A dear friend pointed me in the direction of a fascinating article in The Washington Post online that posits how food insecurity in childhood due to poverty affects your eating patterns in adulthood, whether or not you are poor later in life. Here's the article:
Much of this article rang true for me. When I was a child, we would probably have been classified as lower middle class. There were presents on holidays and new school clothes at the start of the year. If our father hadn't drunk half his paycheck away with some frequency, we would have been better off. Mom tried to strictly manage bills, balance our needs and not piss him off. She worked odd jobs and had a newspaper route to be able to pay for extras. Everything changed when he left.
We didn't have to worry about him beating her anymore or demoralizing us, which was an immense positive, but we also lost his semi-regular paycheck. She always had a full-time job, but they never paid enough. My father got away with paying $200 a month in child support for three children in the divorce decree - something the pro bono lawyer from the women's shelter helped secure in exchange for him giving up custody. A necessary evil, as he moved back to Ohio and threatened her with mandatory summer visits where he might just "forget" to let us come back to her. Bills were frequently late or overdue, and she would sometimes have to turn to our Grandfather for help. She tried welfare and food stamps for a couple months, but they told her to turn over the child support check for roughly the same amount in stamps, so she opted to stop them and the humiliation of going to get them. Every once in a while someone from the church would drop off a box of food, but otherwise it was slim pickings for the four of us. I remember being hungry all the time. Breakfast would be a bowl of cereal with milk. She would buy a gallon of real milk and then cut it over the next two weeks with powdered milk. She would drink a cup of instant coffee and eat a piece of bread. Lunch was at school, which I remember being cheaper than buying the individual parts to make up a lunch box. Before the divorce, she packed it every day for us, and we always had fruit. Dinner might be a package of hot dogs, a can of vegetables and four servings of rice or instant potatoes.
Mom wasn't a very good cook, and she wasn't ashamed to tell you that. She used to say that it was because she could operate a can opener or open a box that she could keep us alive. She ate very little, in order to save more for us. Soda was for special occasions, dessert was rare - that's why a birthday cake and ice cream is such a big deal to me to this day. There was rarely fresh fruits, vegetables or juice and usually white bread was a filler. Fried bologna balloons up in the pan, unless you cut an X in the middle.
After I moved out, these lessons stayed with me. In college, I put 15 pounds on when I suddenly had access to the cafeteria and repeat trips to the buffet line. Honestly, I probably ended up closer to the weight I should have been. When my husband and I started a life together, we were quite poor. It was back to infrequent fruits and vegetables in the house, lots of pasta and processed food. It's cheaper than eating healthy. I learned how to cook, quite well if I can take a moment to brag, because I had to figure out how to reuse any left-overs and work with very little. Even now, years later and doing much better financially, I've got food stocked all over the house in case we run into a problem, backups on backups. The idea of the children being hungry bothers me deeply.
If I go to a meeting and there are snacks on the table, I almost always help myself even if I'm not hungry. It's free, I rationalize and what if you don't have access to food later. The kids have never had to worry about food the same way, so they don't react the way I do. I do take umbrage with one of the theories in the article, that poorer households are often less educated and therefore less aware of their body needs. My mother was quite aware that we needed fresh fruits and vegetables; she just couldn't afford them. She was aware that Hamburger Helper was filled with salt and gave her terrible migraines, but it stretched a pound of ground beef out to feed three teenagers. She was very aware that she was starving herself. Thank God I don't have to.