight on the subject of living (and eating) in today’s economy. I calculated the cost of each woman’s recipe for spaghetti. Though it is obvious that most people don’t purchase certain pantry items for every meal; I included items like olive oil and oregano that are stored and used in multiple meals, because it is important to recognize the effects of opportunity for food budgets don’t always provide the opportunity to have access to healthier, and tastier, foods.
Our first mom is a low-income mother, she provided her grocery list to make a spaghetti meal in her home: spaghetti noodles, pre packaged frozen garlic bread, milk, prepared spaghetti sauce and (if they can afford it) Parmesan cheese. It costs her $22 to make her meal.
The second mom, who is middle class, has the opportunity to add lean beef, cook with virgin olive oil and fresh onions and garlic. She uses milk, margarine, and grocery bakery bread to complete her meal. It costs about $60
The third mother is, no doubt, very well off. She hires a cook to go to the local farmer’s market for fresh, organic, local herbs, garlic, tomatoes and maybe even wine, butter fresh bakery bread and high quality Parmesan cheese. Her recipe uses free range ground turkey, fresh cracked black pepper, Caesar salad and extra virgin olive oil. Not including labor, it costs as much as $130 to prepare this meal from scratch with an empty pantry.
I would argue that each increase in cost has the potential to be an increase in health. The cheaper canned sauce and frozen bread contain high amounts of sugars, salts, preservatives and fewer nutrients than locally grown home roasted tomatoes and lean turkey burger.
There are many studies that tell us that kids who live in poverty are more likely to have health problems like diabetes. We know that psychologically, our basic needs for food, shelter and health must be met before a person can learn or contribute to society. I can personally vouch that it is incredibly distracting when you have to worry about where your next meal is coming from. This is a discomfort that is compounded by instances when I am forced to wonder how and what I will feed my children. Nothing wrenches my heart more than saying, “I am sorry, this is all we have.”
So long as we have a society that shames people who work full-time and still need help buying food, so long as the rich fill their tables with food destined for the garbage disposal, so long as the middle class loses sleep over the impending possibility of food shortages in their home… We live in a shameful society.
We should and could do better. We could mandate living wages. We could increase rather than decrease food stamp budgets. We could decrease cost of food with cleaner, cheaper transportation costs and more local Food production and sales. We could be better than this.
Tomorrow morning, my sons will ride to school early so that they can eat a free breakfast before their peers arrive. I am embarrassed I can’t afford their food. I am ashamed to face the PTA or my son’s teachers… But the other choice is to make my children go hungry and I won’t do that, so we live our lives knowing that others look down on us, that they judge us, that they put labels on my kids as if my lack of money makes them bad people.
That’s what food shortage feels like. For my family these are the repercussions of disability and unfair wages. America is better than this. Our congress wants to shut down our government in an attempt to curb government spending. They want to cut the funding for food stamp programs. They want to cut WIC, Headstart (where many poor toddlers receive a free lunch and breakfast every day), free and reduced lunch programs in public schools and welfare programs for poor families. They want to make it so that even if you work as many hours as you can, you won’t be able to buy healthcare or food for you or your family unless you are in the upper class.
When I was 19 I wed my high school sweetheart. I told myself that we could live on love. In many ways, for the last decade, we have. We have given all we’ve got to making our little boys realize that the world isn’t out to get them; because we know that everyday they are implicitly told that they are less than the kid next to them at school every time it’s snack day and we bring off brand crackers instead of bagels and cream cheese, every time the other kids get off the buss and my boys are already in the cafeteria eating breakfast because they haven’t any at home, every time they go through the lunch line and don’t pay like the others do… My kids are judged.
When I go back, in my mind, to trace the path I have followed, and I try to assign the blame for my poverty I can only blame fate. I did every thing I was supposed to do. I graduated from high school with honors, and college too. I married my best friend, a hard working man. We had two beautiful kids and I went on to graduate school too; and then I got sick. With all we invested in my education and all my illness has caused, I have created a cesspool of debt.
I have heard, that “poverty is like being punished for a crime you didn’t commit.” When I watch my husband fall asleep on the couch in his u inform with his boots on, and then watch him switch uniforms at 5 a.m. just to go to work again; I think maybe that’s true. Shouldn’t this kind of hardworking, ethic, determination and grit be enough? My husband is thirty but his hands are fifty. They are worn and calloused and scarred. The sweet hands of my high school love are long gone, traded for food and electricity bills and rent and medicine.
I started out by telling you about spaghetti dinners. Now I ask you to multiply that concept to everything we do. The way poor people ride buses and the rich drive lexis’, the way poor kids play in the street and the rich play little league, the poor go to jail, the army, and early deaths while the rich head Ivy League, big business and pseudo celebrity. This isn’t a secret. I tell my sons that they’ll have to work twice as hard for half as much as the rich kid across the coloring table from him and I know that I am underestimating what it will take for them to climb out of poverty.
All I can do to console myself, when I feel guilty for our poverty, is to remember that every choice I made was made with love. Every time I had a chance, I bet on me and my family. I didn’t always win but I will never switch my bet. A long time ago, I decided to live on love and my kids pay the price every day. They eat crappy spaghetti and smile because they’ve never known better. I remember once, my youngest, Timothy, said, “‘Mom, your spaghetti is superb.” Never have I been so proud of a can of Prego seasoned only with love.