Growing up Food Secure with a Legacy of Hunger
February 2, 2009 § 7 Comments
Advocacy and Online Marketing Director
My earliest memories with my father always centered on food. It wasn’t so much about what I ate, but how I ate it. Dinner was more than a moment of consumption – it was a performance. He would beam when I would clear my plate and ask for seconds, or use my knife and fork to ensure every last morsel of meat was cleaned from a bone. I was scolded as being “scornful” if I chose not to consume the un-pretty parts of meat, such gristle, slightly burnt or fatty pieces.
He, on the other hand, relished eating. Fat was for flavor. Bones, as long as they were soft enough, were consumed. And he always ate fast, starting on seconds before the rest of the family was finished with their first plate. Wanting to please my father, like most children do, I emulated his eating habits.
Meat was not a treat for him but a requirement for a well-rounded dinner. It was my mom’s charge to ensure we had one yellow and green vegetable on our plates. On the occasional weekends when my mom was at her second or third job, he would purchase a fatty steak and broil it for breakfast, serving it with fresh Italian bread from the local bakery to sop up the juices. I think it was his way of compensating for the lack of family time so my brother and I could enjoy a good education and the occasional vacation trip.
In my adulthood, my conversations with my dad often center on food. Trips down memory lane are not of a destination, but a special meal. He loves to share his cooking achievements with a play-by-play of the seasonings used and detailed descriptions of preparation methods. He would ask what’s for dinner right after eating breakfast. When he visits me in Austin, his face lights up when we take a trip to Whole Foods or Central Market because, according to him, “The meat sections are so pretty.”
As I got older, I began to understand the connection between his eating habits and what seemed to be an obsession with meat. You see, my father grew up poor in rural Tobago in the early 1940’s. Even with the chicken farm he was charged to tend to, he often went without food, or was limited to a diet of eggs. He recalls the embarrassment of passing out in school because he only had eggs or nothing to eat. On the very few occasions that meat was available for him to eat, he would keep the bone in his pocket to suck on from time to time, ensuring every last morsel of nutrition was consumed.
It’s sometimes difficult for me to listen to his stories of poverty and food insecurity as a sadness and shame consumes his face. In his mind, he has transcended poverty and lack of education, and enjoys a comfortable retirement in Miami with his wife of 37 years. But I know from my own childhood and the conversations we have to this day, that there is a lasting affect from experiencing poverty and childhood hunger. He still cannot eat slowly and exhibits disordered eating from time to time. He still watches how his family eats. He still exhibits an anxiety about having enough food for those unexpected guests dropping by. I now understand how his childhood hunger influenced personal relationships with food as I try to remind myself to eat slowly.
This year’s legislative focus on childhood nutrition is not just part of my “job” but a personal mission to do what’s right for the innocent and vulnerable members of society. I can’t help but think of my own father, and the physical and emotional toll food insecurity has taken on his life. This is not rural, post-colonial Tobago in the 1940s. There is no legitimate reason for children in Texas to be hungry and malnourished.