The Dignity of Getting Food the Ordinary Way
By Craig Nash
I don’t remember how old I was. Old enough to remember, I suppose. If the research I conducted on the historical conditions that led to this memory is correct, probably somewhere between three and six. It’s one of those cloudy early-life memories, the type you attach details and, more importantly, meaning to decades after it occurs. It’s also one of those random memories that isn’t constantly present, but presents itself at random times throughout my life, reminding me of how transformative the experience was, simply by virtue of its memory sticking around.
We were at the baseball field behind the school, my mom, sister and I. I want to say it was cold, but perhaps that is my mind adding editorial flourish to mimic what I was sensing. There was a crowd, but not for a game. I remember feeling out of place, like everyone but us knew the drill– when the truck would arrive, how to line up, what identification to have ready.
I remember my sister being excited, like she knew something I didn’t. When the truck arrived and backed up to the line, and it was our turn, she ran into the trailer with the paper bag as my mom told her what to put in it.
On our walk home, she took the pre-packaged foods out one-by-one to show us what we had. There’s only one thing I remember about the experience that I know is completely true, because it was so out of the ordinary. The food had generic packaging. Not “generic” in the “off brand, purchased at a discount store” sense, but “generic” in the sense that the packages and labels on the cans were white with simple black lettering identifying what was inside: Beans. Cheese. Noodles. Corn.
It was like food packages in the cartoons.
I remember being intrigued by this. If I could have explained what was going on in my mind, I would have said, “Mom, this is weird. This food doesn’t look like the kind we get in the store.” But in later years when the memory would peak back into my brain, the intrigue turned to shame as I realized what all this meant.
We were poor.
Dad worked for the Kelly Springfield Tire Company in Tyler, like most of the dads in the small town I grew up in. It was a union job, which was good when it was good, but not so good when layoffs and strikes occurred. It also meant that we were never in severe need for too long. (This wouldn’t be the case for Kelly families decades later, when the company closed the plant after demanding more and more concessions from its workers.) But the times of scarcity, though rare, were enough to leave a mark on me.
I often think about this experience as I am out and about, observing the many ways in which Wacoans pitch in to help our hungry citizens. I’m thankful there was a “safety net” for my family, just like there is for families all across our city. But I also think about the shame I felt at being in temporary poverty, what that did to my psyche, and I wonder about the future memories of children who are in perpetual poverty. This is why programs like SNAP and WIC are so important, (aside from the fact that they are proven to work.) They give parents the dignity of walking down a grocery store aisle with their children and making choices for their family, like every other family in the community.
It’s why I am thankful that school districts like Waco and La Vega ISD offer school breakfast and lunch free of charge to all students, so no child has to be singled out based on their ability to pay.
Our inclination to help is a good one. And sometimes, like when half a town loses its job due to layoffs, extraordinary measures need to be taken to get food to people in extraordinary ways. But my hope and prayer is that we will strive to find ways to get food to people in ordinary ways, that draws attention neither to the giver or the receiver, so that the memories of our children will only be those of food at the table, not how it got there.
Craig Nash has lived in Waco since 2000. Since then he has worked at Baylor, been a seminary student, managed a hotel restaurant, been the “Barnes and Noble guy,” pastored a church and once again works for Baylor through the Texas Hunger Initiative. He lives with his dog Jane, religiously re-watches the same 4 series on Netflix over and over again, and considers himself an amateur country music historian.
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