Growing up on Food Stamps {guest post}

food stamps I still remember that day perfectly. It was spring in Albuquerque, the days were getting longer, and it was my birthday week so my mother decided to get us a treat: a small steak for my birthday dinner. It wasn’t much; it was a day past it’s “best by” date and a low-quality cut – but for us, it was splendid.

So we headed to the front of the store and got in line. That’s where it happened. As we waited, my mom went into her wallet and pulled out our food stamps – small, brightly colored bits of paper that could not be mistaken for anything else – and the woman behind us in line sniffed. Then she looked into our cart and said, “Steak? I wish I could afford steak. But then, the government isn’t paying for MY food.”

You guys. My mother’s face. I can still see it today. The tremble in
her hands, the flush to her skin, the tears in her eyes. She was
barely twenty five years old. She was smart, hard working, and still:
we needed the help. Her shame was profound.

So many of my childhood memories are colored by our poverty. I was an
asthmatic kid, and my mother and I spent night after night sitting up
trying to cope with my crappy lungs, hovering on the edge of emergency
room visits, which we always put off because of our lack of health
insurance. Even when emergency inhalers for asthmatics finally were
invented, we couldn’t afford them. Basically, I spent much of my
childhood unable to properly breathe.

When the incident with the steak happened, my mother and I were living
on $220 a month. Our rent – a tiny house with a rat problem in a bad
neighborhood – cost $150 a month. That left $70 a month for everything
else; gas for our car, food, utilities. We lived on that until
finally, when I was in third grade, my mother was able to find a full
time job working for a trucking company as a book keeper. Which she
hated, and it meant I was home alone after school (yes, at third grade
– I was a year ahead, too, so I was only seven). But she was able to
get us off food stamps, and we never got back on them again.

But the shame still lingers. Even today, at 43 years old, I can hardly
bring myself to use coupons. Those small bits of colorful paper remind
me of those food stamps my mother held in her trembling hand, and I
feel that using them is the equivalent of heralding poverty. Even when
my family had terrible financial times in 2010 I hated using coupons,
even as “couponing” has become a competitive sport.

I’m so grateful, now, that food stamps come in a debit card format.
But that doesn’t stop the judgment; I cannot tell you how many times
I’ve been in line at the grocery store as an adult and seen the
cashier sneer at a mom buying food for her family that way (or worse,
with those checks from WIC). Or watched other customers roll their
eyes impatiently when someone has to pay cash for some item not
covered by the food stamps (like, say, something as critical as
shampoo; it’s hard to get a job with dirty hair). It kills me. Why
does anyone think that they know someone’s circumstances? Why do they
think it’s okay to sneer at someone just trying to get by?

I beg you; the next time you see someone buy steak with their food
stamps, instead of judging, think about what they might be
celebrating. And wish them joy.

times like theseAbout the guest blogger:
Cecily Kellogg entertains tens of thousands on a daily basis. She lives in the Philadelphia area, is happily married, is mom to a fierce and amazing daughter, and has occasionally been called a bad ass. She writes at Uppercase Woman and tweets @cecilyk

photo credit: NCReedplayer

Comments

  1. says

    The thing that bothers me is how everything has to be split into separate transactions, so it takes even longer and people get pissed about it. The last few months, most of my grocery shopping for the moth has consisted of WIC vouchers, food stamps (we get $12 a month, which I’m sure is just bleeding the government dry), and $10-20 for food on the better weeks. What sucks is that each of these has to be processed as a different transaction.

    I also get the double eye roll from people because I am fat so obviously not in need of food (I’ve lost close to 30 pounds lately, due to stress, eliminating snacks, and cutting my own portions to my son and husband can have more to eat, but that’s a whole different issue). Then some of these same people see that cart and I get looks like I must be stupid to buy so little food for the money since we eat mostly fresh produce and unprocessed meats.

    I don’t know that I’ll ever get over hating the whole process of it. I’m trying to get help to go back to school right now so I can earn enough money to get by without them, but people look at Pell Grants and daycare assistance in much the same way. I was telling my dad what I’d figured out to be able to go to college and he went off on some rant about “welfare trash” – I don’t know if it was aimed at me or not, but he was criticizing the exact same programs that’s I’m relying on right now so it was hard not to take it that way.

    • JN says

      Raine – please don’t let anyone EVER talk you out of going to school. I put myself through school and I would take a PELL grant (or any grant for that matter) any day over student loans. There is nothing wrong with getting an education, even if it’s a free one. Take it and run with it!

  2. says

    Thanks, Cecily. As we are clawing our way back to “normal” we are currently using those dreaded food stamps. We are lucky they come in debit card form, but instead of just swiping it, we always have to hand it to the cashier to punch in the numbers. I’m not sure if this is a problem in other states, but in my state, the cards are cheaply made and after the first few swipes, they lose their “swipability” and the numbers have to be punched it. Some cashiers are super-nice about it and just politely ask for the card, others make you swipe, swipe, swipe, until the computer kicks it out, beeps, and tells you to hand the card to the cashier. Then, God forbid you have items not covered by the card or you don’t have quite enough and have to dig for a dollar or two. So humiliating.

    I try to look for lines where people look poor or are obviously using WIC checks. I feel like I can at least protect them from one snide remark if I’m behind them than if some d-bag is behind them. It’s kind of my idea a good deed, that maybe if I’m nice to someone in front of me, the person in line behind me will be nice to me also. Or cashiers that I know are at least polite enough not to scoff at us.

    • JN says

      Raine – please don’t let anyone EVER talk you out of going to school. I put myself through school and I would take a PELL grant (or any grant for that matter) any day over student loans. There is nothing wrong with getting an education, even if it’s a free one. Take it and run with it! :)

  3. JN says

    We were on food stamps for awhile when I was a kid. My mom worked two part-time jobs and put herself through nursing school. I don’t remember ever feeling bad about using food stamps. But, the area we lived in was economically depressed, so I think a lot of people used (and still do) food stamps.

    I also worked as a cashier after high school and while I didn’t mind people coming through my line with food stamps, I hated those WIC checks. What a pain in the butt that system is – but I wasn’t upset with the customers. Just the process. :)

  4. says

    Fantastic post. Honestly, when i was a teen and working as a cashier.. i was thinking the same things..but not of that single parent.. but of those families with food stamps, and super nice clothes and “bling” buying lobsters and everything else expensive. We weren’t well off growing up.. i’ll be strait up honest, i’ve been off and on food stamps the last 4 years due to unemployment and underpaid status. it’s not easy living on $70-100 a week for a family of 6 for food/diapers/health&body items. I’m honestly really thankful for those debit cards now.. i don’t think i would be so polite if someone was judgemental of me. WIC is a fantastic help..i think that system needs to be updated as well though. but it’s been greatly improved over the past 14 years and for that i’m really thankful.

    Thanks for sharing! We’re still clawing our way out of the hole, but we’re on our “own two feet” again at least.. for the most part. (have our own place, and just barely paying the bills)

  5. says

    Thanks Cecily, for this. I think anyone who thinks people enjoy getting government support clearly haven’t had to go through the grind of the system. And the rules people have to follow often make it harder to give up the support- I saw a lot of this when we lived in Florida and our clients would try to scrape enough together to get a car to go to work, but then had to worry that they could not even put very much aside in case there was a need to repairs, because the support would be cut. It’s a really tough existence, and I frankly dare anyone who wants to judge the program to try to live on it for a month or two and see how it feels first.

  6. says

    After my parents divorced we were so, so poor. My mom worked as a clerk at a grocery store until she was able to get a sales job and fight her way up out of poverty. She refused to get food stamps because she saw the way people were treated every day that used them. Today she will tell you that she was wrong and should have taken whatever help she could have gotten. It is horrible that people are made to feel like less than just because they need help.

  7. says

    When I was student in college I had my first child. I was living on student loans and without WIC, foodstamps, and Medicaid I wouldn’t have been able to stay in school while feeding my son. There’s no shame in that. I wasn’t taking advantage of the system, I was simply trying to survive, which is the case for many families drawing from social services. It’s there for people who need it. To this day when I hear an offhanded comment about another “Welfare Mother” it makes me want to kick someone in the face.

  8. says

    I love hearing your perspective. I hate that we live in a world that shames people when they need a little extra help. My dad, for all of his faults, makes me so proud on this issue. He manages a really small grocery store in our town. The bulk of the customers that shop there buy their groceries with food stamps. Before my dad started managing it, you could always tell that the quality of the food was crummy and second rate. My dad has worked hard to make sure that his customers (no matter how they pay!) have access to good quality nutritious food and never makes people feel bad when they hand over wic checks. This post prompted me to call and tell my dad that he rocks and how awesome I think he is.

  9. says

    My mom worked as a teacher in a pre school, which barely payed minimum wage. But what she did get was one meal a day that she ate with the kids she taught. I can still remember eating our meager meals of macaroni and cheese or soup and sandwiches while she sat with us and didn’t eat. We were so poor that on top of the food stamps, we also were approved to get government cheese, powdered milk, and other staples from the government. The powder tasted so terrible my mom would try and sneak it past us by mixing it with a little regular milk at the bottom of the milk bottle.

    My sister is also asthmatic, and she also has sever eczema all over her body. She was hospitalized frequently while we were growing up. Thankfully, we were eligible for medicaid because my father collected social security because he was considered disabled, and couldn’t pay child support. We also lived in HUD rental control housing the entire time I was growing up. Good times. I remember being made fun of for getting free lunch at school, and being snickered at for using food stamps in the grocery store. I’m glad that they have the cards now for people. No one should be made to feel like a criminal just for trying to get by.

  10. says

    My mom would borrow my grandmother’s car (because it had gas in it) and drive a few towns over to use our food stamps. I knew even then she did this just so she wouldn’t have to stand in line at the grocery with people she grew up or the parents of my schoolmates with while she paid for the food. I’ve been known to ‘accidentally’ leave a $20 at the register with the cashier to put towards the seemingly single mom with a toddler behind me sorting her groceries out by what is covered and what isn’t. Above all else I strive to be a good example to my own children. It’s just how us moms have to roll…..

  11. says

    I have awful… awful… memories of buying my groceries on food stamps when I was pregnant with the Munchkin. People were so, so cruel.

    Thank you for sharing your story and reminding us to think what people might be celebrating.

  12. says

    I am so humbled by this post. We had hard times when I was a child, but nothing like what Cecily experienced. I don’t understand the animosity towards the less fortunate on a rational level. People deserve to eat. To have a decent abode. I ‘m just confused how it is a health issue

  13. says

    Amazing post Cecily. I really love reading everything you write. It is too bad society is so quick to judge. We never know the history behind someone’s plight. So, unless you take the time to find out, you cannot fairly comment on their life.

  14. says

    This is so beautiful. South Africa doesn’t have food stamps, but we have so many who would benefit from it. I just hate how judgmental people can be, and I really appreciate your post.

  15. says

    Thank you so much for writing this post, it touched me and reading all the comments lets me know that I am not alone in the struggle of pay check to pay check and always being in the negative balance before hubbies next pay comes around. We live in Canada and therefore do not have food stamps, I rely heavily on coupons (and for me its not a sport, its an ugly reality) and in-store deals. Nothing is bought at full price. I hate the coupons, I get so many eye rolls and cashiers that have swore at me because I have so many. I had a floor manager grab one out of my hand and scratch me because I was insisting their store had to take it, afterwards when I was in the car I was crying because of the commotion that was stirred up over a coupon, but it was for diapers and I needed to use it. Or the other time I had a bit of a raised voice discussion in the line up with a cashier over a $.50 off coupon for my tampons, that was a fun one, she had to call the manager to make sure she could put it through.

    We have 3 kids, all in some form of diapers and I stay home as childcare for 3 would be extremely pricey. My name sits on a waiting list and has for the last year for childcare subsidy and I am also trying to go back to school to better myself, one class at a time.

    Oh the joys of being money challenged!

  16. says

    thank you for writing this post.. there are so many of us out there .. even though pride be damned when it comes to using stamps for our kids ect.. the shame lurks hidden behind our faces.
    We don’t want them but sometimes we have to ask for assistance till we get back on our feet. Doesn’t make it any easier though.
    people do judge and they judge hard…
    hugs!

  17. Shelley says

    One thing that is true about life — NO ONE should EVER assume they know anything about a stranger’s circumstances and judge them. EVER. You just can’t know, and it’s unfair and unkind.

    The percentage of children who live in poverty in this, the richest country on earth, is a national disgrace. Anyone who has judgmental thoughts about people using food stamps should remember their children.

    Kindness in thought, word and deed is a much healthier way to roll.

  18. says

    Cecily,

    Fantastic post. I’m humbled by it as well. Both of my parents grew up in poverty and both vowed not to let that trend continue. They word incredibly hard to make sure we had a nice life growing up.

    I know how lucky I am. And I have never ever begrudged anyone for having to use food stamps. If anything? I feel horrible and lousy looking at the boxes of fruit snacks and deli meat and nice things we can afford to buy.

    Thank you for this post. Sooooo important.

  19. Mindy says

    I am sitting here crying, surprised by my emotional reaction. I’ve never had food stamps, but I feel like I am in the moment reading this. I am going to repost this. Thank you for writing such moving, thought provoking piece.

  20. says

    Thank you so much for this post. I myself have been on food stamps as an adult. I needed to be on disability for multiple reasons but yet I felt so bad using them. I feel for all the children who have to have that emotion so young. There shouldn’t be shame about it. People need help sometimes, it’s just a reality. It’s really unfortunate that so many have to be judgmental (including myself before I had this experience).

  21. David says

    I can tell you that I have literally been in that exact moment. My single mother of 5, me the oldest, and looking at her face filled with emotion, pleading silently for understanding.

  22. says

    Ya can’t win with people who want to judge. We were on food stamps (now a debit card) when I left my husband and my son was a teenager. I got criticized for buying fresh fruit and veggies. Seriously. “I wish I could buy fresh asparagus. I can’t afford it.” What the woman did NOT know was that I had already crawled up from working poor to upper-middle class. I looked at her groceries, filled with soda and processed food and I said, “You COULD, you are choosing soda instead.” and walked away. Bitch.

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