Poor, but feeding the rich

Story highlights

  • Alan and Andono Bryant embody the gap between rich and poor
  • Family relies on food co-op to eat while Alan cooks for the well-to-do
  • Over five years, family has gone from $40,000 a year to below poverty
  • "Right now, my heart is filled with water," Alan Bryant says

Andono Bryant shuffles across an old shuffleboard court to pick up groceries at the food co-op.

"This is the real Occupy," she says.

The 44-year-old mother of five grown children scoops up boxes of food. She doesn't have time to go a mile away to the Occupy protests and shake her fist. She's just trying to make sure her family can eat today.

A few miles north of the Georgia Avenue Food Cooperative, Andono's husband, Alan, 47, serves steaks to some of the targets of the Occupy movement: the 1% of Americans who have enjoyed nearly 60% of all gains in income over the last three decades.

Alan Bryant mans the grill at Ruth's Chris Steak House, where a well-marbled cowboy ribeye fetches $44 and a fully loaded 1-pound potato goes for $7.

He prides himself on providing a good meal to customers.

"Once you get a person to smile as they eat, my day is fulfilled," the line cook says. "When I see other people happy, it makes me happy.

"Even though on the inside, it really hurts."

It hurts because it's a constant reminder of the couple's shattered dreams. The Bryants used to make $40,000, lived in their own home and gave to others. Now they live below the poverty line in the city with the widest income gap between rich and poor than anywhere else in the nation.

What do the readers think?

They're among the millions of Americans who fell out of the middle class.

Tonight, when Andono and Alan sit down to dinner, it'll be because she made a meal from co-op groceries: fresh green beans, canned yams, Nathan's hot dogs.

Andono Bryant sorts food at an Atlanta co-op, while her husband cooks for the well-to-do.

"If it were not for the co-op," she says, "a lot of us would not be able to survive. This is the bridge that helps get us over."

'From giving to receiving'

The Bryants did everything right. They worked hard, paid bills, took modest vacations. And then, the bottom fell out.

"I went from the giving to the receiving," Andono says.

The two met 14 years ago. Both were coming off failed marriages.

He worked in the kitchen at Atlanta's famous Pittypat's Porch. She would visit a friend who worked there. Every time she stopped by, he'd run out and wave. He was the lanky 6-foot, 5-inch quiet guy. She was the woman who didn't want to be bothered.

"I don't know why he keeps doing that," Andono would tell her friend.

"I was fresh out of a relationship with my kids' dad. I just wanted to be left alone," she says. "I would just run from him."

Eventually, he got her ear. They sat down and talked. A friendship blossomed. They married a couple years later and raised five children from their previous marriages.

The couple was never rich. But they were making it. They'd emerged from the lower class. She worked at a Publix grocery store and ran a small catering business. He worked two kitchen jobs: one for DoubleTree hotels, another for Waffle House.

Together, they brought in about $40,000. They bought a house for a bit over $100,000 in the neighboring city of Decatur.

She'd often travel north of Atlanta to pick up toys and clothes for donation. She'd then go to a street corner in Atlanta's historically black West End neighborhood. Across the way was a homeless shelter. Those in need would come out to greet her.

"It just felt good," she says.

Then their financial tsunami struck in the mid-2000s. She lost her job at Publix after an injured knee prevented her from working 40 hours, she says. About the same time, Alan lost his job with DoubleTree -- and with it, their health insurance.

In 2006, Andono suffered a heart attack. She spent nine days in the hospital, undergoing an angioplasty so a stent could be inserted to help blood flow. The result: a whopping $47,000 bill, the family says.

She survived her brush with death and had a new attitude: to "just embrace life." But she also had a more pressing demand: How are we going to survive?

'Dealt a different hand'

The Bryants sold their house for a heavy loss in 2007 before the bank could foreclose. Ever since, they've been living in apartments, both in the city and in its suburbs.

The Bryants were forced to sell their home for a substantial loss when both lost their jobs.

Their home now is a sparsely decorated two-bedroom apartment on the city's eastern edge.

Their take-home pay, after taxes, amounts to roughly $1,200 a month. The rent is $750. They have one car. Andono's sister and her three young children have moved in to help share the bills.

It's humbling to give up the hairstylist you once loved. It's humiliating to pull out food stamps at the grocery store and feel the stares. "People don't understand that there's a pride factor involved," Andono says.

"I want people to understand that we're not lazy, we've just been dealt a different hand."

When you taste a semblance of success and things suddenly spiral beyond your control, you rely on life lessons. Sometimes you want to collapse, give in -- but you know that giving in is not an option. It's not how you were raised.

Andono's mother has a saying: "Need more makes you do more." But seeing her oldest daughter struggle, Mom has revised that motto: "Just do the best you can."

"That's the way you have to look at it," Andono says. "Just stay happy and take it all in stride. Nothing is as bad as it seems."

Families served by the co-op that the Bryants visit arrive by foot, bike, bus and car in Atlanta's historic Grant Park, a bustling intown neighborhood that has seen home values skyrocket over the past decade.

The city's income gap is on full display: The vast majority of the co-op members -- 93% to be precise -- make less than $22,000 a year, the national poverty line for a family of four. Two out of three make less than $11,000, says Chad Hale, who founded the program 20 years ago.

According to the Census Bureau, Atlanta had the highest income disparity in the nation among large cities, ahead of New Orleans, Washington and Miami.

The food co-op that the Bryants frequent provides groceries to those in poverty.

"The recession has added to the problems," Hale says. "Many of our people who had jobs lost them."

He marvels at the ability of the Bryants to persevere.

"I don't know how they deal with the situation they're in as much as they do and maintain their positive attitudes. It's pretty amazing to me."

No time for Occupy

Alan Bryant is aware of the Occupy protests. He doesn't participate. To be frank, he doesn't have time. Nor does he quite know how to feel about it all.

"If the rich or the middle class don't spend the money (at the restaurant), that would put me very much in danger."

He says he makes $11 an hour as a line cook. At that rate, it would take four hours of work to afford one of the cowboy ribeyes he cooks.

"I shake my head, but I keep a smile on my face," he says.

It's a tough pill to swallow when a steak gets returned after a single bite. He watches as waiters or waitresses toss the meat into the trash.

It's the bittersweet dichotomy of his life.

"Right now," he says, "my heart is filled with water.

"Sometimes we wonder how we're going to have food on the table."

He finds strength in his late mother's guidance: "Keep your head up and have faith in God and just continue to do the things you can do: be generous and kind."

"Those words will get you a long way," he says.

They're not just words for him. During the recent holiday season, even with his strapped financial status, he set aside $10 a week for a colleague so he could afford gifts for his young children.

Moving forward when every step is backward

In early December, Alan sits next to his wife on their couch. She says she's glad they were friends before becoming spouses. "We can sit down and talk through things instead of being overwhelmed by the circumstances."

He rocks back and forth as his wife speaks. He wishes they could take a vacation again. He wishes he could buy her a nice gift.

That's out of the question for now.

The thing he can control, he says, is his dignity. "People can look at me all they want. Go ahead, judge me. It's just going to make me stronger, wiser," he says.

Two of their children attend college, at Georgia State University and Atlanta Technical College. "My dream is to see my kids through college, to make sure they get the education they need so they don't have to go into a bad struggle like their mother and father."

And so he moves forward, even if it feels like every step is backward.

At times, Andono sounds like a financial adviser. She says those with stable jobs need to save for a rainy day. "If you don't have at least six months of your rent and your utilities put away, you're definitely in trouble."

"It's almost impossible to get there now," she says, "because you're spending it as soon as you get in."

She says her heart medication costs $300 a month. But because of their meager means, she takes half the daily dose to make the medication stretch. She knows that's not the best for her health, but "I don't have a choice."

A few weeks after this conversation, she was back in the hospital with heart problems. This time, it was a four-day stay and another stent -- and no health insurance.

The bill has yet to arrive, but the Bryants fret over the damage.

The New Year had hardly begun, and already, hopes for a better year took a downward trend. And the cycle repeats.

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