As a missionary, I was so, so hungry.

I served a mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS, Mormon) in a country where the local culture called for a siesta: a long lunch break, possibly including a nap. Accordingly, my strict missionary schedule provided us with a two-hour lunch breakwhich was delightfuland balanced that by disallowing a dinner breakwhich was unpleasant indeed. I never had a car on my mission, and many of the towns I served in did not even have paved roads, so we rode mountain bikes. All day. Every day.

I was hungry. So much exercise! So little food!

As a “greenie” (our term for new missionaries), I was baffled about how others in our mission survived for up to two years of service without starving. Eventually, I learned that most of the male missionaries indulged in a very late dinner after they finished up proselyting at 9:30 pm, just before the mandatory 10:00 bedtime.

My female companions did not attempt such a rushed, late-night meal. I couldn’t figure out how the men were managing to squeeze a meal into their bedtime routine. For women, at least, with long hair that needed to be washed with buckets of water (most of our apartments lacked showers with running water), there was no time for food within that rigid schedule.

I doubt that any women were involved in fashioning our mandated schedule.  All women were excluded from missionary leadership positions, even more so than today. This was before 2013, when the LDS church created a new middle management position for women. Now, Sister Training Leaders do meet with the men in leadership, although they are outranked by District Leaders, Zone Leaders, Assistants to the President and the Mission President, all of whom are required to be male. During my mission, women were not invited to any leadership meetings at all.

But honestly, if any male leader had bothered to ask, I believe most of the women in my mission would have supported a schedule with a daily fast from noon to bedtime. Another missionary rule, not at all unique to my mission, is that missionaries are assigned companions of the same sex that they live with and work with all day.  Missionaries may not do anything alone, not even run over to the corner store for fifteen minutes to buy a snack. If there is one thing I learned by being forced to spend all day every day in close proximity to another twenty-something year-old woman, it’s that women are good at counting calories and radically opposed to consuming them.

“Do you know how many calories are in that?” my companion would helpfully ask me if I dared to reach for second helping at lunch.  Sometimes, I would try to talk a diet-conscious missionary companion into taking a quick break to grab a snack on the run, which would lead to an informative lecture about how fat I was going to be when I got home from the mission if I kept this up. How I yearned for 20 minutes of personal time to eat a sandwich away from the watchful eyes of a live-in dietary consultant!

My companions’ fear of food was only enhanced by the male missionaries, who felt it necessary to tell us, quite often, that they would never marry a returned missionary because “sister missionaries get fat.” My companions who did gain weight told me that the mission president would instruct them to lose weight during their quarterly one-on-one interviews. They didn’t mind; after all, they agreed with him that they were too fat, and losing weight was a top priority for them, although it was hard to see what more they could do to accomplish that beyond the current regimen of never eating dinner plus several hours of daily exercise on a bike.

At one point, even the inanimate objects in our kitchen joined the universal effort to keep us skinny.

“We just haven’t had the best of luck this week,” I wrote to my parents. “Earlier in the week, our house flooded. A couple days later, our stove, which had allegedly been repaired, started shooting flames. For now, we’re on a sandwich-only diet until the elders at the office buy us another one.”

Those were veggie sandwiches, by the way. Pre-packaged lunchmeat did not exist in my mission area. If you wanted meat, you needed a stove to cook it.

When my parents read my next letter, dated 10 days later, they panicked and called the mission president.

“I have to push myself every day to keep an optimistic attitude. It’s difficult because not only am I discouraged, emotionally, I am physically hungry! Remember how I wrote a while back about how the stove exploded and the sink flooded the house? We’ve been without a stove and sink ever since! At first we went out to eat a lot, but I am sick of spending so much money on food and my comp is flat broke. We are now eating cold sandwiches every day. On Sunday, while I was studying, I ran across the scripture 2 Nephi 9:50-51. It applies so much to us that I copied it and stuck it on the wall accompanied by a drawing of a huge sandwich.”

2 Nephi 9:50-51 reads:

“He that hath no money, come buy and eat….Feast upon that which perisheth not, neither can be corrupted, and let your soul delight in fatness.”

My concerned parents called the mission president only hours after the procrastinating office elders finally delivered a new stove to our apartment, so he was able to assure them that it had all been taken care of already.

The mission president brought up my parents’ phone call at our next one-on-one interview. Why had I tattled to my parents? What’s wrong with eating cold sandwiches? He ate sandwiches every day, he informed me.

Ashamed, I accepted the rebuke without pushing back.

It wasn’t until later, when I told another missionary about the conversation, that it even occurred to me that the scolding I received might not have been completely merited. She pointed out that even if the mission president always ate sandwiches for lunch, those were fancy sandwiches with meat on them. And for breakfast and dinner, he enjoyed hot, filling meals.

The mission president had a dinner break.

April Young Bennett

April Young Bennett is the author of the Ask a Suffragist book series and host of the Religious Feminism Podcast. Learn more about April at aprilyoungb.com.

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12 Responses

  1. PJP says:

    Your story brought feelings rushing back to me. Obedience no matter what! That is all we had drilled into our heads. Unlike you, I served a mission in the US and had a very kind and compassionate mission president in the mid-80’s. But it had been drilled into our heads for so long that obedience above anything else was paramount. My first 6 months of my mission was miserable. I was being shamed and verbally abused by my trainer (who was 10 yrs older), yet she was the one who would stay up after I went to sleep and made phone calls home and all over the mission. I never felt like I could stand up for myself to her or anyone in authority over me. In my misery I contemplated going home, but was too afraid to. I had been told by my bishop during an interview (regarding something else) that the Lord had called me on a mission, that I was supposed to quit school, go home, and prepare to serve a mission. I was too afraid of what God would do to to me if I didn’t obediently stay on my mission! The fear was always there. When all was said and done after the first 6 months things got so much better and I have always been grateful I served a mission. I learned invaluable things there. But what haunts me is the trapped feeling I had. No matter what everything was all about obedience, whether it was right or wrong. Unfortunately, it has taken me until I was 50 years old to start standing up for myself in this Church. Now I have and the freedom I feel is amazing!

  2. R says:

    Sigh, Me too. I was always hungry, I feel like our food budget was never adequate. Like, there were times when I had to split a can of tuna between me and my other two companions (sometimes we would be put in threes). I hated having American companions because they all seemed to have food aversions. One would live off of prepackaged cookies. Another would only eat bread with cheese. Another would only eat cereal, and they couldn’t understand why I couldn’t eat like them. It was a struggle and I disliked my companions a lot, especially because we walked everywhere in tropical heat and constant rain. There were times when I’d go sit outside just to eat in peace and get away from my companions. I am Chicana, and for me, it was a relief when I had Latina companions. I ate better and I felt I was more productive and spiritual. I persevered because I thought HF was testing me and i couldn’t fail him and my parents. Also, I came home really skinny with mono, full of scabies and intestinal parasites. This is just my experience.

    • Yes, the food aversions and excessive dieting were more a problem when I had American companions than Latin American companions. The pressure for American women to be skinny is a very problematic aspect of our culture that we bring with us when we go to our mission areas. Even under normal circumstances, it is hard for American women like me to have a healthy relationship with food, but I felt like the rules surrounding missionary service compounded that and made it worse.

  3. Abby Hansen says:

    It feels like this environment would be super dangerous for anyone who struggled with an eating disorder. And anyone who didn’t already would be at risk for developing one!

    My husband served in Bolivia and was starving the first few months of his mission. A local woman was paid to feed the elders, but she did a terrible job and provided mediocre meals. My already skinny husband dropped even more weight and was skin and bones. He didn’t know to raise any concerns however, because he was a brand new missionary and there were hardly any non-native Bolivians. He just assumed that was what the food was like there. Only later after transferring to another area did he realize how bad those first few months had actually been.

    That said, he was never congratulated for getting skinnier and never told to watch his calories. It’s definitely a different issue for sisters than elders, but poor nutrition for missionaries might be a bigger issue than I thought.

    I’m glad you didn’t stop eating. 🙂

    • My wife also served in Bolivia, and nutritious meals were a problem there not only because of the mediocre meals, but because the missionaries seemed to frequently contract Giardia or other intestinal parasites that, shall we say, interfered with proper digestion. Ironically, she was there as a welfare missionary, to teach hygiene and sanitation. There was apparently no escaping it. She was distressingly thin, by the photos, when she got back home.

      • I think the non-attention to how these kinds of schedules and rules might affect eating disorders is a symptom of the androcentrism of the Latter-day Saint missionary experience. The rules and schedules are made by men and reflect a male experience. Since men have less cultural pressure to be thin, there aren’t as many of them who have diets and eating disorders, so I think they are more likely to find a way to get the food they need when they are hungry than women (but not always, as Abby’s husband’s experience suggests.)

        I was fortunate in that I never did contract a parasite or any other illness that would affect my nutritional health, but I know this is a problem others experienced. Whether parasites or lack of nutritious food were to blame, I couldn’t say, but multiple sisters in my mission experienced hair loss due to malnutrition. Maybe malnutrition was responsible for some elders’ hair loss too? Hard to tell, since it may have just been male-pattern balding for them. But when multiple young women start losing their hair, you know something is up.

  4. Jan Signore says:

    Oh how I wish our culture would teach our youth to be assertive, and that we would not teach them obedience above common sense. That our young women would be taught by doctrine and culture they do not need to be subservient, powerless. And that our young men would learn they are not superior in power or culture to women. What a terrible mission
    experience,

    • This particular experience, especially the weeks without a kitchen, certainly was bad, but there were a lot of things I loved about my mission experience–immersing myself in another culture, getting to know and help lots of people I never would have met otherwise, making myself useful to lots of people in ways that both I and them found meaningful–but this post focused on one of the more problematic aspects. I think more flexible missionary schedules and rules could help to reduce the negative side effects of what is otherwise a good experience.

  5. Katie says:

    Thank you for sharing, my mission in Chile had so so many similar experiences- including not being allowed to “complain” about them or being accused of having the wrong attitude/heart. Being a sister missionary was incredibly disempowering. Trying to suppress how I felt in an effort to submit to what I was told was the Lord’s will/plan was such a trip.

  6. Maggie says:

    Oh my goodness, yes! I lost 50lbs on my mission because we were worked to exhaustion and not allowed to return home to eat during the day. I remember trying to squeeze in a late breakfast right before we left in the morning and making it through the day on an ice cream bar or some bread and cheese we were able to pick up at a market along the way. I don’t know how we stayed hydrated, but as public bathrooms were hard to come by we just made do.

    We were expected to get our meal with members but in reality we rarely got dinner appointments. And when we did, they somehow got clustered together so me ended up eating so much we could hardly move.

  7. Em says:

    I served in the US, but I remember a transfer of being very, very hungry. Our budget pre-supposed that we’d be fed dinner every night. If we weren’t, that was a problem. I didn’t have an external source of money, just my allotment (my bank card from home expired and they wouldn’t renew it unless I came in in person. Thus, no way to boost). We had had an apartment inspection and I had bought cleaning products at the beginning of the month, but a mistake with the allotment (or something? I was never quite sure) suddenly meant I had very little money to squeak through the rest of the month. So every week I bought a bag of mini-bagels, and some cheese. And I had a jar of peanut butter. And so I ate one mini bagel for every meal that we weren’t served. Even when I got money I couldn’t really eat because we lived in a member’s basement and our “kitchen” was their mini-bar. i.e. we had a mini fridge, a mini sink, and a microwave. My main fantasy was being able to go grocery shopping with my mom when I got home and just buy the food I wanted. I try to remember that when I’m grumpy about shopping now.

    And the diet thing is an issue. I hated it when my companions would refuse a homemade dessert because the social pressure was clear and so then I was obligated to eat it even if I didn’t really want to. I once ate a quarter of a cheesecake under strong pressure from the family while my companion sat quietly by. Once a family thought they’d give us a treat by feeding us almost no dinner and then gargantuan portions of ice cream. Their rule was you multiply the scoops someone asks for by three (I’m not kidding). So I got two forkfuls of spaghetti and a tureen of ice cream for dinner. I wanted to cry.

    So yeah. Missions and food are hard.

  8. allyall says:

    While my husband was serving in Germany the church switched from the system where you paid the actual cost of your mission to everyone paid the same amount. There was some sort of problem in the changeover and they didn’t receive their monthly money deposit for 2 months. They had been told to have a 2 week reserve but that didn’t end up being enough. They weren’t allowed to eat with members at the time either. When they were asked to take a train to a conference, my husband asked how they were supposed to get there and the AP said “fast and pray “. My husband said, we’ve been fasting and praying, the problem is we don’t have any money!

    As a result, he’s still frequently sending food home with missionaries and asking them how they’re doing with food. He doesn’t want any of the missionaries in our area spending time in mandatory fasting like he did.

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