The Common Good

Real Life on Food Stamps

I am a single mom living alone with my 3-year-old little boy in southwest Florida. I have worked most of my life and never thought I would be using food stamps to feed myself and family, but due to the events of the last two years, I am the holder of an EBT card (food stamps). To make a long story short, I was blessed to have my son, but his father turned to alcohol and drugs and I found myself standing in front of the home I owned for 17 years, holding an 11 month old baby, with utility bills, a mortgage, medical expenses, car expenses and more, alone. I had no job or babysitter, since my son's father had wanted me to stay home to raise our son. I took a deep breath, called some friends, found a loving caregiver who was like a second mom to my son, found a job, but was drowning in debt. A third of my paycheck went to pay for daycare, and the rest was spent on the house and car expenses, not to mention formula and diapers. Our church and family rallied together to try to help, but I applied for food stamps in the state of Illinois.

After dragging my little boy to a rundown office in a seedy neighborhood and waiting in endless lines, we were awarded the food stamps. I was employed by Cub foods (a now defunct grocery store chain) so I was very aware of the rules and restrictions of the food stamp program. I sat through many customer service seminars as the pricing coordinator and customer service manager. We were told to treat every customer with respect no matter how they were paying for their purchases.

Since then, I have moved to Florida to escape a domestic violence situation with the father of my son and now receive food stamps here. It is embarrassing to use the EBT card but I want to feed my son and help him grow to a healthy adult.

Food stamps are to be used for food items only. Even though laundry detergent, diapers, toiletries and cleaning supplies are needed, they cannot be purchased with food stamps. Certain prepared foods, like rotisserie chickens, and deli sandwiches are not food stamp able. The idea behind the food stamps is to encourage recipients to prepare meals at home. I am currently a returning college student and am enrolled full time to get an education and become self sufficient again. I am very aware of nutrition and try to choose items that are healthy and fresh. I do use coupons with my stamps to stretch my benefits to get through each month. I try to purchase produce and healthy items as much as possible.

During this time of lent, I get a lot of cheese and tuna, but meats and fresh fruits and vegetable are expensive. Some people have a stereotype of food stamp recipients as lazy, and are taking advantage of taxpayers. I am not lazy and worked almost my entire life and am not looking for a handout. I am very embarrassed to have to use them. Occasionally, I purchase Diet Coke for myself or ice cream for a treat for my son. A woman behind me in line a few weeks ago noticed I was using the EBT card and rolled her eyes and said "I am a taxpayer and it angers me that you can buy stuff on my dime." I was humiliated. She pointed out the "goodies" and told me I should be getting macaroni and cheese dinners and need to find a job.

Another trip to the grocery store caused me to turn red and want to crawl under the shopping cart. I had picked out some organic cereal bars for my son, who occasionally is a picky eater, and wanted them for him to eat on his way to daycare. The product was not tagged in the store's computer as being food stamp able, so I could not purchase them with the card. This product was supposed to be a food item but the cashier wanted cash from me for them. I asked to talk to the manager and he told me that he couldn't sell them to me for payment with the EBT card, and of course there were four people in line behind me. The store was in error but to avoid the stares from the other customers, I asked the cashier to take them off my bill, since I did not have enough cash to pay for them.

I hope that people think before they draw conclusions when seeing someone using food stamps. I do not want a handout, but need to use them to climb out of the situation I am in. You lose a bit of your dignity each time someone gives you a look for using them. I am grateful for the assistance my son and I get, but pray that people know that not everyone using food stamps is a cheat or bum that doesn't want to work or pay for their groceries.

Jennifer Wheeler is a full-time student and mother living in southwest Florida.

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