Last week, Yahoo Food ran a Refinery 29 piece entitled “What It’s Like to Feed a Family For Less Than $20 a Day”. It was widely read, and if the 3,510 commenters are any indication, it was also widely misunderstood.
In a lot of ways, I blame Refinery 29 and Yahoo. Their sexy headline was nothing more than clickbait and troll fodder. The actual essence of the article was about the flawed Farm Bill and the fact that the current government assistance programs make it much easier to track down sugar-laden processed foods than fresh, let alone organic, produce. It was intended to be about the power and the voice that young people have to demand healthier options with their votes and with their dollars. Instead, it became a soapbox from which people could declare their moral, financial, and nutritional superiority while espousing judgments at their best, xenophobia at their worst.
So how exactly did thousands of commenters miss the mark?
It’s Not About Competiton
So many people wanted to compete with Olivia. The competition unfolded in myriad ways. Some commenters had experienced things much worse. Others would never accept government assistance. The vast majority of commenters, though, were quick to point out that not only could they eat better than Olivia and her family, but they could also do it for a lot less money.
I get it. There are times when I think about my $200 grocery budget and my chest swells with pride. I work hard to make sure Mr. P and I eat well at a very frugal pricepoint. There is a time and a place to brag about your budget, but the comments section of that article probably isn’t it.
If you want to educate people like Olivia, start a blog, offer to speak at churches and shelters, or get involved with schools. But to slam someone’s misfortune in the comments section of a Yahoo article because you dealt with difficulty more successfully than she did doesn’t teach Olivia a lesson. It makes you look like an asshat.
That’s the thing about overcoming adversity. It’s a personal struggle, a silent struggle in many ways. There is no confetti drop, no pomp and circumstance, not even a gold star. Instead, you’re rewarded with perseverance, grit, and humility. If you’ve ever been down on your luck, guilty of a bad decision, or the victim of circumstance and you had the fortitude to come out on top, share your story with the intent of helping others. It’s not a contest. There is no prize, and we should want everyone to pull through.
It Is About the Kids
Most of the commenters on Yahoo were parents, many of whom were single parents. I am not divorced, nor am I a parent, but there are seventy-four brilliant minds and loving hearts in my care for 8, 10, and sometimes 12 hours a day. And all I could think about while I read Olivia’s story were my students with whom I am fortunate to spend my days. As I scrolled through comment after comment, I was stunned that no one was talking about how hungry her children were.
Sure, they emphasized the fact that she had children as a means to bemoan the fact that she should be grateful for their tax dollars. They pounced on the fact that they would never not feed their children fruits and vegetables. But seldom did anyone mention the true tragedy of all of these stories: her kids were going hungry.
After spending the better part of a decade in public education, I can tell you one thing and one thing only with absolute certainty. When kids are hungry, they can’t learn. It isn’t that they don’t want to. They simply can’t. Hungry kids are fidgety and irritable, lethargic and unfocused. They are sad. They are embarrassed. Because one of their most basic needs is going unfulfilled, it is virtually impossible for them to focus on anything else.
That is the real tragedy. Of course, there are exceptions. There are success stories. Some students do defy the odds. But those who do not are stuck in a vicious cycle. Study after study, statistic after statistic proves that these students are less likely to perform well or even graduate. And when they start families of their own, the cycle often resumes.
Those readers who scoffed at Olivia’s ignorance — who doesn’t know that fiber is more filling than rice? — are assuming that Olivia received some sort of health education. Not only are physical fitness and health education optional in some states, those programs are categorically underfunded and understaffed. Should the same person who teaches badminton and square dancing teach swimming and driver’s education and nutrition and wellness? Probably not. Yet in schools where there are health programs, that is typically how those programs are staffed. While it might be easy to point the finger at Olivia’s ignorance, it would probably serve society well to figure out how a mother of three seems to have made it through life without that kind of education and to ask ourselves if any kind of explanation could ever be sufficient.
I Hope You’re Angry
I hope you’re reading this post and you’re angry. I hope you read the original article and you start to seethe. More than anything, though, I hope you’re infuriated with the real problem. Olivia isn’t the problem. Olivia is a consequence. She is an effect. And there are thousands upon thousands of people like her.
Be mad at our education system. Begrudge your congressman or congresswoman who consistently supports legislation that emphasizes things like standardized tests and timed writings, while simultaneously cutting away at consumer education and health and wellness programs. Write letters, speak up, go vote.
Be mad at free lunch programs. You’re absolutely right. Free and reduced lunch programs are easy to exploit. More than that, they are hollow succor to kids who are truly hungry. A paltry hamburger on a mushy bun with a side of tater tots and baby carrots is exactly what everyone railed against in Olivia’s fridge — overprocessed, saturated with sugar and sodium and god knows what else, with no real nutritional value — yet that is exactly what many free lunch programs serve. The more healthful options like salads and fresh sandwiches are more expensive, so they are excluded from the free lunch program. Ask your locals schools what they are serving and why.
Be mad at yourself. If you had the fortitude to overcome adversity, if you have the wherewithal to feed your family delicious, healthful meals on a budget, if you have a skill set that so many people clearly lack, don’t keep it to yourself. Find a medium to share your talents. Offer support. Find compassion and never forget the perseverance, grit, and humility you learned from your own struggles.
So Tell Me…What do you think of Olivia’s story? Is there anything else that makes you mad?