My Grandparents at their 50th Wedding anniversary, along my Mom ( left), Aunt (middle) and myself (right).
Why I wanted to work at the St. Louis Area Foodbank…
The short answer is that I wanted to help put food on the tables of people who needed it the most.
But longer answer – please indulge me here – starts with my Papa’s Mac and Cheese.
I know, I know. You’re thinking “what does your grandpa’s pasta dish have to do with the Foodbank?”
Well, a lot, actually. Like most family recipes, Papa’s Mac and Cheese is more than food, it’s a piece of edible history. Whenever Papa makes his now-legendary macaroni and cheese, he will inevitably tell the story of how his signature dish came to be.
He usually laughs and rhetorically asks if we know what government cheese is. My sisters and I always shake our heads and reply, “no.”
This prompts him to stretch out his hands, as though he is talking about a prized catch. He then tells us that “government cheese” was a huge mystery block of cheese that the government used to give out, along with other food, to families on welfare.
It’s hard to image my grandparents on welfare; they are both hard-working, smart, and well-educated people. Papa was a computer programmer before becoming a nurse. Nana was a nurse, and in her 40s, she went to law school and received her law degree.
But long before my time, the recession of the early 1970s had caused financial burdens in their household. When Papa was laid off from his job, they had no choice but to ask for help to feed their seven kids.
Papa and Nana first sought help from their family, and later from the government and food pantries, much like the ones who partner with the St. Louis Area Foodbank.
During this time, Nana went back to work full time as a nurse, and the household duties fell to Papa as he attended nursing school. Taking care of seven kids is no easy task, and having to feed all of them on a tight budget was a huge challenge for Papa.
He had always dabbled in the kitchen, but he had his work cut out for him to get seven kids to try some of the new foods that came from the pantries and the government.
First and foremost, he had to figure out what to do with that huge block of cheese they were given on a monthly basis.
If you Google “government cheese”, the description may make it hard to believe Papa could ever have turned it into anything edible. But somehow, just by adding a little spice and baking it with a bread-crumb crust, he turned this “cheese” into something special that would feed our family for a lifetime.
Over the years, Papa told this story to me, my sisters, our spouses and their families, as well many of our friends.
Today, Papa’s Mac and Cheese still fills our bellies, and the story he tells his helps lift the stigma of food assistance in our culture by putting a face on it.
As I have gone out to talk to some of our food pantry clients, I have discovered that many of the families are like mine. They are hard-working people who are trying to provide for their kids, just like my grandparents.
Many of these people are just like Papa, who distributed food from the pantry to homebound elderly in his neighborhood, giving back the only way he could by volunteering at the food pantry. Like so many of the Foodbank’s clients, Papa felt he couldn’t just take something without giving back.
Food assistance has made a great impact on my life even though I have never received it myself. For me, working at the Foodbank is my way of giving back, just like my Papa.