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Why it’s personal

The difference food assistance can make

I didn’t tell the whole story; I figured I’d keep it simple. When The Recorder’s Richie Davis asked about my plan to sell my cards and other artwork at the Jan. 5 indoor farmers’ market in support of the SNAP program, I said it seemed like a good way to help out. But it turns out that doing the fundraiser at the market brought back memories. Hearing people’s heartfelt stories and gratitude inspired me to tell more of my own story.

SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) gives food stamp recipients access to local produce. The Recorder’s front-page story about my fundraiser appealed to the generous hearts of many Franklin County residents, as evidenced by the turnout. I hope more people will learn about and support SNAP, because it makes a difference for some of our neighbors — not just at mealtimes, but in other aspects of life. I know it’s true, because I remember ...

When my family applied for food stamps due to my father’s serious illness, my mother shopped at the supermarket only at midnight. “This way, I won’t run into anyone we know,” she said with tearful pride. Using food stamps filled her with shame. An immigrant who’d grown up on a farm, my mother knew how to make ends meet, even in tough times, even with seven mouths to feed. But when my father’s illness worsened, leaving him unable to teach and perform music more than a few hours a week, there were fewer dollars coming in; meanwhile, there were plenty of medical bills. My parents had no choice but to ask for help.

For my family, food stamps meant the difference between starvation and survival. If you’ve never been there, please listen to me — it’s not just the hunger that hurts, it’s the pervasive anxiety of wondering where the next meal is coming from. That kind of anxiety saps energy and shakes one’s soul to its very core. If you’ve never been there, you’re lucky. If you have, you know exactly what I mean.

Despite the fact that my father had been sick with cancer for years, we were shocked when he actually died. Somehow, though, we got through that time. Food stamps provided my family with a bridge. People have ways of getting back on their feet, when offered compassion and support. We never wasted time feeling sorry for ourselves. We learned to grow more of our own food; my mother taught us to forage for wild edibles. We joined the local food co-op and bought food in bulk.

My mother continued her intense schedule of working from home, teaching piano lessons and French classes. My brothers and I followed in our parents’ footsteps, taking pride in honest work for decent pay. Slowly, the days of hunger pangs became a memory, like a bad dream finally shaken off.

My mother, now 80, still teaches music and language classes, still gardens and forages, and does regular overnight shifts at the local homeless shelter. French-Canadian through and through, she loves to feed anyone who’s the least bit hungry. But doing those shelter shifts, and sleeping on a cot instead of in her own bed is rough for her. “It’s OK to skip it,” I tell her. “You deserve a comfortable bed, at your age.” But she puts her foot down. “No,” she insists, “as long as there are people without homes, I’ve got to be with them, at least on occasional nights.”

Through my work as a musician and activist, I’ve had the good fortune of meeting outstanding people like Nelson Mandela, Cesar Chavez and Pete Seeger. But my mom will always be my number one hero. She shares the greatest gifts with members of her community who are hungry or homeless: something to eat, a place to get some sleep and encouragement to hope that things can get better. Mom learned the hard way that we don’t have to be ashamed when we are visited by disaster, illness or unemployment. She learned how important it is to admit you need help, realize that you deserve it, and get creative.

With the help of programs like SNAP, our local brothers and sisters can do it, too.

To help SNAP recipients double their dollars when they shop at the farmer’s market, you can visit the Market Manager’s table at the Farmers Market. (The next one is Saturday, Feb. 2 at Greenfield High School, 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.) You may also send a donation c/o P.O. Box 223, Greenfield, MA 01302, with checks made out to “Greenfield Farmers Market” (please put “SNAP” in the memo line).

You can help change the trajectory of a life, or several lives. That is a priceless gift.

Eveline MacDougall is a homeschooling mom, musician, and founder of the Pleasant Street Community Garden in Greenfield.

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