Many college students can’t afford food. What extremes would you go through to ease your hunger?
By Yesenia Cuevas
When in college and unable to afford food, I stole so I wouldn’t go hungry.
One scorching hot July morning, I woke up under only a delicate, white sheet with my clothes stuck to my legs, back, and empty stomach. The room that I was subletting over the summer had no air conditioner, ceiling fan, or window for Mother Nature to cool my body.
Not to mention, the room contained no light switch and the darkness sealed the heat around me like an asphyxiating hold. Fighting my conscience, I ignored the grueling mechanics within the pit of my stomach. The grinding reminded me of my mother’s molcajete, a stone tool that could best be compared to the Mexican version of the mortar and pestle. The feeling of hunger was awfully overpowering, especially that morning. So much so that I stole my housemates’ food.
I stole food for breakfast mostly. Every day, I tried to make a big breakfast, one that would stave off my hunger the longest. However, I’d purposefully create different variations of my morning meal so that my housemates would not directly notice that their food was missing. A typical breakfast included scraps of ham — a little dried out since the packaging did not include a proper seal — a few white eggs, shredded cheese, two hash browns, and a chewy chocolate-chip granola bar to snack on while preparing the meal.
As my food sizzled in the skillet, I’d lock the door. In case any of my housemates returned, I could quickly turn off the stove, hide away the food in the oven, and scurry away into my room while they fumbled trying to unlock the door. As I stirred my omelet, my gaze focused out of the window. My eyebrows furrowed with apprehension, and my eyes glimmered in deceptive delight, for all those looking within never caught a hint of my enslavement to hunger. My thoughts floated into the past experiences I had as a teenager with my hometown’s local food ministry, which gave out a large and hefty cardboard box full of food: beans, cooking oil, a loaf of bread, peanut butter, jam, granola bars, chicken, sausage, tortillas, ground beef, canned soups, fruits, and veggies.
I remembered how every Saturday morning, around eight, my mother and I would walk five blocks to our local ministry. Usually, I pled with my thirteen-year-old sister to go in my place, but my mother argued that she was too small to help carry the box of food home. I always ended up joining my mother to the local ministry. Since my hometown, known as Reedley, is small, there is only one public high-school there and everyone knows everyone. I made sure I wore a sweater with a hoodie, even during the blistering hot summers, because I didn’t want anyone to recognize me. A block away from the ministry, the anxiety would kick in. My palms would start to sweat and I feared someone from my high-school seeing me at the line outside of the ministry. I was afraid that if anyone found out I was poor, they would feel sorry for me, and that was the last thing I wanted. I wore my hoodie to conceal my head, asked my mother to hand me my sunglasses from her purse so I could cover my eyes, but most importantly, to disguise my identity. My destitution that felt so inescapably bound to my identity was a consistent fear in the back of my mind. I was worried I would be ridiculed, and that I would become an outcast in my high school. Yet, there I was in college, looking out the window and wanting more than anything, some sort of local food bank, local ministry that gave out food, or a food pantry.
Irvine, where I live and attend college, is known to be the land of the wealthy and classy, but those who struggle live under the shadows, their burdens rarely ever seen. Emotionally, I acted fine, physically, I looked fine; I became the replica of a walking stick, yet my seemingly “ideal” body type did not raise any suspicions. I never asked for help from others and no one ever noticed I needed the help.
I felt sluggish, I often lost sleep for my mind would whirl in never-ending circles. I planned how I would attain food throughout the day, but to the outside world, people must have thought that my bags were correlated to my long nights of studying. I felt embarrassed initially, but stealing my housemates’s food was the easiest mode of access and the need to fulfill my hunger cancelled out my feelings of guilt.
When my housematess introduced themselves, I only remembered Ashley’s name and forgot the others’. I asked for their summer session class schedules or if they had jobs and what time their shifts were, and I made sure to ingrain their schedules deep in my memory so I could plan my times to slyly creep into the kitchen and take their food without getting caught.
Ashley and the other two girls always stayed in their bedrooms and never made any effort to talk to me. I couldn’t bring myself to disclose my situation to my housematess because I had just met them. I was too timid to share my vulnerabilities as they were unapproachable, and something told me that they just simply wouldn’t understand.
Not only was I struggling with affording food, school financial issues were another issue. My financial aid program needed my parents’ tax information because of a discrepancy in the following year’s tuition. The paperwork I needed from my parents was overdue and my financial aid was placed on hold.
My parents are illegal immigrants, so the idea of filing for taxes caused a lot of apprehension given that filling out personal information on government paperwork would place them at greater risk for deportation. I had to complete summer session in order to graduate within a four-year time frame so I wouldn’t have to pay an extra year of tuition.
As I struggled to beg and inform my mother that she needed to file her taxes so I wouldn’t be billed for the entire year, she remained stubborn and refused. Consequently, I had no financial aid for the summer and my parents only provided me with twenty to fifty dollars for the week. I worked at Yogurtland, but my paychecks barely covered that month’s rent and nothing else.
Contradictory to the stats, I received straight A’s and enrolled within twelve units. I also was working at Yogurtland but my paychecks went straight into rent or other bills, often times I had to ask my parents to help complete the rest of the month’s rent since minimum wage was not cutting it. And lastly, I was taking the KUCI training program, UC Irvine’s college radio station, to become a PA (talk) host and an assistant at two news shows. Fortunately, I kept up academically, but other personal aspects of my life fell drastically apart. For starters, I was able to keep up the daily routine of stealing bits of food from my housematess, but within a matter of a few weeks, my cover was blown. As most college students usually don’t have the healthiest food choices stocked in their homes, I’d open the fridge and find small, green bottles of Jägermeister and other alcoholic drinks. There were slices of chocolate cake stored in their plastic Albertson’s containers, some cheddar and mozzarella cheese sticks individually wrapped, peanut butter and chocolate pop tarts, and other snacks. My diet consisted of foods loaded with sugar and no nutritional value. Breakfast was the only meal that I reaped nutritional benefits from.
I didn’t own a car and couldn’t rely on transportation so I ate mostly fast-food. The nearest food center was the University Town Center, but the center only had one healthy supermarket known as Trader Joe’s that can be quite expensive. Taco Bell, Jack in the Box, and Chick-Fil-A were my go-to places since these places were nearby and cheap. Sometimes, at the end of the receipt, there was a survey that I would take. Often times these surveys were my salvation to my hunger, “Free taco when you tell us how we did.”
Moreover, while working at Yogurtland, I’d hope that customers would leave their food behind, which on the rare occasion did happen. Once, a couple came into Yogurtland, the man had a pizza from Blaze and the lady carried a bag that I identified with an expensive seafood place known as SlapFish. They left their goodies on a table and filled their cups with yogurt, as the couple paid, the idea of reminding the couple of their food crossed my mind, but quickly was dismissed. That had to be the best meal of my entire summer.
After a few weeks of stealing ham, eggs, Cup of Noodles, Fruit Roll Ups, and Klondike Ice Cream Bars, I woke up, hungry and sweaty one morning and came upon an Post-It note tacked on the fridge that read in all bold, capital letters, ‘STOP EATING OUR SHIT!!!’ Even though my name was not on the note, I knew that whoever wrote the note, wrote the note for me. I felt helpless, ostracized, and mostly embarrassed, but I didn’t want to talk to them about my food insecurity since the topic was much too humiliating.
Since the day of the note, I could never muster the courage to look at my housematess in the eyes, let alone greet them. Actually, whenever I came into the apartment, they’d briefly greet me and turn away and continue on with their business. If my roommates came into the room while I was there, they’d quickly collect their blankets, pillows, and clothes for the next day and sleep out on the futon in the living room.Not only that, but my ribs started to show and I began to lose shape. Purple bags developed under my eyes for I continuously lost sleep stressing over what I was going to eat the next day. As a student of UC Irvine and a resident of Orange County, places that were known for their money, I felt rock-bottom poor.
At the end of summer, around September, I finally moved out of my sublease and my parents followed through with filing their taxes, so I didn’t need to pay $30,000+ that the financial aid had threatened to charge me with. While packing away my belongings in boxes, my house-mates made no comments nor expressed their feelings to my departure, had they made a comment about how I felt about my stay, I would have revealed my struggle. The looming feeling of tenseness and awkwardness filled the air and not a single goodbye was exchanged from either one us. I felt a surging wave of relief to be leaving and reluctance to move into my new apartment with my close friends, friends that I knew would understand my situation and offer a helping hand.
The wait for food feels like a stretch of eternity. A struggle I suffered alone until the creation of the Food Pantry. I wasn’t afraid to be perceived differently. And as I stepped closer and closer to the opening of the arena where the bags of food were given out, I drew in the fresh air, full of possibilities.