Melissa Chadburn’s essay on food insecurity was selected for Best American Food Writing 2019. She is the recipient of the Mildred Fox Hanson Award for Women in Creative Writing. She is an editorial fellow with Community Change. She is a Ph.D. candidate at USC’s Creative Writing Program. She loves your whole outfit right now. (August 2020)

Follow Melissa Chadburn on Twitter: @melissachadburn.


‘Hansel and Gretel’ in LA County

Illustration by Alexander Zick of Hansel and Gretel, nineteenth century

Over the last five years, I’ve studied all of the child fatalities in Los Angeles County with open Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) investigations. To some, this research might seem grim, but I’ve found comfort in unpacking these redacted files. If I can find a match with enough details from corroborating sources, I feel I have put the child back in the story. Their stories remind me of fairy tales from another dark time.

Where the Light Is Different: A Duet on Girlhood

Yellowstone National Park, Montana, 1992

[D] Ohio girls are nice girls, polite girls, salt-of-the-earth girls. We are raised to say please and thank you and would you like some help with that? We learn that nice girls should say yes and yes and yes again—should not cause trouble with a no. [M] After I left home, for many years I spent my life carelessly opening up to people who hadn’t earned it, like a sea creature on a chef’s station. I think at first I was searching for someone who would be as reckless with me as my mother had been.

The Food of My Youth

“Hot Cheetos,” a common snack costing a dollar from drive-through convenience stores that accept food stamps, McAllen, Texas, 2013

I’d look longingly at my white friends’ granola, brown rice, and multigrain bread. Trips to the grocery store were always loaded with feelings of shame and desire. Fresh produce was the most extravagant, exotic thing on the shelves, even though it was my people that had picked it in the Central Valley. And so I stood beside my single mother in line at the supermarket, arguing with the cashier about the high cost of our groceries. And when the Man handed over our food stamps, we were called moochers, a drain on our country.

Counting to a Hundred

Workers picketing a farm in Imperial Valley, California, 1968

I met a woman with a petition. This was something I could do. Get people to sign her petition. Her petition to get money from the government to build more schools and parks. I went to El Superior, the market on Figueroa in LA, and stood out in the hot sun. I drank pink and white and green Agua Frescas, and had folks sign my petition. One hundred. I wanted to get one hundred signatures a day, I decided. That would be magnificent.