One day at school, I stopped eating lunch.
I didn’t stop eating because I wasn’t hungry, hated cafeteria food, wanted to lose weight, or was extra studious. I stopped eating because I was ashamed of being poor.
Growing up in Utah, my family was a part of the Church of Latter-Day Saints, the Mormons. The church taught us to get to heaven; a soul must have an earthly body. The church strongly encouraged parents to have a lot of babies. As a child, I imagined a line of ethereal souls waiting their turn to be born.
My parents righteously followed the dictates of the church and excelled at having babies. Together they would have eight, which was not uncommon.
When I was ten, I drove with my father through our neighborhood in a car he had recently bought. He planned to use it on work trips as a sales representative for a health food distributor.
On this day, I was thrilled he let me stand between the car’s seats, with my body extended out the top of the sunroof. All was right in my world as I danced to the music from the car’s radio, not knowing this would be my last memory with him.
He drove that car on his next work trip to Nevada. He was in that car when he violently crashed into a freeway guardrail. The force of the collision hurdled his body through the closed sunroof, leaving him braindead. He was thirty-five.
We buried him beneath a tombstone that read, “Greatness in Disguise.” The next day, my mother gave birth to my youngest sister, Carolyn. At thirty-three, she was now a widow with eight children under the age of twelve.
My dad had been the sole breadwinner of our family. The Mormon church said it was selfish, if not sinful, for mothers to work outside the home. They had no life insurance or savings. Like many families, we were making ends meet month-to-month. His death plunged us into poverty.
Childhood hunger and poverty are nothing new, but they were new to me. From that point, most of the meals I ate came from welfare, like food stamps, the church’s food bank, and the free lunch program at school.
Students whose families could pay for their lunch got yellow lunch cards. Free lunch cards for families like mine were red—a glaring difference for someone trying to draw as little attention to herself as possible.
Each time I went to the office to get a new free lunch card, I felt as if I was standing at the door of an illegal speakeasy, murmuring a secret password to gain entrance. “I’m on the free program,” I would whisper. I imagined the clerk judging why my family couldn’t afford to feed me or looking at me with sympathetic eyes that only added to my feelings of humiliation.
The chatter from students standing in line in the cafeteria provided the backdrop for my growing anxiety as I inched closer to the front. I would need to retrieve the card hidden in my pocket and show it to the lunch lady so she could punch a hole in one of the numbers in exchange for a plastic tray filled with food. My goal was to do this without any of my peers noticing the color of my card.
One day it was just too much. Instead of going to the cafeteria, I walked to the library instead. Hunger was the price I was willing to pay for anonymity.
Another time I was ashamed that our family relied on others to feed us; I was at the market with my mother. Together we had gone up and down each aisle, choosing groceries to add to our cart.
My mom would be paying with food stamp coupons that came in books of varying denominations. She would need to rip out each paper coupon and hand it to the cashier.
Instead of staying by her side as we approached the check-out, I hung back, supposedly to look at magazines. I felt guilty for wanting to pretend I did not know the person I cherished most. But, I was more mortified at being seen needing to use food stamps and afraid of the quiet, sad stares from others.
I wonder if my mom noticed my abandonment? If so, she didn’t say a word as together we loaded the bags of groceries into the car.
Besides government food stamps, we also received food from the food bank called the Bishop’s Storehouse operated by the Mormon Church. Tithing from church members funded the purchase, preparation, and packaging of canned and dried goods for needy families like ours.
Although cooking for a family of nine was an arduous task, I learned if I cooked, I could get extra spoonfuls of “tasting’ in before serving everyone else. Leftovers were non-existent.
We made inexpensive meals like creamed eggs on toast, hamburger vegetable soup, and goulash made from cut-up hotdogs mixed with cans of chili, pork and beans, and corn. We continued the practice of our pioneer ancestors by canning tomatoes, peaches, beans, and corn we grew in our garden.
My mother got up early to bake muffins and bread to sell to health food stores and stayed up after putting us to bed to sew stuffed dolls to sell at craft fairs.
At one point, the nine of us lived in a two-bedroom apartment. Four kids slept on two bunk beds in each bedroom, while my mom made her bed on the couch in the living room. “I have nothing for you to take,” I remembered her telling a collection agency who called threatening legal action.
Someone told me I write about race too much which discounts other hardships such as abuse, mental illness, addiction, affordable housing, accessible health care, quality education, and a living wage.
So, this story was not going to be about race. But about poverty, hunger, and the respect I have for my mother and siblings in persevering despite incredibly challenging circumstances.
Yet, race, I am coming to understand, is woven into all of my experiences. I grew up poor and white. The white part of the equation made a difference.
I’ve heard of food deserts but never lived in one. Once my Mormon ancestors took land in the Utah Valley, we could choose where to live without restrictions from discriminatory housing laws. I lived in safe neighborhoods with ample space for gardens to grow fruits and vegetables.
A hundred and fifty years before I was born, my grandfather joined the Church of Latter-Day Saints. Our church membership provided another safety net of financial support once my father died. If we had been a black family, I wonder how our experience would have been different? The Mormon’s holy scriptures and revered prophets told me my white skin was wholesome and delightful. At the same time, teaching blackness was a curse and mark of sinful ancestry.
Many incorrectly assume most welfare recipients are black mothers who’ve never married. I grew up hearing the stereotypes of black welfare moms cranking out babies to avoid work. Black women supposedly took advantage of the system by having babies they could not care for because they were lazy.
My parents had more kids than they could afford. Once my dad died, society did not denigrate my mother for how many children she chose to have. She was not labeled lazy, deceitful, or a drain on society’s resources.
In addition to the heavy burden of poverty, I am grateful I didn’t have to contend with racial stereotypes about families on welfare.
I hope to question whether my whiteness may have softened the trauma of poverty does not take away from the incredible grit, strength, and resiliency my mother, siblings, and I had to muster to survive. I look back on that girl who stopped eating lunch so many years ago. “You are going to be okay,” I would tell her, “you will learn your value was never dependent on whether you carried a yellow or red lunch card in your pocket.”
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