150 State of Hunger: Breaking the stigma of food insecurity with Diane O’Neill
How do you define poverty?
Oxford describes it as “the state of being extremely poor.”
Webster says it’s “the state of one who lacks a usual or socially acceptable amount of money or material possessions.”
While poverty does cover a wide range of material problems related to daily life and survival, it’s also psychologically threatening to those experiencing it because it leads to shame.
When it comes to poverty, shame can take many forms. For instance, being unable to meet your own necessities is often accompanied by a feeling of shame, even more so when it comes to the needs of your children.
Poverty-induced shame can have many negative consequences, including low self-esteem and withdrawal from society, often perpetuating the vicious cycle of poverty even more. Researchers from the University of Oxford concluded that such shame not only hurts but also undermines individual agency, which adds to the negative experience of poverty and its perpetuation. In the worst case, it can lead to depression and self-harm.
Diane O’Neill has written on the subject of poverty-induced shame, particularly as it relates to food insecurity—but not in an academic sense. She didn’t publish a dissertation or a master’s thesis.
She wrote a children’s book. It’s called “Saturday at the Food Pantry.”
It’s about a little girl named Molly and her mom, who pay their first visit to a local food pantry. When they get there, they see one of Molly’s classmates in line, embarrassed that her family needs help.
The book was recently deemed among the Best Picture Books of the year by the Chicago Public Library and won Parents Magazine’s Book of the Month. If children’s literature seems like a surprising place to tackle such a complex issue, perhaps it shouldn’t be.
One reviewer said the book “gently destigmatizes food insecurity without being preachy; soft illustrations show friendly shoppers and workers, making the pantry look like a welcoming place.”
Diane, who lives in Chicago, has worked in the field of disability rights and services for most of her professional life. She remembers going to a food pantry as a child. She wrote “Saturday at the Food Pantry,” in part, to eradicate the stigma and change the way in which people judge and relate to people in need.
Today, we’re talking to Diane about the inspiration behind her book, what she remembers about the first time she stepped foot in a food pantry, and how destigmatizing poverty can help create more empathetic humans—regardless of age.
Because as she writes in her book, “Everybody needs a little help sometimes.”
Show highlights include:
- When Diane O’Neill got the idea to write “Saturday at the Food Pantry.”
- Why she chose to make Molly the main character.
- What she remembers from her visit to a food pantry as a child, and how much of it is present in the book.
- When O’Neill realized and experienced the stigma associated with food insecurity.
- How poverty-induced shame can impact self esteem.
- How parents have responded to “Saturday at the Food Pantry.”
- How and why O’Neill educated her son about food insecurity.
- Why it’s important to reserve judgment surrounding food assistance, and how you can lead with kindness.
Listen and subscribe to the Do Gooders Podcast now. Below is a transcript of the episode, edited for readability. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, see the links at the bottom of this post.
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Christin Thieme: Diane, welcome to The Do Gooders Podcast. Thank you so much for joining me today.
Diane O’Neill: Thanks for inviting me.
Christin Thieme: Can you tell us a little bit about who you are?
Diane O’Neill: Okay. I’m a Chicago writer. I’ve spent most of my professional life working in the field of disability rights and services. I’ve been writing since I was 9 years old. I fell in love with books when I was 8. And I recently had my first book published a couple of years ago. And I have another one coming out next year. So, it’s kind of exciting.
Christin Thieme: That first book is what we are really here to talk about today. When did you first get the idea to write this book that you titled, “Saturday at the Food Pantry”?
Diane O’Neill: Well, actually I was asked to write the book in the beginning of 2020. I wrote, and actually my title was Molly’s Gift. They changed it to Saturday at the Food Pantry, which I love. I love the title of it. I nicknamed the book and call it Molly because—I’m so used to think of it. Molly’s here. Molly’s at that store, so anyway. But in December 2019, I read a letter to the editor in the newspaper, in the Chicago Sun-Times that kind of upset me. It was somebody complaining about what he saw people on the SNAP card buying. He saw him buying energy drinks and coffee. And he was saying, “They should be buying fruits and vegetables for their families. I used to be on SNAP. I was very careful.” And it kind of angered me because, not anger, kind of hurt too, both, because I grew up on food stamps. My mother was sick. She couldn’t work, and so we were on food stamps. And I was a child. That’s just how it was. And I remember hearing people complain about that in high school, like my classmates, and that was very painful. So that book triggered a lot of memories.
So I wrote my own letter to the editor, and a lot of people liked it. And I happened to be taking a class, so I expanded the letter into an essay. And people liked that. And I thought, well, why don’t I try to submit it as an op-ed, which I did. And it got published. And I bragged about it on this listserv that belongs to the SCBWI, the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. And I bragged about it and put a link. And a children’s book editor, Andrea Hall, who was at Whitman at the time, read it and she liked that. And she asked if I had any picture book ideas on food insecurity. No. I had written about stigma and food insecurity and had that published for adults, but I never really had thought about writing about that for children at all.
And I was very close to saying, “I’m so sorry, I hope you another writer.” Luckily, something in me kicked me, “Wait a second, you don’t get emails from editors every day asking if you have ideas.” I kind of searched my memory and I got the idea. I remember when I was a kid eating chili, so much, my mother made it and made it. And now in adult years, I look back, I’m like, well, it probably didn’t cost that much to make and it was nutritious. So of course, we ate it all the time. So I was imagining, okay, what if the chili pot is empty, and the kid has to go with mom to a food pantry?
So I pitched that idea to Andrea, and she liked it. So I wrote the story, and we went back and forth. And then she brought it to acquisitions and they said yes. And this was in a very short period of time because I was at the kitchen table reading that letter to the editor in December 2019. I signed the contract in May 2020. That does not happen in publishing. To back it up though, I have three boxes of submission correspondence, most of which is rejection. So I have paid my dues. I’ve been published before, so yes, it was luck, but …
Christin Thieme: You were ready. It’s interesting because there’s a number of children’s books that address poverty in one way or another, but most of them don’t place the main character at the center of the story. So why was it important for you that Molly, the main character of your book, was a child who went to bed hungry?
Diane O’Neill: I guess I never thought of writing it the other way because, actually, back then benefits were a lot better. For me, it was more not having nutritious food or whatever, so I didn’t go to bed hungry. I was very lucky in that. I think kids have it a lot worse now because the benefits have not increased with cost of living. I think it’s much harder to be a poor kid now. But as far as the experience of needing help and the stigma and being kind of different, that was my experience. So I kind of never thought of it as writing any other way.
I guess also, I do like the idea of the kid who needs help being at the center of a story. Because so often people who are poor are other. They’re the poor. It’s like they’re this monolithic group, when it might be somebody who lives next door to you or someone down the block and you don’t even know what they’re struggling. You don’t even know because people don’t talk about it. I remember when I was on the free lunch thing for a little while, I remember I pulled out my yellow ticket. I was a very naive kid. I was a bookworm who read a lot of old-fashioned books that really didn’t stigmatize poverty that much. And so a classmate saw, “Oh, I’m in that group and I won’t tell.” I’m like, “Oh, okay. So I need to be hiding this.” So you don’t know which classmates might also be having difficulties at home. You don’t know.
Christin Thieme: And like you said, hunger affects anyone and everyone. There are no prerequisites for it. So, it’s so true to remember that it could be somebody right next door to you that’s experiencing food insecurity. Your own experience you’ve been open about and the fact that you received these public benefits. You visited a food pantry at one point. What do you remember about the first time that you stepped foot into a food pantry, and how much of that shows up in your book?
Diane O’Neill: We only went one time to the food pantry. We spent years on food stamps, so that’s more integral. But I do remember the food pantry experience. And what I remember most is, just like in the book, I saw this shelf of desserts that looked so delicious, like fruit things and whipped cream. And I remember running to it. I was 9, 10, I forget how old I was. And my mother saying, “No, no, they want us to get healthy stuff or sensible stuff.” And I’m like, “Oh, okay.” And I don’t know if I even believed her because my mother tended to look at the world a little bit negatively. I thought maybe she was wrong. In later years, yeah, she probably was right because there is this stigma. So that was the biggest thing. And so I put that in the book.
Christin Thieme: With your own experience, you said that you came to realize that other people regarded that receiving benefits is something to feel shame about. Like you said that boy that said, “Well, I won’t tell anyone.” Was there a particular moment that you had that realization that people around you had this view of food insecurity, of poverty? What happened in your life that you realized, oh, this is something people don’t like?
Diane O’Neill: The real big moment was when I was in high school. I was in U.S. History class as a junior, and the teacher had a current events day or whatever. And for some reason, food stamps was the topic. And so all my classmates, they let loose. They were talking about how their mothers would look in the carts of people using food stamps and they would look at what they were buying. And if they were buying sweet rolls, they would complain. And I was just sitting in there, and I never talked about being on food stamps to my peers. I don’t know if the teacher suspected or not. But I just wanted to disappear. And one girl who worked part-time at a Jewel said, “Well, I just think they should be more humble.” And to hear one of your peers think that somebody in your category should be humble is not a pleasant thing as a teenager.
And I remember walking out of that classroom very shaken. I kept wondering what other kids would think of me if they knew. It made going to buy groceries, because sometimes I was the one going, not my mother. And that became much more painful because I was much more cognizant of the stigma and what the cashier might be thinking and what people in line might be thinking. And back then, it was hard too because you had to pull out this green card first and then the stamps. And you had to tell them before you started shopping. And if you’re kind of shy like me and you don’t say in a loud voice and they ring it up wrong, then they start yelling at you and they have to ring it again, which makes everybody in the line behind you mad at you more than they were to begin with. Yeah, that was probably the biggest memory of just being aware of how people felt.
Christin Thieme: Yeah, absolutely. That had to be so hard. Given that experience and writing this book and just knowing that people still do receive this assistance in order to not be hungry, what are some ways that you think that poverty induced shame, really that feeling, how do you think that impacts kids, their self-esteem and their outlook on life?
Diane O’Neill: Well, I think it’s similar to bullying. They’ve done a lot of studies that if you’re bullied when you’re a kid, it never leaves you. I think it’s a similar kind of thing, you know, where I don’t think it leaves you. I remember reading a study a few years ago that I thought was interesting that your facial expression, structure, whatever, people can look at you and know if you’re poor or rich. Forget what you’re wearing, forget anything. If somebody looks at somebody with a neutral face, not smiling, not frowning, and just a face, they can tell if somebody’s rich or poor. And I kind of wonder if a lot of that isn’t even just the deprivation, but knowing how people look at it. And I think too, sometimes people put fronts on.
It was funny because after my book, somebody said something I felt kind of unkind about how, oh, people at my school, they say they’re gaming the system. And my son, who’s a social worker said, “Sometimes people say that because they really are ashamed. So they’re putting on a front to veer it off. But they still are feeling embarrassed.” They’re not feeling great about it. I don’t think anybody wants to be on benefits. People want to work. In my life, every time I’ve seen an ad for some kind of minimum wage job go up, the lines go way around the block. It’s a last resort.
Christin Thieme: What about after your book has been published? What have you heard from parents maybe who have read it to their children? Has it helped to promote a conversation in some way on this topic?
Diane O’Neill: From what I’ve heard from some parents or I’ve heard through the grapevine, one person told me another parent said, a lot of kids when they read it, the first impulse is let’s go help out at a food pantry or let’s donate stuff here. Take my allowance. They really want to help Molly. And some food pantries have been using it to raise funds, which just makes me really happy. This food pantry in Rhode Island, they’ve had this thing where if somebody gives them a certain donation that they can have my book put in the library of their choice. They’re raising money and they’re promoting the book against stigma at the same time, which makes me really happy. So lot of nice stuff. I did another interview with another food pantry again. Ahd the food pantries are using it to raise funds, and also I think some are keeping it on hand for any kids who come in there.
That makes me really feel happy because when I think of the book, I really wrote it for Molly and Caitlin. That’s who I was thinking of when I was writing it. I want them to feel okay.
Christin Thieme: And you know, we haven’t given everybody a breakdown of actually the storyline of the book. Can you tell us a little bit about what happens for anybody who hasn’t yet read it?
Diane O’Neill: Oh, sure. What happens is they start out, Molly’s saying, “Oh, chili again?” She’s not being a brat. You can tell she’s had it a lot. And mom says, “Yeah, but we have fancy milk too,” and that actually, I stole from what I used to give my son. He didn’t like chocolate milk soy. They didn’t have strawberry all the time, so I made this concoction of fancy milk. Anyway, so she’s happy. But then at the end, she’s looking, the mother’s seeing there’s not much milk in the refrigerator and the chili bowl is pretty much empty. She says, “We’re going to go to a food pantry tomorrow.” And Molly asks her, “What’s that?” And she explains what it is.
And the next day they go and they stand in line. And for a while, they’re standing in line, Molly’s drawing pictures. And she sees a classmate in line and she runs up to, she yells, “Hey, Caitlin. Hi.” And she runs up like, “Didn’t you hear me talk?” She says, “I don’t want anyone to know that Grant and I need help.” And so Molly goes back to her mom saying, and she’s feeling really weird. She’s like, “Is it not okay to need help? Is there something wrong with getting help?” And mom sees it, she’s upset. Like, “Are you okay? Why don’t you draw? That’ll make you feel better.” And the people, one person in line, “Ooh, an artist, will you draw me a picture? So she ends up drawing pictures for everybody standing in the line.
And when they go in there, she runs to Caitlin, “Hey, everybody wants pictures. I can’t draw this fast.” So Caitlyn starts helping her. Anyway, when they go in, they give some artwork to the people in charge of the pantry. And they’re like, “Oh wow, this is great.” And Molly’s mom goes up to the desk and she has to sign in. And Molly’s thinking, “Mom doesn’t need to sign in when she goes to the grocery store.” But the man is real friendly. Oh, lots of good food today. Get some good stuff. So they go in there, but Molly knows that mom is smiling, but not the way she smiles when they go to the park. And Molly runs, like I did when I was little, she runs and she sees some cookies. And mom says, “No, they’ll want us to get sensible stuff.” And Molly’s kind like, “Okay,” and it kind of saddens her and she puts it back. And she’s wondering, “Well, why do they have them if they don’t want to take them? And the man seemed nice. They wouldn’t want her to have cookies.” So she’s thinking all that.
And then she notices mom saying, “Come help me get some stuff.” And she sees mom looking like she wants to be invisible, just like Caitlyn did. And this, to me, is the big moment because Molly thinks to herself, “Wait a second, they’re not doing anything wrong.” And she goes and she repeats something that her mom had said to her earlier, “Everybody needs help sometime, remember.” And mom kind of smiles and she kind of shakes out of it. So they get stuff. And at the end when they go up to the counter, the pictures are up by the desk. And the man actually says to Molly, “You cheered me up. I was in a bad mood today. Your artwork cheered me up.” And then the man says to Molly’s Mom, “I saw your girl looking at the cookie. She can have them, if that’s okay with you.” And so mom almost looks like she wants to cry, but she says, “Thank you.” And so they leave and they walk out.
And this time Molly and Caitlin say, “Hey, Molly,” they see each other out and they walk home. And they’re saying, “Oh, we didn’t know they were neighbors.” And Molly says, “Oh, we’ve got a lot of good stuff. Did you?” And Caitlin says, “Yeah, I so wish we didn’t have to go there.” And Molly repeats, “But everybody needs help sometime. And we helped too, didn’t we? We cheered people up.” And so, Molly says, “Hey, I have a great idea. Let’s all have lunch together. And so they go, and I have dessert for us too. Look, I got cookies for all of us. And so the story ends with, yes, and they did. They all eat them. And the last picture is them all eating lunch together.
Christin Thieme: I love that everybody needs help sometimes, but I love that you also worked in that we all can give help in our own ways. Drawing the pictures was their way of helping in that specific moment exactly how they could where they were. That’s really the ethos of everything that we do here at the podcast and the magazine and the Salvation Army is helping in whatever way that you can right where you are. So I love the story. It’s so beautiful. And I think how you went about it and in the children’s format, I just love. It’s great.
Diane O’Neill: Thank you. And I love the artwork by Brizida Margo. That was so amazing. I don’t know if you know how writers, illustrators work together. They don’t work together. Basically they get your words, they’re off there. You have no contact with them. They don’t have contact with you. And they use their imaginations. So to me, they’re magicians. I think at one point I got to give feedback at one time, which I don’t even know it was regular. So I did give a little feedback on one drawing. I was asking if one expression could be different, but that was it. Of course, now we’re in contact and I’m always letting her know if Molly’s doing well and it’s nice to be in contact. I really appreciate her artwork. She brought what was in my head to life, and I’m so appreciative because it’s our book. It’s her book and my book.
Christin Thieme: Yeah, they go together so well. So you had this experience as a child, which obviously stayed with you, clearly. How could it not? As you became an adult and became a mother yourself, what type of conversations did you have with your child as he was growing up about the subject of food insecurity?
Diane O’Neill: I’m not sure. I’m sure I told him about my childhood and stuff. And we were lucky. We were never food insecure, although I worked in social service jobs, which don’t pay a lot of money. So we were a lot times paycheck to paycheck, but he was always well-fed and all that. But I think I probably talked a lot about social justice to him just because that’s a core of my worldview. And he’s now a social worker. I guess some of it got into him.
Christin Thieme: Absolutely. Well, what would be your pitch, for lack of a better word, to a child who is growing up and going to school and might not know that their friends are receiving assistance or need help in some way? What would you say to a kid in high school, let’s say, if you could talk to those kids from your class, what would you say to them?
Diane O’Neill: Also, the teacher tried to say to them. At the end, she said she was kind of surprised about her idealistic honors class. And she asked, “Don’t you think that some people have problems? Maybe you don’t know about some of those.” They just shook it off. But I guess I would emphasize, again, you don’t know what’s going on in somebody else’s home. You know, when you’re talking bad about somebody getting benefits, realize the person next to you might be getting benefits or it might happen to you. I think there’s a huge proportion of people living paycheck to paycheck that are this close to needing benefits or being homeless. It could happen to any, and I think 2020 showed us, the pandemic showed us that a lot. But I guess I would say just be kind and don’t make assumptions because.
I know one of the things people complain about what people bought say, “Oh, that’s too rich.” Well, one thing I think too, when my grandmother was older, she was on food stamps because she had a really meager social security check because she worked as a maid. But once she would buy luxuries to begin with, at the beginning of the month. She wanted her herring. End of the month, she had barely bread and milk. But she chose that way. She needed some of those luxuries at the beginning. She wanted a taste of something that was good. Just because somebody’s treating themselves doesn’t mean they’re doing it 25 hours a day and it doesn’t mean they have a lot in the bank. And if you see a classmate in a nice coat, that coat might even be from an aunt who does have money. That doesn’t mean they have food in the fridge. So I guess just kind of be kind and don’t make assumptions. I guess that’s a message for all of us.
Christin Thieme: Like you said, we don’t know what somebody’s going through. Obviously decreasing the shame around food insecurity, just generally speaking, often starts with decreasing the stigma around it. That’s kind of a lot of what we’ve been talking about. Are there any tangible steps that you would leave people with that would help reserve that judgment like we’ve been talking about of anybody who might be facing food insecurity? How can we better lead with kindness basically?
Diane O’Neill: I guess just try to imagine what the other person is going through and be aware of how much you don’t know. If somebody is saying something that sounds like they’re gaming the system, that they’re really deep down embarrassed, probably, there’s a good chance they are. And I remember years ago when I was a kid reading a book about this opera singer, Jenny Lind, she was a really famous opera singer in the 1800s, and she was always giving to people, people who were poor, people who asked for help. And she would say that people would criticize her, say, “Oh, Jenny, that person’s going to waste the money. Or that person,” da, da, da, “that person.” And she would say, “I’d rather give it to one person who needs it and forget about the other 99.” And I always thought that was a good way to live.
Christin Thieme: Everybody needs a little help sometimes.
Diane O’Neill: Yeah.
Christin Thieme: Well, thank you so much. Diane O’Neill, Saturday at the Food Pantry. Make sure that you get a copy of this book. We love it so much that we want to do a little giveaway of the book. If you are listening to this live as the podcast has just come out, then head over to our Instagram, @CaringMagazine, and you can get the details there for how you can get into that opportunity to win a copy of Saturday at the Food Pantry. But otherwise, find Diane’s book, read it, enjoy it, and look for those little ways that you can help too, because like she said, everybody needs a little help sometimes. So Diane, thank you so much.
Diane O’Neill: Thanks for having me. Thank you.
- Read “Saturday at The Food Pantry,” a story about food insecurity by Diane O’Neill.
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