Like many parents, Marquitta gets creative in the kitchen in order to sneak more vegetables into her kids’ meals. “If I do spaghetti, instead of doing pasta, I’ll take California blend vegetables, put that on the bottom, and I make my sauce with meat and put that on top with cheese,” she explains. This way she ensures her two daughters are eating healthy foods like cauliflower, broccoli and carrots while concealing the healthy flavors that kids sometimes refuse.
Still, with two growing girls in the house, it’s challenging to make healthy meals last as long. “I try to improvise with it and try to stretch,” she says.
Marquitta has become well versed at improvising when it comes to meals. Part of this stems from her culinary background as a professional chef. The other part comes from her experience of being homeless on and off since age 17.
Throughout her life, she has worked to overcome challenges. A decade ago when her older daughter was 2 years old and Marquitta was pregnant with her second child, her husband passed away unexpectedly. Down to one income, she struggled financially, veering in and out of homelessness as she raised her two daughters alone.
“I couldn’t get two jobs because I didn’t have somebody to watch the kids,” she shares. “I would leave them at daycare until 6 because I knew that they’d get lights and water and be able to eat something.” Once she picked her girls up, she would drive them to a public park, driveway or other safe location to sleep in their car. “I would stay up all night to watch my kids sleep because they were scared,” she remembers. “We had to take showers in strangers’ houses. My kids have been through a lot.”
Lacking a stable support system, her family has relied on services from the Foodbank of Southeastern Virginia and the Eastern Shore, as well as other partner organizations to get by, although it’s never quite been enough. “Inside I wanted to cry,” she says. “As a parent, you’ll starve yourself to feed your children. Being that you know it’s not enough, I had to train my kids to eat smaller portions, and I still do it now. When you don’t have enough, you just have to adjust.”
Eventually, Marquitta qualified for SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits, but even when she was working and receiving these benefits, she still struggled to make ends meet. “That’s when I started going to the unhealthy stuff,” she recalls. “Noodles and ravioli—it’s just cheaper to eat poorly.”
In 2017, she connected with ForKids and was placed in the organization’s fast track program for housing, which allowed her to move into public housing at a rent she could afford. Things were finally starting to look up.
However, later that year, she was involved in a car accident, which resulted in both her legs being broken and her neck being fractured. “I couldn’t work,” she says. “I went from paying regular rent, doing for myself to, ‘I can’t do anything for myself.’”
Now two years later, Marquitta is still waiting to learn if she will qualify for disability. In the meantime, she’s taking action into her own hands by empowering others and furthering her education.
Having lived in Norfolk’s Tidewater Gardens community for just a year, she serves as president of the Tidewater Gardens Tenant Management Council where she oversees the organization and assists residents with their needs, whether it’s providing information on jobs or connecting them with resources. She was elected by individuals in her community because she’s come to be viewed as a person they can trust.
Marquitta is also pursuing a professional communications degree at Tidewater Community College, which she hopes to utilize in a role of life coaching or public speaking. “I empower and I talk to people every day, giving advice or challenging people,” she says.
Today, even though her daughters have stable housing, Marquitta wishes that she could give them a better life—a life where they’re not exposed to bullying or the sound of gunshots in their neighborhood. “They’re my motivation for better; it’s not about me,” she says. “I want to set them up and leave a legacy for them. I don’t want them to remember that we struggled.”
Marquitta realizes that it takes a lot of effort to break something as steadfast as generational poverty, but she’s committed to sparking change. “We relive cycles; I want to cut the cycles,” she asserts. “That takes sacrifice from me.”