Putting an Actual Face to Food Stamp Use

This week the House voted to cut $4 billion a year in food stamps, which is about 5% of the almost $80 billion-a-year program. This new bill would “tighten eligibility standards, allow states to impose new work requirements, and permit drug-testing for recipients, among other cuts to spending” (Associated Press). Apparently, the House has been reading some of the e-cards on my Facebook news feed. Of course, I get that this is a huge issue and most of us work very hard to feed our families and accept no assistance to do so. For most people that is a point of pride. It comes from a long and steady line of pulling ourselves up from our boot straps and national pride, but sometimes in this life shit happens, and sometimes people need to ask for help. I know, I have been one of them, more than once.

I was a teenager when I gave birth to my oldest kids, 17 when Kiaya was born and 19 when Selena made her appearance, and like a lot of teenagers I had a raging ego, a case of know it all, and no discernable skills. I moved out of my parents’ house when I was 18 and worked a part-time minimum wage job at Kroger while my boyfriend (later husband and even later ex-husband) worked full time. We were not out of our teens, had a rent payment, utilities, car insurance, and two babies. Things were tight and we received food stamps. This was in the 90s when “food stamps” were paper monopoly money bundled into books of $5, $10, $25, $50, and $100s. They were cumbersome to handle and refused to tear from the books. They stuck together and made a distinctive crinkle that could be heard, what felt like, all over Kroger.

Most of my grocery shopping experiences took place with Kiaya in the bucket seat of the shopping cart and Selena in her car seat. I would put the food around them like an intricate puzzle. Mac and cheese, ramen noodles, spaghetti noodles, sauce, pork and beans, off brand soda, baby food, and whole milk wedged in the open places of my cart. These foods are not healthy. These are not leafy vegetables and fresh fruit because healthy food is often expensive food and what I concentrated on was filling food. Food that can be stored for a near eternity without going bad was the smartest way to shop. So with my cart, kids, and food, we would head to the check out line. I would strategically check out the lines to find the longest one because the chances of someone coming up behind me were less if the line was long.

As my food would move across the conveyer belt, I would try my best to separate any paper products or nonfood items. Diapers, baby wipes, paper towels, and baby powder had to be kept separate because food stamps didn’t pay for those things. When my food items were checked out, I would receive my food stamp total, and the next part of the humiliation would start. One of the reasons I worked so hard to make sure that I was last in line was because paying with the stamps took forever. The monopoly money was not to be torn out of the book until you were ready to pay. It was even printed on the books, just in case you forgot. I think this was to help ensure against fraud, but to be honest I am not sure. Another reason I always choose the long line is because mental math is difficult for me. Making the experience even more frustrating was the money would stick together, so you would have to separate the coated money, and recount a dozen times before you finally were able to pay. It took what felt like an eternity.

On occasion someone would come up behind me in line and I would be scared that they were judging my purchases. I always worried that I was being judged if I bought Kraft mac and cheese instead of a store brand. Sometimes I would feel the need to justify my purchases to total strangers or apologize if separating my items and paying took too long. There were multiple times over the years that I relied on the government to help me feed the girls. I was grateful for their help. When I heard that they had started to use a debit card system I was grateful that some of the humiliation was taken away, and if I see someone use one of those cards, I stand patiently and smile. I don’t know their situation: they could be a grandmother raising grandchildren or a mom or dad who has lost their job. Sometimes, we fall on hard times and it is okay to accept help.

Fraud happens. I get that and I have known people who have done it; selling the use of their stamps or card for money. I know that some questionable businesses allow illegal purchases in exchange for the “stamps” and then are reimbursed by the government. I don’t know how to fix the fraud; those that are dishonest have always existed and found a way to make life difficult for others. However, I also know children who don’t have enough to eat and families that have used the system correctly in their times of need. I have been one of these families and I know these families. Now you know one too.

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One thought on “Putting an Actual Face to Food Stamp Use

  1. I love this, probably one of my favorites so far, because I too am one of those families. I wish people didn’t make it hard on those who need the system but like you said those people have and will always exist. I am beyond grateful to the government for the food assistance and medical assistance I get for me and my child, without it I don’t know where I would be. Thanks for putting a face to it, poverty doesn’t know any boundaries, skin color or ethnicity.

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