This post is the first in a series of community-driven storytelling about experiences in our regional food system, called Food System Stories.
Starting with the Community Advisory Board of our Community Voices in Food Movement project, we are capturing videos, images, and words to spotlight what residents of our neighborhoods do to feed themselves and their families.
Food System Stories are being used to facilitate discussion about systems change in our Community Voices meetings and in conversations with decision makers in partner organizations.
Kendra lives with her daughter in Walnut Hills, works at the IRS, and serves on the Greater Cincinnati Regional Food Policy Council’s Community Advisory Board. In this abbreviated account, Kendra identifies some of the issues that we can address to make feeding her family easier.
Sometimes for me it's the elitism that’s why you're not solving the crisis, because you're trying to say what type of food somebody in my situation should be exposed to or have eaten.
I don't get food stamps any longer. And therefore I have had to use the resources that we have. It's the balancing of the budget. I try to squeeze out probably $100 a check, but that's it. And it's gonna be $200 a month to feed me and my daughter. And that doesn't work. I'm very thankful for President Biden and the free lunch program, but my daughter refuses lunch. I really feel like they have to maybe invest in some air fryers in the school because steaming the food, it's just not appetizing, she says. She doesn't eat at school, so therefore I’ve got to try to make sure I have a lunch for her. And then, I found the portion control issue came up. If it is in there, she's gonna take as much as she wants. And then by Wednesday you don't have anything for lunch.
And that's the biggest one I think that always hits home for me is when it's that end of the week, and we're running out of stuff for lunch. And I know my child, because of her own predilections, will not eat. Then I know you're at school, and all you have is what you might have eaten here at home because you don't trust the lunch. And how's that affecting your day? I definitely can correlate those to the days when she had an issue, whether it was talking loud or being a little bit disruptive in the classroom.
It's a struggle just maintaining that I have a protein, vegetable, and a starch, and it's affordable. We really noticed that the groceries per meal has gone up. Finding turkey bacon for less than $4.99 isn't possible anymore. I've been really paying attention to the fluctuation in the milk, and the butter and the eggs, because those are the basics that, regardless, I buy every week. And they jump around. And my daughter likes raspberries, so then you gotta check the price of the raspberries. Is it $4.99? Or cheaper, for $2.99? So that determines whether we're buying two packs or one pack. And one pack doesn't get her through the week.
And now my daughter has decided she's a pescatarian. And I'm really mad at the Boys and Girls Club, which told her about pescatarian[ism]. First off, do you have shrimp in your budget every week? I need to know: are crab legs in your budget every week? I tell her, "Well that also means we can do fish." So then she found the recipes for fish. Well, you put the parmesan and butter and mayo and garlic on top, parmesan-crusted fish. Because she doesn't want fried fish. Oh no! She can't settle for that. I gotta do this other big thing. And getting the fresh lemon, because, "Mom, the one in the bottle doesn't taste like the fresh lemon." She's not going to eat chicken, which is taking away one of the cheapest things we had, and we already had to deal with the wing shortage over the summer. I couldn't get a chicken wing to save my life! So it was learning about the different ways to do chicken breasts, right?
We have tried to do things, like making sushi at home to save money, making Chipotle at home to save money, [but] you know it's nothing like that ability to go out and eat. And that's one of the things that kind of always hits home with me, is the inability to treat her sometimes. I've been trying to really teach her about, “Okay, well, if we eat out, then let's see how we can cut the expense. We can always drink at home and just get the food.” But I know she would like to sit down and not really have to worry. And it kind of hurts me because she starts asking things like, "Okay so when do you get paid? Are your bills paid? Do you have any extra money?"
And a lot of people say, “Back in my day, it was, ‘Eat what you have to eat, or you don't eat.’" Well, I was a 90s baby, and that was one of my mom and dad's rules, too. And I still got caught squeezing food up under the table so I didn't have to eat it. I'd put it behind the dryer. I'd keep it in my mouth, until I could make it to the toilet bowl. So you cannot force a kid to eat! I myself am proof of that! They will find a way to get this stuff off the plate and to get away from the table.
Yes, you can say that there is food being given to them, but that choice, that choice is so important. And there's a real lack of it when you're insecure in your food.
I usually access two pantries. I stopped going to the one, because I felt like that church had preference, to where they would set things on the side. The pantry would give meat specifically to the people that they knew. And I went there because it said, "Open to the public," but you guys really should have said it's only for y'all's church members and family and friends, because I could totally see the difference between what [my friend] was given versus what I was given. I think she wound up walking away with a roast beef, and I was given chicken quarters. Do you know how hard it is to convince your child to eat that?! Even if you chop it, and that's what you're going to have to do. [They said,] "You just need to chop it up to separate the drum from the thigh. And then you've got even more meat." Okay, great, but who all has that type of knife that's going to get through that chicken bone?
I stopped going there altogether, because I saw the preferential treatment. And the other one in Walnut Hills, I love it. They have a female pastor. She's really great. First off, she always has coffee and some type of donut. It doesn't matter if you are inside or outside, you have access to this while you wait. She also does extra services, like if you need to be hooked up with food stamps, she has a social worker there to help you, to assist you. They do rent assistance there. It just felt more equal. And it's not that she knows that I don't eat pork, so she set something aside. It's that she knows people don't eat certain things, so she tries to make sure she has options. She'll ask you, "What do you eat? What don't you eat?" and tell you what she has. And sometimes, she just doesn't have anything for me, and I have to chalk it up, but I feel like I was treated like a human when I go there. You know?
We have to be more meal-minded, too. Don't give somebody canned fruit, tomato sauce, canned peas, a random cheese that they may never have ever dealt with. You just see random things that you can't really put together, unless you're lucky and can get on Pinterest, and then you can make it work. It just doesn't add up to a meal. Also, if you're gonna give me chicken, I know that you're not giving me vegetable oil, because you don't want me to fry it. But I also believe in seasoning. It needs to be in there. Salt, pepper. Help people out. Because if there are bare cabinets, there are things that are required that you're not thinking of [at the pantry]. I know cooking oil may not be there because you don't want us to fry. Well then can we have some olive oil? And you know, maybe we can sauté? Some salt and pepper, because lord knows, sometimes I forget to buy salt.
And also, just being more creative. The only time you ever get the meal is like at Thanksgiving and Christmas. That's when they give you the right type of box. You get your chicken, you get your green beans—you get everything to make a Thanksgiving dinner. Why can't we think about that when we're giving out boxes, period? Making dinner, maybe making multiple dinners. Maybe throw a recipe list in there, if you're doing something weird. Like last night we made Pizza Chicken. It was a semi-success, only because I didn't have mozzarella; I had provolone leftover from Philly cheesesteaks we made. Great. Give a person some chicken, some pasta sauce, some mozzarella, and some pepperoni.
And the tactics of delivery sometimes aren't good, like with the [USDA’s Farmers to Families program] leaving packages in the driveway at [Cincinnati Metropolitan Housing Authority Housing (MHA)], with no one there to actually assist or notification that it was even coming. So, the one time we did catch it—my neighbor told me, because I had asked everybody to be on the lookout. She said an unmarked white truck pulled up into the parking lot. Two men got out of the car—no identifiable shirts, just regularly dressed—and they dropped and unloaded the stuff in one of our parking spots, then pulled out. So then we really don't know where this food is even coming from!
And the main thing about it was the temperatures, because sometimes it has milk in it. It also had eggs in it. Now we have to be wary. Thank god that one day my neighbor's like, "Oh they dropped it at 11 in the morning." I'm like, "Okay well now I'm coming outside, it's one, I'll probably chance it. I'm gonna smell and see.” Also it's the fact that it was accessible to anybody. I live on a busy street. Anybody walking past, driving by could take it. You can't necessarily say you served my community, when some of this stuff was picked up by random people. And then on top of it, [there were] people going through them. So, somebody's box had eggs, somebody's box didn't. What happened? Somebody took eggs out of one box and put it in their box. It was just that type of thing going on. If you had sweet potatoes, you'd talk to your neighbor, [and they'd say], "Oh, I didn't get sweet potatoes." "Oh, they must have taken it out of your box, because I got sweet potatoes." And then we had elderly people who don't even live close to the parking lot. So thank god at that time we had a neighbor who was willing to come and grab this stuff and bring it up to them so they'd get what they needed.
You're not servicing our community by just dropping boxes, and it gives you reminiscence of that situation they were going through down in New Orleans with Katrina, right? You're helpin’, but you're not helpin’. Make sure there's a human being there. Make sure that you've notified the community that this is going to be there. MHA has the one call. I don't know why people don’t believe in flyers; they work! But notify people so they know. It's considerate, and it gives people that feeling of being a little bit human. A lot of times people don't realize, when you throw stuff at people, it's like they're an animal, like how they’d treat a dog or something.
And I just felt like that was just the most disrespectful thing. So it was one of the first things I was able to bring to the Food Policy Council, and this is what's been happening during COVID. And now, everything's about to end; most of the things are about to end September 30th. I feel even more worried about it. Whether it's my grocery bill or the resources that I have within my community, or the ones that my daughter has access to at school and our programs. It's all still unsure.
And finally, I did an interview with Sherrod Brown a couple months ago, and I did discuss a little bit about what would help me, as far as buying crab legs for my daughter. And I just want to highlight the fact that one of the other people there, the head of a major organization, mentioned to me after, "Oh, so peanut butter and jelly doesn't work [for you?]”. Don't be elitist when it comes to food. Don't feel like a person that's insecure for food shouldn't have a taste for steak. Because after that, I felt a little bit judged. He shouldn't be telling me that. I'm going to make sure my daughter gets seafood and is exposed to that. And why shouldn't she know about seafood? Sometimes for me it's the elitism that’s why you're not solving the crisis, because you're trying to say what type of food somebody in my situation should be exposed to or have eaten. It's elitist, and I don't like it.
All photos in this post are shared with permission, courtesy of Kendra.
This work is supported by APHA, a membership association that champions the health of all people and all communities, with support from the Aetna Foundation, an independent, charitable, philanthropic affiliate of CVS Health. The views presented here are those of the author and not necessarily those of the American Public Health Association or the Aetna Foundation, its directors, officers, or staff.
🎤 If you have a story to tell, get in touch with us through our Food Systems Analyst, Maddie, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Check back often for more Stories in the series.