Hunger at Home: Hiding the Pain and Learning Shame

PHOTO: Steve Osunsami shares his personal struggles as a child who often did not have food at home.

Here's what only my closest friends know about me:

I was a Head Start kid. A food stamp kid. A public housing kid. A Section-8 kid. A government cheese kid. And at many times, a kid who was food insecure.

We never had much, but things went from bad to worse when my dad was laid off. It was 1983 and I was in the sixth grade. He never truly recovered from it. He never again held down a full-time job. And life at home was never the same.

My mother worked in a cafeteria at a hospital in town. God rest her soul. She struggled to feed our family of seven and somehow pay the bills. When she could pay them, the bills came first.

My two older sisters and I turned it into a game. We'd open the empty kitchen cabinets, and come up with magical dishes with the few scraps of canned and dried food we'd find hidden in the corners.

We would transform a half box of Bisquick, some spaghetti sauce and that good old government cheese into what we thought was pizza. Necessity was the frequent mother of invention.

My parents were too proud to walk into a pantry and ask for help. They worried they might run into a friend or a neighbor, and would have to talk about our situation. Instead, we relied on the free food the welfare office delivered to the privacy of our front door: the free cheese, butter and canned goods.

Years later, it would become the powdered milk and the dried government-surplus that came in white packaging with big black letters. There was no fruit, and the only vegetable I ever saw was an occasional tomato or onion.

The minute she turned 16, my older sister started working at McDonald's. Every night, she'd try to bring home the stale cheeseburgers and French fries the restaurant would throw out. The next day, those burgers would double as both breakfast and dinner.

We were served lunch at school: I had always qualified for a free school lunch. But I was never more ashamed of that fact than when I was in high school. That lunch was my first healthy meal of the day, and sometimes my only meal, but I had to carry a card that was punched at the register, for the whole cafeteria to see. I hated using it. Most of the time, I used money from my paper route to pay for my lunch instead.

These were the years I learned shame.

Today I look back on all those years, how hard I tried to hide the desperation in my life, and I realize how foolish my feelings were. None of it was my fault. I was still a good person. And there were so many people who felt deeply for me and were willing to help.

This is my story. And I share it quite openly, hoping that it's passed along, and somewhere there's a young boy or girl reading this, who is suddenly able to realize that this too shall pass, and there's no shame in getting help.

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