This week we share the story of Nikki Johnson-Huston, who experienced childhood hunger first hand growing up. She shared her perspective at our 2013 Hunger Symposium.
A large part of my childhood was spent battling hunger, food insecurity, poverty and sometimes homelessness. When people ask me how growing up in those circumstances impacted my life, I tell them that it made me someone I would not have otherwise been.
I spent many days hungry, scared and not knowing where my next meal would come from or where I might be living on a particular day. When I was young I didn’t understand what was happening to my family but I knew that it wasn’t how people were supposed to live. It felt like sometimes the world had forgotten about us and our problems but then we would meet someone who treated us with respect, like the workers at the rescue mission where we would get two meals a day when we were homeless or the food pantry that would give us groceries when there was more days in the month than there was money in our pockets. The kindness that was shown to me and family in the food pantries, rescue missions and homeless shelters cannot be overstated.
When someone would give me a snack and ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up, they were not just nourishing my mind but my spirit. They gave me a sense of being normal for a few moments and most importantly helped me to believe that there was a future for me where I got to grow up and have the luxury to think about what I wanted to accomplish with my life.
Hunger limits you in a way that is difficult to describe because you are constantly thinking about getting food, keeping food and not knowing when you are going to eat next. It’s a vicious cycle. You want something better but you don’t know how. Food and housing are so fundamental to the human condition that not having those things paralyzes you and keeps you living hour by hour instead of thinking about what you would like to accomplish in a day, week, month or year. Hunger, poverty and homelessness stole my childhood. It took away my innocence and my sense of security but I was one of the lucky ones. I not only survived but learned to thrive. I had many failures along the way but in the end found success with the help of many people who came into my life. I have accomplished my childhood dream of being a lawyer and I now run my own firm, Law Office of Nikki Johnson-Huston LLC., but there are so many millions of people who continue to struggle like my family struggled and we as a country have not done enough.
I have worked hard and had the support of my wonderful grandmother but without charity and the social safety net I would not have been able to achieve my dreams. I needed school lunches, welfare, health benefits, food stamps, Section 8 Housing, subsidized applications for college, financial aid and student loans. No one makes it alone; everyone has help in some way. The lucky among us have families who can provide for their needs but for the less fortunate those things need to be provided by the social safety net and non-profits like Philabundance. The benefits that were given to me and my family were an investment by the taxpayers in my future and I believe that I was a good investment. The question is are we going to continue to invest in our people in a way that allows them to live in dignity and have the opportunity to achieve their own dreams or are we going to continue to make cuts that make it almost impossible for people to achieve a better life.