Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Guest: Jen on how she feeds her family!

My name is Jen and I use a food bank. Everyone says in unison, “Hi Jen!”
Wrong meeting. Wait, there are no meetings for this.
I'm not addicted to food or food banks. I'm not looking for a hand out or pity. I'm trying to feed my family nutritious food. It's a shame that very few in this country can afford the luxury of buying only the best for their families without batting an eye. It's even more deplorable that those who want for nothing feel that those who need things should only use the cheapest lowest grade food available in the name of saving their precious tax dollars.
I learned of Mother Hubbard's Cupboard when I moved to Bloomington in 2000. I had just graduated from college and had not been able to secure employment. Someone suggested I utilize their services. Full of pride, I declined. I soon found a job and forgot about this resource.
Until I found myself between jobs and underemployed. I couldn't pay my rent, utilities, and outrageous student loan bill and have enough money for anything beyond peanut butter and jelly. I was reluctant to shop at a food bank because I felt some amount of shame for having to use one. I mean, here I was—a college educated woman who went to school to be more self sufficient and I was really no better off than I was before attending school. Sure, my vocabulary had expanded but I was still getting my calorie intake from ramen noodles. I was also raised by a single mother and we were often on social services for help in spite of her working full-time. I remember being little and waiting in line for government cheese, rice, and dried milk. I recall a time or two being in a grocery store and my mom sneaking a luxury item under all of the generic food because she didn't want people thinking she was abusing her food stamps. Sigh. I was afraid that by shopping at a food bank, I was repeating a cycle.

While this self sacrifice seemed noble, the mentality of deprivation wasn't helping me eat well. I caved and went to shop. The line was huge and I felt a little embarrassment for having to stand there. I was amazed. Instead of a system of prepackaged boxes and check points for ID, there were smiling faces behind a table. I had someone show me what to do and was floored I got to choose my own food. It was a hopeful experience, something that made me feel a little less stressed.
So I volunteered for a year or so while I still used the services. It kept me busy and it allowed me to give back. Once I was able to secure full time employment that paid me a livable salary, I found I didn't need the pantry, and sadly didn't have time to help unload the truck and stock the shelves. I moved on and would refer anyone I knew who was struggling about this super awesome resource, emphasizing that this was a place of respect, dignity, and education.
In 2007, I had my first child and found myself stepping down to part-time work because I couldn't afford child care, which made full time work not cost effective. We had enough to barely hold the house together. My spouse remembered my experience at the pantry and went on line to look at the web site. He said, “Hey-on Thursdays pregnant and nursing women get priority shopping. Maybe you should think about going to help round out our food budget.”
Once again, I balked. I chose to be a parent, chose to work part-time, and didn't feel like I had the right to get help with things I chose to do. We were eating a lot of cheap prepackaged foods which wasn't good for my body, mind, and spirit. I decided if I was going to utilize their services, I would also volunteer again because I felt that I couldn't just take from this organization.

With child seat in tow, I volunteered in the garden and met some really cool people. The pantry had an incredible amount of produce, some things I had never seen before: rutabagas, kohlrabi, and this stuff called kale. For real, I didn't know what those things were. As far as I was concerned, vegetables were just tomatoes, onions, lettuce, celery, and carrots. Fruits were apples and bananas. What's a horned melon? You tell me. I tried them all and Googled recipes to find uses for them, giving me some more education about what I can put into my body. And then there was the tofu! I learned to do a zillion things with that stuff: scrambled egg style tofu, fried tofu, broiled tofu, blended into a vegan cheesecake, etc.

I would see the items I obtained at the pantry at the grocery store and wince. It was all so expensive! Artichokes were nearing $3 a piece, organic produce was daunting, and specialty smoothies and juices hurt my pocketbook. So we used the store for beans, grains, bread, peanut butter, and milk. We utilized the food pantry for the other treasures, really grateful to have access to quality ingredients. We continued to struggle and had child number two, making our dependance on the pantry even stronger. I was grateful, but frustrated. I wanted to be able to take care of this myself and not need assistance. I sought other sources, but we didn't qualify because we made $2,000 over the income requirement. You read that right. $2,000. We didn't live this lavish life style, we were living from paycheck to paycheck counting every penny. I was driving a car that ran but wasn't very safe.
Then I thought about my mom hiding that strip steak and working her hiney off during the day with GED classes, and working all night as a waitress in a bar. It hit me, that everyone deserves to eat good food, like really genuine quality food and no one should have to feel that they have to buy the cheapest stuff or feed their families mac n' cheese and grade Z chicken nuggets five times a week. Eating well is a human right, and let's face it in our country we don't have a good sense of what that looks like. Most people think a greasy sandwich, fries, and pop is a meal, especially if it is less than $5!
So, where am I going with all of this? I'm telling you that if you are struggling, even a little bit that there is NOTHING wrong with getting this help. You have the right to eat good food, from scratch. You get to sit down and eat at a table with your family and it not be over a cheap bucket of chicken. That isn't a meal, it's filler. We are worth more than filler. Learn about your local food bank, volunteer, donate, and spread the news about the resource.
After 5 years, we are finally getting back on our feet and will soon make enough money to purchase the the things our bodies want and need to be healthy. The pantry inspired me to go vegan, so I cook with a lot of whole grains and vegetables. My Meaty McMeat Meat eating husband has drifted towards pescatarianism, a huge improvement from his previous chips and combo meal drive thru eating. Volunteering in the pantry's gardens inspired me to grow my own food and find out how I can make my own exotic dishes without going to a fancy restaurant. Better yet, the importance of allowing me to nurture myself by going to a quality restaurant in lieu of a fast food establishment and not feel guilty about it. My health improved and I felt a healed connection of the garden to place process. I like eating things that I can pronounce that aren't made from chemical processes.

I started a vegan food blog in 2008 showcasing all of my creations using the items from the food bank. I was invited to be a featured publisher for Food Buzz and earned a small stipend (like $3 a month.) I initially used this money to treat myself to a coffee drink. Then I decided I would start giving it to the food bank. $1 buys 7-10# of food! So never underestimate what a huge difference a small contribution makes. Every penny counts!

So Mother Hubbard's Cupboard, Thank You. Big Puffy Glittery Heart thank you for helping me feed my family. For teaching me about humility and respect for myself and my fellow human beings. We are all entitled to eat well. The next time you see someone with a “Will Work For Food” sign, reevaluate your assumptions. Show people (including yourself) how much you love them by cooking them tasty food.
Bon Apetit!
Jennifer Molica, Ellettsville, IN
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