I joined the board of Community Kitchen of Monroe Country last year because it’s incredibly important to me that we feed people. Not just feed people, but feed them well, often, and without judgment. In my short time on this big spinning chunk of space dust, it has become clear to me that food and nutrition are a basic human right. Likewise, for us to keep all the people fed and healthy and productive, we need to fight the stigma around accepting food assistance. It’s hard work, but valuable work. Community Kitchen exemplifies this spirit in every way, every day.
I know this struggle. For whatever reason, the fact that I was a “Free Lunch Kid” surprises a lot of people. Probably because I’m so tall, and broad, and don’t look like I’ve missed a meal in my life. Like pretty much everyone, I’ve got a lot more going on below the surface than you can see.
It didn’t seem odd at the time. Sure, we got government cheese, but it was the 1970’s — a lot of people got government cheese. Things were hard all over. To my Mom’s credit, we never skipped meals. Of course, not all food is equal. Yes, we had food — but it was total crap, like canned soup and over-processed junk. And lots of soda. Hell or high water, we always had soda.
Fresh fruit and vegetables were few and far between. Mom made spinach about once a year, “for the vitamins.” I remember the “schlock” sound it made when the blackish-green, gelatinous goo finally slipped free from the can. I also remember hating it with all my heart.
Naturally, we were a clean-your-plate kind of household. Nothing was thrown out. Which is how I learned to over-eat. Seemed like I was always hungry and would finish off whatever was left. In hindsight, hunger means I wasn’t getting good nutrition. Lots of calories, yes, but not the vitamins or minerals or fiber or protein. It’s not all that surprising I was never satisfied.
My favorite “meal” growing up, the one I ate the most, was Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom soup, reconstituted with water, and served with too many saltines crumbled into it. That was my go-to and I really enjoyed it. Like many things, I learned to hate it sometime in junior high. Several of my friends laughed in my face, “Cream of Mushroom soup? It’s an ingredient, not a meal! Hahahaha!” Now it symbolizes everything wrong with my relationship with food. There’s a can of cream of mushroom soup in our kitchen cupboard right now. It’s been there for three years, covered in dust and mocking me.
As a supposedly “well-adjusted” adult, these days I know that peer pressure is bad and celebrating our differences is healthy. But at age thirteen, it’s hard to not see yourself as others label you. They called me a “Free Lunch Kid,” so that’s what I was. I didn’t like the teasing but was grateful for the food. I grow more grateful the more I learn how critical nutrition is to a child’s development.
The science is crystal clear that kids perform better in school when they get nutritious food (How Diet and Nutrition Impact a Child’s Learning Ability; https://www.publicschoolreview.com/blog/how-diet-and-nutrition-impact-a-childs-learning-ability). Not surprisingly, education has been a huge part of how I’ve tried to improve my situation. Others aren’t as lucky. Hungry kids don’t do as well in school, which limits their earning potential and their food security as adults, as well as shortening lifespans and lowering quality of life. And then, because they don’t have the resources or knowledge, they end up passing it all on to their kids, and it starts all over again. The cycle of poverty is insidious, and destructive, and just not fair.
I see that cycle first hand, every day. The ugly reality is that food insecurity has never left me, and never will. I have very deep-seated issues with food. I’ve battled obesity since I was nine years old, and now I’m showing early signs of diabetes. I have acute obstructive sleep apnea, a condition heavily tied to obesity. My apnea is severe enough that I have to wear a mask and pressurized air hose just to sleep. I have ankle, knee, hip, and lower back problems because of my weight. And yet, even with all this — I still can’t seem to stop over-eating.
I don’t usually tell people about this, but I hoard food to the point of it causing tension in our household. My family is supportive and they love me, but our fridge is overflowing with food right now. We have a deep freeze with 18.5 cubic feet of more food. I can’t and don’t want to stop buying food. It’s irrationally important to me that my kids have all the food they ever want. And not just my kids. Feeding people is my religion. It’s as much a part of my fabric as cotton is part of the fake tuxedo t-shirt I’m wearing. Feeding people is why I exist.
The happy news is that now I get to be the father who teaches his kids about nutrition and reasonable portion sizes. And I’m the dad that loves to cook fresh veggies. I don’t even care if they are smothered in sauce, just as long as the kids eat them. My kids love steamed broccoli, roasted brussels sprouts, bacon-fried kale, pickled beets, and of course celery with peanut butter. My youngest daughter loves dipping raw “baby” carrots in ranch. We got a note sent home once because the teacher thought my oldest daughter was lying that her favorite food was creamed spinach. For my kids, this is normal, and my heart sings with the hope that they don’t inherit my bad habits. Well, at least not too many of them.
I encourage you to find ways to feed people. We each find our own ways, and yours will surely be different than mine. Reach out to your neighbors, friends, and family to see if they might appreciate a meal or a bag of groceries. Donating your time, food, or money to an established food organization like Community Kitchen is an easy and effective way to make a difference. Most importantly, just let people know you care and you want them to be happy, healthy, and fed.
Well, it’s time for me to go prepare a healthy meal for my family, and hopefully use up some of the embarrassing amount of food in the kitchen. I’ll make sure that we all have some protein, some fruit and veggies, some whole grains and carbs. Hey, maybe I’ll take down that can of mushroom soup and use it in a casserole. Maybe. Or, maybe not. Baby steps. – Troy Maynard