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The Way We Eat

“There Are More People Who Are Hungry Right Now.” Hattie, a Mom of Two in Columbus Ohio, on What It’s Like to Work for a Food Bank During the Pandemic

updated May 23, 2020
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Name: Hattie Assan
Location: Columbus, OH
How many people regularly eat together in your home? 4: Hattie, Nimo, and their daughters Maxine (3) and Nana Adjoa (10 months)
Avoidances: Hattie eats mostly plant-based.

Editor’s Note: These photos were taken last year, before Hattie had her second baby and before the onset of the current health crisis and social distancing guidelines.

Hattie lives in Columbus, Ohio, with her daughters Maxine and Nana Adjoa and her husband Nimo. Hattie works in fundraising at Mid-Ohio Foodbank, a major provider of food and resources to those who are food insecure in this community. I talked with Hattie about what it’s like to be working from home with two very small children, how she and her Ghanaian husband navigate different expectations around food, and what — in the middle of these difficult times — people still get wrong about food insecurity.

How are you and the family doing?
Maxine is three and a total extrovert, and she misses her friends and the playgrounds. I’ve gone through waves of inspiration: some days I’m feeling creative with the constraints, and other days I cannot make toast and fried eggs.

What’s been helping you the most?
Samin Nosrat’s podcast, Home Cooking — oh my gosh; I have been telling everyone about it. Their conversation is so great, and the questions they’re answering are so practical. I just listened to the fourth episode and already feel better about next week.

Tell me how you met Nimo.
I studied abroad in Ghana. My degree is in Global Studies with a focus on Africa. He lived in the neighborhood where I was doing a home stay and we met through mutual friends. We figured out this was more than friends near the end of my trip. I moved back to Ohio and got my first smartphone so we could talk on WhatsApp, while I frantically figured out another internship to return to Cape Coast. During the next school year we initiated the process for a K1 visa. After a long process and a lot of waiting we were able to buy him a very expensive one-way ticket!

Have your different cultures affected the way you eat?
Oh yes. Cross-cultural palates! As is true in Ghana, for Nimo, it’s not three square meals a day. It’s one or two really heavy meals a day. The structure of Nimo’s meals has to be starch plus soup/stew plus meat/protein in order for him to feel satisfied. (For instance, rice/kenkey/banku/gari + bean stew/groundnut soup + chicken/goat/hardboiled egg). I love Ghanaian cuisine myself, but I like other foods too. I’m not a master at preparing it so I eat it whenever Nimo prepares it for the house.

So Nimo cooks?
Yes. He’ll normally every week make a big batch of something: stew or soup, a starch.

And you both kind of cook for yourselves?
I’ll prep a lot of things and I’ll put together “compost bowls,” a descriptor my friend, Erin, and I lovingly give to meals that have lots of good stuff, all mixed up to be pretty ugly. Usually a combo of fridge leftovers like rice/quinoa/pasta, roasted veggies, beans, maybe some avocado if we’re feeling fancy, pesto or salsa, occasionally cheese or eggs. There’s no real formula, but if it doesn’t look like compost in the bowl, you did it wrong and tried too hard.

You told me earlier you think a lot about the value of food. What does this mean to you?
I grew up in Worthington [an affluent suburb of Columbus] in this bubble of privilege. I think my parents did a pretty good job of raising us in a pretty progressive mindset and to be aware of a lot of the privileges that we had. But just the same, food was never anything that was not available to me. After college Nimo and I lived in Athens, Ohio, where it’s hard not to be engaged in food culture. Also while living down there we didn’t have health insurance because Nimo came as an immigrant, and wasn’t eligible for Medicaid. Buying insurance off the marketplace was way too expensive for our part-time jobs.

But even now when I go to the grocery store, I shop like someone who grew up in Worthington, and who doesn’t have a mortgage and a car payment and a kid, and living within the benefit gap. I think that’s largely because I see food as being connected to health. When we didn’t have health coverage I felt like, we can pay a little bit more for better food now, or we can have crappy food and potentially higher costs for healthcare.

I see food as being connected to health. And when we didn’t have health coverage I felt like, well we can pay a little bit more for better food now, or we can have crappy food and potentially have higher costs for healthcare.

So for you food is closely aligned with healthcare?
Yes, and that also aligns with how Mid-Ohio Food Bank sees itself, where we’re shifting the narrative of programs like SNAP from entitlement to good public health policy. When you help low-income people have greater access to fresh, nutritious, healthy food, we call it a low-cost healthcare solution. There’s research we’re engaged in with diabetes patients where we see there’s a health impact if we can get folks to a fresh food market at least 11 times a year, there’s a corresponding drop in A1C levels.

It’s obvious that healthy food is good for people, but it also means that social service dollars that go towards health can be reallocated. It’s a lower budget item to buy good produce than it is to buy the medications to treat the health conditions that result from poor eating.

That’s such a thought-provoking way of talking about food assistance, like it’s a benefit to society as a whole.
Yes, I think a lot of times around food pantries there’s so much stigma attached, and there is a perception it’s just people who are living off the system, and coming and making use more than they need to. For a while as an organization we would show these statistics that 50 or 60% of people who come to the pantry in our service area [only] come like four or five times a year. Another large portion only come once a year. We’ll explain that most of the time people are only coming when life happens: when someone loses a job and their kid breaks their leg and they have a high hospital bill.

But now we’re actually trying to shift away from saying, oh people don’t come that much. Instead we’re talking about how it doesn’t harm anyone to have more access to good food. And actually it may be better for us as a society if we encourage people to come more frequently. The hope is that we encourage people to come more frequently to access the produce primarily and fresh foods. Particularly earlier in the month, instead of when benefits are running out. A lot of times pantries and other partners will be booming at end of month when benefits are about to run out, when bills are coming due. Folks have been making do on less all month, and then they’re getting the good stuff. If we can offset those costs at the beginning and throughout the month, they could take their resources and apply them elsewhere to other needs, like education, childcare.

What is it like to work at a food bank right now?
The whole organization is busier than we ever thought possible. The number I heard a couple days ago is that across our service area, so that’s 20 counties — a large area — about 17,000 households just in past couple of months have come to a pantry or soup kitchen for first time, which is a large jump.

It’s totally a strange time. I think across society we’re all experiencing a mass humbling and having an empathy-building experience. Everyone is realizing how close people are to food insecurity; they’re realizing it’s not through any individual’s fault. It’s because of the way our economy and society are structured. A lot of people are experiencing what they never imagined they could. But then those who are very fortunate right now, recognize how fortunate they are. We’ve also seen a lot of generosity as a result.

How so?
I work in fundraising and we’ve seen people who received their stimulus checks who just signed it over to us. They say, I received this, I’m fortunate not to need it so I want to put it to use. That’s a really beautiful thing to get to witness.

That is amazingly beautiful.
There are more people who are hungry and food insecure right now, so our distribution and operations teams have had to step it up big time. And food is more expensive, and we’re having to purchase more food at a higher cost to meet the need. It’s matching what our holiday giving season looks like, so it’s a great problem to have but we’re not staffed up and volunteered up like we are during the holiday season.

We also have to recognize there are so many needs not being met. Many of the pantries and the soup kitchens are mainly staffed by volunteers, and they are often retirees — in a high risk category — so a lot of them have had to reduce hours or close altogether. And so there are communities that no longer have pathways to food and produce distribution. If someone is not able to travel they are just going without.

I think a lot of times people honestly believe that poor people don’t know what’s good for them, and that there’s a steep learning curve of how to scramble an egg. And that just drives me bonkers.

You have a 3-year-old and a 10-month-old, which is a lot at any time, but especially right now. How is it working?
Both my parents are retired and watching our kids four days a week. If they weren’t doing that I honestly feel like I would have had to quit my job. I don’t know how folks are getting in 40 hours of effective work and watching their kids.

Beyond childcare, how do you make it all work with your job, Nimo’s school, and two young kids?
It’s a decision between preparing food and getting extra sleep, as far as cooking goes. Convenience really wins out right now. Even working at food bank, that’s true for anyone.

How so? I feel like I don’t associate convenience foods with food banks.
Making fresh food accessible to people doesn’t change the barrier of time and prep involved in cooking your own food. I think a lot of times even people who are advocating for healthy food to be available to low-income people, they will operate in a place of like, “Well if these people only knew how to cook. If they only knew how to prepare in a healthful manner…”

I think a lot of times people honestly believe that poor people don’t know what’s good for them, and that there’s a steep learning curve of how to scramble an egg. And that just drives me bonkers. Because it’s not that they don’t know how. It’s a lack of access to it in the first place, and a lack of time to do that prep. A pizza totally wins out when you have kids to feed and three jobs you’re working that don’t offer healthcare or any other benefits. People know how to cook. It’s just not realistic, with the way that our capitalistic society is structured to keep poor people poor, and believing their time is not their own.

What is the best way to help a food bank right now, beyond giving of course?
Definitely always and forever, giving financially rather than food drives, is going to be the most effective way. But for folks who don’t have the means but who have strong networks, peer to peer fundraising, like doing a Facebook fundraiser. We actually just launched quietly a new peer to peer fundraising platform where folks can create their own donation form and acknowledge their friends.

In addition to that, being a really strong advocate on social. Be willing to stick up in disagreements online or in person where people are spreading myths that are painting a false picture about what it means to be food insecure and generally what is poverty. If there are agencies seeking volunteers and you are healthy and not in a risk category —can mask and glove — there is stuff that still needs to get done, people still need to get fed.

Speaking of cooking, what are you cooking in these photos with Maxine?
I had roasted veggies from our CSA [Freshtown Farm] earlier in the week, and I wasn’t going to get through them all as we have them currently prepared and so it was easier to scramble eggs and put them into a quiche.

Last question: can you tell me about your beautiful little garden? Gardens feel so exciting right now as we’re cooped up at home.
We have a backyard raised bed which this year has been entirely planted with Freshtown Farm plant starts and seedlings. Also, we don’t have sidewalks in our neighborhood, so our yard runs straight into the street. So I put in, straight across the lawn, maybe ten feet back from the curb, a barrier garden. I just wanted something I could be like, “Don’t run past the garden!” We put some tomato plants out there and I am hoping it will be more of a gleaner’s garden, like if people are walking by they’ll feel free to pull from.

The Way We Eat is a series of profiles and conversations with people like you, about how they feed themselves and their families.We’re actively looking for people to feature in this series. You don’t have to be famous or even a good cook! We’re interested in people of all backgrounds and eating habits. If you’d like to share your own story with us, or if you know of someone you think would be great for this series, start here with this form.