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News | Economy | Hunger In Oregon: Then And Now

The Pride Of Self Sufficiency Meets The Reality Of Empty Cupboards

Tyra Lynn loves to cook, and makes most of her meals from scratch. Even in her sister Constance Lee's kitchen, she's in charge.

Tyra Lynn loves to cook, and makes most of her meals from scratch. Even in her sister Constance Lee’s kitchen, she’s in charge.

Amanda Peacher/OPB

Tyra Lynn is rolling pie dough at her sister’s, Constance Lee, home in Mountain Home, Idaho. “We’re going to need more flour,” Lynn tells Lee. “I’ve got barely enough flour and I’ve only made one pie crust.”

She’s visiting from Portland for Thanksgiving, and she’s taking charge of her sister’s kitchen.  

“It’s very typical of Tyra,” says Lee. “She gets in the groove of things and doesn’t let anyone help.” Lee is Lynn’s younger sister.  The two are a decade apart in age, but very close.

“We talk almost everyday on the phone,”  Lynn says. “Most of what we talk about is how we had to do this or that to get what we needed. Just the extremes that you have to go to.”

Lynn featured in a recent OPB story about her experience with food stamps, now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP, which she has used on and off for more than a decade. Lee has a different take on accepting SNAP.

Both sisters are working, but low-income, and they support each other however they can. At 16, Lee lived in Portland with her sister. This year when Lynn’s 12-year-old son Marley struggled with school, Lee moved him to Idaho to live with her.

And over the years Lynn has been a role model and teacher to her younger sister.  

But there’s one thing Lee didn’t pick up from her sister. Lynn gets SNAP benefits, but Lee doesn’t, even though she’d probably qualify on her income.   

“I have a weird emotional conflict with  state assistance,” Lee says.

Growing up, their family relied on disability and food stamps.  Their mom had an eye disease that caused gradual blindness.

“I remember the actual paper food stamps,” Lee says. “I remember being so embarrassed to use it. I never wanted to be seen with the food stamp card.”

Tyra Lynn and Constance Lee are close as sisters, despite their decade in age difference.

Tyra Lynn and Constance Lee are close as sisters, despite their decade in age difference.

Amanda Peacher /OPB

The oldest of five kids, Lynn grew up watching her mom scrimp for their family. Lynn has no qualms about using SNAP now. Her income has almost always been below the poverty line. She recently told her 19-year-old son River that he should apply for benefits. He assumed he wouldn’t qualify because he was working part-time. 

“Go apply,” Lynn told him. “The worse thing they could say is no. It could be just $50 in food stamps, you can’t just let that go by.”

Lynn has told her sister the same thing. But Lee resists the idea.

As a young adult, when Lee started earning enough to be self-sufficient, it was a big triumph.

“I didn’t have food stamps! You know how incredible that was?” she asks. “I didn’t need it, I wasn’t going to get it.  And it was great.”

But circumstances are different now. She works nights and her husband works days, so they don’t have to pay for child care. They’re both full-time. But it’s hard to meet expenses for their five-person household on about $2,500 a month:  “I just did bills yesterday. I got paid yesterday. After bills are paid I have $162 for the next ten days.”

With a family to feed, her resistance to being on SNAP is softening. She’s aware of what it could mean for her kids:
“If that means not having to limit — they’re three boys for crying out loud — not having to limit what they can have for after-school snacks. It’s worth, it you know. I’m not too proud. Hunger will take your pride away real quick.”

She continues, “I think I just wanted so bad to not need it. I remember how good it felt to not need it. I just wanted so bad to not need it, you know.”

By the end of that day, Lee had changed her mind. She says she’ll follow her sister’s lead and apply for SNAP after the first of the year.

Amanda Peacher is a 2014 Equal Voice Journalism Fellow. This story was produced with support from the Marguerite Casey Foundation’s Equal Voice Journalism Fellowship and the Journalism Center on Children & Families.