This is part one of a series on the Community Food Box.
It was New Year's Eve, 1999.
I was 9 years old, and my family was living in a small town near Bowling Green, Kentucky. My father was recently laid off from his job and was searching for work, since he and my mother had 6 of their 7 children living at home still (ages 1 to 13). Money was tight, but my mom was teaching music lessons and we were just barely scraping by.
We lived in a small rented house that had a fireplace in it, and despite having lived there for awhile, we'd never lit a fire. It was New Year's Eve, the dreaded y2k disaster was imminent. My oldest brother was home from college, so it was a full house.
Dad lit a fire in the fireplace and Mom was busy making snacks. He then pulled out a board game and called us kids to the kitchen to play.
For some reason, I was really grumpy. I don't even remember why, but I remember being really annoyed.
"I don't want to play!" I yelled, and settled down in front of the fire with my book.
"Come play, Bethany! We're all playing, it'll be fun." My oldest brother cajoled me, but I was resolute.
"No! I want to read!" They gave up trying to get me to come and play, and I opened my book and started to read. The clatter of dishes and murmur of conversation could be heard from the kitchen, but it was so nice just to be alone - a luxury when you're the middle child of seven living in a small house!
Twenty minutes or so went by. My book wasn't holding my attention and I looked up at the fire in the fireplace. The flames danced and the heat was nice, and my eyes traveled up the wall, tracing the design of the bricks.
I sat up. Something was wrong. There were curls of smoke snaking out from where the wall met the ceiling.
"Dad?" I called, worried.
No answer. I heard laughter from the kitchen as they were in the middle of a board game.
"Dad!" I yelled this time, more urgently.
"What is it?" He called back.
"There's something wrong with the fire, you need to come look."
"I'm sure it's fine, why don't you come play with us?" Dad called, unconcerned.
"Dad! You HAVE to come look. Something's wrong! Smoke is coming from the ceiling!" I knew it wasn't right, and I wasn't going to give up.
I heard a good natured grumble, and the sound of a chair scooting.
"It's probably just coming up from the fireplace..." he started to say as he walked into the room.
He stopped and the tone of his voice changed abruptly.
"Jacob," he said firmly, calling my brother, "get me a pot of water and call 911."
We all got out fine, and the firemen were quick to come (it was a lot of excitement for a small town). The fire chief told us that ten more minute and the whole place would have burnt down. As it was, the living room was completely destroyed, and there was extensive smoke damage in almost every room. The house was unlivable. It turned out that the fireplace had been built incorrectly and there were 2 x 4's touching the firebox inside the wall. It had most likely caught on fire before but gone out before doing damage until we happened to light a fire in the fireplace that night.
What I didn't know until I was older, was that my parents had about $16 in their bank account at the time due to my dad's unemployment. We were technically homeless. That night, we ended up at the local hotel, all nine of us huddled in one room. We ate moon pies and drank Mountain Dew, snacks that our neighbors had given us while we watched the firefighters work on our burning house from their living room. Despite my parents trying to make it seem like an adventure, there was an edge of nervousness and tension that I could feel even at the age of nine.
The hotel and the church helped us. They covered our room for a few nights. We stayed in my brother's college apartment for a few nights (what college kid hasn't had their entire family sleep on the floor of their tiny apartment because of a house fire? Normal college stuff, right?). Then we ended up getting a place to stay in section 8 housing. It was a tiny house with a cockroach problem. The four boys had to share a room, and I shared with my sister.
There's not a lot of opportunity in rural areas and small towns. My dad was struggling to find work, and seven children at home is a lot. We went to food pantries, used food stamps, and ate a lot of oatmeal, rice, and beans. We also ate a lot of venison, because it was free meat from hunting. We were food insecure, although we never went hungry thanks to the generosity of the food pantries, churches, government, and individuals.
We had always been poor, since my dad was a pastor and my mom a private lesson music teacher and they had seven children, but the fire plunged us into being desperately poor. My family was below the poverty line until I was around the age of 14, and there were times when food pantries were the only reason why we had food on the table.
There's a huge stigma attached to this. As I'm writing this story, I am feeling ashamed and worried and anxious. I know my parents won't care that I share this story because they are open about it, but it still feels like we will be judged. Being "poor" is looked down on. It's viewed as a failure, that you didn't "pull yourself up by your bootstraps." Sometimes you can't do that. Whether it's a stint of unemployment or untreated mental illness or a car accident, a lot of people are one "disaster" away from being homeless. When you're barely scraping by, it doesn't take much to suddenly not be scraping by any more. Even if you're working incredibly hard to take care of your family, like both of my parents were, you can still struggle to make ends meet and sometimes they just won't meet at all despite your best efforts.
We struggled a lot, and my family was lucky and privileged in a lot of ways. My parents are both white, college educated (my dad has a master's degree and my mom has a bachelor's), and had some family support with parents who were able to help at different times. We never went hungry. We were only "homeless" for a few days before we got into housing. And, my dad was able to find work in another state a year and half later and we were able to pick up and move to Indiana. Being privileged doesn't erase the struggle, but I do feel it's important to point this out, because there are so many people who aren't able to escape a cycle of poverty and it's not due to lack of trying or character.
This is my story of being food insecure. The feeling of shame and the stigma of being poor deeply sank in and I am trying to talk openly about my experiences and get rid of that. Because there's nothing to be ashamed of. No one should have to go to bed hungry and no one should feel bad for not being able to afford the basic necessities of life. I was lucky - I was taken care of as a child and I never once went to bed hungry. But I easily could have, except for all the people who cared and helped.
The Community Food Box Project feels like coming full circle for me. I grew up getting free food and now I can facilitate and help give that to others. Thank you for helping me do this.
If you would like to contribute to stocking the ReCraft Community Food Box, you can bring in non-perishable goods for a 10% discount on your purchase. Or, if you can't make it in, please consider donating a few dollars to the 2019 GoFundMe: https://tinyurl.com/y64fn7qg
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