Nearly every weekend, my grocery list takes me to two or three different stores and bustling farmers markets in the warm months. In addition to regular needs like milk and bread, I’m usually looking for ingredients to try a new recipe or make a special family dinner.
At times, it can feel pretty foreign.
When I was growing up, grocery shopping was rarely fun and almost never about experimenting. My single mother and I shopped early in the morning, as soon as the store opened, or late at night. We went out of our way to visit the most deserted stores, sometimes even in other small towns in our area instead of our own. The quicker it was over the better, and in general the experience was about blending in, keeping things quietly transactional, and leaving as quickly as possible. This was all true because, for many years, we relied on food stamps to buy almost all of our food.
In the 80s, food stamps were these awful, brightly colored things that came in booklets. The whole thing was about as inconspicuous as handing the cashier a stack of Monopoly money taped to a disco ball. My mom would pull them out of the booklet before we got to the store to avoid fumbling with them at the register, and when we got there she would pass them to the cashier low and out of sight. Sometimes none of it would matter if the cashier decided to hold them high in the air and count them out loud.
Other than the judgment that can be delivered in a look, I don’t remember anyone ever openly saying anything to shame her. Nonetheless, I felt her shame acutely. I felt the way she tried to shield me from it and make every part of my life blissfully free from adult worries. In turn, I did my best to make her think it was working.
When I hear politicians or anyone else characterize food stamp recipients as “entitled” or “lazy”, or spin a fairy tale that life on assistance is a carefree alternative to work, it’s not the shame comes creeping back. I feel what can only be described as an urge to shout down those misconceptions and tell the real story of what it’s like to need help with the American Dream. I feel sadness mixed with anger, and solidarity with everyone battling the same stereotypes, swallowing the same shame, hiding the same way we did. I also feel grateful.
I feel grateful because I know our “carefree” life on assistance meant my mother worked low wage jobs to fill in the gaps until she completed her four year degree. It meant that I suffered teasing over my off brand and thrift store clothing, and that we did without everything that wasn’t absolutely necessary. It meant we bought the food that would go the farthest and last the longest instead of food that was healthy. It meant foot long bricks of awful food program cheese and gritty glasses of powdered milk. I’m grateful because I distinctly remember the day my mother splurged on a new Barbie doll for no other reason than I was home sick from school, and only now do I know what she probably had to sacrifice to make it happen. Without all of these experiences, I may dismiss those struggling around me as quickly and as comfortably as those politicans do.
I cannot reverse my mother’s shame, but I can look to others who need help with hope instead of disdain. I know first hand that “entitlements” really afford people no more than a life of constant insecurity, and that most Americans, like my mother who grew up middle class and didn’t expect divorce, are just a few major life events away from needing help themselves. While I’m fortunate enough to have an income and many comforts, I’m happy to have my tax dollars keeping food in someone’s pantry. This perspective is one of my mother’s greatest gifts.
About the guest blogger:
Julie Watson writes at Freckles & Fickle and tweets @julieinthelou
Julie lives with her husband, two boys, and a labrador in the suburbs of St. Louis. She works full time in media and communications.
Photo Credit: family photo belongs to the author of this post and has been shared with her permission.