My community’s social media news page recently discussed the high cost of eggs and how difficult it is for local food pantries to provide this food to needy families. One well-intentioned commenter suggested that instead of boiling the eggs, the recipients should simply bake the tofu (in fact, the comment stated that ecological tofu). Problem solved.
Yes, such comments can be written off as a California stereotype (and yes, I do occasionally fry tofu myself), but it also reveals a deeper misunderstanding of the challenges faced by low-income people who are often single mothers. One of the biggest challenges is time, especially time to cook for our families. Eggs can only take a few minutes to cook, and most importantly, they are a food that children are familiar with and enjoy eating.
Sociologist Priya Fielding-Singh, author How the other half eats NPR told how feeding low-income children is about more than access to food. This is a complex part of the overall fight against scarcity:
For moms raising their children in poverty and poverty, making ends meet really depends on saying no to the kids. For example, you can’t have enough money to pay the rent, pay the utility bills, put gas in the car if you say yes to your children’s requests, because the children ask for so much all the time. And I watch these moms say no to their kids over and over and over and over again and I’ve come to realize something very simple. these moms could say yes everyday. It was unique in that way. It was cheap—you know, usually one or two each—and their kids loved it.
And so I learned that while moms wanted their kids to eat healthy, they also wanted to show their kids that they heard them, that they loved them, and that they could give them not just what they needed, but a little. what they wanted. So, you know, understanding that dynamic, understanding what the experience of raising a child in poverty does to a mother, as far as how it affects how she can provide for her children and, frankly, how she can feel as a caregiver herself, really helps us realize that while Cap’n Crunch isn’t the most nutritious choice from a public health standpoint, if you think about it from an emotional nutrition perspective, this cereal actually makes a lot of sense.
Also a book by Amanda Freeman and Lisa Dobson, Making a living on the cheap: How low wages trap women and girls in povertysheds light on the behind-the-scenes struggles of women who work to care for other people’s children, provide home health care, and serve as “key workers” in grocery stores, among other low-paying occupations.
They point out that while about one in three workers has some form of parental leave, only 4 percent of low-wage workers do (p. 49). Long and/or irregular working hours may mean less interaction with their children’s education (p. 52). They often work on weekends and holidays. One of their interviewees told the authors, “There is no such thing as a vacation in my life” (p. 64).
The COVID-related shutdown has intensified the struggles of many of these families. It has always been difficult for low-income households to provide for their children, but the closure of day care facilities often forced low-income mothers to stop working. For those working to care for other people’s children, during the pandemic they were sometimes faced with a Sophie’s Choice-type decision: stay in the “bubble” of the family that employs them and away from their children, or lose their jobs (p. 196) . Staying at home with a sick child can mean losing your job (p. 128).
Juggling work and childcare was a constant challenge for the women Freeman and Dobson interviewed. From having to take sick children to work, being in cars in the parking lot, being in crisis mode was not unusual (p. 123). Meals were also fluid: “…Sometimes mothers would sneak their children into the back of restaurants where they would cook” (p. 124). Working late or night shifts brings other childcare and meal preparation challenges.
And then there is the question of whether you can afford food. One form of aid, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, goes to 1 in 8 Americans. Of the aid recipients, 66 percent are families with children, and 42 percent travel to working families. But getting help isn’t easy, and it’s not necessarily generous. In 2018, the average family benefit was $239 per month. Freeman and Dobson described the process, focusing on the experience of one interviewee:
It begins with in-person and online interviews to determine income eligibility. If a mom walks through that gate, then you have to wait, sometimes weeks… We heard from a low-wage mom in Georgia who ran out of food in the middle of the month on minimum wage. After jumping through many hoops to apply for food assistance, she was awarded $20 a month in SNAP benefits (p. 148).
How cheap illustrates the stress of living on the edge of an economic cliff, a term they use to describe what daily survival feels like for low-income working mothers. For those of us lucky enough not to have experienced it firsthand, Max Weber’s concept to understand challenges us to understand what this experience is like. This will lead to more productive solutions than a simple food exchange when there are no eggs in food pantries.
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