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food insecurity: The lasting impact of an empty belly

Today I am sitting here writing my grocery list for the week and a hard-to-explain anxiety is bubbling up, a familiar reminder that I have to prepare myself emotionally for something that most people don't give a second thought. I've learned to be gentle with myself and remember to give myself some grace when I get frustrated or have a hard time holding back the urge to overspend and overstock.

Most of the long-lasting trauma I have related to poverty is rooted in food insecurity. "The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines food insecurity as a lack of consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life.[2] It is important to know that though hunger and food insecurity are closely related, they are distinct concepts. Hunger refers to a personal, physical sensation of discomfort, while food insecurity refers to a lack of available financial resources for food at the household level." *see

When I was 10 or 11, my parents separated after a very tough arrival to Pittsburgh, which right away started with a stint of homelessness. The marriage didn't survive the blame and resentment that my mother had for my father after my brother and I were placed in foster care. We ended up having to live in our car when the job my father moved here for didn't pan out and my mother just could not forgive him once CYS took my brother and me. Although we were returned to my parent's custody after a few weeks, my mother just was never the same.

My mother ended up on her own with two children in a strange city with no support system. She literally knew no one. It had been tough in West Virginia, but the family worked together to survive. My father worked (when the coal mines weren't laying off), my grandmother worked and eventually retired with a pension and my mother always worked. So, although money was tight, no one had to figure it out alone. This was different.

Shortly after moving to the Hill District (a neighborhood in the City of Pittsburgh), we really started to feel the effects of having one less income in the house. My mother worked so hard and was so strong and committed to doing the best she could for us. It breaks my heart even as I sit here and write this to think of how she must have felt fearing every day that her best wouldn't be enough.

I remember going to friend's houses after school and realizing that other people didn't have to worry about food the way we did. I don't know why I assumed that everybody struggled with knowing what they were going to eat from day to day and sat by the window on payday because I knew my mom was going to get groceries. When I realized that wasn't the case, I was so ashamed and embarrassed. This was just one more hit to my already low self-esteem. We eventually became accustomed to not always having enough food. 30 years later, many Americans are still struggling with food insecurity.

One incident in particular has stuck with me over the years and continues to haunt me on a regular basis. I've actually made this story one of my signature talks as a public speaker. One Can of Carrots. One Can of Carrots is the story of a four-day period of time at home with my mother and brother and all we ate for those four days was a generic can of diced carrots. The details are very fuzzy (because my mother either has suppressed every detail or refuses to acknowledge it) but what I do remember most is the complete and total feeling of hopelessness and fear. My mother told us that we needed to get through the long weekend and then she would be able to borrow money to get food. Of course, my brother and I told our mom not to worry, we would be "fine", we'll make the best of it.

If you've never been truly hungry you can't imagine the thoughts that go through the mind of a child who is waiting for four days to pass in order to get something to eat. One thing that I think about often is how my mind played tricks on me, the hands on the clock seemed to move backwards, I smelled food almost the entire time. The absolute worst thing was hearing my mother crying in her room and seeing that can of carrots in a saucepan on the stove and knowing there was nothing else.

Over the last 5 years or so, I've been working really hard to overcome the remnants of the trauma associated with surviving in poverty. Of all of the experiences that come with that, working through my issues connected to food insecurity have been the hardest. My baggage includes: food hoarding and the inability to throw food away. My need to have an overabundance of food in my refrigerator, freezer and pantry has created financial issues but has also been in complete contradiction with my aversion to throwing food away.

Follow me for a second: I must have a full refrigerator, freezer and pantry at all times, or my anxiety is triggered but I need friends and family to help me keep my refrigerator clean because I buy too much food and can't throw it away, even when it goes bad. My budget has been negatively impacted because I can spend way over my budget allowance for food if I am not staying vigilant. At one time this was so out of control, I was spending utility and even rent money on food, just for the warm feeling I get from having a full grocery cart, refrigerator, freezer and pantry.

I don't have all of the answers but it’s important for me to share my experiences so that other people with similar stories see that talking about and acknowledging the trauma are the first steps to healing, resolving and moving forward. I don't want children to become accustomed to going to bed hungry. I don't want parents to cry in their rooms because they aren't able to feed their children.

*A portion of this blog is an excerpt from Tammy's upcoming book about her experience with food insecurity

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