The Photo Project: Reframing Food

Steve Jenks

February 2, 2018

Growing up, my family’s relationship with food usually centered on affordability, time to prepare, and whether we could eat it multiple ways. It was not always nutritious, or included a vegetable – but we always had food. Most of the time we shopped at Save-A-Lot, which was walking distance from our house and generally the best bargain you could find. We would load up the cart with frozen pizzas, potatoes, sandwich materials, and some forms of snack foods.

Tuesday nights were always a highlight, because the local Ryan’s buffet let kids eat for 99 cents with an adult meal, which was both cheap and meant Mom did not have to cook that night. Of course that meant I was trained to say I was 10 for about 3 years longer than I should have to make sure we took advantage of the deal. At my dad’s I remember Hamburger Helper (which you could make a sandwich out of), bologna sandwiches, tuna fish, and on special occasions we would order from Pizza Hut. Other treats included Happy Meals from McDonalds (they used to be really cheap, believe it or not) and the free popcorn at the local video rental place. I did not feel like I was missing anything because that was my normal. Once I started going to school, I slowly became aware of my class in relation to my peers, and navigated the process of class “passing” by paying my reduced meals in the morning before school so no one would ask about it and feigning disinterest in the hot fads of the moment.

When I got to college, I often gravitated to the foods that brought me comfort and that I knew I liked. Now that I am an adult, I try to make healthier food choices, but there are subtle judgements from peers and community that my upbringing was “gross” or “less than.” I like to shop at the cheaper grocery store because I need to save money, but often the stores that I buy groceries from are referred to in negative ways compared to the local “hot spot” for groceries. When walking down the aisles with my partner, he cringes when I mention Hamburger Helper, bologna sandwiches, or making “nachos” from saltines and Velveeta cheese. Individually wrapped slices of cheese might as well be plastic pouches of spit to him. But to me, that’s food. That’s what I grew up with, because it was what we could afford, and something a young child could prepare safely. It is something that brings both an immense sense of comfort and isolation. Many times that isolation comes from those who I consider a part of my support community; including those within the profession.

As a professional, I encounter students all the time who remind me of my own experiences, or often worse. I sometimes have students say they have not eaten yet when I am meeting with them, and so I offer them something from my drawer of “oops, didn’t wake up early enough for breakfast.” Much of the food in this drawer resembles the comfort food from my childhood: instant oatmeal, Poptarts, a box of off-brand granola bars. Healthy shelf-stable options are hard to come by, but the students appreciate the offer all the same. With a snack to help with focus, we move forward with business as though everything is fine. But student hunger is a real challenge on our campus – on all of our campuses. There are other subtle ways class shows up: the student who is stressed that he doesn’t have dress shoes for the job fair, the uncomfortable face on a student while their peers are discussing glamorous spring break plans, the student eating a bologna sandwich in the campus food square with their peers. I’ve been that student. In many ways, I am still that student.

Steve Jenks is an educator, consultant, and artisan. He currently serves as an admission counselor with focuses on college access and affordability, and volunteers his time with the Socioeconomic and Class Issues in Higher Education Knowledge Community, the New York Association for College Admission Counseling, and Iota Phi Theta Fraternity, Inc. Originally from the rural central Gulf coast of Florida, Steve is a first generation college student to masters (and one day PhD), and hopes to help shape pathways for others to do the same. In his free time, Steve is a calligrapher, puzzle solver, essential oil enthusiast, and curator of mailed tactile fiction experiences.

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