Potato Soup, Hamburger Helper and the Hope of a Paper Sack: My Story of Food Insecurity by Hannah Coen


Recently, I heard the phrase “Food Insecurity” to acknowledge the need for quality, nutritious food.  I like this term more than the word “hunger” because often “hunger” has a negative meaning which is very different from what my family and I had experienced. I don’t think there was ever a time when we didn’t have something to eat. On the other hand, there were times we felt helpless, and we ate whatever we had. 

I remember reading as a child about a boy who lived in a fairytale about his family’s financial condition. Unfortunately I don’t remember who wrote it or the title, but throughout the story, the boy wants to help “poor families” in his school by collecting canned food for a school food drive. Because all of the other kids are participating, he wants to help too. Throughout the story, the little boy talks about how his father spends more time at home, which he likes, and how his family eats potato soup, which is his favorite, for nearly every meal. The boy’s world collapses during the Christmas season as finally he realizes that his family is one of the poor families for which he had felt so sorry. Like the boy in this story, my life’s paradigm shifted multiple times throughout my childhood and adolescence.

When I was a small child, we lived in a little house near Haysville. My father worked at Boeing while attending college. My mother stayed at home with us kids. It’s strange to think that at my current age my parents had four little ones. We lived off of bologna sandwiches for lunches and hamburger helper for dinners. Mom always used less ground hamburger meat and added more elbow macaroni to ensure that the helper lasted longer.

After my father graduated college, he took a job opportunity as a computer consultant. We left that little house in Haysville, and we began our new journey across the United States in search of more opportunities and more money. After moving to Tennessee and Ohio, our family wound up in Texas for a couple of years. My parents had their dream home built. Each of us kids had our own bedrooms, which is something I don’t think we ever thought would happen. Then, the 9/11 terrorist attacks happened, the economy plummeted, and, as a result, our paradigm shifted drastically again.

We sold our dream home and moved to Pennsylvania as my dad followed a start-up business opportunity. We lived in a travel-trailer that was the size of my bedroom in that old dream house. For Thanksgiving dinner that year, we watched Star Trek and ate pre-packed, frozen turkey patty meals. My grandmother sent us Wal-Mart gift cards in order for us to make it through the next month. We finally reached a point of realization: the business was not making money, and we were out of money. We needed to go home to Kansas.

We drove into Wichita and arrived on Christmas Eve. Unfortunately, the next 365 days were not any brighter. Our family moved into my grandparent’s basement. Luckily, we did have somewhere to go, and, despite all of the stress, we all got along. My father began working at Wal-Mart, which was a terrible shot to his pride. Nevertheless, we weren’t starving.

However, our paradigm shifted once again. During that summer, my grandmother fell down the patio stairs and broke her ankle. As a result, she was unable to go to work. Frankly, we had given up all hope. Wal-Mart didn’t pay hardly anything, my grandfather was on disability, and now, my grandmother, our primary source of income, could not even work. I felt an overwhelming sense of helplessness and hopelessness– especially on the night we didn’t even have enough money to buy feminine hygiene products. My grandparents, my parents, my siblings, and I were all filled with anxiety and angst as we pondered why the universe seemed to have this personal vendetta against our family.

Hope came to us in a brown paper sack. My grandfather’s sister and brother-in-law brought us groceries. We all cried. It was then that I realized how important family truly was. To make a long story short, my family did survive that year of pestilence. Unlike the boy in the story, I never lived in a fairytale about my family’s financial condition. My parents talked openly with us kids about their financial struggles, and we survived those hard times because we relied on each other.

As I said previously, we never went hungry, but sometimes we were food insecure. Unfortunately, not everyone who is food insecure has the safety net that I did. .  Food insecurity isn’t only some distant problem, but an issue within our communities. I wish to invite you to explore this issue with the WSU Hunger Awareness Initiative’s team because people do lack nutritious food—even in America 



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