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Hunger Series: Choosing between tuition and food

LYNN Frederick Kamara knows what it’s like to be hungry.

While the recent North Shore Community College Liberal Arts graduate and parent of two works full-time in a restaurant as he looks for a better job, his girlfriend is unemployed, and they are struggling to make ends meet.

“Even though we receive food stamps, it was not enough to feed the family and attend school twice a week,” he said.  “I used to go to Shaw’s supermarket with $20 and that would go a long way, but now it will only buy a few items.”

Things have improved slightly since his graduation in May because he no longer has a tuition payment. But paying for housing, transportation and food remains a challenge, he said.

Sometimes he has to settle for just one meal a day for himself while making sure the kids get three, he said.

But Kamara, 24, said he never considered quitting school to save $1,300 in tuition so he can have more cash. And don’t suggest going to a soup kitchen.

“I don’t belong at a soup kitchen, I would be embarrassed,” he said.  

Alex Freedman, former director of the Lynn Food and Fitness Alliance, an initiative of the city’s Public Health Department, said shame and embarrassment keeps hunger hidden.

“There are lots of value judgments placed on anyone who seeks government help,” he said. “People assume public benefit recipients are there because of choices they’ve made, or they’re lazy and unwilling to work. But those notions are not based in reality.”

It’s not just that such attitudes are wrong, Freedman said, they have broad ramifications. They create a stigma and make people fear applying for benefits or getting them. In addition, it leads to bad policies by decision makers based on biased opinions instead of facts.

“For example, the federally-funded Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) has one of the highest rates of returns on investment of any government program,” he said. “But it doesn’t get mentioned because that doesn’t fit the description of the moral decay of people who get benefits.”

For Kamara, he vowed to go without meals for himself as he pursued a diploma.

“I know students who have dropped out because they can’t afford school and food,” he said. “But an education is the key to me getting a better job. I can’t quit because I will lose out. I want to set an example for my kids.”

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