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.
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.