I've eaten government food during two periods in my life: as a child and as a soldier. The first led to the second in more ways than one, and permanently influenced the way I look at food aid.
Memories of growing up poor still bring a tingling flush of shame to my cheeks.
We live in the richest county in the country now, my husband and I, in a nice house with decent cars and solid jobs. But the insecurities of living in such a bad neighborhood that some of my friends weren't allowed to sleep over when I was a girl run deep. We went to an election-watching party a few blocks away once, and when we pulled up in front of the house, I blurted out, "We can't go in there – we don't belong!" My husband had to remind me that this is our neighborhood, too. This is what we worked for, I needed telling: we're living the American dream.
But the news never lets me forget that many of my fellow citizens despise the poor – and if the rest of us don't speak up, kids today may be denied the opportunities that let me succeed.
Like many on public assistance, my family was made up of a working single mom struggling to make it and provide for her child. She was a small business owner, an artist who ran a series of galleries. There were good years, when we did pretty well. And then the economy sagged, and there were lean years – years of food stamps and bland government cheese, Christmas presents from charities, peering around the corner to watch my mother sobbing into piles of bills, wondering if the landlord would get fed up with how often we were behind on the rent and kick us out.
Even when I was young, I could pick up on the looks we got when buying groceries with food stamps. In high school, it was mortifying to hand over tickets for free or reduced-price school lunches. Those tiny colored scraps of paper might as well have been a scarlet "P" sewn to my shirt, announcing to the other teenagers that I was poor.
Hindsight may convince me that my peers were probably too absorbed by their own problems to notice mine, but at the time, it crystallized in me a deep conviction that I would never live like that again. I used the fear and shame and anger to fuel years of effort, working through college and working two jobs so I could buy my first house when I was 22.
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Then, I joined the army. Like most of my peers, I had many motivations for enlisting: I was seeking money to continue my education, but I also craved the discipline, a challenge, the chance to travel and acquire new skills.
And I was driven by a desire to give back to the country that had given so much to me. My fellow citizens had helped me succeed, made sure I never went to bed hungry, provided a safety net when my family needed it. I could repay that debt as a soldier.
On 9/11, I was learning Arabic at the Defense Language Institute, and it was immediately clear that war was in our future. I deployed to Iraq with the 101st airborne division (air assault), where I saw people so poor they wanted our empty cardboard boxes for flooring. I was back to eating government rations – this time, in the form of Meals, Ready to Eat (MREs). At least some of this government cheese came jalapeno-flavored.
When my five-year hitch was up, I didn't re-enlist, choosing to help my combat-wounded husband recover, and later using the GI bill for graduate school. Today, I am deeply aware of how privileged we are to live in modern America.
And I am horrified at efforts to cut SNAP – or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, its proper name, though most of us still call it "food stamps".
The House passed a farm bill that strips out food aid to the poor, promising they'll get to it later. I don't believe it: Republican rhetoric demonizes those who need a hand, implying they are lazy moochers. The reality is that 47% are children, 30% are working poor (those who have jobs that don't pay enough to cover all their bills), and 21% receive supplemental security income for the aged or disabled.
This includes those who currently serve our country or who already have – the Department of Defense estimates that 5,000 military families will lose food stamps if these cuts go through, and food stamp spending has been up at commissaries, where only service-members, retirees, and their families can shop. When you hear about cuts to food stamps and picture whom this affects, add the image of a second world war veteran whose retirement benefits aren't quite enough, the children of a national guard soldier who lost his civilian job in the economic downturn, and a young military spouse with small kids who can't figure out how to pay the bills.
This is not just a moral issue; there's also a national security component to food aid. The national school lunch program that helped me was established shortly after the second world war: a senior military leader testified at the time that malnutrition or undernourishment likely caused about 8% of potential recruits to be rejected from service or placed in the limited service class. School lunches were designed in part to help correct that problem and increase the pool of eligible recruits. Who knows how many other kids like me grew up knowing the debt we owe our nation and choosing to repay it through service?
The safety net is part of what makes us strong and secure as a country. This is the wrong time to destroy it. No child in America should go to bed hungry. Tell your elected representatives not to cut SNAP. Today's kids – some of whom are tomorrow's soldiers – deserve the same help I got.