Free Lunch Program & The Power of Food

Muskogee, Oklahoma. A city shadowed by the presence of the Arkansas River with a population of less than an eighth of most larger cities. This is where Tabetha Zimmermans’ journey began: as one of ten children between her mom and dad. As far as her mom’s side, Tabetha was one of five kids, all of which had different fathers.

Tabetha was taken away from her birth mom at four years old. Her mom, in constant battle with addictions, had three of her children taken away including Tabetha, her older brother and older sister. At times, when her mom would show the court she could function and be an effective mother, she would almost regain full custody, but usually the kids ended up in foster care again. Tabetha remembers being left at home for days at a time and having no idea how they would get their next meal.

For anyone who knows what it is like to go hungry, sometimes as a kid, you don’t realize how poor you are until you see others living differently. Tabetha began to see that difference when she started going to school, and because she was a welfare recipient, she received free lunch. Now, free lunch programs differ from state to state. In some states, there is no differentiation between the free lunch and the regular lunch for which kids pay. However, sometimes the differences can be as noticeable as the color of the bag which your lunch is packed, the line you stand in or the food you are given. As a seven-year old in 2nd grade, this was Tabetha’s reality: dealing with the stigma of everyone knowing she was on welfare and receiving free lunch. What she really wanted was to blend in and feel normal.

It was unbeknownst to her at the time, but Tabethas' unseen relationship with food would soon begin to alter the course of her life. It would not be a stretch to say that the very fact that she was on free lunch served as the impetus that would propel her to perform high academically, obtain a full scholarship to attend George Washington University in Washington, DC, to co-founding a business focused on a female positive lifestyle brand.

“...I was so confused as to why I was so different and it made me strive so hard not to be different.” --Tabetha Zimmerman

Tabetha, tell me, how has food played a role in the woman you’ve become?

I was raised between my mom and foster care. My mom was addicted to everything from drugs, men, shopping you name it. She would just leave us home alone for days and days. Luckily for us, someone noticed what was going on and called social services to intervene. They usually always ask if you want to stay or go, which is such a hard question to pose to a kid. I mean, what do you know at that age? But I remember, we all said we wanted to leave. As kids we figured we would stay together, but in hindsight, now I know there was no chance of that happening. They took the three of us, including my older sister and brother and we were separated immediately.

I was an easy sell because I was young and a girl. My 6-year old brother was placed in a boys- home and my older sister lucked up and was placed with our great aunt. My mom would somehow get sober enough to get some visiting rights granted by the judge so I would see her and my brother, but my sister never wanted to see her. My mom was neglectful and since my sister was the oldest she took care of us. You had a nine-year old taking care of a six and four-year old. That was a lot of responsibility and stress to put on a kid. She probably resented mom for that very reason. Since we were all in the system in Oklahoma, although we were separated from mom, we sometimes ended up at the same elementary school. It was weird because we all had different last names so people couldn’t understand how we were related. That was something that as kids, we found ourselves explaining a lot.

We all cried out for attention. My way was to assimilate and to be as perfect as possible. I didn’t want to be noticed. I’ll never forget when a parent told me I was a leech on the system. Can you imagine an adult saying that to a child? So, my goal was to blend in and be normal. Whereas my brother was like a bowling ball. That’s the way he looked for attention and it has taken our lives in completely different directions. As a child you don’t realize the consequence of your actions. He acted out because as a young kid that's what he learned. By being in a boys-home, they were treated like men and it didn't matter their age. He had to grow up really fast: fighting to survive, no real discipline and quite a bit of physical abuse. My mom got herself together enough to get partial custody of us, but we ended up being taken away, yet again. The system wanted to focus on rehabilitating her because the goal is to get the family together, but as soon as she got us back, she went right back to her previous ways. By the time I was in the 2nd grade I taught myself how to cook and how to bake cupcakes. It was little things like lunch and birthday cupcakes that mattered to me and I guess many kids. My mom would want to try, I think she did, but addiction is so complex and why people do it and what triggers their use...there could be a myriad of reasons. I don't know. I tried to understand it but I don't. I didn’t have a mom or dad to pack my lunch, and certainly not to bake cupcakes for me on my birthday. I remember being in the second grade and staying up until midnight trying to bake and put icing on cupcakes so I could take them to school to say, “Look at what my mom baked for me!” I actually took those cupcakes to school.

For all of the unwanted attention that being on free lunch brought me, it was because of the free lunch program that I won a laptop. I was in middle school and because I had the highest GPA of all the kids on free lunch, I was awarded a laptop! That accomplishment was a huge deal for me and I knew if I studied, worked hard, and in my mind, assimilated, then I would be alright and I would make it through school and even college.

After years of going back and forth between mom and foster care, the last time she regained partial custody I was about 11 or 12 years old. She decided it would be a good idea to move to Florida. We moved to Jacksonville, Florida because my brother was constantly getting kicked out of schools in Muskogee. Even if we moved to the next town, my brother was still getting kicked out of school. I remember wondering why we were moving. I finally got some traction under my feet. I kept my grades up and did everything I could to just blend in and right when things start to go well, we move. I mean life was far from perfect, but I didn't want to move away. Even though I was the kid who could never bring friends over because I lived in the projects. Kids would ask me where I live, but because I moved around so much, I would just pretend like I didn’t remember the address. I even had to remind my mom to enroll me in school! She would simply forget to enroll us. Yet with all this chaos, I was finding my way and I did not want to leave. It wasn't until later that I realized the real reason we moved to Florida. Yes, it was difficult finding a school for my brother because of his expulsions, but it was more than that. Before we left Muskogee, the supervising case worker still had power of attorney over us, until the state gave back full custody to my mom. As soon as she got full custody, she moved us out of state immediately.

Unfortunately, in Florida, mom was the same as she was back in Muskogee. Her addictions to alcohol, drugs, shopping, and men were a constant struggle for her.
For me, Florida was a culture shock. Oklahoma is such a poor state, so moving to Florida I saw a huge class divide. Middle class looked like sheer luxury. I couldn’t even figure out where the kids bought their clothes. I didn’t know they made stores for a specific brand. Now as an adult I've traveled to a few countries, but moving to Jacksonville, Florida was the biggest culture shock I have ever experienced. In Oklahoma you just didn’t get picked on for the clothes you wore. We wore Walmart clothes. But in Florida, everything was name brand.

I started working as soon as I could and once that happened, I never ate lunch at school again. To earn side money, I would do chores for my friends' parents, and since the age limit to work in Florida was 15, I started working in restaurants. My first restaurant job was as a hostess at Caps on the Water in St. Augustine, a tiny city south of Jacksonville. This is where I began to develop my love of restaurants. I mean, there wasn't anything not to love. All I had to do was remember 18 types of fish! I memorized the menu, smiled and was as accommodating to customers as I could be. That's all I had to do and I could make at least $100 cash a shift and get fed! It was hard work. We busted our asses and we worked long hours, but I loved it because in time my colleagues became my family. Caps on the Water was fine dining and that was where I began to learn about food. I learned about truffles, different cuts of meat, and most importantly how to eat. Prior to that point, I lived off butter noodles.

I always knew college was the way out. The summer prior to my senior year, I started working on my essays because I figured, once the deadlines starting rolling around my essays would be complete. I had this binder with all my application papers and I carried that binder every single day until I got my acceptance letter from GWU! Now, it's crazy how I got into school. I guess like with a lot of things in my life it was intervention and caring of others. I was dating this guy when I was in high school and even though I was quite private about my life, (he knew nothing of my mom or my childhood) he knew I wanted to go to college. When he introduced me to his mom, both she and her husband took a vested interest in me accomplishing my goal of attending GWU. His mom became my mentor and like a mother to me. She told me point blank that I was going to get into school. Not only did I get into GWU but I got a full ride! I was determined on my own, but the additional perseverance of my newfound family helped to make that dream happen even quicker. But nothing could prepare me for the hurdles I would have to jump to start at GWU that fall.

One of the largest hurdles I had to jump was to provide sufficient documentation to satisfy questions regarding financial aid. You see my mom and three of her previous husbands were still claiming me on their taxes. I had to get an attorney, clergy member and others to vouch for my character. I even had to fight to get divorce decrees for my mom, who at the time had already been married multiple times. The paperwork was never ending, and I constantly had to "prove" who I was or who I was not.

Now, getting into college was one thing, but being prepared for college was an entirely different being. I was an "A" student and I always used school as a tool to create a better life for myself, however, the transition from high school to college was difficult. I didn’t even understand the basic fundamentals of how to write a paper largely due to the huge gaps in my education. Schools in Florida just are not funded, it's a state focused on seniors, the retirees. Private schools are great but the public schools are not. Schools simply are not a priority. So that transition to college academics took quite a bit of adjusting. But I did adjust.

I worked in restaurants while studying at GWU. I worked my way up at Four Seasons and Farmers Fishers and Bakers and then managed at Kimpton Hotel Group where I had a lot of great years. After working in local hotels and restaurants, I knew I wanted to start my own company and I also knew I wanted that company to be a catalyst for the female economy. It was during this time that I spoke with women trying to get their items in stores and often times, I saw them selling themselves short. I've dealt with being held back in previous jobs because of being a woman and believed there was a way to make money, help people and not mistreat people in order to advance. I am a strong advocate for this and I believe in companies that are willing to go in to disrupt this type of business culture.

You know, there is so much bled out of us as women. We work through pregnancies, get paid less, and are looked over for advancement and raises. Then some kind of way when we decide to take that leap and start our own, a rule that isn’t a rule somehow makes us undersell our value and it holds us back from our goals. There is no reason for it. I co-founded Golden Pineapple with these core values at the forefront. Golden Pineapple is a female positive lifestyle brand. I wanted women's images to be portrayed in a positive way. Cut the over hyper-sexualization of women. Cut that! So at it's heart, Golden Pineapple focuses on the intersection of herbalism, art, meditation, and philanthropy to create mindful products, events, and connections.

The business model has evolved, but it stays true in advocating for that female positive lifestyle. The focus on herbalism and cannabis, combined with fermented drinks such as kombucha, hemp seed teas, edibles and eating positive is inherent in the purpose of this company. Let's face it, we are now seeing the effects of not feeding our bodies correctly. I have an iron stomach, I grew up eating powdered milk and powdered eggs and probably drank Dr. Pepper daily. I always felt my body was ok. But the research is clear. We need to take better care of our bodies, and I am a believer that through the use of foods, herbs, edibles, drinks such as kombucha, hemp seed teas and cannabis, we can take better care of our bodies...naturally.

When you look in the mirror, what do you think of the woman staring back at you?

I think she is still a work in progress. I am learning to see the positives before the flaws, physical and character wise. But I also see a lot of beauty. It's been a long journey. I like her! I'm still figuring her out.


Where are you and your mom right now?

The last time I spoke with her was about five years ago. I thought moving to DC would help our relationship, by giving us some distance. She's still in Florida and has two more kids and married to a new husband. I had to leave because there was too much abuse. My mother can be the warmest person or the coldest person you've ever met. But when I would talk to my mom it would take every bit of positivity out of me. I just could not let that happen. Hopefully one day I will be able to reach out to her. But there is so much that I need to work through. I make progress, then I speak with her and I take 10 steps back. I go back to feeling like a kid and opening that door takes me back to that world of chaos. Maybe one day, but I don't see it in this lifetime.