Chapter 1: Hungering for What Truly Satisfies
Food saved me. This is a bold statement for a Christian girl like me. But when you’re hungry, in the literal empty-tummy sort of way, spiritual hunger takes a back seat. Who would guess that God would fill the second by filling the first? Yet isn’t that what Jesus did? He used food to connect with people and feed them the real nourishment: his message of redemption.
When I was little, we lived on the east side of Tucson, Arizona, in a rundown, two-bedroom adobe house with worn, stained carpet and faded, sticky linoleum floors. Mom was raising my older sister, Stacy, and me on a shoestring. She’d divorced my dad when I was just a few months old. (Turns out, those quickie Vegas weddings when you’re still a teenager don’t always end in happily ever after.) She was also putting herself through college, living off student loans and a small teacher’s assistant salary, and dreaming of attending medical school.
Like most kids, I figured our life was like everyone’s. Despite its imperfections, our tiny house on East Silver Street was home. It was where we pulled up to the table for meals. It was where we knew we belonged.
When Stacy and I begged Mom for our own bedrooms, she let me move into the only space available: the utility room. We squeezed a twin mattress onto the floor of the narrow room. There was no space for a bed frame. The mattress fit only when the door was wedged half-open, pressing deep into the corner of my mattress. So that’s how that bedroom stayed for years—with a door permanently stuck forty-five degrees open. Since my makeshift bedroom was the only way out to the backyard, anyone wanting to go outside had to shimmy around the wedged door, stepping on my mattress in the process. Our large dog, Joya, went back and forth at will through the humongous doggy door, and to this day I remember the flip-flop of that rubber flap going all night long.
Why we had a large, hungry dog when we could barely afford to feed the humans in the house remains a mystery. Somehow our mom couldn’t say no to our animal-loving requests. We had pets aplenty: rabbits, parakeets, guinea pigs, cats, and—at a high (low?) point—thirty-eight chickens in our urban-zoned backyard. Mom sold the eggs, a carton at a time, to her classmates and professors to earn a few extra bucks a month.
Our mom loved Stacy and me deeply. We knew this in our bones. I remember the way she would stay up all night with me when I had chronic ear infections even though she had school the next morning. To this day, Mom was always my biggest fan. She constantly told me that my future was bright and that I could grow up to be anything I wanted. But she was stressed. Stressed about school . . . money . . . feeding us . . .raising us, all the while probably feeling—like most college students—barely an adult herself.
We ate simply, since Mom’s cooking skills matched our sparse budget. Dinners were an unimaginative rotation of meat loaf, tacos, baked fish, and a weird black-eyed-pea-and-rice casserole that my mom inexplicably felt sophisticated serving. Her worn copy of 365 Ways to Cook Hamburger was the only cookbook in our kitchen, unless you count Diet for a Small Planet, which was more of a trendy, hippy political statement for Mom than an actual source of recipes, the aforementioned black-eyed-pea dish being the exception.
Packing lunches was extra taxing. Finding portable options to send with us to school was just too much for Mom to deal with. So, as elementary school students, Stacy and I took over the task. We were ill equipped to turn the ingredients in our home—like a pound of frozen hamburger meat—into brown-bag meals. We could afford only the very cheapest lunch meat—a slim, plastic envelope of processed meat pressed so thin that our one-see-through-slice-per-sandwich portion couldn’t have added a full gram of protein to any sandwich unlucky enough to receive it. And when the weekly lunch meat ration ran out, we turned to an apple or an orange or some aging, floppy celery for lunch. My sister and I were allocated one napkin a day to share at dinnertime, so the apple-for-lunch day usually left me with sticky fingers and chin that remained throughout recess. Sometimes we’d wrap up dry cornflakes in awkward wax paper—Saran Wrap was too pricey for everyday use—and have that for our meal.
My school’s lunchroom was where I first realized we were poor. What we eat speaks volumes about where we sit in the societal pecking order, created largely by accidents of birth and geography, and the cafeteria made me aware of that hierarchy. Other kids’ lunches smelled like peanut butter sandwiches mingled with overripe bananas. My classmates brought prepackaged goodies every day, oblivious to the miracle in which they were participating. I remember vividly a classmate named Katy Rudder because she shared her daily bag of deliciously salty Fritos with me, unaware that I counted on her corn chips to help fill my empty belly. More than just sharing her meal, Katy shared the table with me, saving me a spot I called my own, no matter what flimsy lunch I toted—or didn’t—to school.
From that spot in the cafeteria, I quietly marveled at the students who brought multiple courses in brown bags not only labeled with their names but decorated, too, with cute hearts or loopy smiley faces drawn by their moms. They might even find a sticker or a little note to go with their carefully prepared meal. Baggies, Saran Wrap, and foil all spoke the language of the lunch-packing elite of my lower-middle-class neighborhood. I quickly gave up even writing my name on my brown bag. It felt silly and embarrassing to bother labeling such a meager package: “This lone apple belongs to Melissa. Keep out!” It seemed like an unnecessary precaution. What kid would pick up my bag and confuse it for their own, when theirs likely housed the heft and bulk of a fluffy white-bread sandwich stuffed with thick bologna slices and some mandarin orange wedges in light syrup in the plastic cup with its peel-back lid?
Then there were the hot-lunch kids, bused in from the fancy part of town. They could afford the forty-five-cent price tag for lunch every day. They got a new lunch card every Monday morning when they handed over their $2.25 to Edna, the head lunch lady, who made her rounds to all the classrooms and called out for all the hot-lunch kids to line up and get their new cards. That number for me was the magic value of wealth: having $2.25 to spend every single week on hot lunches. Hot-lunch kids didn’t need loopy smiles on brown bags to know who they were; they had their names written in thick black ink by Edna. She was in charge of giving children identity and legitimacy via yellow cards that—as far as I was concerned—might as well have signified membership in an exclusive country club. The food we eat reinforces not just our ethnic or cultural identity but also our economic identity.
Sometimes I skipped lunch altogether. The charade of placing a small item in a bag and calling it lunch didn’t seem worth it if I were running late. Or if I just felt lazy. Or if I were sick of apples. (To this day, I take issue with the dieting advice that “If you aren’t hungry for an apple, then you aren’t hungry.” I was hungry—but not for an apple.) On these days I just floated around the cafeteria, hoping no one would notice that I was grazing Fritos and unwanted items other kids offered up before tossing in the garbage. Nonchalance is an attitude well practiced by a hungry child.
One day everything changed. One of the hot-lunch kids noticed I wasn’t eating and asked why I hadn’t gone to the office. I’m sure I looked confused. He told me that if a student forgets lunch at home, the school had a policy of giving that student a lunch with an IOU that could be paid the next day. This information was shared in an earnest effort to help, but it was spoken with a casualness that could only come from knowing your family could afford to pay back the debt. I hesitated. I was not authorized to make forty-five-cent purchases without prior approval. I knew we could not pay the next day—and even if we could, we wouldn’t because there was no way I would bring an IOU home to my mom and add to her stress.
I knew life was hard for her, and I did my nine-year-old best to protect her. Surely I was just being selfish, turning my nose up at tissue-paper meat and mealy, aged fruit, craving the hot, breaded mystery-meat fingers that hot-lunch kids ate, so absentmindedly swirling them in ketchup. But hunger is a deep need, far stronger than logic or feelings. Before I could lose my nerve to lie, I ran to the office and blurted out that I had forgotten my lunch. Within minutes, I was scarfing down the greasy, burnt-flour meat coating—a taste that was brand new, but whose aroma I recognized from years of eating apples downwind from the hot-lunch table. I ate the fluffy little roll and the unappealing canned peas that no other student ate, and I gulped it all down with chocolate milk. A drink? At lunch? Surely, I had arrived. I ignored the fact that I was lactose intolerant and never drank milk at home. Because, hello, chocolate? It tasted like a milkshake. And full felt better than anything else when I had to face afternoon fourth-grade math.
I started out forgetting my lunch once a week or so. I felt guilty eating food that I hadn’t purchased, but eating a hot meal was too good. Soon, I was forgetting my lunch any time we were out of the pressed-pastrami product at home. And then even on days when I had a sandwich, I craved the comfort that only protein, fiber, fat, and vitamins can give. I was hungry, and knowing food was feet away was enough to get me to lie once again to the school receptionist. The cycle sped up, and it became harder to leave it.
One day, however, the office monitor delivered a pink slip with my name on it: I was being called to the school office for principal-sized trouble. I smiled and shrugged to my classmates as I climbed out from my desk, acting as confused as they were about why a rule-following, good listener like me would be headed to the dreaded front office. But underneath my pretense of innocence, I knew: the jig was up. Luckily, I had a pressed meat and bread-heel sandwich with me that day. (Ah, the bread heel. Even today I avoid it when I pull bread from its package, slipping my fingers expertly under it to grab the softer, fluffier slices below. I was shocked to learn years later that my husband actually loves the heel, which is just one of the million ways I know we are meant for each other.)
On the short walk down the antiseptic-smelling, green-and-black pebbly-patterned school halls, I mentally reviewed all my options for addressing the debt, but I came up as empty as my stomach felt. The shame was crushing. How had I become the kind of person who would steal food from the well-meaning school district? I arrived at the principal’s office timid and afraid, tears already filling my eyes. But the receptionist surprised me. She didn’t mention my debt. And she didn’t usher me in to see the principal. She just smiled and told me they were short-staffed in the cafeteria and were going to fill the slot with a student intern. That intern would help serve lunches to the kids and would get free lunch as payment. Would I be interested in the job? She made it seem like a business decision. No judgment. Just an option.
A job in food? I’d never dreamed of something so wonderful.
Serving others and wearing a hairnet of my own sounded very grown-up. And I’d get to sit down to eat lunch while the other kids started recess.
I took the job. And though you might think I felt marginalized somehow, I didn’t. I felt special. I got to know the lunch ladies because we served together and then we ate together, even Edna. They all adored me. They always let me pick my hairnet first, letting me have the pale brown ones to match my blonde hair, while they wore the black ones even though they clashed with their own puffy platinum hairdos. I started on the food line, serving a dinner roll or overly firm gelatin cubes (“finger jello,” the menu called it) with a gloved hand, and I moved up quickly to hot-vegetable duty, where I was entrusted with an oversized metal spoon to scoop hot canned green beans or corn onto the compartmentalized plastic plates.
I became friendly with George, the jovial bald janitor who handed out milk cartons to the kids as they passed by the large metal cooler. On days that I gulped my milk down a little too quickly, George would sneak me a second little carton with a smile and a wink, before closing up the cooler and heading back to the business of emptying trash and sweeping floors. (In fifth grade, when our teachers announced one morning that George had suddenly died from a heart attack, no one else in my class seemed the tiniest bit concerned by the news, but I burst into tears, and I teared up for weeks whenever I reached out to collect the milk handed to me by his replacement.)
The receptionist, the lunch ladies, George, and Katy Rudder changed my life, and food was their main tool. Yet they did more than feed my body. They offered me compassion and made me feel valuable. By sharing God’s provision with me, they reminded me that I was worthy of receiving his gifts, of food and of belonging. One small shift in degree can, over time, completely alter the trajectory of a path. Each of these kind people caused that one small shift in degree. How much of my academic success was due to their role in filling not only my stomach but also my heart? I’ll never know. But I’ve been hungry in a classroom and I’ve been not hungry in a classroom, and every time I’d choose not hungry. I am kinder, more focused, more generous, more creative, and more grateful when both my body and my soul are nourished—when I feel fed and valued. I want that for everyone.