Free Lunches, Diets, and Hunger: Suburban American Style by Kirsten Anderberg

There are an astounding number of people who go hungry in the U.S., despite the imagery we see on TV and the hollow lies of our government. There is a stigma attached to hunger. People do not go around talking about it. To do so prompts immediate judgment from the middle class regarding laziness, stupidity, and other classist stereotypes. Because of this, you may work with single parents who are going hungry so they can feed their kids and never know it. Minimum wage does not cover rent plus childcare costs, much less food demands. Most single parents working minimum wage jobs are the opposite of lazy; they work 24/7. Their "work" does not end with an 8 hour shift at "work," and the profits of their labor do not go to them, but to business owners, giving them "just enough for the city," as Stevie Wonder sings.
 
In nearly every public school classroom in the U.S., there is a child not getting enough food, going to bed hungry, depending on school free lunches for nutritional needs. How would you know about the hunger of your co-worker or kids in your child's classroom? Would you be willing to share extra food you had with kids in your kid's classroom if you knew they went hungry nightly? The hidden hunger problem in America, due to pride and shame, and the stigma of poverty that is based in fiction not reality, is hurting many Americans' health. Every night they suffer through painful hunger in silence.
 
I remember Easter 1966 like it was yesterday. I lived with my mother alone in poverty, in an apartment in Sepulveda, California, in Los Angeles County. We had no food at all, but we had a bag of jellybeans someone gave us. Jellybeans were all we ate for three days. As a kid, I would try to tell that story and my mom quickly taught me not to talk out loud about us having no food. I learned then that not having food to eat was something to hide. Another time, around age 6, I remember going to our kitchen hungry, looking for food. The only thing I could find was an opened can of rotten Spaghetti-O's in the refrigerator door. I remember seriously considering eating them. Another time at the same age, I went into the kitchen and ate what I found. My mom freaked out, yelling at me that I must always ask before I eat something in the kitchen. That is why I did not eat the moldy Spaghetti-O's. She was asleep so I could not ask her. My poor single mom did not stand in the kitchen wearing an apron offering me freshly baked muffins like June Cleaver. She slept in depression, was upset when awoken by me to a reality she hated, and we both went hungry often, in silence.
 
School was another food situation. Untold numbers of children participate in the school free lunch programs. Yet insensitive implementation of said programs has been traumatizing kids for decades. I can remember dreading lunchtime in elementary school in Seattle, Washington. Although I was hungry and wanted the food, I dreaded being singled out as a poor kid, a free lunch kid. I actually preferred bringing a lunch from home so I'd blend in, but we had no food at home to take to school. In the 4th grade, they would line up all the kids getting hot lunches that day. Then they'd say, "Raise your hand if you get free lunches." Then the same few kids, every day, identified ourselves as poor in this manner, and received our free lunch tickets. I hated it. It was very degrading. Kids leered at you as you raised your hand.
 
By age 8, I was a prisoner for my parents' crimes in the notorious MacLaren Hall in Los Angeles. MacLaren Hall is a "child protection institution," yet it more closely resembled an insane asylum and prison for tortured and severely abused kids and sadistic guards. We had uniforms, barbed wire fences, armed guards, bars on the windows, and beds in a row. We were woken up every morning before dawn, to get dressed in our uniforms, and line up in the dark courtyard for breakfast. The cafeteria doors would finally open and many hungry girls would enter to eat prison-style breakfasts. I wasn't getting fat in there, but I was eating three meals a day, more than I ate at my mom's apartment.
 
After MacLaren Hall, I went to a foster home. A family with a mom, a dad, a house, and four children took me in. I will never forget how weird it was to smell food cooking when you woke up for school there. I was stunned daily as the mom woke us up, told us to get dressed, and then fed us all delicious breakfasts of nutritious food. I was allowed to eat full breakfasts and remember thinking, "Wait! Is this how kids are being raised?! I had no idea!" The mom would sew us clothing and the dad would read us books after our bubble baths at night. Because food had been a huge issue in my early years, I remember the details of food at the foster home overwhelmingly. Not only were we fed breakfast every day, but we also took sack lunches of nutritious food to school so I was never singled out as a free lunch kid there. And there was a drawer of snacks at the foster family house. Every day after school, we were allowed one treat from the snack drawer. A few hours after that, we would get a full dinner again. Foster care was the only time in my life that I received proper nutrition as a child. But I was never in foster care for long, always being returned to my mom, over and over again. Seeing through the window that foster care afforded me, I realized that many kids were raised in a different universe than mine. I felt alienated and became jealous of those kids who came from "normal" homes. Apparently, I was alone in my hells while other kids were safe in their homes.
 
By my teen years, a new hunger set in. I was told constantly that I was fat as a young teen and needed to diet even though pictures from that time tell a different story. By my teens, I lived with my father and stepmother, not my mom, as I left her custody the minute I hit the age of consent at 13 but I only exchanged one abusive home for another. My stepmom felt that a woman's looks were her greatest asset and feature, and my dad worried I would embarrass him like his fat sister, my Aunt Mary Ann. I remember eating a banana at age 14, and my dad walking by, very clearly saying to me, "90 calories." One interesting interaction always stuck with me as symbolic of my teen years and food. One night my stepsister Carol, who is genetically thin and blonde and meets my parents' desire for model-looking children to embellish their trendy estate, was sitting around with me. I was about 15 and she was about 10. We decided to make hot chocolate. We went into the kitchen; I started the hot chocolate and sat down as it heated up. My stepmom walked in, saw the hot chocolate and said, "Who is making this hot chocolate?" with rage in her voice. Instinctively, my sister knew I was about to get yelled at, so she spoke up. She said she was making the hot chocolate, and then her mom said, "Oh," and left without incident. Carol and I never discussed that before or after it happened. But I found it interesting that she knew, as a 10 year old, to just lie about whose food it was if it was mine, to avoid problems with my stepmom. I am still not clear whether that was just about my stepmom hating me as my dad's only kid in "her" house, and her wanting to abuse me by rationing all food I had access to, or if she really believed I was fat and that shaming me would make me thin.
 
As a young child, I often had no food to eat in American suburbs. No one knew I was eating jellybeans for three days during spring break in the first grade. As a teen, when there was food I was told I could not eat it because I was a girl, and girls had to be thin to get a husband. My being thin for America's beauty standards mattered far more than nutrition or health to my parents when I was a teen. No one cared that we were hungry children in MacLaren Hall. People do not boast or brag about their poverty or hunger. They hide it out of pride. Especially in low-income apartments in middle class, suburban neighborhoods. U.S military families are on food stamps. There's a question for the next military recruiter you meet. "Why are military soldiers on food stamps again?"
 
Years ago I heard Reagan on TV telling me and other poor folks that the problem is not the lack of food for the poor in America, but rather poor people just need to be told where to get the food. That is complete bullshit. I have been to food banks in Los Angeles with empty shelves. We found the food bank, but we still didn't find the food. To add insult to injury, dumpster diving was outlawed in most cities in the 1980's, adding to America's hunger. Hunger in America may not be the same as starvation crises in poorer countries, but hunger goes under the radar of most American homes every night as the fat cats in Washington D.C. keep cutting food programs saying the people do not need them. I have been to welfare offices, dragged by my mom, hungry, as she cried begging them for food stamps that they denied her, hurdle after hurdle, until she gave in and fed me jellybeans for three days instead. And no one knew but me and my mom.
 
Kirsten Anderberg is a rabble rouser living in the Pacific Northwest. Her articles have appeared in Utne Reader Online, ZNet Youth Watch, Alternet.org, AdBusters, Alternative Press Review, Slingshot Zine, Mexico Magazine, Complete Mothering Magazine and Infoshop.org. She can be reached through her website.