BY RENAI WISLEY
“Mommy, this the littlest food we ever had,” says my five-year-old. I just look away, hoping she will eat oatmeal so we can get ready for school. The others are already brushing their teeth; if she doesn’t hurry, we will all be late.
It is three days after Spring break, and my freezer is empty. I am usually able to prepare for short school breaks and Summer vacations, but I have cut my spending to save to buy a house, which will be more affordable than renting. Spring break sprang up on me, and I wasn’t ready for four children and their appetites. I wasn’t adequately prepared, and preparation is the only way to survive raising children as one parent; probably even as two parents, but I can only speak for me.
Payday is days away, and we are hungry now. The budget is already pulled to its limits. I have already planned the grocery list, but there are bills. Even if I skip my house savings this week, that only adds an extra $100 to the grocery budget. That sounds like a lot to my children, but they don’t realize that just their breakfast for two weeks costs $75. Some days I wish my babies could understand price and cost and pinching and scrimping; other days, I never want them to know. My children are five, seven, and ten, with an extra ten-year- old for flavor; my sister’s child stays with us when she is at work, and mine stay with her when I work. The cost of childcare in this city is far too much to afford. None of them really know that we are poor, low income, or “those” people—whatever is the buzzword for people who are just surviving. My babies don’t know survival is our only weekly, daily, hourly, minute-by-minute goal.
When I think about parenting, I have no idea how I got this far, because I feel like I don’t know what I am doing. I know I just want to make them happy and proud. I want them to look back on their childhood one day and be glad I’m their mother. But today won’t be a day they are ever bragging about.
We have one more day until the direct deposit hits, and we are eating a meal that I pieced together, but will hopefully keep us full until morning. I am hungry. I eat when they are finished, but the ten-year-olds ate all the sides and two extra pieces of meat. My dinner was one piece of smoked sausage and toasted bread.
It is morning—oatmeal again. My son refuses to eat a thing; he refuses school lunches, and I don’t have anything for him to take today. I know he is tired of oatmeal, but without breakfast, he will only eat one meal today. I will worry for the next eight hours that he is wasting away at school while I am at work. Finally, the workday is done, I go grocery shopping. I check my account balance: My two-week budget is $275.
I decide to only short my savings by $75; I really want…need that house.
I discount shop. I coupon. I buy marked-down meats, generic food, canned vegetables instead of fresh, all of the things people say I should buy to eat affordably. It is rarely enough. I still barely get out of the store under budget. As soon as I pick up the children, the boy child wants to know if I went shopping. I can hear the desperate sound of hunger in his voice.
If I had the energy to cry, I would. I am tired. I just want to raise my children. I just want to give them healthy meals and make promises I know I can keep. I work full time. I do odd jobs on the side. I can only do so much because the rules of subsidized housing will raise my rent if I make more money. It is already more than 35% of what I bring home, because they calculate it from gross, not net. How do I “watch my spending” when housing is already putting me in the hole?
We make it through the next two weeks. The kids don’t go to bed hungry, but some nights I do. Hopefully, my babies will never know the nights I don’t eat so they can; the days I worry that their stomachs won’t be full enough; the sleep I lose hoping tomorrow will be better.
People don’t deserve to worry like this over their basic needs. We all deserve to eat. Food shouldn’t be something that is held over our heads like a luxury that only some get because not one of us can survive without it.
As the Community Engagement Coordinator for Imagine Forsyth, Renai works to engage local residents in collaborative work to improve the health and wellness of individuals and our greater community. Second Harvest Food Bank, the lead convener of Imagine Forsyth, continues to advocate for programs and policies that support families like Renai’s who are striving to improve their lives. This work includes a commitment to continue to raise wages of team members to better align with the rising cost of living. You can learn more about Second Harvest and Imagine Forsyth at HungerNWNC.org.