When I was a child, I was raised by a single mom with no college degree. She worked as a teacher’s aide in a special needs school. Her salary was not much, but it provided us with health/dental insurance and it allowed my mom to have the same hours as me so she did not need after-school child care. Eventually, once I was old enough, my mom worked a second job, as an after-school nanny. She would go straight to her second job of the day, from her first. Even with working both of these jobs, along with some child support money from my dad, we lived below the poverty line throughout most of my childhood.
We were blessed that she was able to raise me in a safe suburb, thanks to family. In the early part of my childhood, we lived with my grandparents and then later we moved into a small 2-bedroom home, on my aunt and uncle’s property. They really saved us, in that my mom paid very little rent to them in order to have a roof over our heads.
Unfortunately, needs don’t stop with shelter. Money was tight all of the time. Food was often last on our list when paying the bills. Other bills like heat, electricity, water, and gas had to come first. Because all these expenses had to come first, there were many times I would look in our fridge, and find nothing but a little bit of milk, butter, and a few eggs.
My mom would try to work the system the best she could, as she lived paycheck to paycheck. She would grocery shop on a Wednesday, knowing there would be no money in her account to cover it until Friday— she would post-date her check and we would stand in the checkout lane, praying the cashier wouldn’t notice. I can remember that feeling of shame and worry very distinctly. We knew it was wrong, but we were also desperate. You wished you didn’t have to do this, but if you didn’t there wouldn’t be much food for a few days.
Over the years, my mom was able to enroll in government programs, like the Free Lunch Program for me through school and Food Stamps for our groceries. Both of those were humiliating to me as a kid, but I knew it was necessary and that my mom was doing the best she could for us.
“Free-Lunch” school tickets were a different color than the “paid” lunch tickets back when I was in school. (Why on earth they would do this to kids is unimaginable to me.) I remember standing in line at school, doing my best to hide my ticket so my peers couldn’t see that I was “one of those kids”. Every time I got in the school lunch line, I was stressed. I would watch very carefully to make sure I was in line with kids I didn’t know. I never wanted to stand with kids I knew because then they would know I was poor. If someone I knew happened to get in line behind me, I would make up an excuse to get out of line and then try again to get lunch later when that student had moved on. Thank God, schools do a better job now of providing privacy for free-lunch kids than they did back in the ’70s and ’80s.
Grocery shopping was also humiliating when we had to pull out food stamps in front of other shoppers and the cashier. Using food stamps, was a lot like the colored free-lunch ticket, anyone around you knew that you were using them. I couldn’t bear to watch the pity or judgment on the other shoppers’ faces, so I would immediately head to our cart and pack up our groceries, making zero eye contact. I remember being ashamed of myself, for letting my mom stand there alone while she paid with our stamps. I basically hid, while she carried the burden of “yes we are those people” on her own.
Once I was in high school, my mom discovered local food banks. These were a lifesaver to us, as food stamps only go so far. My mom knew when and how often she could go to them as there are rules so people do not take advantage. Eventually, once I could drive, she would have me go on my own to pick up food. My first experience at a food bank was at a local church. I walked up to the church office window and in front of a number of strangers, I had to explain why I was there. (Once again—humiliating.) I think the woman was surprised to see a teenager there, but I explained that my mom had sent me. She gave me a look of pity that was both sweet and devastating. She ended up being very nice and walked me to the elevator that took us to the basement of the church, where the donated foods were kept. She gave me a few brown paper bags and told me I could fill the bags with whatever food I could fit into them. She stood there and watched me as I made my choices. I remember feeling both thrilled at the idea of all this free food but also completely and totally embarrassed. I thanked the woman, loaded my car with the groceries, and began my drive home. I made a promise to myself that day during my car ride home. I told myself that one day, I would build a life for myself where I didn’t need food banks and that once I did, I would purchase multiple bags of food and take it right back to that same church food bank. That was the only way, I could make myself feel better about having to go there that day and in the days ahead when my mom would ask me to go.
A few months after I was married, I fulfilled that promise to myself and went to the grocery store and bought bags full of groceries to take back to that very same church. I was now teaching full time and my husband Scott had a good job as well. It was definitely one of those full-circle moments for me. I remember walking into that church with tears in my eyes, knowing how far I had come. I was grateful for the help they had provided for my mom and me, and I was also grateful that I could now afford to give back.
Right now, Food Banks, need more help than ever. I share my story with you today, in hopes that you may better understand the type of people who need the help of these places and what it means to them. Nobody wants to go to a food bank, nobody wants to be on food stamps, but sometimes life gives us no other choice. I am sure there are people in food bank lines today who never thought they would end up there. They are moms and dads trying to provide food for their family, along with paying all the other bills of everyday life.
If you are fortunate enough to have a job, money in the bank, and food in your belly, please consider donating to your local food bank today, if you haven’t already. People need our help. Here is a link to a local food pantry in my county if you live nearby. https://www.waukeshafoodpantry.org/get_involved/give/donate_food/. If you are in a different area, just google your city or county’s local food banks. You will have no idea how much it means to each and every family who need the extra help right now.