You Are What You Eat
Aaron Smith wrote this story for a Good Works WALK focused on food-related issues for people in poverty. While the story is fictional, it is based on true living situations of families struggling with poverty in rural Appalachia.
Tammy is nine years old and in the fourth grade. She lives with her grandmother, who other adults call Ruth, but Tammy has always known her as just “Grandma.” Tammy’s five-year-old brother George calls her “Granma,” without the “D” sound, and her two-year-old sister Abby usually just grunts to get her grandmother’s attention. They’re working on that.
Tammy remembers a time before coming to live with Grandma, a time when there was not always enough food, not even instant mashed potatoes. However, she hasn’t gone hungry since she moved in. In fact, she has actually gained some weight. She hasn’t quite figured it out yet, but she’s certainly glad to have food to eat. It’s easier to study and learn when you’re not hungry all the time, even if you’re afraid that someone will call you fat.
Grandma doesn’t like to talk very much about money, but Tammy has figured out that they don’t have very much. She knows that if she wants something that other kids have, there’s a good chance her grandma will say, “No, Tammy, we can’t afford that.” That’s the end of the conversation. If Grandma can’t afford it, it doesn’t matter how much Tammy wants it. It doesn’t even matter how much Grandma wants it. Money is the power to have what you want, and Tammy’s family doesn’t have much of it.
Each day, Tammy experiences poverty – not through her wallet, but through her dinner plate.
She wakes up one morning – it could be any morning – to the sound of rain drumming against the roof of the trailer. “Tammy,” calls Grandma, probably not for the first time. “Tammy, wake up, it’s time to get ready for school.”
“I’m up!” she calls. She changes into school clothes and heads for the kitchen.
When she passes by the bathroom, she catches a glimpse of five-year-old George standing on the lid of the commode, grinning widely into the mirror as he brushes his teeth.
“Did you eat yet?” she asks.
“No,” George says. “Oh!” and he spits out his toothpaste and hops down, following his big sister to the kitchen.
With her grandma watching, Tammy climbs a footstool and checks the cabinet. She knows she will have a free breakfast at school, but she’s always hungry when she wakes up, and so she and George usually have a snack before getting on the bus.
“Are there any more Pop-Tarts?” Tammy asks. She usually splits a twin pack with George.
“Nope. We’re all out,” says Grandma. She only buys one box at a time, and she hadn’t been shopping in a while. “You can have cinnamon toast,” she offers.
“I like cinnamon toast!” says George.
“Okay,” Tammy says, grabbing the cinnamon sugar. “I’ll make it.” She looks for the bread, and finds that there are only the heels left. It’s wheat bread, which is not her favorite, but it’s what Grandma likes to buy. Grandma says it’s healthier. Tammy punches the heels into the toaster and heads for the fridge to grab the margarine.
The toaster pops, and George reaches his hand out. “Ouch!” he says, pulling his fingers away from the hot toast.
“Careful,” says Granma, letting him run some cold water over his fingers.
Tammy spread the margarine on the toasted heels and shakes on some cinnamon sugar.
“Not too much,” cautions Grandma. Then suddenly, “Hurry, here comes the bus!”
Tammy hands George his toast and puts her piece in her mouth. She grabs her backpack on the way out the door. Looking back, she sees George with his own toast hanging out of his mouth, struggling to pull on his backpack. He succeeds.
The air smells like springtime as they splash through puddles from the trailer to the bus. Tammy greets the bus driver with a good morning and finds her assigned seat. After George sits down, the bus door closes with a hiss, and the bus begins to rumble down the dirt road, sloshing through the potholes.
Breakfast at school – real breakfast – makes Tammy’s mouth water. The cinnamon toast didn’t hold her off for very long. Today happens to be Tammy’s lucky day. They’re serving “Super Buns” today, which are nutritional cinnamon buns. In Tammy’s mind, Super Buns are second only to Pop-Tarts.
If she knew how to read nutrition labels, she would see that each Super Bun contains 25% the daily recommended allowance of saturated fat for an adult. But Tammy is less interested in how much saturated fat she’s eating, and more interested in how much delicious she’s eating, as are most of her fourth-grade peers.
Tammy is always glad that they serve sweet breakfast foods. Cereals, graham crackers, milk, and juice have all made an appearance from time to time. If she had to eat oatmeal or eggs or yogurt, she might not want to eat breakfast at all. Of course, she doesn’t actually know what she would do, since a breakfast that healthy has never actually been an option.
The morning starts off well, but when it’s time to study history, Tammy starts to feel hungry again. Thankfully, the next class is lunch. Tammy tries to listen to her teacher, but she just keeps talking about the man who started Bob Evans. His name was – surprise! – Bob Evans. Apparently he was a native of Appalachian Ohio, whatever that means, and he came from Gallia County. The teacher would talk about a restaurant right before lunch.
Finally, it’s time to head to the cafeteria. Tammy’s stomach rumbles as she waits in line. She sees the kids in front of her grabbing trays with pizza. Pizza! It’s a perfect lunch. Tammy doesn’t know it, but her congress thinks that pizza is a vegetable. If she knew about it, Tammy might be okay with that. Who doesn’t want to have extra vegetables in their diet?
Tammy grabs a tray and waits for her turn at the cash register. She punches her student ID into a keypad, picks up her tray, and marches to her table. No purchase necessary. She once made the mistake of bragging about her free lunches, but after being called a “Rutter,” she never made that mistake again. That made her glad that she can just punch in her number. Some parents pay for their kids’ lunches online, so those kids just punch in a number too. Nobody knows that Tammy eats for free unless she tells them.
At her table, one of Tammy’s friends complains about the food. Tammy always thought the school food was pretty good. Then again, most things are good when they’re free. She doesn’t really have room to complain.
Another of Tammy’s friends brought a Lunchable. Tammy has never once in her life had a Lunchable. Grandma refuses to buy them, but they’re clearly the coolest lunch. When you eat a Lunchable, you get to play with your food as you put it together, and it’s completely okay. Eating a Lunchable is proof that you have good taste.
Someone goes back through the line and comes back with a bag of Andy Capp’s Hot Fries. She shares a couple with Tammy, and Tammy thanks her.
“Hey,” the girl says. “Why don’t you ever buy snacks, Tammy?”
Tammy shrugs. “My grandma just never gives me money for snacks.”
Tammy realizes that she is always the taker, and never the giver. She can’t remember being able to share a snack with her friends. She wonders if she even would share if she finally got the chance to buy her own bag of Hot Fries. She thinks she would share, but she knows they would be hard to give up. The idea makes her feel bad, and she eats her last hot fry slowly, savoring it.
The recess bell rings, and Tammy runs outside with her Hot Fries friend to play hopscotch on the wet pavement.
By the time school lets out, the sun is shining, but the ground is still wet. The bus stops with a screech in front of Grandma’s trailer, and folds open its door to let Tammy and George off.
Inside, Grandma is putting groceries away. “Hi,” she greets with a smile. “How was school?”
“Good!” says George, dropping his backpack on the ground.
“It was okay,” says Tammy, by which she means, “we had a pop quiz today, and you know how I feel about pop quizzes.” Tammy starts looking for a snack, and since she had a bad afternoon, she’s especially anxious for something to take her mind off of school.
Aha! Doughnuts! “Manager’s Special,” says the bright orange sticker on the box. Perfect.
“Grandma, can I have a doughnut?”
“No, sweetheart. Those are for dessert. Why don’t you make a sandwich? Don’t eat too much, or you’ll spoil your appetite for dinner.”
“Okay,” Tammy says, already knowing what she will make. She pulls the jelly from the refrigerator and asks Grandma for the peanut butter from the cabinet. Then she remembers that she used the last of the bread for cinnamon toast.
“Grandma, did you get any bread?”
“Right here, sweetheart,” Grandma says, lifting the bag over to Tammy. She grabs it, and a confused look crosses her face. There’s something different about this bread. Oh, it’s white bread. When Tammy sees the little yellow sticker on it, she understands. Wheat bread may be better than white bread, but white bread on sale beats wheat bread. It’s a strange game of rock-paper-scissors. In the end, cheap wins every time.
Tammy slathers extra jelly on her sandwich, because jelly is her favorite part. “Want one?” she asks George. He nods his head. Tammy makes a PBJ for her brother, then puts things away.
“Hey Grandma, can I go over to Jessica’s and watch TV?”
“Do you have any homework?”
“Mm-mmm,” she says, shaking her head.
Grandma doesn’t say anything for a while, and Tammy hopes that she is about to say that Tammy can go watch cartoons. Instead, she asks more questions. “Are you sure your homework is all done? Did you do your reading today?”
Tammy pauses. Come to think of it, maybe she did have some homework. “No,” she says sullenly. And then, because Grandma likes it when she tells the truth, she adds, “I might have some math homework too.”
“You better get started then,” Grandma says.
Tammy opens her math book at the kitchen bar and starts working. Math isn’t her favorite subject, but she isn’t bad at it, either. Curious George climbs onto the stool beside her to see what she’s doing. “Want to learn some fourth-grade math?” she asks.
George doesn’t complain, so Tammy points to her book. “This is a fraction. It’s not a whole number, it’s just a fraction of one.”
George makes a face and climbs down from the stool. His curiosity didn’t last long.
“Suit yourself,” Tammy says.
Once she finishes her math, which wasn’t that hard after all, she pulls out her reading book. Grandma is getting things out to make dinner.
Tammy decides that she is thirsty. She checks the refrigerator, hoping for pink lemonade. Pink lemonade is her favorite. However, there is none to be found. Tammy shuts the fridge and runs herself a glass of tap water instead. She doesn’t really like the taste of their water, but bottled water is out of the question. Grandma says it’s a rip-off to bottle water up and sell it to people. After her first few sips, Tammy sets the cup on the counter and doesn’t pick it up again.
Tammy finishes her reading just in time to help Grandma finish making dinner. They’re having hamburgers, mashed potatoes, and mac-n-cheese. Tammy likes to help smash real mashed potatoes, but they’re having the instant ones out of the box tonight. Instead, Grandma lets her help with the mac-n-cheese by stirring the butter and cheese powder into the noodles. Grandma adds a little extra butter. Tammy tried eating butter once, but it wasn’t very good. Still, it seems to make everything better. Perhaps it is one of Grandma’s secrets.
Tammy helps Grandma pour the milk in. As she tilts the jug forward, Grandma says “Not too much!” and pulls the jug back, knocking Tammy off balance. Grandma reaches out her arm, keeping Tammy from falling off the stool. In a kitchen filled with the aroma of home, they share a laugh.
The burgers are almost done. Grandma doesn’t seem happy about them. “These burgers really know how to shrink,” she says. The ground beef she used for the burgers was really only 75% lean meat, because the store where she shops doesn’t sell anything with less than 25% fat. Not that Tammy understands that. Grandma finishes by putting a slice of cheese on each patty. “American Cheese Product,” reads the label. Tammy thinks it’s cool that her country has its own cheese.
Tammy helps set the table, and the four of them sit together: Grandma, Tammy, George, and little Abby. They hold hands, and Grandma lets Tammy pray for the food. She says thank you for the food, and for Grandma, and for making it not cold anymore. Amen.
They eat the burgers on white bread. There isn’t any gravy, so Tammy puts some margarine on her potatoes instead. Suddenly, Tammy sees the pitcher on the table. “Is that pink lemonade?” she asks.
“You betcha,” Grandma says, “Here, pass me your cup.”
Tammy smiles as Grandma pours her a glass. She doesn’t think things could get any better until she finishes her dinner.
“Ready for a doughnut?” Grandma asks. Tammy had forgotten about those.
“Yes!” Tammy almost shouts, and then: “Please.”
They’re cream-filled doughnuts with pink icing and yellow star-shaped sprinkles. This is even better than cake. Tammy smiles at Grandma, and Grandma is smiling back. Tammy really is thankful she gets to live with Grandma. If she is what she eats, she has certainly become sweeter.