Home Social Construct What Do You Learn About Food…When You Grow Up Without It?

What Do You Learn About Food…When You Grow Up Without It?

by Erika Nicole Kendall

I want to excerpt a small passage from the book I’m writing:

I can’t imagine how long this had been going on. I mean, I’d been overweight for as long as I can remember. As a kid, my mom worked tirelessly to keep clothes on my back and a roof over my head, but that meant that sometimes food was… well, scarce. We’d have days where I was eating saltine crackers and cheese while pretending it was a Lunchables® kit, and then we had days like Pay Day, where it seemed like the kitchen overflowed with food.

There were far more “saltines and cheese” days than there were “overflow” days, though.

On those days right before Pay Day, it seemed like the days were unending, like a slow crawl to the finish line when you have nothing left in the tank. And, when the groceries came home, there really was nothing left in that tank. So, to celebrate, you filled up… and up… and up…

The experience of growing up with an unstable food supply taught me the behavior we now recognize as “overeating.” I’d eat as much as I could as soon as the last bag of groceries was put away, and—I must admit—I felt amazing afterwards. I felt full. I felt satisfied. I felt happy, like I’d achieved something great. My belly was no longer talking to me, grumbling angrily about the need to feed.

That constant routine, the consistent binge eating, taught me something early on: food makes you feel good, often in ways that are not as simple as “of course you feel good, you finally ate!” And that’s how quickly I learned that food is a way to control your mood.

I think many of us joke about “hood delicacies,” where we’re using all kinds of random things to manifest “meals” out of thin air. I’ve eaten my fair share of syrup sandwiches, mayonnaise sandwiches*, and I don’t even want to know what else as a kid**. In fact, I remember one day in particular when my stepfather wanted to celebrate some accomplishment of mine back in elementary school, and he came home and tried to make me a root beer float with toppings… but all we had was the ice cream. Sure enough, he still dropped those scoops of ice cream in the mug, poured “pancake syrup” all over the top, and cheered me on to eat it.

Now, I’m not dissing you if you eat pancake syrup-topped ice cream. I’m just saying… it’s a unique delicacy. An acquired taste, if you will. Like chitlins.

I am dissing you if you eat chitlins, though. Still love you.

The point is, if you grew up poor, you learned very quickly how to get what you needed in order to at least feel belly-full. That’s important. But what does it teach you about how to feed yourself? What do you learn about nourishing yourself? Moreover, if the bread is sweet, the stuff you’re putting inside it is sweet, and the goal is to eat as much of it as possible to become belly-full…how quickly does that cycle of habits become instantly gratifying?

I don’t think those lessons can only be taught in a household where the food is plentiful—even with all the teaching I give to my kids about food, I still caught my tween making herself a mustard sandwich, wtf—but I do think that, for those of us who grew up in the 80s, our relationships with food might be far more complicated. I think about, years ago, a panel I sat on with a former mayor of a major American city… where he talked about how “The Children of the Crack Era” (which would be both black Generation Xers and Millennials) learned to live in this world, and that obviously includes food.

I blogged about it back then:

One of the mayors spoke on the “lost generation” that, by and large, never got to learn their family’s traditions because of how “the crack epidemic” combined with the “war on drugs” combined with the widespread job losses in the manufacturing industry affected so many families and tore so many apart. (We could just as easily say the same about the “meth epidemic” right now plaguing rural America, where lots of SNAP recipients are located. Hello, Appalachia.) How many of us grew up not really knowing or understanding how to cook our families’ traditional meals? How many of our fathers’ lost their jobs in the 70s and 80s when factories started moving their productions overseas? How many of us barely survived those job losses? How many families wound up with both parents working much harder for meager pay, with no one at home to teach those lessons? How many families got by on processed food not because that’s all that they could afford, but because that’s all they knew how to cook quickly? (I cannot count the number of kid cuisines I ate as a child. Seriously… but boy, was I glad to get those sprinkles and those stickers, even if I was starving an hour or so later.)

If our parents were gone—working their asses off, struggling with vanishing jobs (at least mine were in Cleveland) or, yes, suffering under the weight of addiction—who was able to teach us? What did we learn?

Consequently, what do we have to unlearn and how do we unlearn it?

How do we teach our children how to navigate this food landscape? How do we help them avoid the obvious pitfalls and consequences of the bright, shiny, sweet stuff? Most importantly, how do we teach them to do it without it devolving into trying to shame them or encourage disordered eating behavior?

*I can’t be the only person willing to admit this, right? Right?

**So, one time, a friend and I were on the phone talking about, “If you take a piece of bread, put it in the toaster, sprinkle it with cinnamon and sugar, and pour milk on it… will it taste like Cinnamon Toast Crunch?”

We may or may not’ve actually tried it. It may or may not’ve been the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever done in the name of struggle food.

Photo credit: Flickr / khouri

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Ebony September 19, 2017 - 1:13 PM

I can relate to ALL.OF.THIIIISSS! As I mentioned on your facebook post, the similarities between your experiences and mine are scary and comforting. Even down to the part about Kid Cuisine (If it came with the mac n cheese and the brownie…girl!), mayo (Miracle Whip) or syrup sandwiches, and being a Clevelander. It’s like

I was raised by my mom (who struggled with addiction to food and narcotics) and when she wasn’t home, I was the latchkey-kid or I would go to my cousin’s house. Mostly, I was home alone and would eat up what was there when times were “good” or make two packs of ramen and eat four beef-ish hotdogs each with a slice of Home Pride “wheat” bread. :-/ I was lonely, I was bored, and ate to TRY to fix all that I couldn’t understand. Everything from puberty, my mom struggling with sobriety, being bullied, and to wondering why my father or anyone just didn’t talk to me.

To answer your question, I have to unlearn several things.
I have to unlearn that I don’t have to eat everything right when I get it. It will be there tomorrow or next week. The feeling that it’s okay to indulge now because “things are better” won’t go away, but I do need to recognize it when it shows itself. I need to remember that I am not 12-17 anymore. My loneliness and pain won’t be cured with food.
How do I unlearn this?
Therapy and seeing a nutritionist at the same time.
If you happen to find one of each that are both socio-economically sensitive to your issues, that’s even more of a blessing. Some therapists and nutritionists don’t understand the feeling of what we’ve been through. The feeling of curing hunger and boredom with food. The knowledge of celebrating with what starchy and sweet thing you have in the house. However, to see both with help you to replace what is an unhealthy way of thinking and an unhealthy way of eating.
A typical breakfast for me was Golden Crisp. One of the worst cereals on the market and I still love it! I haven’t had it in about two years, but it is one of those foods that make me think of when things were simpler. Which it is one of the reasons I don’t buy it because its taste and smell along with the high sugar content give me a bit of a high.

To answer the other question, I’m not exactly sure how to teach my son. Right now he’s six years old and doesn’t care why we eat, he just knows he’s hungry when he’s hungry and likes cupcakes. I do manage his portions, I don’t buy him Kid Cusine meals or too many processed foods, I try to cook more at home instead of getting McDonald’s. More fresh fruit or at least canned fruit. I try to be an example, by cooking vegetables and trying new dishes like Thai curry with vegetables, but it’s really hard because I still struggle. Especially when the money is low.

Food struggles are so real and they can last a lifetime, but they don’t have to because there is hope.

Bernadette November 20, 2018 - 9:57 PM

I really enjoyed your article it”s really has given me hope not only with food but everyday life.
I now have a tool to fight with and hope to go through life hardship.

Thank you,

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