TABLE’s Director of Development, Harmony Chavis, shares her thoughts in our latest blog on how each of us can contribute to fighting the stigma of food insecurity. Sometimes the little things can lead to something bigger.
“No one person can change the stigma surrounding poverty, and systematic failures that produce circumstances that cause people to lack basic needs like food, healthcare, housing, and education. We can however, still do something powerful by obliterating shame in its tracks by being empathetic.”
Growing up I remember thinking “my mom has got to be the best cook in the world!” She used to make me the most elaborate breakfast in the morning before school. They’d change with my current food obsession. For a while it was oatmeal, then cinnamon waffles, and at one point it morphed into as many breakfast items I could fit on my plate and finish before school. She got up early in the mornings before the house woke up, and she got to work on breakfast. I remember how loved I felt to know that my mama got up before the birds to make sure that I had a nutritious and delicious breakfast before school. As an adult I have more reverence for it now than I did when I was a kid. It was truly a labor of love, and one she did so graciously.
My mama had a way of making everyone feel loved, especially those who felt like they didn’t belong. She was always a safe space to land. On Sundays my mama would get up even earlier than normal so she could get to work on Sunday dinner before we had to leave for church. This was the one time per week we would gather with our family, both biological and chosen. They were always eventful, and gave people who may have otherwise gone without connection, community. To this day, I don’t know how one person could make so many dishes and sides for more than 15 people, and have it ready by 5pm.
In 7th grade, I met a girl who never had lunch. I told my mama about her and how I’d been sharing half of my sandwiches, but it wasn’t enough for either of us. Without hesitation, she started packing double everything. Our favorites were roast beef sandwiches, potato chips, and oreos. When I showed up to school for the first time with a full sandwich for my friend, she smiled, her shoulders softened, and she seemed a little bit lighter from that moment on. My mama loved people through food, she understood that food was more than nourishment for our bodies, it was nourishment for our hearts.
As life goes, things happen and tables turn quicker than we can process…there came a day where we didn’t have food. My mama had been laid off, and she was desperately searching for a job, but due to her age she struggled to find employment. I remember how helpless I felt. I wasn’t old enough to work, what would happen if I got too hungry? Who should I tell? Should I tell anyone? I was scared. I’d never known the stigma that accompanied food insecurity, but now I knew the fear.
My mama had taught me from a young age that when people were without something we had a chance to love them by providing them with what they needed. As I grew, I realized that the way mama saw lacking wasn’t the same way other people saw it. Some saw it as a moral flaw and failure, and a lack of effort and personal accountability. Thankfully, due to my mama’s dedication to loving all people exactly where they were, I was able to be insulated from the stigma and heaviness that so many children and families face when they are dealing with food insecurity.
My mama never did find another job, but we found ways to endure and even thrive. I know that if I’d been marred by the whispers from society, I’d likely still carry the shame that so many people do after dealing with something as devastating as not having enough food to eat.
Brene Brown who is an author and researcher on shame, vulnerability, and courage says “one of the only antidotes to shame is sharing.” Telling our stories helps dispel the stigma surrounding food insecurity, and we can serve as a source of hope for others.
She also says “if we can share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can’t survive. So we can’t really get over shame without other people. We can’t keep shutting it out by keeping ourselves busy or distracted. We can’t wish it away by denying our feelings. What we really need to do is seek connection with someone who is going to lend us an empathetic ear, someone who is able to listen to us and endeavor to understand our fears, anxieties, and uncertainties.”
No one person can change the stigma surrounding poverty, and systematic failures that produce circumstances that cause people to lack basic needs like food, healthcare, housing, and education. We can however, still do something powerful by obliterating shame in its tracks by being empathetic, by not looking away from others’ suffering, and by dedicating ourselves to seeing the world through an open heart. We can see lack as my mama did, as an opportunity to provide someone with a little bit of love and hope.