This piece was written by a College of Saint Mary student in a class that partnered with Hunger Free Heartland during the fall semester of 2016.
When I was young my mother was on her own and depended on the local church for food and housing. I was just a toddler back then, and by the time I was in kindergarten my mom had married and we were in a much better living situation. I got clothes that fit me, my own bed, and we started having regular meals every day. I was young enough that I didn’t really understand that we were in a bad situation back then, however I think that those early memories of hunger still affect my psyche today.
I didn’t notice that I had a problem with food until I started meal prepping for myself and buying my own groceries. I am getting better but it takes a lot of self control and retraining my brain. I found when I go grocery shopping I cannot buy more than what I should eat in just a couple days. Having extra food in my pantry stresses me out! As strange as it sounds I actually feel more at ease when my cupboards are empty. If they aren’t, there is food just “waiting to be eaten” like an unfinished job. I have a lot of trouble focusing on a task if there is food waiting to be prepared and eaten, even if I am not hungry or just ate. I think that this irrational behavior comes from when I was young and my brain was developing rapidly in a food deprived environment. We didn’t eat when we were hungry we ate whenever there was food. I believe this cycle of binging and fasting when I was young made it very difficult for me to recognize my body’s cues even as a teenager. I wouldn’t stop eating because I didn’t recognize the sensation of full. Other times, on busy days, I would nearly faint because I had forgotten to eat because I had learned to ignore the sensation of hunger.
In America there is no lack of food; so unlike the circumstances in other places, hunger is not caused by a lack of food but by a lack of resources and a loosely connected community. Food insecurity can happen to anyone, at any stage in life. One time I was renting a room in an apartment. I had a job, food, a place to live; all seemed well. I did not know that the owner of the apartment had not been paying the bills and in less than 24 hours I found myself on the street with nothing but a suitcase and a backpack. At the time I has working at an elementary school, I was able to store my suitcase in the janitor closet over the weekend. Then I went to my friend’s house and slept in her bunkbed for a couple nights. She told her mom it was a sleepover.
In less than 4 days after “becoming homeless” I was moving into my 2nd apartment. I was only able to recover from that setback because of my friends and social connections. I was able to lock up my stuff at work and stay at a friend’s house in the meanwhile. Another friend took me out for dinner twice, and an acquaintance called another acquaintance who had an unoccupied apartment I moved into. I was fortunate to have friends and a community to support me when things went sour. Many people are not as blessed as I was with connections and the same setback would have been so much harder to recover from, through no fault of their own.
“Network” is a term we use without really thinking about, but my social network really was a net. When I was falling off a cliff into the unknown my community was my safety net; they caught me up and never let me hit the ground. Their response was immediate and complete and I was secure.
When we went to the Neighbor’s United lunch, I sat with an older gentleman who seemed like he had not talked to another person in a very long time. I also volunteered at Omaha Vineyard serving lunch and passing out groceries. Both places were putting an emphasis not just on distributing food, but at getting people to sit down and eat and talk together. This is important because lack of food in general is not the biggest issue for the food insecure. What people need is a social network and community that they can connect with and share resources. A strong community can support each other in many ways, and it’s the isolation of the individual that can prevent them from recovering more than anything else. Relationships or even just lose ties with acquaintances is the biggest resource we can offer our community.
Volunteering isn’t about just being an extra pair of hands to scoop out food and carry groceries, anyone can do that. It should be about making friendships and strengthening the community. The church in my hometown that took my mother and me in when I was young is still part of my social network. My mom is now financially stable and supports them with regular donations. My sister babysits there for free every Thursday. It was through someone at that church that I found my way to College of Saint Mary. When you are part of a community you grow and become stronger and can achieve greater things than you could alone. I believe that the answer to food insecurity in Omaha, or anywhere, is not just extending a helping hand, but extending a hand and not letting go.