Thursday, April 3, 2014

I Am On Food Stamps

Yesterday I stopped at Giant Eagle to pick up organic beets, oranges, oatmeal, milk, sweet potatoes and a small cart of other stuff. I scouted out the self-pay aisles, but there was only one open and the food mountain on wheels had just started. I know the checker at the quick-check lane; she’s fast and careful with my produce (a must), so feeling a little worried, I set off.

A guy I don’t know pulled his cart in behind me and made friendly small talk. Everyone was ‘up’—what a long winter that brought out the miserable in us, and this was the first day I was out without a coat. I’d found a skirt in the mending pile (score!) and was feeling quite skirty. The checker asked if all of my produce was organic. I said yes.

Then I flashed my EBT card, which I have to do if I check out with a person-stationed lane. I heard the guy behind me groan. Then my card didn’t take and she asked me to swipe it again. Then there was the total for items it doesn’t cover: deodorant and toilet paper (luxuries, of course) and by the time I was done swiping a gift card from a friend, I was undone. I slunk out muttering.

And the way my brain works, I’ve been talking to that guy in line ever since. You don’t know me, I say. I am Americorps VISTA. I am in a year of professional volunteerism (ok, that is kind of funny, but stay with me). My living allowance is $946 a month. Right. And I am strictly prohibited from any other income. So like tens of thousands of other VISTAs in active service, I qualify for food stamps. It’s part of my benefits package, to make sure I don’t starve, presumably, and I appreciate that.

But that’s just me. I could be anyone. I might have had my hours cut in half at my job, which, actually, I did, as an adjunct professor when my university limited by half the number of classes I could teach in order to keep me under the cap at which they would have to provide health insurance. Or rather, to keep me under the imagined cap, since the cap hadn’t yet been sewn. Or something. Even though I was making slightly more each month than my VISTA income, I made nothing during the summer or winter breaks, so I’ve actually qualified for food stamps for some time, I just couldn’t get them. Or I could have a child at home, or a severely disabled relative, or I could be a vet with PTSD, or really, in these hard times in this hard place I can think of so many things that might have happened to me.

You might be wondering why I’m buying organic food if I’m on food stamps. Well, I’ve thought about that, too. I believe that the way we spend our money helps shape the world we live in, and I believe in organic farming, in the good work it makes for families and the good food it makes for families. But I might have cancer, or a pesticide allergy, or another reason for buying organic. 

The way I do it is to make two big meals and eat them all week. I pack a daily lunch with one and sup on the other. And I make my own granola and my own bread. Note that there’s no packaged food, no recreational food, and little to no meat, so I save on what is missing. You wouldn’t know that this modest pile will last all week. It costs me my week’s allotment, but then I’m good to go.

But I’ve had to compromise. I’d rather be at the local shops, but they don’t take food stamps. I go to the farmer’s market, which does, and I buy at a co-op, which does, but I’m limited in what I can get right now. So I’m grateful to this grocery chain for carrying the organic foods I’m looking for.

You might think I don’t look like I should be on food stamps. But, honestly, head-to-toe that day, I was wearing resale clothes. I love thrifts because they’re local, and I can save on resource consumption, too. But even a VISTA can find a pair of dress boots at a resale. And what if I’d lost a great job, and had a closet full of great job clothes because I was looking frantically for another great job? And what if this outfit was a gift? Or the only outfit I owned?

You might think that I’m taking money away from you. But isn’t the reality that we all pay for each other’s lunch? When I patronize your business, some of my money helps you buy your lunch, and you do the same for me. And even better, food stamps takes tax money from all over America and brings it right here, to this store, where this cashier is smiling at me and telling me to have a nice day.

Which I will do. Because really, I am very lucky. I love my job, and it’s a privilege to be in a position that I can take a year to do some pretty meaningful work. Maybe Americorps wants me to know what it’s really like to struggle to make ends meet, to accept the help that’s offered me, and to find pleasure wherever I can. I have some experience in that department, but Americorps wouldn’t know that.

I still have my pride, and even though you don’t know how hard I work, I don’t like you thinking that I’m some kind of fungus living on the good, upright trunk of America. So I may still go to the automated check-out lane, which I don’t believe in, because that takes away someone’s job.

Or I may just smile at you and say, “I’m buying a little something for the kids at the orphanage,” or “Did you catch the price on that imported cheese? My food stamps won’t go that far!” or “Let’s hope the Ryan budget doesn’t pass,” or <whisper> “Organic beets are an aphrodisiac.”


  1. Thanks, Nin. I'm so distressed about our public conversation, and I just wanted to add to it in some small way.