The youth-written stories in Represent give inspiration and information to teens in foster care while offering staff insight into those teens’ struggles.

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My 'Hood Is Bad for My Health

Every afternoon my abuela (grandmother) walks down the squeaky steps leading to our kitchen. When she hops into that apron, I know it’s my cue to run for cover.

Making up her own recipes is how my abuela relieves her stress. She puts all her worries behind her when she takes on her mission: What’s for dinner?

With a dash of this and a sprinkle of that her creations are ready. I admit that my abuela performs miracles. She stretches her budget by mixing leftovers with fresh foods, is obsessed with cooking pork in every meal, adds plenty of grease and oil—and people savor every last taste. I think it’s disgusting.

My abuela is always talking about how to save a dollar. She’s collected a huge stack of rusty, beat-up cans of food from the church pantry. She also frequents the tons of 99¢ stores that have opened in my neighborhood. My grandmother brings home 99¢ juice, sodas and junk foods that taste like complete crap and have no nutritional value.

I get angry and frustrated with this woman. Why is she so hard headed? She talks about saving a dollar, but if we have enough money for Direct TV and all the HBO channels she orders, I think we can afford some healthier, fresher food, instead of eating like it’s hard times.

But if I complain to my abuela, she looks at me with disappointment and says, “Well, you don’t know what it is to not have. It’s called survival.”

Like many people in my neighborhood, my abuela comes from a really poor background. Putting food on the table was an everyday struggle in her family. Every bit of food was considered a blessing.

Moving to the U.S. from Panama has been a big transition for her. Every day she sees food going to waste, while people in poor countries are starving. I understand my grandmother’s attitude, but at times she acts as if we’re standing directly on the poverty line, when I know that we could spend our money on food if we saved it somewhere else.

I think what we put in our bodies should be one of my family’s biggest concerns. I began feeling conscious of how I eat last spring, when I started noticing how depressed and moody I was.

A friend told me that “You are what you eat” is not just a saying, but that what you eat really can affect your performance in everyday life. If you’re eating a lot of sugary foods, your mood can swing wildly, or if you’re eating too much you can feel drowsy and bored.

At that time, my face was breaking out and my stomach was never agreeing with me. I would wake up nauseous, and get severe headaches that left me looking like an insane witch by the end of the day. I know what’s healthy and what isn’t, but I was constantly eating junk at fast food restaurants or running to the corner store for a pint of Haagen Dazs every time I felt depressed.

Over the summer, I joined a nutrition workshop. When I began reading the nutritional facts on the back of cartons, I started thinking about the vitamins, fat and protein that each food has to offer. I stopped going to the corner store for candy every time I had spare change.

Then we got to buy a week’s worth of healthy food. I took my healthy week seriously. I drank tons more water and ate more veggies. I started using substitutes for sugar, like honey and fruits. Whenever I had an urgent craving for a sweet, crispy, layered cheese danish, I settled for a granola bar or a tall glass of vanilla soy milk.

My first time drinking soy milk was not easy. When I tasted it, I immediately spat it out. But because I felt it was a step toward improving my health, I began to drink a glass each day. My taste buds adapted. The more I drank it, the better it began to taste.

image by Amir Soliman

Now I’m a soy fan. Every time my abuela goes to the supermarket, I beg her to buy me soy milk. Sometimes she’ll refuse and say it’s too expensive. So I put aside money to buy my soy milk every week.

Though healthy eating took an adjustment, I was feeling great! No more of that oily feeling I would get when I ate greasy foods. After an icy glass of soy milk, I felt like I could take on the world.

I also began taking nature walks around a big park, enjoying Earth’s green kingdom. It felt good to take care of myself. I loved thinking about healthy foods nourishing every inch of me. I felt like I was doing myself a favor, so I vowed to continue to eat healthier.

But eating healthy in my neighborhood—Brownsville—is a challenge. My neighborhood is grim, with worn down and torn looking houses and projects surrounded by nothing but fast food restaurants, Chinese take-outs and fried chicken spots filled with miserable obese people.

Sure the food is cheap. There’s a bargain everywhere you go. But you’re only getting what you pay for—unhealthy processed and fried food. The Kennedy Fried Chicken place even gives out free sodas with every meal. Why can’t they give out bottled water or juice for a change?

I know why people eat in those places. If you’re looking for a meal that fills you up for cheap, you can go to Wendy’s and buy up the dollar menu—the more the merrier—or eat at the Chinese restaurants. You can buy only junk if you’re hungry without much in your wallet.

As much as I want to stay healthy, I hate having to stretch $5
to buy a meal. Sometimes I buy an Ensure and a banana nut muffin, or a veggie slice from the pizza store, and find myself hungry in an hour.

I’m proud of myself for trying to eat healthy despite my budget. But my abuela has been quite upset with my new diet. She feels my new way of eating healthy is a cry of hunger, because I’ve lost a little weight. She looks at me and says, “Pauline, why is your face so pale? You look so skinny! The only piece of fat you got there is that little bump called a behind.”

Not so thrilled with the comment, I leave the room as she laughs up a storm. My grandma defines healthy people as those with meat, and glowing skin and hair. In her eyes, I’m bony and making a fool out of myself by not eating the food she serves. Food is food. There is no such thing as bad or good. You eat when you have and starve when you don’t.

For now, my abuela laughs and figures I’ll learn. But I long for the fresh taste of organic fruit on my tongue. Opening my refrigerator brings me back to the cold taste of reality: Bread full of mold, a pack of nearly rotten sausages, microwave dinners, and of bunch of God knows what decaying in a plastic container for who knows how long.

Eyes see, brain picks up data, stomach growls in response. With that I go to bed, another night of an unsatisfied stomach. I lie in bed wishing it would all go away: Poverty, my neighborhood, my grandmother’s cooking, my headache.

Maybe I’m ungrateful or stubborn. (Why can’t I just give in and eat unhealthy food like everyone else does? Hey, at least there’s more on your plate.) But my anger bursts like a cannon scattering balls of depression. Why is my neighborhood such a threat to our health? Why are healthy foods out of reach of the poor? We all know people who are suffering because of their eating habits—they’re dealing with diabetes, high cholesterol, or hypertension.

As darkness falls, my stomach’s growling leads my mind through twists and turns. “You’re hungry,” I tell myself. “Get something to eat. That’s better than no food at all.”

Finally I scurry down to our kitchen, ignoring the tall tower of dishes in the sink and the mountains of crumbs and the stains splattered about the kitchen counter. Opening the refrigerator door, a silhouette gleaming in the light catches my eye. It’s a box of soy milk. Abuela must have bought it for me!

I pick it up with relief and remember the discussion I had with my abuela days ago about my newfound love of soy. Usually our discussions end with the “I’m the adult and you’re the child” theme, but to my surprise, she listened for a change.

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