Life

The Real Food Stamp Challenge

I was a tad irritated when I saw the Gwyneth Paltrow Food Stamp Challenge tweet but I think she’s a douche anyway so it really didn’t matter to me. Then I read this Huffington Post article that pretty much defended her in a roundabout way. Honestly, the whole “challenge” doesn’t raise awareness; it ridicules people who are already feeling low to begin with. How do I know this? I was once one of those people.

It wasn’t that long ago, my daughter was about six months old and my husband lost his job. Being a stay at home mother at that the time, we had no other income to rely on. What little savings we did have went quick and the paltry $200 we received every two weeks for his unemployment couldn’t even pay the rent. To say we were between a rock and a hard place would have been an understatement.

I will never forget the day we had to swallow our pride, for our daughter’s sake, and go down to the social services office and apply for SNAP. I never would have thought in a million years that I would be on welfare but there I was, surrounded by twenty other moms with screaming kids who were tired, hungry and just wanted to go home. If they even had a home to go to.

We received $423 a month on our SNAP card. To this day, I remember the exact amount because whenever I went into the store, I knew I had to buy $200 worth of baby formula to get my daughter through the month. If she hit a growth spurt and drank a little bit more than usual, I would literally scrape the bottom of the can, dump it out into a bowl, do whatever I could to get every last drop out. We didn’t qualify for WIC because he got unemployment, that’s what they don’t tell you in that article either, in some states some other benefits disqualify you from getting others. You have to pick and choose what’s more important.  Sometimes you wind up losing the roof over your head so you can have food on the table.

Going to the store was the worst. The first time, I didn’t even think about it. I walked into the store, grabbed all the items that were on my approved list and went to the checkout line. It never dawned on me that I should ask if they actually took the EBT card. Back then, not every grocery chain did, now they do. I stood there, Coach Bag on my arm, trying to pay for groceries with an EBT card they didn’t take. The woman behind me rolled her eyes, she didn’t know that the Coach Bag on my arm was five years old at the time and bought with my own money when I was single and childless. I could feel the judgment roll off her in waves. To her, I was just another stereotypical welfare mom. In reality, I was a college educated, married, stay at home mom who had just had the misfortune of having her only income stripped away. I wound up leaving the groceries and driving out of my way to a grocery store across town that took EBT cards. I also left my purse at home.

Every time I would take the card out, I was embarrassed. The clerk would always give me that look; they were never discreet about it. They always had to announce that if anything wasn’t covered by the EBT card, I would have to pay for it separately. I knew the rules. I memorized them backward and forwards, I had no money to pay for anything extra. That’s what people don’t understand about being in that situation, we’re not proud of it. I wasn’t happy I had an EBT card. I was grateful it existed but mostly I was ashamed. Every time I pulled it out, I felt like a failure to my child because I wasn’t able to take care of her basic needs.

I didn’t have the luxury of buying limes and kale. I had to make sure every meal was filling. We stopped buying organic and all natural products mostly because the preservative filled stuff was cheaper. My EBT dollars went further when I bought what I considered being “crap” food. Stonyfield YoBaby yogurt was out of the question when the store brand was a dollar or less. You have to do what you have to do to get by.

We lived like that for seven months until finally he took the first job he was offered which was a lot less but it was work. We barely survived and during that time our car was repossessed and we were behind on more bills than we could possibly count. Every cent we had went to our daughter and keeping a roof over her head and the lights on. I could not imagine living that way for years on end. All the times when I would go to my fridge or pantry and see nothing there, knowing it was another week until the card reloaded. There were times when we couldn’t stretch it and we painted fences or other odd jobs around our neighborhood for money to buy her food. We swallowed our pride and took care of our child. When you have nothing, pride is something you can’t afford.

When I see articles like the one on Huffington Post, I try not to judge the writer too harshly even when it’s my knee jerk reaction to do so because then I’m no better than the woman behind me in the checkout line. She knew nothing of my life but figured it was just fine to comment on it. Gwyneth Paltrow knows nothing about what it’s like, that reality is as foreign to her as being a millionaire is to me. We can contemplate it all we want but our assumptions are always wrong. The reality of food stamps is a bleak and stressful one. The recipients are not all scammers trying to buck the system. All I ask is that people don’t assume anything about them. Odds are they’re beating themselves up enough as it is.

 

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47 thoughts on “The Real Food Stamp Challenge

  1. I grew up in that situation. My mom was divorced, and it would be on it and off it again. She would have a job for a while, then it would fall through and we would be scrambling for assistance again. That describes about half of my childhood, except that my mother sometimes didn’t manage to keep the lights on. (I’m not disrespecting her effort, just stating a fact.) You’re very right about the stigma. Because I was this poor living in a small town, if I went into a store with a friend I would be followed as if I was going to steal something. I was young, so I didn’t really understand why then.

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  2. It’s really hard on the kids. We’ve been there, needing assistance because my husband or I lost a job. Our state is a right to work state. So they can fire you without a reason. We have two boys. Two boys that couldn’t understand why we couldn’t afford their favorite snacks or our once a month take out dinner. It was not only embarrassing to shop with that card that felt like people could see it through your wallet it was embarrassing taking your kids to the store with you who begged and pleaded for this or that.

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  3. What your failing to mention is all the American’s who barely make too much to get food stamps. You have no idea what its like to put groceries back because you can’t afford them, while the mom with the EBT card buys $30 worth of little Debbie snacks right after you. Let’s stop focusing on the people in America who get assistance, and focus on those “middle-class” families with empty cupboards and no card that’s reloading next week.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Actually I do. I’m not on food stamps anymore and my salary pretty much goes to day care. I constantly have to put things back. I totally agree with you that something needs to be done to help those who are deemed “lower middle class” or “working poor” like myself and you and so many others. People really don’t think about that at all, they think because you’re working everything is fine. Sometimes it really isn’t. Thanks for stopping by Scattered Wrecks and for illustrating the other angle that I would have loved to bring up as well in the post but then it would have run too long. You’ve definitely given me an idea for a followup though.

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    2. Seriously? You think someone who has gone through unemployment and loss of income has “no idea” what it’s like to put groceries back because she can’t afford them? Everybody has problems. Everyone has struggles that other people don’t realize they are facing. That was the entire point.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. Thank you, so much YES. Almost every article about these programs breaks my heart, let alone people’s reaction to them. As a single mother I didn’t qualify for help, I made JUST above what the cutoff was. Before taxes. And living expenses, etc. The nerve of any celebrity to live “this way” for ONE WEEK and pretend they can even come close to the real situation is beyond maddening. Mario Batali did the same thing, but at least HE was working on recipe ideas on a budget. She? Just wants attention. I don’t know what she is going to do after her WEEK, but she will go right back to her privileged life.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. One of the other readers mentioned that as well and I plan on doing a follow up because I’m now in that same position. Working and not qualifying for benefits but still struggling. I think that message needs to get out there as well.

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  5. I think this is just a misguided attempt by Gwyneth at gaining the public’s favor. Nice try, but no cigar. It smacks of ignorance, insensitivity and only serves to point out the vast gap between the haves and have nots. I believe there has to be a better, more productive and effective way to bring about awareness of the issue and to help and understand what those in need go through on a daily basis. Thank you for this post, Michelle. Excellent.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I remember when I was in college and my apartment, lights, and gas to and from school took all my $. I know I had a safety net at home, but I would not go home do to conflict. Mac and cheese was 4 boxes for a dollar. I skipped breakfast and ate 1/2 box for lunch and 1/2 box for dinner. If anyone ever asked me out, I would go because they would feed me. The food you would have to eat using only twenty-nine dollars would not include anything green. You would need to eat mostly carbs and hopefully swing a bit of meat now and then. Wendy’s dollar meals would be a staple. Peanut Butter and Jelly on anything (sometimes no jelly) fills you up as well. I have a degree and a job now, but my family still struggles at times.

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  7. When our boys were tiny, we were on WIC. I hated it. We were among that group that was on the edge. After I (insulin diabetic) wasn’t eligible anymore, I cried. Insulin was so expensive. I contacted our Oregon rep (this was 20 yrs ago) to ask what I could do. The young lady told me to have another baby. We couldn’t take care of the two littles we had and she suggested that to keep the help, we should have more! I hung up and cried most of the day. I completely understand this author’s words.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you. I was told the same thing. You wonder where people’s brains are that say that. Why would you bring another child into the world just for more support. The system is so screwed up. It’s gotten to the point where they need to stop it, create something else and start over.

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  8. Thank you for writing this. My husband and I had a similar story. The experience was disheartening enough that I have spent my career trying to make sure others don’t have the same deal.

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  9. Thank you! I loved what you said, we have been there too. The reality is for us, is we have been blessed to be off SNAP for a few years. To be 100% honest, I’m amazed at how much people get on SNAP and how they feel it isn’t enough. With three growing kids, we keep to a VERY tight budget of $300 a MONTH. This feeds all five of us. I have a friend that was on snap and for a her family of four, they received $600. I couldn’t even imagine how to spend that much! We have one more kid and spend half their amount, yet they felt they were barely making it. I have to look for what is cheapest and what store has a better deal and so many things I make homemade, instead of spending time with my small kids or going to bed at a decent time, because it saves more money for bills and things I can’t make.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I just want to say that while I applaud you and can obviously learn from your frugality (we also have a small grocery budget and do a lot of homemade, but spend a bit more for our family of four), being able to shop at multiple stores for the best deal, owning the appliances that make homemade easier when you’ve got kids around, and having the time to bake and make food from scratch are all luxuries of time and transportation that not everyone has access to. The cost of produce varies widely around the country as well as seasonally, and in many urban it is a challenge to get fresh produce at a reasonable rate without a car. Depending on where you live and what stores you can get to with the transportation you have, $600 may more than meet your needs or it may not even get close to them. Feeding a family isn’t simple, and I would honestly rather have my tax dollars give families a few extra dollars than not enough. I count my blessings every day that I have everything I need, and I only wish in this country that everyone could be so lucky.

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  10. I had my oldest daughter when I was 21, single, and in the Navy. I wasn’t getting benefits for her (because she wasn’t born yet) but I had to move off base out of pocket without a housing allowance to get those benefits. Meaning I had to buy a car. The only loans I could get from the bank (no credit) were at 15%, and only for a car 5 year old or newer. I had to use WIC to make sure I ate enough to support the human I was growing – but that didn’t stop many a woman at the WIC store from seeing my uniform, my car, and deciding to make amazingly judgmental comments to me.

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  11. I was in a situation where I was a stay at home mom and my husband just left. Boom. Nothing. It’s humiliating asking for help sometimes, and being judged at the checkout is the absolute worst! I was so thankful for the self checkout!!! I am no longer on SNAP but now I’m the working poor, I miss them!

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  12. Love, Love, Love this post! Job well done! If people just looked outside of themselves instead of judging others the world would be a better place. Thanks for sharing your story.

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  13. This is what the world needs to hear. Not some self absorbed celebrity with gobs of money trying desperately to gain favor with a public that for the most part thinks she’s a joke. I laughed out loud when I saw that photo she posted. She truly is clueless. While I don’t begrudge her the money she has earned and life she has made for herself, I do take offense at her pretending to sympathize with the family on welfare. Thank you for sharing your story, Michelle. It is an eye opener, to be sure, and goes a long way to tell the REAL story behind the card.

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  14. I just want to say thank you for writing this. I am a single mother of 3 and recently lost one of my children so im now supporting myself and 2 children. Two years ago my husband passed away and everything changed. Ive always worked my whole life since I was 16 after loosing him and doing things completely on my own was tuff. It is so embarrassing to have to go stand with your hand out (even having a job) and asking for help because you just cant afford to live with out the help. The looks people give you and the comments you hear are bad enough, now people want to punish you and limit the foods you can eat because you need help. Its just ridiculous. Again thank you for post in this.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. You are most welcome! I am so so sorry for your loss. There is nothing worse then being in incredible emotional pain AND having to deal with the stresses of every day. You and the other women like you are the reason I wrote this piece. To show that not everyone is the stereotype.

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  15. Thanks for posting this article..There are many Mom’s and Dad’s out there that need help..that’s why the Welfare system was made…But, now days..everyone is on the system..sorry, but it’s true, many able bodied persons are on the system..taking advantage of the food stamp program. The have two houses, two cars, two boats…and they are working under the table and no one is investigating them?? Why??? Hello??? Plus, they have thousands of dollars in their banking accounts…oh they don’t need their checks every month..it goes directly in savings!!!…I would really like to see the welfare system to work for the people who actually need it…not abuse it??..where are our leaders in all this..wake up America..please!! Children are hungry out there and so are people on disability that don’t qualify?? Why??

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m sorry, but you are just wrong. No one with thousands of dollars in a bank account in their name can get food stamps. You have to prove not only your income but your assets to get them. I know someone who lost her food stamps for three months because she got her tax return direct deposited.

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  16. After reading your post and the comments, I realize that I have been very privileged as well as uninformed about how it works in the states. I can not imagine how sad and deflating it must feel to be in line and have everyone around you judging you. I wouldn’t have known there was a list for things you could buy versus those you can’t. I am so sorry that anyone has to experience this, working or not working. A real challenge that is multiplied by other’s judging. Thank you so much for sharing your experiences. From a Canadian who knows a little more now about how it works or doesn’t!!! in the states.

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  17. This is an OUTSTANDING post! You conveyed poignantly what it’s like to receive government assistance when one’s employment situation drastically changes. When I was a kid, my grandmother had to take assistance from the government for a time. I will never forget the looks we received when she went to purchase something at the grocery store.

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  18. I have never been on food stamps (but never been rich either), but when I moved to the US I got to room and talk with people who did. It baffled me to no end, especially the part where you can or can’t buy certain foods. That seemed like an extra kick at those who are already down. There were so many tricks to make the money last longer – cooking tricks, not legal tricks, that is. It is very important to right about this more.
    (And yes, I agree, G.P. seems like a gigantic snob)
    Thanks for the link! Visiting through the blog party 🙂

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