‘We Ate that Food and Swallowed Our Pride’
[Editor’s note: Today Sherry Brennan works as a high-ranking TV executive. But it wasn’t always that way. Growing up, Sherry’s family received SNAP and WIC benefits, and Sherry benefited from the National School Lunch Program as a high school student in Austin, Texas.
This past weekend, Sherry was part of a panel hosted by the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) and Feeding America at the groups’ annual Anti-Hunger Policy Conference in D.C. Also appearing on the panel was Kathryn Edin, sociology professor at Johns Hopkins and co-author of $2 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America, and moderator Greg Kaufman, senior fellow, Poverty to Prosperity Program, Center for American Progress. The panel examined what life is like for those living in poverty and how federal programs are an essential part of solutions to overcoming poverty. Sherry’s story is below.]
I hated being on “food stamps.” I hated being walked into a welfare office, inspected and queried to make sure we were really our mother’s kids, and then leaving with some vouchers for groceries. I hated standing in line at the grocery store, knowing we were not going to be paying with “real” money, but rather with coupons that would brand us as “poor” to anybody who saw us.
I hated it, and yet I loved the fact that we had food! As a growing kid, I knew what it was like to come home to a bare kitchen, and I knew that those dreaded coupons and vouchers meant we got cheese and milk, eggs and cereal, beans and tortillas and yes sometimes even ice cream.
As the eldest of four children, first in a home with two working parents and later in a home with only one partially employed parent – I did my fair share of childcare, housecleaning and cooking from an early age. I cobbled together after school-snacks from oatmeal and cocoa powder, and learned to make tomato soup from scratch because the Campbell’s soup I loved so much cost more than a neighbor’s donated tomatoes and the free WIC milk we got courtesy of my new baby brother.
At school, I got free lunch and later, free breakfast. I didn’t mind that so much, as all I had to do was find a way to quietly slink into the cafeteria manager’s office to get my meal card every week, and after that I was able to get breakfast or lunch just like all the other kids. I was grateful for the mercy of a system that made it possible for me to feel “normal,” and happily ate my “mystery meat” and tater tots, even if ketchup wasn’t really a vegetable and we all knew it.
I ate all that free food, and thanks to it I was able to pay attention in school – and I did really well. I knew that getting an education was the key to a more prosperous future. I was blessed with intelligence and people who loved me – and food. My parents taught me the value of hard work, and the social safety net taught me that my development was important to our society. I was determined to join the ranks of professional adults, and encouraged at every step – by my family and by my community – to continue striving.
I ate that free food, even though I hated shopping for it. I learned to bake bread and make apple pie, whip up lasagna, fry kasha with onions, roast a chicken, stew black beans & rice, chop a homemade salsa… All that “free food,” turned by me and my mom into delicious and healthy meals for our family. It was fun, it was tasty, and it was a godsend.
I scored in the top few percentiles on every standardized test I ever took, including the SATs, and I put myself through college and graduate school with $100 a month from my dad, government-subsidized low-interest loans – all paid off years ago now – and scholarships and grants. And I worked! I was a waitress, mostly, and later a research assistant in my grad school program. I got a Master’s degree in 1987, went to work at the Federal Reserve Bank, and later moved into the cable TV industry where I still work today.
I’m currently a high-ranking TV executive, and I’ve paid more in taxes over the last twenty-five years than my entire family got in government assistance, not to mention finding it possible to donate privately to families in need and charitable organizations. We needed the proverbial “leg up.” We used it, and today my brothers and I are all fully employed taxpayers who support ourselves and our families.
Yes, we occasionally bought some chips or ice cream. No, we didn’t use the assistance for junk food, or trade it for cash. We ate that food and we swallowed our pride, believing that a better day would come. I would do it again tomorrow if I had to. I thank God that I don’t – but I also thank God that when I did, the possibility was there.
My plea, for anybody reading this short essay, is to lend your support to continued funding of anti-hunger programs. I was worth that small investment 40+ years ago. Don’t we owe the same to the kids who are worth it today?
[Photo credit: CNN]