My brother Dusty and I were good kids. Our parent’s divorce upset us, but we were still too young to understand. We were raised by our single mother. My “Mama,” Regina, struggled to feed us. She received WIC, Food Stamps, and other government support.
We lived with my grandmother, Mema, because Mama couldn’t afford a place of our own after the divorce. My brother and I shared a big antique wrought-iron bed with our Mama. By day, Mama worked at Elixir Industries, a steel manufacturing plant located here in South Georgia, where I grew up. By night, she was a scholar attending classes at the local community college. She was a fierce warrior for us boys. She spent hours fighting lawyers, our deadbeat dad, and what seemed to be the entire world in order to keep us.
Back then, Dusty and I didn’t know that we were poor. We were still young enough that brand named clothing didn’t matter to anyone in our class at school. There were times when Mama wasn’t sure what we were going to do about meals for the next week until she got the next batch of food stamps. Mama says “If it hadn’t been for our big loud Southern family, I don’t know what we would have done. I counted on the free meals you boys received at school!”
This is all well and good. The problem was, everyone picked on us “poor kids” for not having to pay for our meals when we reached the end of the lunch line. I remember many of the other children bringing their breakfasts from McDonalds or Hardees to school and eating them. I was too ashamed and embarrassed to go to the cafeteria and get the free breakfast. Needless to say, I was hungry most days and starving by the time lunch rolled around. I was too young to know what “stigma” meant. Some days, I wouldn’t even eat lunch so that the other kids wouldn’t see me walk past the lunchroom lady without paying like they did. The times when I actually DID eat, I would lie and tell the others that the reason I didn’t have to pay was because my Mama paid for all of my meals at the beginning of the year. But back then, it really mattered. I was a faceless child with no one to stand up for me.
Let me say this; lunchroom ladies are awesome! These women realized that a problem existed in our rural county. Faceless children were going hungry and not eating at school because of stigma. Due to the fact that for some of us, the two meals at school were the only meals we had access to, we were sometimes not eating at all.
It doesn’t take an Ivy League education to realize that this was a problem that needed to be addressed. The lunchroom ladies realized a few things needed to happen: First and foremost, the stigma of eating school meals had to be eliminated. They made it a requirement for every student to go to the lunchroom for breakfast and lunch, and the parents of every student would deal with their child’s account privately. Lastly, they knew that meals needed to be provided to students during summer and fall breaks, and with their hard work and dedication, that is exactly what they did.
I don’t mean to be long-winded. But, this history is important for you to understand how things continue to come full circle. I graduated from high school and joined the Army. During my time on active duty, I was wounded in Afghanistan and developed a food-borne disease. Subsequently, I medically retired from service. After that, I decided to follow my stomach. I transitioned from wearing a military beret to a chef’s toque by enrolling in culinary school at Le Cordon Bleu. During my internship, Chef Instructor Lori Flynn approached me about applying for the Zwilling J. A. Henckels Cutting Edge Scholarship to attend Share Our Strength’s Conference of Leaders. I wrote the required essay and get this—-I won! The scholarship paid for an all-expense paid trip to the conference. I was ecstatic even though I was clueless as to what Share Our Strength was truly about.
I sat down in one of the very first sessions of that conference and couldn’t do much more then choke back tears as I heard about the work being done to help kids who are just like I was. These tears came from a realization that overwhelms me even as I type. If you’re ever fortunate enough to attend Conference of Leaders, you’ll be inspired.
With sharing this story, MY story, I hope you all reflect on this: whether you’re setting up a booth for your local Great American Bake Sale, participating in a Taste of the Nation event, teaching a Cooking Matters class, or planning the next “big thing” for Share Our Strength remember: you never know how far your arms are reaching. You never know how far a whisper of concern is carried, and you never know the distance something as simple as a sack lunch can travel. Every pound cake that we sell, every penny that we raise, every painting that is auctioned is for children like me.
I am blessed with my Mama, but sometimes mamas need help. And, as long as I am able, I will give a face and a voice to the children who have none. I will share MY strength.