By Dana Hall
Hunger in America is widespread, despite common belief
Growing up, Megan Bradley was one of the millions of children in the United States experiencing hunger. Raised in a loving family, it wasn’t until Megan was around nine or ten that she noticed she was different from her peers at school. Unlike those around her, keeping food on the table was a struggle for Megan’s family. She wasn’t hungry all the time, but when a parent got laid off from a job or an unforeseen expense reared its face, the family’s food budget took a hit.
After high school, Megan headed for culinary school. For her, the choice seemed obvious: she’d paired her love of food with the idea of being surrounded by it, something she hadn’t been able to experience in her youth. Surrounded though she may have been in theory, Megan still found herself struggling to eat as she put herself through school. Her meal plan was only valid from Monday to Friday, meaning she needed to scrounge for money in order to prepare for weekends. At times, she found herself counting change to buy items out of vending machines.
Megan says that the strong friendships she developed during this time are what gave her the confidence to keep her head high and keep pushing forward.
After culinary school, Megan set about establishing herself as a chef. Beginning in an upscale restaurant on long island, she quickly realized she didn’t feel at home in the world of fine-dining. She enjoyed her work, but couldn’t help feeling out of place. Her family would have never been able to eat at restaurants like that one she worked at, and she hated that good food was being made exclusive to those who could afford it.
She returned to her roots in Colorado and found a job posting at Cooking Matters, an organization dedicated to providing culinary education to underprivileged families. Years later, she is now a Senior Program Manager with the organization. No stranger to food struggles, Megan is using her seven times falling to rise up eight and to help families like hers avoid the hunger she fought against throughout her youth.
Can you describe family life as a child and what it was like growing up without enough food?
My family life as a child was amazing. I grew up in an incredibly loving family filled with laughter and creativity. My parents read to us and all the kids did created skits and plays that we would debut at family celebrations. To be honest, I don’t think I really realized that we were that different from others until I was an older kid.
Around 4th or 5th grade was when I realized that not everyone struggled with money or with stretching their budget to make ends meet. Overall, I was really happy as a kid and we just made it work. As I got older though, I realized the affect that this had on me and my siblings, especially with how we all connected with food.
How often would you go to bed hungry and what did it feel like? How did it affect you?
The hunger in my household was very on and off and correlated with hard times. If a job was lost or a big medical expense came up, then money got very tight and we had to make hard choices. I think for me, hungry felt like sadness and shame. I know the physical feeling was being tired or a grumbling stomach but the worst part was being embarrassed about it and feeling like there was something wrong with me and my family because we would run out of things to eat before the end of the month. I also think a lot about how we could have probably made a meal out of what we had but lacked the skills to do that. Instead, we went without a meal or snack.
What was school like for you? Did people take notice to your situation?
I struggled in school. My different colored lunch ticket meant that I was getting a reduced cost lunch and that meant that I was “poor”. I don’t think anyone ever thought I was hungry and overall I think it was hidden behind the doors of our house. A lot of our struggle was not something that outsiders could see and it really was not something that the community spoke about.
I know the school nurse noticed that I came in more than other kids with stomachaches and headaches. I remember her telling me she would was going to stop giving me medicine and that I needed to stop faking my pains. I was too little to realize what was causing it and I don’t think the school nurse was equipped to see that it was something more than a child trying to “skip classes”.
How long would you say you struggled with hunger?
Probably on and off for my entire life. I know we struggled when I was little and I remember my older sister talking about it when I was too young to remember. I remember always pitching together money for things and that it would make my mom cry when she had to tell us we couldn’t go buy any more milk or juice or bread or whatever item we ran out of– that once we were out we were out until the next paycheck. I remember wanting to buy things at the store and my mother telling me no, that we could only buy what was on the list.
We bought all of the cheapest items and ate meals based on what was cheap not necessarily healthy. I remember her taking the shopping list and each kid getting a section. We were supposed to get those items and use unit pricing to ensure it was the best buy. I think she was trying to make it into a game for us and I remember being so proud of myself for doing the math to find the best buy.
Were there times when things were worse than usual? Would you be able to describe one of these moments?
I recently saw an article about how hunger on college campuses is rising and that many schools are adding food pantries to help combat this. It made me think about my time in college and what it was like. It was when I was old enough to know I was hungry but still young (or naïve) enough to not know how to fix it. My freshman year of college my parents were going through a lot of financial struggles and I barely was able to afford college tuition. Between a hodgepodge of scholarship and student loans, I covered it but just barely.
With this, I also covered dorm costs and a meal plan. My meal plan only covered food Monday – Friday because the meal plan that covered the weekends was too expensive for me to afford. You couldn’t take food out of the cafeteria, so stocking up for the weekend wasn’t an option.
That meant that every Friday night I would have to eat a big meal and figure something out for the weekend. Usually this meant seeing what friends had or trying to scrape together money for a meal that I could make last for two days.
I remember the worst days were when I only had coins left and I would have to go to my work study job hungry. I would work all day and at the end of the day I would count my change to see what I could get from the vending machine. I would purposely pick the foods that would make me stay full the longest – candy and buttery microwave popcorn.
I would usually feel sick after eating them but I didn’t care. I felt so much shame and embarrassment and I just wished I could be like the kids with money. Like the kids who didn’t have to worry about money and always could buy food for meals.
What made you decide to go to culinary school? What was it like when you first started?
I actually always really liked Martha Stewart. I think the perfection that she presented and the beautiful food she was always surrounded with seemed like a dream. I wanted to live in the make believe world where food was plentiful and beauty was all round me. As I grew older, I realized that it was just TV and probably not as amazing as it seemed, but my love for food never went away. I took culinary classes in high school and got scholarships to go to culinary school.
The first year was hard but then I found my group of friends and it all got better. My best friend, Amanda, was probably my saving grace. She grew up in a family similar to me and showed me that it was something I didn’t need to be ashamed of and that I could rise above it. She had already done and gone through so much in her life that she gave me hope and really helped me carve out a future. She also gave me someone to laugh with about things that others would have never understood.
For example: I had never cooked fresh green beans when I got to culinary school. My family could only afford canned green beans, so fresh was a new concept to me. I remember being embarrassed that everyone else knew what to do and I just stood there thinking “wait, these can come from something instead of a can?” Amanda was always there to tell me “who cares what they think,” and remind me that I can do anything and that my past does not define me.
When you graduated, you worked in a more upscale restaurant before deciding to switch direction and teach communities about nutrition and cooking. What prompted the change?
For me, I think it was the stark comparison between who I was serving in these restaurants and how I had grown up. We could have never gone out to eat at these restaurants and sometimes we could barely afford food. I just felt like an imposter, as if it were almost a joke. I went from not having that much food to being surrounded with the nicest food money could buy. I just wanted more. I wanted to teach people that they can learn about food and they can take control of their food budget.
I guess perhaps, I wanted to do for others what Amanda and culinary school had done for me. I wanted to empower people with education around food, nutrition and budgeting while reminding them that it doesn’t matter what you know or don’t know – we can all learn and grow together. I just wanted to make sure that every kid like me got the chance to learn all the things I learned, since I know it made me a better person and better equipped to make healthy meals on a budget.
How did you get involved with Cooking Matters? What is your role there?
I got involved with Cooking Matters when I moved back to Colorado. I happened to see a job posting and just knew I needed to work for this program. I eventually got a job as a coordinator and I spent most of my time learning about and implementing the programming. It was amazing to get to teach families just like mine about cooking and nutrition.
Fast forward over 6 years and I am still with the program. I have done different jobs throughout my time here but always stay close to food and nutrition. Now, I am a Senior Program Manager and I oversee our expansion within the state through the Train the Trainer program as well as our training, team development and data/evaluation for Colorado.
With Cooking Matters, you interact with people who are going through what you went through in your youth. What is that like for you?
Sometimes it is hard and I go home and cry. Seeing hunger is really hard, because it doesn’t need to be happening in a country with such plenty. However, the majority of the time, it gives me life and lifts me up. I am so grateful to get to teach people and see the “aha” moment in participants’ eyes. It reminds me that what we are doing is important and that everyone deserves the chance to learn basic cooking, nutrition and food budgeting skills.
How do you feel education on nutrition and the culinary arts can help to prevent hunger?
For me, I know that hunger was tied to poverty. I am not trying to say nutrition and culinary arts can solve poverty, but I do believe it can help. When families know how to save money on their food budget and purchase healthy options for less money, it can free up money for other things.
It can also help families stretch their food dollars further so that they are less likely to run out of food during a certain period of time. For me, I think that being able to cook healthy on a budget also has given me a new outlook around hunger.
As a kid, I felt helpless: I didn’t know how to make my money last or how to cook healthy food on a budget, but after going through school I feel like I can cook healthy on a budget. That is one less thing for me to worry about if I were to ever fall on hard times. It brings me a sense of peace so that if times were to get tough, there is at least one thing I know I can handle.
That one thing gives me more energy to tackle the other things that might come my way. We also recently completed a long term impact study that has some great outcomes related to our program. http://cookingmatters.org/sites/default/files/CM_LongTermStudy_singlepages.pdf
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
It’s funny, because I still feel embarrassed to talk about this all. I am afraid that people will judge me and my family and that I will need to defend myself against hurtful comments. I completely recognize that my life has been really great. I had/have loving parents (my mother died when I was in college) and my siblings are amazing. I did not grow up in extreme poverty or in an unsafe environment. I did not experience famine or long term hunger.
But I also see that even on and off times of hunger have had a huge impact on my life and I cannot even imagine what it might be like for others in even worse situations. I know that it makes my little sister cry when I talk about it and that my dad has broken down in tears about his shame that he could not fill our fridge.
I know that I hate to throw away leftovers or extra food and sometimes overeat because a voice in my head says “you don’t know when you might get food next,” even though that hasn’t been true for years. I know I take comfort in having a stock pantry and fridge and that it brings me a sense of calm to be surround by food. I know these things are a part of me because of what I experienced.
I am not ashamed of what I went through and I know that others have experienced much worse. All I know is, in a country where food is so plentiful, we should not have a single child go hungry. That one child, one time is too much because no matter if you are hungry for 10 minutes or 10 years it hurts and can have a lasting impact on that person, our community and our country.
A common stigma surrounding hunger is that those who experience it are always starved for food. Contrary to this belief, Megan’s hunger came in phases and acted as a theme through her youth and early adulthood. Her story is a reminder that suffering from hunger doesn’t always mean struggling from day-to-day. In her childhood, her parents always worried about keeping food on the table, regardless of if they had been able to purchase enough for that week.
In college, Megan worried about how to feed herself on the weekends. While she wasn’t hungry every day, the effects of hunger were with her constantly.
Working at a high-end restaurant only made Megan more aware that, much of the time, quality food in denied to those who can’t afford it. Having honed the skills to cook nutritious food in a way that is affordable, Megan made the choice to share what she knows with others. Spreading her culinary skill and knowledge on nutrition to those who need it the most, Megan is now bridging the gap between good food and money.
With a love for food and a passion for helping others, Megan is tackling hunger through education. With an understanding that money and good food don’t need to correlate, she is now providing families with the knowledge she didn’t have growing up.
So what do you think readers? please comment below