Exposing our “Insecurities”

Typically, words are a bridge to understanding – a way to connect people with real and abstract ideas. But occasionally, words serve as a means of distancing ourselves from realities we don’t want to deal with.

 

From today’s headlines, this egregious example. Apparently, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has decided that “very low food security” is a “more scientifically palatable description” for the 35 million Americans who struggle to put food on their tables.

 

I had a gut-wrenching, visceral reaction. While I’m appalled that the administration hid these statistics until after the election, I’m also deeply ashamed that our country, one blessed by abundance, is hiding the face of hunger behind this euphemism.

 
To me, this is a personal affront. As one of many children born into an impoverished household, I was always hungry. No abstractions can ever describe the very real panic I felt as my siblings and I rummaged through the pantry, day after day, desperately hoping that we’d overlooked some morsel of food. Nor can I fully explain the abject despair we felt when we realized that the cupboard was, again and almost always, bare.


I’ve eaten my share of subsidized food. While other little girls gorged on M&Ms, popcorn, and pizza at pajama parties, my family and I groveled at restaurants for scraps. I tried to make myself invisible when the grocery clerk and other customers shot disparaging looks at the food stamp coupons I clutched in my small hands. (My mother handed over the responsibilities for grocery shopping to us girls when she became too mortified to do it herself.) 
I ate bulgur and other government surplus that would cause most people to turn away in disgust. I stood in line for free dairy products – and became the brunt of jokes about ghetto-dwellers who got by on “gub’ment cheese.” But hey, when hunger’s gnawing away at your insides, you’ll eat almost anything that sticks to your ribs.

 

I was the small child who went to school with dangerously high fevers and contagious diseases like the measles, facing the wrath of angry teachers who publicly scolded me for daring to be there. When you’re sick and in need of nourishment, humiliation’s a price you’re willing to pay to participate in the free lunch program. 

 

I am no stranger to hunger. It’s a chasm in your belly that eats away at your spirit and, if you let it, it’ll also steal your soul. Fortunately, I managed to fight my way out of poverty, and my life’s now blessed with many riches, including the bounty of food in my cupboards. But when I read the article this morning, the hungry little girl who still lives inside my head wept. 

I believe it’s borderline immoral to impersonalize hunger this way. Perhaps some fat cats in Washington find job security in playing these semantic games. But I worry they’re carriers of another, maybe more dangerous malady: “compassion insecurity.”    

50 Comments

  1. Melodye,
    Thank you for saying this. The impact of words, yours and the new catch phrase for plain old hunger, and the memories they evoke. I remember standing in line for government food (it seemed that everything that was free was orange-colored – american cheese, mac and cheese, etc.) and the shame I felt there, unpacking my strange looking lunches, and when my dad would come home with small, boney fish he caught in the nearby river.
    To eke out an existence and maintain your dignity is paramount and deserves the strongest words possible.
    I agree with Sbennettwealer, what you said is powerful and deserves to be heard, by our Congressional leaders, on the editorial pages.

  2. “Low food security?” WTF? Does that mean we need to put a padlock on the pantry so the terrorists don’t steals the Cheez-Its? Who the hell writes this crap?

    That’s awful that you had to live through that. It’s awful that *any* child has to live through hunger. I had my bout with poverty in college, when I was bussing tables — having to throw away full plates of food when I was so hungry. I’d sometimes sneak a plate back to the break area and chow down. It amazed me that people could buy so much food and waste almost all of it.

    What do you want to bet that the guy who wrote that crap has never been hungry? Has never been poor?

  3. Oh Melodye, I cried while reading your words. Thank you for sharing your story with us. But I agree with the others, those powerful words deserve a wider audience. This so-called “culture of life” crap has to be called for what it is. A society is judged by how it cares for its most vulnerable, and right now, we’re doing an abysmal job caring for the children already here. Please, submit this to the editorial pages.

  4. Oh Melodye, I cried while reading your words. Thank you for sharing your story with us. But I agree with the others, those powerful words deserve a wider audience. This so-called “culture of life” crap has to be called for what it is. A society is judged by how it cares for its most vulnerable, and right now, we’re doing an abysmal job caring for the children already here. Please, submit this to the editorial pages.

  5. Your post moved me to tears…I agree — the government does everything they can to remove any burden of responsibility on any of us for those who are less fortunate…and they forget, as do most of us most of the time, that but for the grace of God, there go I.

    We were very poor growing up, also, but we always had food. Our clothes were all home-made (except for one outfit a year that my grandparents would buy us), we had no toys, but we had food! In fact, we lived for many years in a tiny town where my parents had a good-sized garden. My mom canned for weeks after the harvest, and we lived on those good through the winter. We were blessed!

    It’s too bad that those making policies and writing the jargon haven’t been forced to live in poverty and hunger for a while…perhaps something would actually be accomplished if they did!!

    • Yes, when we distance ourselves from the pain, we also take away a piece of our humanity. People like you know what it’s like to do with little; even fewer know what it’s like to do without. Unfortunately, policies are often made by those who’ve always had more than their share of blessings. This example is a great (read: chilling) example of that.

    • Yes, when we distance ourselves from the pain, we also take away a piece of our humanity. People like you know what it’s like to do with little; even fewer know what it’s like to do without. Unfortunately, policies are often made by those who’ve always had more than their share of blessings. This example is a great (read: chilling) example of that.

  6. Your words moved me deeply.
    I come from one of the world’s poorest countries and have known hunger myself. Using such a euphasism is just another way of turning one’s back. Thank you for putting it so eloquantly; thank you for putting your story out there.

    • ((HUGS)) I’m sorry that you, too, experienced hunger. It’s frightening, isn’t it, when it’s more than a temporary thing. Thank you for validating my writing — and recognizing the pain of my childhood experience. That means a great deal to me.

  7. Wow, you are really a survivor. That’s amazing that you were able to pull yourself up from the bottom. My mom has told me stories from her childhood which is somewhat similar to yours. My mom, too, was able to come out from the bottom and come to the top. I really admire you. Thank you for sharing =)

    • Thank you so much for your sweet words! Your mom must be a great role model for you. How strong she must be, to have lived through, and now be able to tell her stories. And how lucky you are, to learn from her example. =:)

    • Awww, don’t be sad, dear Dot! I live a very happy, rich life now, and I’m richer for the experiences I had as a child. Even when they were miserable, I learned something that helps me (and helps me help others) as an adult. 🙂

    • Awww, don’t be sad, dear Dot! I live a very happy, rich life now, and I’m richer for the experiences I had as a child. Even when they were miserable, I learned something that helps me (and helps me help others) as an adult. 🙂

  8. Wow, I was so moved by this post. You amaze me. Thanks for sharing such an intimate part of your life, and I’m nodding my head to everyone’s suggestion to take it farther.

    • Thank you so much, Laura, for your kind words and thoughts. It means a lot to me that my writing didn’t come across as whining. That would certainly diminish the impact — and me. I submitted the essay to a couple of places. We’ll see what happens next.

    • Thank you so much, Laura, for your kind words and thoughts. It means a lot to me that my writing didn’t come across as whining. That would certainly diminish the impact — and me. I submitted the essay to a couple of places. We’ll see what happens next.

  9. Wow, I was so moved by this post. You amaze me. Thanks for sharing such an intimate part of your life, and I’m nodding my head to everyone’s suggestion to take it farther.

  10. *hugs* to your inner child of the past. Here’s a candy bar for her, too.

    But to answer the larger question . . . these people who are in power today have NO IDEA how it would feel not to have a credit card that works and a $20 (*or several*) in their billfolds or pockets. They simply cannot imagine. I promise you this is the case for MOST of them (perhaps not Harry Reed–he’s the one raised by an alcoholic father) because they come from privilege. Many of them are simply clueless about anything . . . they can’t imagine all their access to food, cars, stuff, etc., not being there. People are legacies to Yale/Harvard, belong to secret societies of power there, belong to fraternities and hobnob with others who have money. And they sincerely DO seem to think that “the poor are that way because they’re lazy and want to be that way.” I hate to say this, but when I went to SMU (on a National Merit Scholarship, while living at home so that my mom and grandmother could have somewhere to live along with me–if we’d had money, I would’ve gone away to Stanford, but I couldn’t take them with me, and wouldn’t leave them to starve), I met many people who could not fathom not being well-off. Their idea of “poor” was someone who didn’t get the TOP of the line Lexus or Gucci item or Rolex Presidential Oyster Day-Date. They could NOT really put themselves into the other person’s shoes. And that is what’s wrong with today’s administration–these people grew up with the silver spoon and just don’t get it. They can’t imagine what it’s really like.

    You can. Um, I can, to some extent (after Daddy died, we had to get government commodities for food and had to eat whatever was cheapest, etc.) And that’s why WE can relate. Those people simply can’t. They donate money to various funds because they get a tax break or they’re “supposed” to and would feel guilty if they didn’t, but they don’t really visualize what their money is going to do for the “poor who are always with us.” It’s really tough. President Clinton as a child was among the less fortunate and thus is doing fund-raising and the like right now, and also President Carter. But I seriously believe that MOST of those in power NOW are completely unaware of the lives beyond the mall . . . the people who actually can’t even afford to shop at Wal-Mart and Dollar General . . . the people who are NOT lazy but who can’t pull themselves up by the bootstraps because there aren’t any bootstraps.

    I don’t know the answer. But I do know that unless the government becomes more “populist” and less “owned by lobbyists and special interest groups,” we’re going to lose the greatest country in history. Because when the middle class disappears and is squeezed out by the corporations and powermongers, the peasants (which will be all the rest of us, by that time) will be too tired and sick to revolt. . . . It’s time for us to figure out how to take action. I’m with you on this one.

    • Yummy! I would have loved chocolate as a child, and I definitely appreciate it now.

      I’m sorry that you, too, experienced some of these same harsh realities. But I admire the fact that your experiences make you compassionate toward others who face the same pain. I’m saying “amen” to all you’ve written.

    • Yummy! I would have loved chocolate as a child, and I definitely appreciate it now.

      I’m sorry that you, too, experienced some of these same harsh realities. But I admire the fact that your experiences make you compassionate toward others who face the same pain. I’m saying “amen” to all you’ve written.

  11. *hugs* to your inner child of the past. Here’s a candy bar for her, too.

    But to answer the larger question . . . these people who are in power today have NO IDEA how it would feel not to have a credit card that works and a $20 (*or several*) in their billfolds or pockets. They simply cannot imagine. I promise you this is the case for MOST of them (perhaps not Harry Reed–he’s the one raised by an alcoholic father) because they come from privilege. Many of them are simply clueless about anything . . . they can’t imagine all their access to food, cars, stuff, etc., not being there. People are legacies to Yale/Harvard, belong to secret societies of power there, belong to fraternities and hobnob with others who have money. And they sincerely DO seem to think that “the poor are that way because they’re lazy and want to be that way.” I hate to say this, but when I went to SMU (on a National Merit Scholarship, while living at home so that my mom and grandmother could have somewhere to live along with me–if we’d had money, I would’ve gone away to Stanford, but I couldn’t take them with me, and wouldn’t leave them to starve), I met many people who could not fathom not being well-off. Their idea of “poor” was someone who didn’t get the TOP of the line Lexus or Gucci item or Rolex Presidential Oyster Day-Date. They could NOT really put themselves into the other person’s shoes. And that is what’s wrong with today’s administration–these people grew up with the silver spoon and just don’t get it. They can’t imagine what it’s really like.

    You can. Um, I can, to some extent (after Daddy died, we had to get government commodities for food and had to eat whatever was cheapest, etc.) And that’s why WE can relate. Those people simply can’t. They donate money to various funds because they get a tax break or they’re “supposed” to and would feel guilty if they didn’t, but they don’t really visualize what their money is going to do for the “poor who are always with us.” It’s really tough. President Clinton as a child was among the less fortunate and thus is doing fund-raising and the like right now, and also President Carter. But I seriously believe that MOST of those in power NOW are completely unaware of the lives beyond the mall . . . the people who actually can’t even afford to shop at Wal-Mart and Dollar General . . . the people who are NOT lazy but who can’t pull themselves up by the bootstraps because there aren’t any bootstraps.

    I don’t know the answer. But I do know that unless the government becomes more “populist” and less “owned by lobbyists and special interest groups,” we’re going to lose the greatest country in history. Because when the middle class disappears and is squeezed out by the corporations and powermongers, the peasants (which will be all the rest of us, by that time) will be too tired and sick to revolt. . . . It’s time for us to figure out how to take action. I’m with you on this one.

  12. Give me a break. Low food security? I remember when I was a teen and my father was ‘forced’ to retire. We went on the church welfare program for a few years. I remember how embarrassed I was. My mom also shopped at Goodwill shops( when it wasn’t a popular thing to do). Eat out at McDonalds? We were lucky if we had dinner at night and prayed my bipolar father won’t do something irrational, like go out and buy a wig instead.

    I know others are hungry. To charge the word hunger into something PC does injustice to everyone in this country. I still can’t understand how we can afford to spend billions on killing others but not enough to for our own people.

    Thanks for sharing the article. Powerful stuff.

    • I’m sorry for your father’s situation when you were a child. How frightening and rudderless your life must have felt at times. I so agree with your thoughts, and I thank you for sharing them with me. It’s a painful topic that really needs more discussion, albeit with a wider, receptive audience.

  13. Give me a break. Low food security? I remember when I was a teen and my father was ‘forced’ to retire. We went on the church welfare program for a few years. I remember how embarrassed I was. My mom also shopped at Goodwill shops( when it wasn’t a popular thing to do). Eat out at McDonalds? We were lucky if we had dinner at night and prayed my bipolar father won’t do something irrational, like go out and buy a wig instead.

    I know others are hungry. To charge the word hunger into something PC does injustice to everyone in this country. I still can’t understand how we can afford to spend billions on killing others but not enough to for our own people.

    Thanks for sharing the article. Powerful stuff.

  14. Melodye,

    I agree with the majority of those who’ve commented so far…yours is a story that must be told, for more reasons than one. Yes, it’s important for those in power to be forced to look at – REALLY look at – the hunger situation in our own country. Then, when they do that, we need to re-design ‘the fix’ as it now exists.

    Additionally, the very fact that you did overcome poverty is a story to be told to those who are making the transition from welfare to work, as an encouragement that they, too, CAN do it.

    When my late husband and I first recognized our call to full-time ministry, our ‘starting place’ was in gathering and distributing food to families who were hungry. It still remains a ministry after my own heart.

    Thanks for sharing your story.

    • I used to teach the underrepresented, underprepared students at the junior high, then college level. I’m sure it’s no surprise to you that I chose to work with this population largely because of my own experiences. You’re right…it’s an ongoing problem that needs wider, more earnest conversation and ACTION.

  15. Melodye,

    I agree with the majority of those who’ve commented so far…yours is a story that must be told, for more reasons than one. Yes, it’s important for those in power to be forced to look at – REALLY look at – the hunger situation in our own country. Then, when they do that, we need to re-design ‘the fix’ as it now exists.

    Additionally, the very fact that you did overcome poverty is a story to be told to those who are making the transition from welfare to work, as an encouragement that they, too, CAN do it.

    When my late husband and I first recognized our call to full-time ministry, our ‘starting place’ was in gathering and distributing food to families who were hungry. It still remains a ministry after my own heart.

    Thanks for sharing your story.

  16. Melodye. Melodye. Melodye. I cannot read the responses above. Not yet. I need to post my thoughts to you while I sit here weeping. This moved me more than anything you have ever written. I had no idea your childhood was filled with fear and hunger.This is a powerful essay and I urge you to do something with it. SEND IT TO NEWSWEEK in the MY TURN section. I am so upset to envision you as that child now. Rummaging for food and knowing nothing would be found. I can’t type right now. I’m crying.

    • I’m so sorry that this made you cry, Pamela. YES, my childhood was painful, but I’m not in pain anymore. As you well know, I live a very rich, full life now. I’ve submitted my article to a couple of places. I’ll let you know if I get any response. (I thought about Newsweek, but then reconsidered…those essays don’t seem to have the same rawness about them, do they?)

    • I’m so sorry that this made you cry, Pamela. YES, my childhood was painful, but I’m not in pain anymore. As you well know, I live a very rich, full life now. I’ve submitted my article to a couple of places. I’ll let you know if I get any response. (I thought about Newsweek, but then reconsidered…those essays don’t seem to have the same rawness about them, do they?)

  17. p/s. This really hurt to read.
    You sculpted your impoverished childhood with such precise, provocative words: no mincing, no laminating, no veneer. You broke my heart. This must be published. Let me be for a moment. I’m sobbing.

  18. I read this yesterday, but didn’t have time to post a comment. I’ve been thinking about it ever since. It’s a powerful piece of writing, and I thank you for sharing it with us.

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