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It takes creativity — and love: Grandparents persevere to feed their families

Linda Lewis is raising two 9-year-old great-grandkids in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. And Eugene Vickerson in Hawkinsville, Georgia has raised his grandson and granddaughter, who are both out of the house now. (Courtesy of Linda Lewis and Eugene Vickerson)
Linda Lewis is raising two 9-year-old great-grandkids in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. And Eugene Vickerson in Hawkinsville, Georgia has raised his grandson and granddaughter, who are both out of the house now. (Courtesy of Linda Lewis and Eugene Vickerson)

About 3 million kids in America are being raised by their grandparents.

These grandfamilies, as they’re called, face food insecurity at twice the national rate, according to a report out in November by the nonprofit Generations United. The families struggle even more if they live in rural areas because food sources are further away and transportation is hard to access.

Grandparent guardians who identify as Black, Native American and Latino often have inadequate support to address the challenges of raising grandchildren due to years of systemic racism.

We know hunger can have a huge impact on a child’s well-being now and later in life, and there are several public interventions that can work as solutions for a child.

Linda Lewis is raising two 9-year-old great-grandkids in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. And Eugene Vickerson in Hawkinsville, Georgia has raised his grandson and granddaughter. They’re both out of the house. Now, he’s sharing his life lessons and advocating for other grandfamilies.

Donna Butts, executive director of Generations United, says grandparents like Lewis and Vickerson who step up to raise children when parents can’t don’t get support that other individuals may get because grandparents are more likely to not be in a formal foster care system.

“Any supports that they might get there aren’t available to them,” she says. “Often times, also, they don’t know what’s available for them or they don’t see that the service is reflective of their families. And then there also are barriers where they’re not able to access, where they’re not eligible. And what we need to realize is that they are families and we need to be supporting them.”

Butts says there are a number of things that can be done differently to make it easier for these families to be successful.

One would be changing the calculations for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which is known as SNAP or sometimes called food stamps. Right now, SNAP is based on household income.

“So if the grandparent was careful about saving for retirement, that then gets counted against them because [SNAP looks] at the household income. We should base that support on the child only,” Butt says.

During her team’s research on food insecurity, Butts says she found the rate of need for joint meal program support startling.

“During the pandemic, we had grandparents that would take a child to pick up a meal for the child, but they couldn’t get one for themselves. We had programs that would deliver meals to older adults, but not a meal for the child that was standing beside them in their living room,” she says. “We need to realize that a family is a family and we should be able to feed them and support them as a family and not as separate individuals.”

As advocates push for progress on solutions, many grandparents balancing the challenges and joys of this role will continue to do what they’ve always done as they raised generations of children: the best they can with what they have.

Interview Highlights

On support from state and federal agencies

Linda Lewis: “I get medical and then we have a program here for aging grandparents, and I get a stipend once a month where somebody can keep them and they’ll pay them $100 to keep them if it’s one day or two days, however, so I can get a break. So that helps a lot. I get a few food stamps.

“Not nothing to brag about, but we have a lot of churches right around here that [have] food pantries … I would go to the food pantries and pile up on my canned goods. And then the food stamps that I got, I could get meat. Now, [my kids] may not have what they wanted to eat, but the Lord has always provided to put something in this house for us to eat. Since I’ve lived here, I’ve never had [any] utilities go off. And I tell you, many days I prayed and cried and I’m thankful what little bit [of] help I could get from anybody.”

On getting by with limited resources 

Eugene Vickerson: “My experience was a little bit different because I’m a vegetarian and so I don’t serve meat in my family. Now, what I was able to do was start a garden. And so that made my personal experience a little bit more manageable. I’m sure you noticed that there [is] not a lot for grandparents … not a lot of resources.”

Lewis: “The thing that bothers me at my age? They expect my two great-grandchildren to live off of my income and I only get Social Security. So you try to manage with the medicine I take and then two other children. It only goes so far.”

Vickerson: “What I discovered was that grandparents get much less support systematically. In other words, the support that you get is really not designed for grandparents.”

Lewis: “Right now, I have legal guardianship of my two great-grandbabies. And so that helps a little bit. I had to go to court and my brother paid [to] have it done for me ‘cause he knew I didn’t have any money.”

On why they persevere

Lewis: “Love. That big four-letter word. Love is what keeps pushing me.”

Vickerson: “Yeah, the same thing is love … that commitment. I’m a historian. And so culturally, African-Americans have that kind of, I don’t know how to describe it … And it’s not just African-Americans, it’s Native people, but this kind of commitment where you sacrifice your life almost. … Not that we choose to sacrifice our life, but the commitment is so strong that nothing gets in the way and nothing deters us.

“In my case, for example, when I didn’t have the funds to do what I needed to do, I actually used my mortgage funds to help take care of my grandchildren. Now, I don’t advise anybody to do that, but that’s the kind of commitment that we have, you know, where they come first.”

On what brings them joy amid all the challenges 

Lewis: “I went to the school for Thanksgiving to eat Thanksgiving dinner with my little girl. And I fell last Christmas and broke my femur, so I hadn’t been to any school functions or anything. And when she thought I wasn’t gonna come, and they pulled me up there in a wheelchair, and she saw me. She began to cry. And I began to cry. And…that was the happiest moment, to see how happy she was just to see me. And I will never, ever forget the look on her face when she saw that her mama was there.”

Vickerson: I would often go in and have lunch with my granddaughter and she would be so proud that her Papa was there eating with her. She would bring her friends and her little friends would stand around. And my granddaughter would be so proud to say, this is my papa. So that same experience was just such a joy at coming in there and giving that special extra love.”

Ashley Locke produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Gabe Bullard. Locke adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.