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You Can Teach Kids Hard Work, But Feed Them First

Growing up, I hated being on “food stamps.”

I hated being walked into a welfare office and inspected, queried to make sure we were really our mother’s children. I hated standing in line at the grocery store, knowing we weren’t going to be paying with cash, but rather with coupons that would brand us as “poor” to anybody who noticed.

And yet I loved the fact that we had food!

As a growing kid, I knew what it was like to come home to a bare kitchen. Those dreaded coupons and vouchers meant we got cheese and milk, fruit, eggs, cereal, beans, tortillas, and yes, sometimes even ice cream.

Thanks to all that free food and the stability that came with it, I was able to pay attention in school — and I excelled.

I was blessed with intelligence and people who loved me — and food.

My parents taught me the value of hard work. And just as importantly, the social safety net taught me that my development was important. I was determined to join the ranks of professional adults, and encouraged by the very fact of receiving assistance to continue striving.

I made good use of that free food. I learned to bake bread and make apple pie, whip up lasagna, roast a chicken, stew black beans and rice, and chop a homemade salsa. My mom and I turned it all into delicious meals for our family, and started me on a lifelong mission to help other people appreciate simple, healthy meals.

It was fun, it was tasty, and it was a godsend.

It sent me on my way. I scored in the top few percentiles on every standardized test I ever took. Once I got into college, I scraped by the next six years with $100 a month from my dad, scholarships, grants, and government-subsidized low-interest loans (all paid off years ago now).

I worked hard, and not just in class. I was a waitress, mostly, and later a research assistant in my grad school program. I got a Master’s degree in 1987, went to work at the Federal Reserve Bank, and later moved into the cable TV industry where I made a career.

Today my brothers and I are all fully employed taxpayers who support ourselves and our families. In fact, I’ve paid more in taxes over the last 25 years than my entire family ever got in government assistance.

But I haven’t forgotten our past, and that’s why I strongly support making SNAP available to all families who need it. They deserve the same leg up we got.

Yes, we occasionally bought some chips or ice cream. But no, we never traded it for cash. We swallowed our pride and we ate that food, working towards a better day. I would do it again tomorrow if I had to. I thank God that I don’t — but I also thank God that when I did, the possibility was there.

I’m concerned that if some in Congress have their way, this possibility won’t be there for as many as 2 million current nutrition assistance recipients. That’s the number of people experts say will lose coverage under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program if the House-passed version of the Farm Bill becomes law.

As my mother in law used to say, “First feed the face, then teach right from wrong.” How can we expect kids who are hungry, ignored, or penalized for being poor to see any value in becoming “productive members of society?”

My plea to anyone reading this is to lend your support to continued funding of anti-hunger programs. My brothers and I were worth that small investment 40 years ago. Don’t we owe the same to the kids who are worth it today?

Sherry Brennan lives in Los Angeles with her teenage son, where she works in the TV business and devotes time to social safety net causes.

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