I Grew Up Hiding My Family's Struggle to Eat

Solitary carton of milk in a white fridge
iStock.com/LynnSeeden

Up until the age of 15, when my mother lost our home and we began hopping from family and friends' houses, I blended in ... or at least acted like I did. I was social. I got good grades. I had two loving parents who learned how to master the art of co-parenting. I went to middle and high school in a pretty wealthy suburb (where my dad worked as a cop), even though I called Baltimore home. My life, for the most part, was pretty good ... except for the constant reminder of the realities of my mother's financial situation that often manifested itself in the form of an empty fridge.

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My mom did a pretty good job of shielding my younger sister (she's 10 years my junior) and I from the struggles we experienced growing up. I have vivid memories of exploring our city and participating in fun events, even if they happened to be free. Yet, no matter how hard she tried -- or how many odd jobs she took after her company relocated to a different state -- there were certain truths my mom could no longer hide.

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Coupled with my enjoyable family memories are no-so-fun moments, like the times we had boxed stuffing to eat and iced tea to drink and we pretended grapes and ice cubes were a delicious flavor Ben & Jerry's had yet to discover ... or the times we had to do homework by flashlight and see who could take the fastest shower, because the water was freezing cold ... or the time my mother connected our refrigerator to an outside apartment outlet using a 25-foot pink extension cord with no shame, because she had to decide between a week's worth of groceries or paying the light bill and was not about to let any perishables spoil.

Aside from a handful of baby pictures I was able to hold on to throughout our evictions, there's no memento of my childhood, except for the love and resilience of my family I will treasure for the rest of my life.

I can reminiscence about these days -- sometimes laughing at my mom's determination and relentless spirit -- because they are now distant memories I no longer have to experience.

... But, truth be told, I was scared growing up and often kept my family's financial status a secret ... even from my own father.

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For whatever reason (probably too much television), I thought that if my father knew just how bad bad was, he would take my mother to court and get full custody instead of the joint they shared. (I knew he would never do that, but was still terrified of the "what if.") And while I didn't know too much about finances back then, as a preteen and teen, I realized a check for child support was income we couldn't afford to lose.

I started working at Subway when I was 15 -- and that was a saving grace and reliable food source for a period of time. I can still remember uttering a Thank you, Jesus internally whenever someone would place a pickup order for a series of sandwiches and never show. Packing them up in the refrigerator before anyone made the decision to throw them out, I was grateful to contribute and help my mother in any way I could and provide somewhat of a healthier option to the fast food we oftentimes had to buy (as healthy eating was too expensive).

Subway would also come in handy if I forgot to pick up lunch money from my dad -- or used some of the $5 he gave me for three days of meals to purchase a snack while among friends. I was tired of being the only one who didn't get anything from the vending machine or during a post-school dash to McDonald's before heading to the library where he picked me up to take me back to Baltimore. Because my little sister and I have different dads -- and hers wasn't in her life at the time (long story with a happy ending) -- she qualified for free lunch at school, as my mother didn't have a high income.

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... But I was "too wealthy" for free lunches, which made the few days I didn't have money tough.

To this day, I haven't had an in-depth discussion with my mother about everything that happened growing up -- investigating which organizations she reached out to for resources, or what she did to make ends meet  -- but feel our experience doesn't even compare to the everyday occurrences many families face. Thankfully, we all made it out and can bask in the light at the end of the tunnel, though that's not always the case for everyone else ...

My life experiences are a reminder of the 1 in 8 Americans who struggle with hunger and the 42.2 million US households that wrestle with food insecurity behind closed doors. As Feeding America notes, "people living above the poverty line are often at risk of hunger as well," which proves financial hardships don't discriminate -- and that a family can be one unexpected life event away from having to choose between putting food on the table and stable housing, a car, paying the light bill, or even buying diapers. This is why lifelines are so critical.

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My ability to provide for my children -- without worry or fear of whether or not there will be enough to eat -- is a blessing I don't ever take for granted and one I can only hope and pray every family can experience. It's what fuels me to get involved, give back, and try to make a difference. That's also what Feeding America is encouraging people to do through its Hungry to Help initiative -- a program for which CafeMom is raising awareness.

You just never know what people are going through, no matter how much they appear to look okay or have it all together.

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