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Summer brought this First Word to the meeting on during our annual "Hunger Month," October 2007.

Calculating Hunger

My mother raised my brother, Jamie, and me by herself. She worked full-time, went to school, and did all those parental things that kids just take for granted.

Being with our mom was a treat, even grocery shopping was something we looked forward to. There was only one rule: never ask for something that wasn't on the list.

In the store, mom carried the list, a pen, a calculator, and her coupons. I was given the honor of carrying her purse. Jamie, being six years older, was trusted to return items to their original location. Because even though we never got something that wasn't on the list, we rarely got everything on it.

I remember one shopping trip in particular. I was about five, Jamie eleven, and the three of us were at the register. I was looking at the amazing variety of gum and candy, when my mom grabbed my hand and quickly walked us out of the store. When I asked why, Mom soothingly told me not to worry, she had just decided to go shopping later. But I've always been a worrier, so I asked my brother when we were alone. He said that the cashier lady had been mean, and since it wasn't okay to be mean, we left.

Many years later, I asked Jamie if he remembered that day. And he shared his memory of Mom wanting to use a coupon that the cashier thought she couldn't use with food stamps. Mom challenged the logic of being able to use some coupons but not others, and the cashier responded by going on the intercom and saying something like, "Bob, can you use the two-for-one tomato sauce coupon if you are using food stamps instead of real money?" And that's when we left.

Even as an adult, I wasn't quite sure what to make of this. Had my mother been too sensitive? Too proud? Why did she have such a strong reaction to be identified as using food stamps, when she is always so willing to help others?

Last April, I went on the food stamp diet [the Governor's challenge to try to live on $1 per meal for a week], as many others did. I stood in WinCo with my pen and my list, my calculator and my coupons. I felt the way my mom once looked to me -- strong, capable, easily able to rise to a challenge. I thought, like her, I could probably sing a song while doing it too.

But that feeling didn't last long I worked down my list, filling my basket with the cheapest, though rarely healthiest, option, and with three items to go, I reached my limit of $21.

It was hard to put things back. I felt this painful icky feeling that I couldn't quite identify. But eventually I had a basket full of food that could last me a week. I had calculated the total to be $20.74, but as I stood in line, I began to worry. What if I was wrong? What if I didn't have enough money? What would I put back? And I could hear my mom saying airily, "Oh, I just remembered, we have peanut butter at home, we don't need that after all."

On my way home from WinCo, I stopped for gas. When the attendant told me the total, I blinked and thought to myself, "That's a week and a half worth of food! I can't afford that!" And that gross feeling came back.

Did Mom worry about how she was going to put gas in the car? About what would happen if one of us got sick and needed a doctor? About the rent increasing or having to find child care she could afford? Was she pulled by a dozen worries while she let us be kids?

The strength I felt when first standing in WinCo now felt brittle; like I was made of concrete that could withstand immense pressure but would crack and crumble if pulled or torqued.

I know that this story is not unique, and so I ask myself: How much pressure can we withstand? What kinds of pressure? What gives us strength? How can we help each other find strength when we need it the most?