Imagine rationing your children’s food at every meal, terrified it will not last through the week. Or, skipping your own meals, just to make sure your kids don’t go without. Imagine dreading the holidays instead of looking forward to them because you have no idea how you could manage putting together a special holiday meal. Or, having to buy dollar meals from McDonalds for your kids knowing it’s a terrible choice, but that keeping your children hungry is not a choice.
Now, imagine all of this, and trying to be a college student at the same time.
You started college to help your family and now, it is mostly the last thing on your mind. Instead of attending your college zoom sessions or studying for an exam, you are driving from food pantry to food pantry spread across the county to collect barely enough food. Imagine having to reveal this to a stranger, to describe the hunger pains you’ve been experiencing, and try to explain how this effects your concentration or ability to do well in class. This is to admit what feels like a total failure of one’s fundamental duty as a parent.
When the Los Angeles Valley College Family Resource Center partnered with the Foundation for the Los Angeles Community College District and opened the “Food for Families” application this past November (funded by Los Angeles County CARES Act), we received story after unimaginable story. Thousands of applications like this from community college students across Los Angeles County poured in within just a couple of weeks.
Now, imagine, in the midst of this tight-rope-walk-of-survival, you take a chance and a few moments to share your story and that someone out there actually responds, actually helps.
When we partnered with Imperfect Foods, we weren’t sure if it would be the most ideal way to get food support to these students. And then, we were moved to tears again and again upon reading the Thank You responses. Yes, we had the great opportunity to offer a period of reprieve to over 3,400 student-parents by sending large boxes of high-quality foods directly to those we families who needed it, and needed it fast. But, beyond the reprieve, we learned about something more intangible students were getting out of these deliveries. One student told us she felt like her invisible cloak had been snatched away…a good thing for someone who had felt totally unimportant and forgotten by her college and by everyone. It was empowering to her to know that others were aware of her struggle and that someone was trying to take it seriously. Another student told us she felt exonerated, somehow, of any perceivable failings on her part. Some shame was removed. One incredible letter said, in part, “It is not just food, fresh food… It feels like a lifeline, like I am part of the community and that my son and I, that we are not all alone. It was a box of hope.”
We learned there is something about receiving a specially curated box of good food after revealing your food story, something personal and meaningful. This was extremely moving and fulfilling for us to learn. And yet, as the buzz fades, the fact remains that our students remain food insecure at astounding rates. They feel forgotten, invisible, shamed, and alone because, in many ways, they have been…for a very long time. This moment in history has uncloaked our indifference and shined a spotlight on our social irresponsibility.
We must take an opportunity to take a second look at our ideals as Americans and not turn our eyes from what we can see head-on. We can no longer wistfully imagine that college students are not “the hungry.” They have already told us, bravely and unequivocally, through thousands of applications and letters, that they indeed are, and their children are, too. Yet despite these daunting circumstances, they strive to achieve a better life through education. We must give them the food, dignity, and support they need to succeed.
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