As we continue to celebrate Dine Out for No Kid Hungry Month, Share Our Strength supporter chef Jason Alley, co-owner of Comfort, which just marked its 13th year in business, and Pasture restaurants in Richmond, Virginia, discusses his experiences with childhood hunger, why school breakfast and lunch should be available to all students, and the worst thing you can donate to a food bank.
You faced food insecurity regularly as a child. How did that affect your everyday life?
It creates massive stress. I grew up in southwest Virginia around the Appalachian Mountains, and we were certainly not alone in being poor in that area. There’s a lot of poverty. Food was always scarce. Growing up rural was nice because we had plenty of friends that hunted, and my grandmother had a garden, but that didn’t always make the cut. So food was always first and foremost on our minds all the time, like, how are we gonna make this happen? How are we going to get everybody fed?
Can you remember some of the toughest periods?
There were many times when I moved to Florida with my mom when there were weeks and weeks in which it was literally school lunch and white rice at home. That would just be it for extended periods of time.
As a child, how did you sit through school and succeed when you’re so undernourished?
I didn’t really succeed. I was unmotivated to be at school. Think about if you’re sitting at your desk and you had to skip breakfast, and now it’s lunchtime. You bottom out. You find yourself dozing off at your desk. You get hangry and cranky. Now, imagine that being a habitual thing. To think anyone is going to be successful under those circumstances is just unreasonable.
The free breakfast and lunch programs that a lot of schools have gone to are crucial in setting the stage for success for these kids. Our kids are starting public middle school for the first time this year, and their school has free breakfast and free lunch for every kid in the school.
When it’s available to everyone, I would imagine there is less of a stigma.
When I was a kid I had my little free lunch card. You’re going through puberty, kids are already starting to get bullied, you don’t have the cool clothes, and now, oh yeah, here’s your poor kid card. Have a great day! That’s just an added stressor. I think it is really progressive for a school to alleviate that stress. You know what? It’s free for everybody. Nobody pays, nobody gets singled out.
Were there other resources to help you and your family?
We benefited from local food banks and a lot of church food closets. There were plenty of days where we would have been even hungrier had that not been available.
I feel like it’s hard for some people to take that step and go to food pantries, as if there were shame in it.
We’re a shaming culture. We’re really good at it. If you’re hungry and you need help, there’s nothing wrong with that. It sucks to feel as though you have to ask for charity, but it’s more important to look at the positives it brings. It makes everybody feel good. I don’t think there’s anybody who’s working at or going to a food pantry or food bank that is going to be looking down their nose at you. It’s a shared experience. If you can accept the help for what it is, which is help and generosity, and you can use that to get yourself moving forward, then everything is working how it’s supposed to work.
Being surrounded by the bounty of food you are able to serve, are you ever conflicted?Continue Reading