In this excerpt from KBIA’s Intersection, Melanie Hickcox and Monica Palmer with Feeding Missouri, a coalition of Missouri food banks, discuss the stereotypes and stigmas surrounding food insecurity.
They spoke to KBIA for Missouri Health Talks.
Monica Palmer: I grew up in rural Missouri. Single Mom. Five kids. Food insecure, but I didn't know we were food insecure. It was one of those kinds of things where Mom did everything she could to hide the fact that we were struggling from us kids, and so, I remember, you know, going to church on Sundays, and I remember Mom getting at a grocery bag - a brown grocery bag full of canned goods and things like that from the ladies at church.
And I just remember her being overwhelmingly sad.
Melanie Hickcox: Right
Monica: And I remember being very confused as a child, like, in the car watching Mom crying about this food, and I was excited. I was like, "Yay. We're going to have some good meals this week."
But, you know, there was a lot of shame there and guilt that I didn't understand because I didn't really understand that we were food insecure and that we were struggling to make ends meet - because Mom, you know, she was working three jobs and trying to hide the fact from us.
So, for me, it's a very personal thing because the families that we serve and the family that we help, you know, I see a lot of connection there to my own backstory, and I feel like this is a job that I do that helps other people understand that there are people in need that are also hiding it from the rest of the world.
Not only do people who are food insecure hide it from their own kids and their family, they hide it from their neighbors. They hide it from the co-workers, you know, that's why we call it "the hidden problem."
Because nobody is running around saying, "I'm hungry" and, you know, "I went to bed without dinner last night so that my kids could have something to eat."
There's a lot of shame. There's a lot of stigma. Yeah, there's a lot of emotion wrapped up into it. So, it's a very rewarding job to be able to help those families.
Melanie: So, you know, I think for me one of the things that I really learned working in this program, and it's really just kind of changed me as a person, is just realizing the depths of poverty that exists in Missouri.
I really did not grasp the concept of how serious food insecurity actually is, and it also goes into health problems and housing and, you know, it's always kind of a ripple effect, but I really didn't have a grasp on how severe that problem can be.
And, you know, going out to some pantries and different agencies and hearing stories from clients and having clients get extremely emotional with me and telling me, you know, what their situation is and also feeling as though they can confide that information in me.
I think a lot of times people don't have anyone to talk to about it and that's part of the stigma, and they don't want to talk about it to others because they don't want people to judge them and, you know, all those kind of misconceptions that people have, and so, I think that that's extremely important - that sometimes it's just an ear, you know, just to be able to just kind of hear - listen to their stories and then offer the program or other programs that they might be eligible for based on what they're telling me.
Monica: Yeah, I think it would be helpful if people looked at food stamps and other programs like WIC and TANF and looked at those programs as, you know, part of the safety net, as well as the food banks and the food pantries.
A huge thing in communications is I'm constantly trying to shatter these misconceptions that people have and one of the biggest ones is, if I share a video or I share story of a client and they're not an "ideal" or "typical" size, the comments that people get like, "Well, they don't like they're hungry" or "They look like they've had plenty to eat today."
There's a disconnect with especially the obesity issue. That how can that person who doesn't look like an "ideal" body shape - how can they be hungry? And I don't think people are putting together the connection there. The coping strategies that a lot of food insecure families are doing.
There's a lot of - especially for moms - this is something we see a lot with moms of families that are food insecure. Mom will not eat.
Monica: And she'll make sure that the kids have something to eat. So, you go a week or two of having maybe one meal a day and then when you get your food stamps at the beginning of the month or you get your pantry box, your body is craving food so bad the you'll binge and then you'll over eat and then, you know, it's going to screw up your metabolism. As anyone who's ever tried to diet knows.
That's not a good healthy strategy for maintaining a healthy weight and then just the things that happened psychologically. You're craving sugar. You're craving carbs. You're craving those things that are going to give you energy because you've been fasting and you have no energy, and just, you know, food choices when you're the person in charge of the family finances and you're going to the grocery store and you see, you know, $3 for grapes.
Monica: Or $3 for a six pack of mac and cheese, you know, what are you going to spend your money on?
So, there are definitely, in my mind, very logical connections between food insecurity and obesity, but I think it's a hard thing for us to grasp with our eyes. Because we see someone -
Monica: - and we're like, "Well, they're not hungry."
Melanie: Yes, yes they are.
Monica: Maybe "hunger" is the word that, you know, needs to change. Maybe we need to just go full with the food insecurity title, so that we understand, you know, that it's really - it's about nourishment. It's about the nutrition that's lacking in these people, you know, these people's systems that's contributing to higher health risks and things like that.