When the kids complain, “dad, there’s nothing to eat in the house!” there usually is something. It might be cornbread mix or frozen green beans or leftover meatloaf, but there’s something.
At one time, though, they were right.
Character-building career changes usually aren’t your choice. Last summer, I ran from the comfort of a writing job to one that dangled more money – and a jump from lower middle class to … probably middle middle class.
How hard could it be to go from copywriter to vessel payroll administrator?
I lasted almost two months. Officially, on July 6, the company decided to “separate me from my employment,” which sounds like some made-up thing Roger Clemens would say to the Supreme Court.
They asked if I wanted to come back over the weekend to pack my things, but I chose the more dramatic effect of tossing my stuff in a box while my former team watched.
My dad and food-stamp shame
In four months between that employment separation and my start at Red Ventures, the cupboard got a bit bare.
Back in the day, food stamps were paper – poor-people currency you had to produce when you bought groceries. Pride pushed my dad outdoors while my mom counted them out at the grocery-store checkout. Food stamps – and later any type of odd job, at any time of day or night – helped my dad keep my sister and I fed after a beef-packing company laid him off.
Today, you get your funny money on a card, called EBT – electronic benefit transfer. There’s less stigma, but the distinctive American flag design on the card gives it away. You also must declare to the cashier “this will be on EBT,” and wonder if she’s judging your choice of pop tarts and Goldfish crackers as you spend her tax dollars.
I wished I didn’t need EBT. I don’t believe government should have to do this for me. I’d like to believe that with more of our own tax dollars left in our pockets, we’d pick up the slack for each other, with programs such as Loaves and Fishes.
That’s a food bank that allows families to shop for free depending on their degree of need, powered by donors and volunteers.
A one-income home with three kids qualifies for a lot. With a clergy referral called in and a laminated number in hand, I sat on the dusty couch in a hallway of a church on a Saturday morning, waiting my turn with others to load up my cupboards by emptying theirs.
A glimpse at the life
A man with two kids in school uniform sat next to me. Beyond them, a mom with two boys the little hallway couldn’t handle.
A woman bragged about the lamps she’d found in a dumpster – just had to replace the power cords! She lauded – while others nodded in agreement. The man I saw dragging a rolling suitcase as I drove here walked through the door.
His empty suitcase would soon hold all the food he could get today.
That’s a lot of food, I thought. I’d brought a single Florida Gators shopping bag. Surely that’d be big enough. I was so wrong. The formula and checklist revealed much to me. My family needs a lot of food. My income, during employment, didn’t provide what I needed for them.
With cheese, eggs, meat (I chose a whole chicken – I’d never bought a whole chicken, unless it was rotisserie cooked), tortillas (love that option), and boxes loaded with canned goods, boxes of cereal, bottles of juice, and a bag of pinto beans (I was determined to make beans from scratch, like my mom and grandma do), I had a cart full, not a bagful.
A cart of groceries. Good stuff, staples.
The sight of it overwhelmed me.
‘You’ve been the helper already’
A simple thank you didn’t seem enough, and when I tried to say it, the tears came with it.
“I don’t know what to say,” I told the volunteer. “It’s OK,” she smiled and rubbed my arm. “You’ve been the helper already. Today, others are helping you.” The girls came out to help unload the groceries that day. They were as amazed as I was.
They didn’t even complain that the haul included enough corn and green beans to ruin their dinners for weeks.
My older two girls and I never talked about how getting help like this made them feel. When I was a kid, being caught shopping at K-mart would result in a social-standing death sentence. So.stupid.
Maybe not so, with these kids. I went twice more to Loaves and Fishes that summer. Grace insisted on coming the last time. To make sure I got fewer cans of beets, and to see if Lucky Charms was an option, I suspected.
Instead, I watched her counting cans, packing the cart, asking if she could pick things out.
She hit her knees and worked through the canned soup on a mission. “What are you looking for?” the volunteer asked her. “Cream of potato soup,” she said, eyes fixed on each label as she moved it aside. “It’s my sister’s favorite.”
If all of us could just look after each other like that …