The picture of hunger in the United States doesn’t look like most people imagine. How can anyone go hungry in the land of freedom and opportunity? Unfortunately, hunger affects a surprisingly large percentage of American people, even those who are employed.
This issue hits close to home for me, as I was once a food-insecure myself during my years in graduate school. Working full-time at low-income jobs, I was forced to make the choice between paying my bills and putting food on the table. I chose to hide my predicament from others, mainly out of shame. Years later, I became a volunteer in a food pantry and realized that most people using the pantry had stories remarkably similar to mine. Losing a job, going back to school or suffering a sudden medical emergency can easily lead people to ask themselves, “Do I pay this bill or choose to eat this month?”
I chose to run across the country to raise awareness around the issue of hunger while fundraising for Feeding America. I wanted to make a point of visiting food pantries and connecting with people in the areas I crossed. As part of my campaign, I shared my own story, and it was met with extreme disbelief and shock from many in my inner circle. It’s hard for people to imagine that hunger exists in their backyards and in their own families, including mine.
My husband’s cousin, Rachel, reached out to me when I passed through Sacramento. Rachel is 29 years old, a full-time student and a single mother. Our interactions have been limited and I was touched that she wanted to connect more in person. After a 32-mile run that day, we met at a coffee shop to catch up. What I learned resonated with my own story and so many others that I’ve heard.
Rachel, one of three children, was raised by a single mother who had escaped a violent relationship when Rachel was young. Forced to get on her feet quickly, Rachel’s mother went back to school and earned her Ph.D. while surviving with the help of public assistance, food stamps and donations from religious organizations. Rachel said the family always had food - but rarely was that food fresh. Rachel said that fresh fruits and vegetables were unknown, except at Christmas when her Grandma gave them apples.
During her high school years in Sacramento, Rachel concealed the fact that her family rarely had enough to eat. She married her high school sweetheart at 18 and had a child at age 23. This solved financial issues to an extent, but opened up another level of problems when the relationship ended. She became a divorced single mother of a toddler by age 26.
How does a young single mother suddenly get a viable job to support a toddler? Rachel quickly realized she needed to go back to school to earn some marketable skills, but even that was difficult. She enrolled in a welfare to work program and was eligible for food stamps, but it took the better part of a year for her to get into a program at Sacramento State University due to rolling deadlines and other bureaucratic requirements.
Today, Rachel is currently in school pursuing a degree in nutrition. She lives partially on loans, but those don’t cover all her living costs. She works as much as she can and hopes to find a job in the field of public health and nutrition. She feels like she has a great deal to contribute to others who are trying to work their way out of poverty, as she’s been there herself. However, she’s also faced with the challenges of being a single mother – finding care for her young son while she’s at work and trying to teach her child about nutrition when she can barely afford healthy food herself. Additionally, she faces huge challenges due to the reductions in the food stamp program along with skyrocketing costs of groceries in California. She limits herself to one fresh vegetable a week, teaching her son a variety of ways each vegetable can be prepared.
I believe there is a Rachel in every family and in every neighborhood and that motivates me to drive awareness for this massive issue. What we see on the surface – like at a family holiday – isn’t always the reality of what’s going on behind closed doors.
*Steph Robinson is an ultrarunner who is dedicated to raising awareness of food insecurity in the United States through her project, Who’s Running This Country. Steph began a run across the country in 2015 to spread the word, visiting food pantries and meeting people affected by hunger along the way. Although Steph was unable to complete her journey due to injury, she is committed to sharing the stories she collected. See how you can get involved in the fight to end hunger.
**Photo of Rachel and her son. Courtesy of Steph Robinson.