“One of the worst fears a parent can have is being unable to feed her children. And forget about healthy foods! I just want to make sure they had something in their bellies.”
Joy Rockenbach is the state’s Obesity Prevention Coordinator. But 25 years ago, the only thing she wanted to prevent was hunger in her own children.
Here’s her story:
When I was 33 years old, I was divorced, raising two boys—ages 11 and 4 – and in my second year of college, which was definitely an old age for college at that time. Some friends who were also single parents helped me negotiate the pitfalls and barriers when searching for subsidized housing, doctors who would wait for payment and drugstores that would let you buy on credit. But nobody could have prepared me for the food stamp office.
It was very humiliating to me to walk into that office with my proverbial hat in my hand. I felt like I had a sign around my neck that either said INADEQUATE MOTHER or CAN’T FEED HER KIDS.
Whether or not my kids were eating healthy foods was so far down on my Worry Scale back then. I even gave them a food stamp as their weekly allowance! So each Friday afternoon we went to our local grocery store and they got to “spend their allowances” on cereal, candy, soda—whatever they wanted. That night, the three of us would have a picnic in front of the television set, with sliced Vienna Sausages on crackers, grapes on toothpicks, and whatever treats they’d chosen for themselves.
Because my job outside of school was cleaning houses, my income was inconsistent. So I had to report to the food stamp office once a month with all my paperwork in tow, along with my sons. I would pack books and colors to keep them occupied because you just took a number and waited. This also meant I had to skip my classes for an entire day. All my instructors knew where I was because when it comes to ensuring that your kids have food, you forget about pride.
I was really pretty lucky because I ended up with a kind and respectful case worker. One time while I was in her office I started crying, and her response sustained me over time.
She said, “You have worked since you were 15 years old and paid into this system. You will soon get a college degree and you will be able to again pay into the system and take care of your family without our help. Let us help you now.”
I believe this woman was a prophet. I did go on to graduate with a degree in health education, and for nearly 25 years I’ve been in a position to help people lead healthier lives. These days, ironically, I work in obesity prevention, so I understand how closely hunger and obesity are tied together.
And I’ve had the chance to travel throughout the United States, Canada and Great Britain to talk about our work to end obesity in Arkansas.
But my favorite thing to do is work with people in their community, listening to them talk about their dreams for having a better life; showing them how they can help build a more walkable neighborhood and start a community garden; sharing recipes with a mom or eating a piece of fruit that was picked by a kid at school.
Do I look back on my experience with hunger with regret, anger, or shame? No, indeed I do not! I believe it was part of the plan that’s made me a better health educator – and, just maybe, a better human being.
Note: The photo of Joy was taken at a fruit stand in Rome. "I sent this picture to our mayor," Joy said, "and told him I could imagine this in downtown Little Rock! Not bad for a gal who raised kids on food stamps!"