Hungry. Low energy. Trouble sleeping. Irritable. Anxious. Hair falling out. Changes in mood. Always cold.
These describe Julia when she was in the throes of her eating disorder. They also describe the symptoms experienced by kids with chronic hunger due to poverty. I find it curious that I have a daughter recovering from an eating disorder and a volunteer job coordinating a food assistance program for public school students with food insecurity. I didn’t think about this serendipitous connection in my life until it came to writing this post, and now that I am, I’m wondering if it was a subconscious, spiritual intervention or simply a coincidence. It gives me pause.
Julia became scarily sick at the beginning of eighth grade. It was the perfect storm colliding with the start of a new school year, and her anxiety sent her straight down the rabbit hole. We quickly learned that beating an eating disorder requires many forces at work, one of which is a dedicated caregiver. That was me. Witnessing food deprivation due to mental illness was baffling given that we had a kitchen full of food and four grocery stores within walking distance. Julia was surrounded by food and couldn’t use it to fuel herself.
During that time, I focused all of my attention on caring for Julia and managing the household. With this schedule, the possibility of working outside the home was on hold. As she started to get better in 10th grade, I felt like I was ready to stretch my legs. I needed something fulfilling that fit into our schedule. In entered the food ministry at our church. It started with an invitation to help deliver some food-filled backpacks to food-insecure public school students. Before long, the opportunity to coordinate the whole program was offered up. It was a perfect fit with the time I had that was gradually increasing as Julia was getting better, but was also flexible for those unpredictable and inevitable ups and downs. As I got to know the program more, I started to learn about youth hunger and the impact it had on kids’ education and socialization. More needed to be done in our community. Before long, I was helping create programs for youth to learn about hunger among their peers and how they could make a difference. In turn, I learned even more than I already knew about nutrition and stigma.
Until recently, I’d been immersed in the world of food deprivation solely from Julia’s standpoint. Mental illness and poverty are different in many ways, however the effects of hunger on the mind and body are equal in destructiveness. Additionally, youth with eating disorders and youth with food insecurity are invisible to so many of us. We don’t realize the harmful impact of images in the media and misinformed school curriculums like health class, and how income disparity can affect access to resources. Our family could give Julia what she needed to help her have a fighting chance against her eating disorder; it took financial resources, a full-time caregiver, access to quality therapeutic programs, and parents with education to navigate the systems. We are lucky and we know it. Most of what I read about poverty points to lack of access, lack of education, lack of community, and lack of equity.
When the pandemic hit, the food support program had to adjust to reach the families that needed our weekly supplies. Another brave mother and daughter venture presented itself. Together, Julia and I did home deliveries to 30+ families for the 15 weeks that schools and libraries were closed. Food insecurity in our community became very real to us as we met these invisible families and walked through parts of our town we did not know existed. We were able to see first-hand the effects of poverty, and it has changed us forever. Food deprivation is right in front of us every day. Bringing it out of the shadows and admitting that more can be done is key. Julia and I hope to bring awareness to this with Nourish. We learned how to not judge people for the choices they make when we don’t know the options they had to choose from.