Most people who are passionate about an issue have an event or experience they can point to, that changed the way they thought about the topic. For me that event happened in November 1999. At the time I was working as the librarian at a vocational school near Oakland, CA. Most of our students were women. A lot of them were single parents and many of them were just getting by. The vocational school was rather small and had a wonderful tradition at Thanksgiving. The director of each of program was asked to choose one student most in need of a free Thanksgiving meal. From these six students, one student would be chosen to receive a Thanksgiving meal–a turkey and all the fixings–from the school. To prevent the student from feeling self conscious about his or her situation, the student was told that s/he had won a drawing out of all the students’ names in the school.
I thought this was a nice tradition and listened as the directors tried to decide which one of their students each would nominate. All of them admitted it was a difficult decision to make as several of their students were deserving. I had several conversations with the Director of the Dental Assisting program who that particular year had a very easy choice to make. The student she was nominating was a woman in her early twenties. She was the single parent of a young child and was struggling to turn her life around. She was a good student, who gave her all, but financially was barely surviving. I knew the student. She was always smiling and upbeat. The last day of classes before Thanksgiving break that Director stopped by the library to let me know that her student had been selected to receive the Thanksgiving dinner.
I had another memorable visitor stop by the library that day to wish me a happy Thanksgiving and to let me know, with a big smile on her face, that she had won the “drawing” for the Thanksgiving dinner. She was so happy, she told me, because she and her child had just eaten the last of their white rice for breakfast and they didn’t have any other food, nor did she know where they would get any more food until the first of December when her food stamps (now SNAP) would come. I’m pretty sure the smile on my face froze. I know my heart jumped up in my throat and I hope a tear did not spring to my eye.
Several thoughts hit me at once. Thanksgiving fell on November 25th in 1999. So my first thought was how many more days were left in the month before the first of December. Since this was Wednesday, November 24th, December 1st was still a week away. I could not fathom not knowing where the food for my next meal would come from, let alone where I would get food for the next week.
The next thought I had centered on what she and her child had for their last meal. Plain white rice. Not white rice with milk, brown sugar and cinnamon, like I sometimes had for breakfast when I was a child, but just plain white rice. No fruit, no flavoring, not much nutrition. I was so happy this woman and child would have a flavorful, nutritious meal for Thanksgiving, and probably several days afterward.
I don’t remember that student’s name and her face is a blurry memory, but I will never forget her story. That Thanksgiving and every Thanksgiving since I have thought about her and her child. She completed the program, and I hope with all my heart that she has turned her life around and has never had to approach another Thanksgiving wondering where her meal would come from.
That was my first significant encounter with the hardships of food insecurity. It opened my eyes and made me aware of how little some in this country have. What encounters have you had with food insecurity?