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After unforeseen health issues, food bank and friends were her lifeline

Wednesday, November 27, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CST
Clarisa Damron in her home in Ashland.

ASHLAND — Clarisa Damron hobbled into Mosers and climbed aboard a motorized shopping cart. She had not been to the grocery store in more than a month.

As she made her way through the aisles, accompanied by her service dog, Madea, Damron passed ovens filled with rotisserie chickens, shelves stacked with canned food, refrigerators full of meats and cheeses, and freezers stocked with dinner rolls and frozen pizzas.

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But as Damron, 48, pulled up to the checkout counter, her basket was nearly empty. Inside, she had a quart of milk, one 4-ounce can of chicken, a bottle of purple Gain dish detergent and a jug of Era laundry detergent.

Damron couldn’t afford to buy anything else. Even the laundry detergent was a luxury; she often washed her clothes in dish soap to save money.

Damron paid the cashier and steered her cart toward the exit, where she passed a college football display offering discounts on Doritos, Lays and Tostitos chips. The sign read “2 for $5,” but even that was outside Damron’s price range.

Outside the store, a bake sale drew in customers with the smell of cookies, cakes and pies that covered a large table. But for Damron, it was nothing more than a tease — just another reminder of how little she has.

Damron and an increasing number of people in Missouri and the United States struggle to afford food. And many more are only one hospital visit, car breakdown or job loss away from choosing between food and unmet bills.

In Damron’s case, unforeseen medical issues have consumed her income and made it nearly impossible for her to work for the past year.

Damron found out last year that she has a brain cavernoma, which causes her brain to bleed, and a degenerative disease that has deteriorated the cartilage in both of her hips.

Until that point, doctors had told Damron that the back pain she suffered from was a result of arthritis or fibromyalgia. Damron never sought a second opinion from a specialist because she didn’t have medical insurance, she said.

“I lived a comfortable life, but I didn’t have anything extra,” she said.

For years, Damron dealt with the pain, even when it got so severe that it would make her physically ill.

“I can handle pain. I have been kicked by a full-grown horse, and I had both my kids without pain meds,” she said. “But when I started falling over, blacking out, there is nothing you can do about that.”

When she was hospitalized in July, doctors told Damron that she was lucky to still be walking and that both of her hips would need to be replaced, she said.

The X-rays of her damaged hips were difficult to look at, she said. One looked like a medieval mace with bone spurs jutting out in every direction, and the other hip’s ball joint was so worn down that it was nearly resting on the femur, she said.

“It’s the god-dog thing either way you spell it,” she said.

***

Damron parked her green Subaru Forester outside her small apartment.

She hurried to the other side of the car to grab her two bags of groceries and Madea. But as she rushed to get out of the cold rain, she was nearly stopped by the four concrete steps leading to her front door.

She leaned on the stair railing and her cane as she shifted her weight from one leg to the other, struggling with every step.  

Madea nudged at Damron’s legs, as she fought to get the key in the door.

Inside, Damron collapsed onto her walker that doubles as a chair. She was physically exhausted from the trip to the store.

“I push myself to do what I have to do, and the pain is just relentless," Damron said, the hospital bracelet from the day before still adorning her wrist. “But it’s not just pain. It’s physical exertion to get my legs to work.”

Boxes of photos, books and other items are piled against the walls of her apartment, remnants of her move from a nearby farm where she had stayed with a friend before she was hospitalized. Damron moved to the apartment in Ashland because she was no longer able to get around the farm with her damaged hips. 

“I don’t have my pictures up yet because I can’t balance long enough to hang them,” she said. The only exception is a painting of the Last Supper that her grandmother left her, which hangs over the table in her kitchen. 

“All this time, it’s like tunnel vision,” Damron said. “The dishes and laundry have to wait. All my energy needs to go toward my job."

Damron still works part time at Show Me Farms, where she makes breakfast burritos, in order to afford gas and electricity.

“My plan was to stop once I got disability, but disability isn’t what I thought it’d be,” Damron said.

Damron said she makes $487 a month on disability and $70 to $120 a week from work, but she pays $450 a month in rent and $122 a month for electricity.

“I only have $39.15 in the bank right now,” she said as Madea picked up the $10.85 store receipt off the floor and gave it to Damron.

For the most part, Damron has been able to survive because of the kindness of others.

Co-workers at Show Me Farms have bought bags of groceries for her when they could. Her former employer at About Paws, a pet grooming business in Columbia, gave Damron food from her freezer and took her out to dinner on occasion. The friend she lived with on the farm gave her eggs from the chickens he raises. Even the $1,400 Subaru that Damron drives was paid for by a friend who wants to remain anonymous, she said.

“Without the grace of God, and some very good people, I would probably be living in that car right now,” Damron said.

Until October, Damron relied solely on donations from friends and the Food Bank for Central and Northeast Missouri, which she visited once a month. She has since been accepted to the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program – food stamps – that provides her with $99 a month.

“Everything I have was given to me by the food pantry or friends,” she said as she opened up the one kitchen cupboard that had food inside.

“I plan on using this Jell-O with this cake,” she added as she sorted through what food she had.  “That should be good.”

But even with Damron's culinary ingenuity, not all of the donated food can be used. 

“I have four cans of marshmallow fluff,” she said. “What are you going do with that?”

Damron has rationed and improvised in attempt to maintain some semblance of normality in her meals. 

“Last night, I had potato chips and pork and beans for dinner,” Damron said. “It’s not traditional meals, but it’s something to eat.

“Have I gone without eating? Yeah. Luckily, I had those nasty Ensures,” she said, gesturing toward the pomegranate nutrition drinks on top of her outdated microwave.

At other times, she has resorted to eating Gerber Graduates meatballs or Special K popcorn chips she received from the Food Bank.

“Some nights I think to myself, ‘Do I want to eat those icing-covered pretzels to stop the gnawing in my stomach or just go to bed?’ Because I don’t think the hot Ro-Tel chili is going to do it for me again,” Damron said.

The most difficult part of dealing with her medical condition hasn’t been the lack of food or money, Damron said. The worst part was giving up the things she loved, such as living on the farm; working at About Paws, where she groomed dogs; and volunteering at Englewood Hustlers 4-H.

“I don’t like asking for help,” Damron said. “It’s not a prideful thing. I am just used to helping other people out.”

Damron said she cannot stand the stigma around private and government food assistance programs.

“I am sick and tired of people thinking it's a crime to help people,” she said. “I hate the stereotype.”

“Never in my worst nightmare did I think I would find myself here,” she said. “But it could happen to anyone.”

***

Damron carefully climbed onto the black stool and cozied up to the stainless steel table in front of her. Eight burritos had been laid out, already piled high with egg, fried potatoes, beef, cheese and salsa.  

The smell of freshly cooked eggs and beef filled the small kitchen at Show Me Farms, where Damron works three or four days a week.

Damron grabbed the first burrito and quickly folded the flour tortilla around the egg and beef mixture, wrapping the finished product in aluminum foil. Another 292 tortillas, stacked high in the corner, waited to be filled and wrapped.

“I would never have imagined that eight years ago, when I started by making 25 burritos, it would turn into this,” Damron said.

Damron makes 600 to 650 burritos per week for Show Me Farms. The burritos are sold at Hy-Vee, cafes at MU and the Columbia Farmers' Market.

Damron has not been able to cook by herself for more than a year. Her immobility has made it nearly impossible for her to perform the routine tasks needed to cook the burritos. But Show Me Farms has worked with her to allow her to stay on the job.

Show Me Farms owner Don Mayse has done what he can to make sure that Damron can continue to work. He has hired another person to help Damron in the kitchen and has bought a different stool for Damron to ease the pain in her back.

“Just because someone gets ill doesn’t mean you get rid of them,” said Joyce Elder, who has worked with Damron for eight years at Show Me Farms. “We had to help. She’s part of our family.”

Packaged burritos were piled on the table, held together with the Show Me Farms label. Damron grabbed the next burrito and quickly enclosed it inside its metallic coat.

“Still to this day, I cannot wrap a Christmas present,” Damron joked as she quickly wrapped up another burrito. “I should start buying oblong gifts.”

Tyler Grethen, who works in the kitchen with Damron, stepped around her stool and picked up the blue crate, where the finished burritos had been stacked.

“It’s all the little things you don’t notice,” Grethen said as he explained the seemingly simple tasks Damron cannot perform.

“Anything I do has to be for a short amount of time,” Damron said as she stopped rolling burritos and rubbed her lower back with her hand.

Mark Miller, a food inspector who works with Damron every week, said he respects Damron because she doesn't have an "I quit" attitude.

“Maybe someone else can lay down and give up, but not me,” she replied.

Before October, doctors had told Damron that Medicaid might not cover her two hip replacement surgeries until she was 50.

“I told them, ‘I am not going to be able to make it two more years like this,’” she said.

Damron said she was relieved to find out that Medicaid had approved her surgeries.

“I feel better spiritually right now than I have in a long, long time,” she said.

Damron said she was concerned about the loss of income she would suffer from not working at Show Me Farms during her recovery. Damron said that Medicare would only allow her to rehabilitate for three days in the hospital before she would need to return to her home. 

“I’m not looking forward to the recovery, but I’m excited to get my freedom back,” she said.

Damron hopes the surgery will allow her to find another full-time job to supplement her income from Show Me Farms. But more importantly, Damron hopes the surgery will allow her to return to enjoying the simple things.

“By spring, I hope to be able to go for a walk with my dog again,” she said. 


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