Casaubon's Book

In the last few years, a number of political leaders have tried to live on a food stamps budget.  Among others Newark Mayor and political heir-apparent Cory Booker and current and former governors of Colorado and Oregon.  Some have done so to draw attention to the limitations of food stamps, others with the intent of proving that their benefit is sufficient.  A number of writers have done so too, as have celebrity chefs and others.  A number of people have asked me to do it as well, and I’ve always refused.

This isn’t because I don’t think I can – it is because frankly, I know for a fact that the reality of living on food stamps is rather different than making a week or a month long shift.  To know this, all I have to do is ask some of my kids.

Consider two of my former foster sons’account of life with food stamps as their primary income, something  they experienced  living in a motel room with their mother.  At the beginning of the month their mother buys them treats – not because she was stupid or foolish or doesn’t understand that if she didn’t buy them she could buy more healthy food, but to make up for the end of the previou month when there was little or nothing to eat, and she watched her sons go hungry.

By the end of each month, no matter how carefully she tried, they are out of food, and have to go in desperation to the food pantries, or if they have used up their food pantry visits for the month, around to various agencies.  Or, often enough, they go hungry.  Yes, if their mother didn’t buy junk at the beginning of the month, they’d have a bit more at the end, but because it is never enough, and she feels guilty and ashamed, she wants to give them something to make up for those weeks when there was nothing but peanut butter and bread, and not much of that.

So they start the month already behind in that respect.  Hungry from a week or more of under-eating, seeking comfort, they eat extra and indulge because they can and they need to.  But they start the month behind in other ways too.

You see they have almost no income – like six million Americans, their entire household income consists largely of food stamps.  The mother has used up her TANF payments, and so they are living on food stamps.  But food stamps don’t pay for tampons, soap, shoes, toilet paper, cleaning fluid, roach killer, school supplies, or anything else you need living in a motel.  So their mother trades a portion of her food stamps to get a percent on the dollar to buy those things – she can lose her kids for sending them to school dirty, for not having shoes for them.  Her older teen daughter misses a good chunk of school every month because they don’t usually have menstrual supplies, but she can lose custody for not sending her to school either.

So she owes the convenience store owner some of her food stamps for last month, when she bought toilet paper and tampons.  Is what she’s doing technically ethical?  No, but she doesn’t have a choice.  Sometimes she can get those supplies from the shelter or food pantry or anti-poverty agencies, but she has to take multiple buses with little ones to stand in line – and often they don’t have them.

When politicians and bloggers do these challenges, they start with a kitchen full of spices and seasonings to make food palatable.  They don’t start with a week or two of hunger, depression and misery behind them in which there wasn’t food, so they don’t understand why poor people who finally can eat what they want might consume bad choices.  They have a bathroom full of supplies, so they don’t need to use their food stamps to get things like soap.

They also have a kitchen.  Many of my foster kids come after living in shelters or motels with a microwave only – no cooking facilities at all.  Or after living in rental apartments where gas and electric are regularly turned off for non-payment.  Or after squatting in buildings with no services whatsoever.  They may have technical kitchen access, but only under limited circumstances – for example, adults only are allowed to cook, so during the long hours when my kids are home alone after school in their motel room, there is no way to heat up a can of soup.  Or perhaps like with two of my children, a 6 year old cares for her 18 month old brother after school alone every day and all day on weekends while her mother works – her food options are limited to what her mother feels she can safely prepare – microwave popcorn, microwave hot dogs, cereal, canned soup.

I can buy enough brown rice, cabbage and dried beans to live cheaply and on food stamps – but what I can’t do is mimic the circumstances and realities that accompany life on food stamps.  What I’d like to see as so many contemplate cutting food stamp subsidies is a realistic food stamp diet.  I think that experience would be truly salutary for governors, mayors, leaders, writers and chefs.

How well will you do in school or at work with a week of living on two slices of bread a day with peanut butter – all that is left of the food stamp budget?  Or the days when it is bread with ketchup packets lifted from McDonalds on it?  How will you do lying in your bed smelling food from other people’s use of the communal kitchen and crying because there’s nothing to eat?  How will you feel when after three hours in the cold in line at the food pantry you come away with nothing, because there was only food for the first 200 people, and you were number 239?  How will you feel when you have to choose between letting your kids go dirty to school and letting them go hungry?

Doing the food stamp diet for a week or a month won’t give you a sense of how depressing, humiliating, exhausting and frustrating it is to be poor in our society.  It won’t let you experience the ways poor diet and the grinding suffering of poverty degrade your health and your energy to keep going.    It won’t give you a sense of what it is like to live on food stamps month after month, what it is like to be ashamed of yourself and your inability to give your children and family what they need.  It won’t let you experience what it is like to feel that you can never catch up, so what’s the point of even trying?  The truth is that all it can teach you is how challenging it is to start on second base and have to get to third with very limited means – but it cannot give you a real picture of what it is like to stand swinging at the ball and never even get near it, month after dreary month.

Not everyone who receives food stamps starts as far back as my kids do – but the truth is for the one in four children in America who depends on food stamps for their family’s basic food security, the conversations we are having about cutting the food stamp budget, about the farm bill and about poverty don’t even begin to cover critical ground.

Sharon

Comments

  1. #1 jane
    November 18, 2013

    +10. My spouse and I are entirely food-secure (if on a budget), but many years ago we and a friend living with us were so poor that we occasionally ate at soup kitchens or visited a food bank. We’d live for days on baloney sandwiches, trying to eat the baloney within a couple of days if the power was turned off and there was no refrigerator. When someone brought in a little more money than usual, we’d often get dinner from the nearby fried chicken chain and a can apiece of cheap beer from the corner store – exactly the sorts of tiny luxuries that the Mitt Romneys of the world think the 47-percenters don’t ever deserve to enjoy. If we had never bought fried chicken, sure, we might have afforded a little more baloney and processed cheese food substitute later, but the tradeoff would have been that we never, ever got to enjoy a “nice”, hot, tasty meal. [Boy, do perspectives change – now you could hardly pay me to eat that artery-clogging, chicken-abusing crud.] The fact is that if you are poor, foregoing such little pleasures will not allow you to save up enough money to stop being poor, and it’s entirely rational to feel that you’d rather be very poor with an occasional treat than slightly less poor with no treats ever.

  2. #2 Fern
    Confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers
    November 18, 2013

    Exactly! Things have been so tight for us for the past 3 years that our food budget has been what we’d get if we were on food stamps. Sure we can do it – full kitchen, started with some of all baking goods, still had food in the freezer, my son and I drive to our job and work within 3 miles of 5 competing grocery stores, we’d already moved towards eating more beans/ethnic recipes, etc – we started AHEAD in every possible way. On top of that, we are three adults, all of whom can cook, and one and one-half of us work out of the house (I work at our home business full time, and have a just-above-minimum wage restaurant job about 24 hours a week) so baking our own bread is typical and 98% of the time at least one of us has energy to cook.

    We have a free standing freezer, too – it’s 34 years old, but being able to buy meat that the grocers mark down (sometimes twice!) on the last day it’s supposed to be sold and freezing it for use later makes a huge difference. Pressure cookers, slow cookers … STUFF and ROOM for the stuff and to store things bought in bulk on sale makes it immensely easier for us.

    And when family wants to send us a gift for the holidays, we aren’t about to ask them to send us rice and beans, tho’ that would help us get thru’ a month. You BET we ask for chocolates!

  3. #3 indigotiger
    November 18, 2013

    I totally agree with most of what you are saying, having lived on the street in the past, and currently on “food stamps” due to cancer recovery making it hard for me to resume full time work. What I never quite understand is when people talk about “trading” food stamps for non food goods… food stamps are not paper, like cash, they are an EBT card like a debit card, with a pin number, and the cash register recognises what is allowed and what is not… I can buy ingredients for a sandwich but cannot buy hot food from a store deli, I cannot buy personal care needs with that card, so how is it possible to trade for things not allowed? I apologise if this is a stupid question… but I have heard this assertion made in many places and while I am sure it is true, in the past, when food stamps were actual pieces of paper it would be easy, but I just don’t understand how this could be possible electronically . But then, much to my shame, I am the only one in my circle of friends and family that have had to go on public assistance for food, and it is only when I think about that I have been paying income tax since I started working at 16, more than forty years ago, that I can live with having to ask for help…

  4. #4 Fern
    November 18, 2013

    @Indigotiger – the store clerk rings up a fake food purchase (no food is bought) and gives the person some lesser amount of money out of the drawer. That money is used to buy non-food items.

  5. #5 aimee
    November 18, 2013

    you brought me back vividly to my days of living in a motel with my dad. I was fourteen. We were lucky; we had a toaster oven and a fairly well-stocked urban grocery/convenience store nearby where we could buy things like potatoes, onions, and bananas. In the hotel, the rate of exchange was $0.50 on the dollar for food stamps. We didn’t get food stamps – we would have qualified, but my dad never bothered – so we were buyers of food stamps. That way we got a 50% discount on our food groceries. Nonetheless, a lot of our monthly food came from the food bank, where we would go twice a month and get government cheese and bread – good supplies for the toaster oven. For a long time now, I’ve been meaning to write a “cookbook” for people on the street or in situations where they have no kitchens – a kind of handbook for how to eat as cheaply and nutritiously as possible when your resources are extremely limited. You reminded me of that today.

  6. #6 aimee
    November 18, 2013

    indigotiger – I think it is probably no longer possible, without making a deal where two people go shopping together. My memories are of the days of paper stamps.

  7. #7 aimee
    November 18, 2013

    One more thing: this time of year, now that I can do it, I buy food for the food bank, as I’m sure do many of you. I don’t buy dry beans and brown rice or canned tuna. I take my kids with me and have them pick out things they’d like to get in their stockings – fancy candy, tangerines, etc. For the grownups I buy butter, hot cocoa, and luxury ingredients like pecans or extra virgin olive oil. Truth to tell, if the food bank would accept it, I’d buy airplane bottles! Everyone deserves a little treat now and then.

  8. #8 Sarah Policastro
    United States
    November 18, 2013

    @Indigotiger Often the person with food stamps will buy food for others who will pay cash.

  9. #9 Scott Burau
    Los Angeles
    November 18, 2013

    An important and thought-provoking view. Thanks for sharing with all of us.

  10. #10 Cindy k Elton
    TN
    November 18, 2013

    I have seen many articles about taking away food stamps from all of those “lazy” people because they buy junk food and other things that some people feel they should not be allowed to buy. This is by far the best explanation of how many people on food stamps truly live! Thank you for putting it out there! I was there was a way to send people healthy good tasting meals like Jenny Craig does instead of food stamps. People wouldn’t have to drive to get food. Their food would be delivered weekly. Older people would really appreciate that. No shortage at the end of the month. And if I understand correctly the food is cooked. It just needs to be heated.

  11. #11 Joslyn
    November 18, 2013

    I know poverty firsthand and this article does a great job of explaining it but there’s a serious lack of personal responsibility on the writer’s part. A 6 yr old should not be watching an 18 mo old baby and using a microwave esp if home alone. There’s also no excuse for a teenager to miss school due to her period, pads at any store are very cheap. Soap is cheap and any mother who cares will hand wash her kids’ clothes EVERY NIGHT instead of sending them to school dirty. I’m all for helping the poor as long as they accept some level of personal responsibility.

  12. #12 Angie
    Plymouth Washington
    November 18, 2013

    It is Lazy when you don’t have FS or food at the end of the month. I was on FS when my kids were young and I divorced and never received child support and I did work full time the major expense was day care. We always had food and guess what I always had plenty of FS at the end of the month. Bottom line is we ate very well better than when we didn’t have them. We went off of them 11 months later I still had about 600.00 dollars in paper FS. I bought in bulk and cooked fresh veggies and fruit and who could forget the free cheese. We didn’t buy soda frozen food or trashy cereal. Still always laugh when people complain ……just look in the shopping cart and see what’s going on. I would love the FS program to be like the wic program only nutritional foods and be required to take a nutritional class every 6 months I learned a lot from them :)

  13. #13 Khristi
    Midwest
    November 18, 2013

    The person with the EBT card sells it to someone (typically not on assistance) for pennies on the dollar. Say the card has $100.00 on it they sell it for say $50.00. They also give the person buying it the PIN number. That person can go in and buy groceries that are approved, even though they can afford all their own groceries and double the value of their money. The person selling the card now has cash, which they can use to buy items, grocery or not, that are not eligible on the card, or for cigarettes or alcohol or drugs or McDonalds or whatever they want.

  14. #14 lisa wilson
    November 18, 2013

    Actually, you can borrow someones card and go get food. They dont ID you or anything, so anyones can use someone elses card.

  15. #15 Anna
    Georgia
    November 18, 2013

    Thank you for this thought provoking article. There are many things about the realities of being poor that people who have a little extra at the end of the month will never think about unless someone points it out. I remember those days of returning to the current house or apartment and there being no power, no lights, no heat, no refrigeration, no stove. I can remember when there were no clean clothes to wear and our shoes had holes and we would cut pieces of cardboard to stick in the soles so our feet weren’t on the ground. It didn’t keep the wet out, but it did help some with the cold. I remember staying in bed and under as many covers as were available just to keep slightly warmer than being up. No not every penny was spent as it maybe could have or should have been spent. Made me understand the value of money much better and taught me that I never want to be in that situation again and when I got out I’d do anything to stay out. Even though some things are very “cheap” or at least they are “cheap” to a person who has money, sometimes there isn’t even money for those things. Try taking a bath in a service station bathroom and using only the soap in there if there is any. You can’t get it with food stamps and you can’t get laundry detergent either. Just because you know that some things have happened in the past does not make your responsible for it when you expose it in an article. Yes I can even remember my older sister being told to watch me and my younger sister and I can remember me watching my younger sister (7 years younger) I would have been 7 not 6, when there was no one else and mom had to go to work. Sad but true. Do not wish this on any child. Help where you can and when you can. It’s the kids that suffer the most. They are kids and they can’t make the adults “responsible”.

  16. #16 Randi Anderson
    Ely, NV
    November 18, 2013

    I have a job, it pays okay, but as a single parent of a teenage boy, I never seem to be able to have enough food. Last nights dinner was Hamburger Helper with no hamburger. We joked and called it just ‘helper’. The food bank here in our small town only distributes every other month and when I go I get 2 can of a vegy, a package of beans, a package of noodles and a couple of cans of generic soup. It’s rough, but we always seem to manage. Oddly enough, my son runs the food bank at the high school, but does not get food there himself. He figures we always have just enough and there are people worse off than us. I have never utilized food stamps or SNAP, even though some times I could have used it! When payday comes around, I stock up on belly fillers, like beans and such. I get quite creative at times! I wish I had more money for fresh fruits and vegy’s, but our 1 local grocery store prices them so high that I can’t afford them ($2.98/head of lettuce). I have been on the food stamp diet for about 30 years now…without even knowing it!

  17. #17 MrsWJAA
    November 18, 2013

    @indigotiger – most of the time, a person with food stamps will come to an agreement with someone that they will purchase x dollars of fs funds on that person’s grocery list if they will give them x amount of money in exchange.. or they go to a mom and pop type convenience store and convince the clerk to accept the stamps for their items (not all cash registers read bar codes, so the amount is manually entered)

  18. #18 Stephen B.
    November 18, 2013

    So Sharon, this year we had a pretty fantastic and fairly large garden at our school and treatment center. Though we continue to get patchy support at best from our main office, our site leader thought it best to move me from the milieu to the facilities department where she thought (correctly) that I could do a better job of managing the farming operation, not only for our teens, but for the younger kids (5 to 11 yo) that joined our campus after a new building addition project late last year. Only now our site leader has left and other voices in facilities have (for now) decided that facilities people should *not* spend time with kids because they don’t want to waste facilities dollars doing child care’s job. (My suggestions that we perhaps look for child care workers that enjoy working with kids in a holistic, outdoor, field, forest and farm setting continue to go nowhere, so for now, the farming all falls to me.)

    With the idea that my department wasn’t supposed to work with kids bearing in mind, I had pretty much already decided that I wouldn’t be sugaring this coming season. Last year, we tapped about 30 trees or so and made about 5 gallons on a stove top which I’ve been using in the school kitchen, but also giving out as half-pint freebees to various kids that ask. Earlier today, in fact, I gave a half pint of our *** Farm syrup to a kid that commutes to our school from one of our agency’s group homes in Boston. He had been residing with us at our residential school location and thought he was going to get reunited with Mom in Boston and commute to us from there, but for a variety of reasons dealing with her inability to care for him and his younger sister, he ended up in one of our group homes in Boston as I say. His situation could have been like any of your foster kids before coming into our care and now he is very dejected about living in a group home “in the hood” as he says (It’s in Mission Hill.) Last Friday he was doing particularly poor in school here and after being redirected, ended up putting a coworker in a head lock. Physical restraint followed along with all the unhappiness that follows such critical incidents. He is still very unhappy about the dream of reunification with Mom and Sis falling apart. I had lunch with him about 2 hours after last Friday’s assault/restraint and proceeded to watch him put about 15 packets of mayo and mustard on *one* burger before I finally said enough is enough.

    Some people would think it obscene that today I gave him a jar of precious, home-made syrup after his criminal behavior last Friday, but I know what life is like in our group homes in Boston. While we have decent quantities of food there, it’s still pretty institutional. Thus, l fully understand why a mom on SNAP would want to give her kids a treat when the payment credit hits the card.

  19. #19 Stephen B.
    November 18, 2013

    That is a kind of poor, rambling 2nd to last paragraph of mine. I should have composed it outside of the tiny blog window, but my additional point was that I have also changed my mind and *will* somehow tap all those maples this coming season because if I want to give out “treats”, damn it, it’s going to be farm-school tapped maple syrup.

  20. #20 courtney
    November 19, 2013

    @indigotiger: the way you sell your foodstamps is that you take the person with you’re selling them to to the store with you, they pick their groceries, you buy em, they give you the cash or the other item(s) you want in trade.

  21. #21 LucyMB
    November 19, 2013

    Of course a month on food stamps can’t replicate the experience of poverty. But isn’t that the point? If even a month is this hard for people who come into it strong, knowing they’ll soon be done, that gives us a small window onto the greater hardships of people who’ve been there longer with no end in sight.

    If politicians who wanted to cut food stamps were required to take this challenge (a month living on them), that might well be the end of their attempt to cut food stamps. It’s not just about claiming empathy: it’s about experiencing empathy. It’s also about highlighting a reality. A small window is better than no window.

  22. #22 Wendy Cohen
    Savannah, GA
    November 19, 2013

    This is a wonderful article. If you want to do something to help these hungry kids who are in this situation through no fault of their own, please try to find a “Backpack Buddies” program in your area. This program provides several nutritional snacks for students to eat over the weekend when the school cafeterias are not open to serve them breakfast and lunch.

  23. #23 Hannah Durrance
    United States
    November 19, 2013

    I think that this is a very thought provoking article and as a mother of four, who has had to be on food stamps to survive, this article is very accurate. When my husband lost his job a year ago while I was in college, we lived exactly like this. We only had the motel microwave and a small refrigerator. It was hard to get foods that could be cooked and it was hard to save enough money to get a place to live because we still had to buy groceries. The amount of Food Stamps people receive is based on income. At that time, we were getting the maximum amount and it still wasn’t enough because we couldn’t buy inexpensive items to store or freeze. Since then, we have gotten a house to rent and my husband has a job again. It doesn’t pay what his previous jobs did, but it’s a job. I purchase a lot of marked down meats and breads. I buy dry beans and rice. Most of the time, the inexpensive items are the starchy foods like potatoes and cheap bread. It goes a long way and we can make it till the end of the month. I have been buying a spice per month so I can make a wider variety of foods so it’s not always the same thing. It’s hard, but it’s possible once you have a place to store food and to cook to buy healthy foods and make healthy meals. Still, the first two weeks, we have fresh vegetables and fruits. I splurge on a few boxes of cake mix, cookie mix or some other item for baking because I want the kids to have a special treat. I don’t think that’s lazy. I don’t think it’s wrong. I can’t provide them with Christmas gifts, or birthday parties other than some special treats because I can’t afford it. I can’t take them to Six Flags or Disney even though it’s only a 45 min ride from where I live. I can’t even afford to treat them to an ice cream from the Dairy Queen down the road. My daughter is in the Orchestra and when she was invited to see a performance at my college, I couldn’t afford the $10 for her to go. My 18 month old son has never owned a pair of shoes and my children know what it’s like to have to use a rag instead of toilet paper. I make sure my teenage daughter has pads, but I don’t use them so I can make sure she has them. That means that I have to be resourceful in other ways. I can make a box of laundry detergent last 6 months, I don’t buy household cleaning supplies, because I make my own from items I can buy with my food stamps like vinegar, baking soda and lemon juice. There are ways to make it, but it’s not easy and you have to be resourceful. It’s a lot of sacrifice and many people don’t know how to make it like we are. I search for recipes online that are inexpensive to make and include vegetables and some meat. Soups are great, but if a woman has worked all day, is a single mother, and she has to get the children from school or daycare and help them with homework and get ready for school, she has limited time to plan meals and do what I am doing. Being in college has allowed me more freedom and more time to plan ways of stretching the budget and making the food stamps last longer. It’s not easy, but I’m in a better place than where I was a year ago living in our van and in and out of motels through Thanksgiving and Christmas. Once you are at the bottom, it’s hard to work your way back up and if you are on food stamps and your income is that low, then you are living on the edge of collapse at all times. If the vehicle needs a repair, you have to choose between the repair or paying the light bill. If the children need school clothes, there is a choice between clothes and bills. Every month, there are choices that have to be made between what you have to have and what you can go without. I still have two years of college and I’m thankful for where we are right now, but I am always waiting for disaster to strike. If a single piece of paperwork is not turned in by mistake and my food stamps are cut off, the choice becomes food for my family or rent. That decision had to be made several months ago and fortunately, my landlady gave me an extension on paying and a friend loaned us the money. Unless you live like this, day to day struggling to survive and knowing that you are on the brink of homelessness at all times, you just can’t understand this life. I’m on my way up and out of this. I’m looking forward to a time when my children will have new clothes and a pair of dress shoes or a trip down the road for a big ice cream cone and not have to worry about whether that is going to mean that my lights will be turned off at the end of the month. It’s sad to me though that there will be many people who will spend their whole lives like this because they won’t find a way out of their situation…

  24. #24 Erik D.
    Chicago, Il
    November 19, 2013

    To Angie above: You do know that those things that you did, like buying in bulk, buying fresh vegetables and the like are actually luxuries for many people living at this poverty level? No, it seems by your comments that you actually don’t. Having the storage space for bulk food, having the capability to cook meals like that, hell, having access to a store that sells the stuff…none of that is assured when you’re that poor. It’s almost like some of these issues were actually brought up in the very article that you just read! (Reading is Fundamental!)
    But people are just so desperate to demonize the poor that things like facts and empathy all get tossed in the trash.

  25. #25 Harriett
    November 19, 2013

    As Hannah pointed out, ” Most of the time, the inexpensive items are the starchy foods like potatoes and cheap bread. It goes a long way and we can make it till the end of the month.” These are also the foods we’re told to avoid if verging on diabetes. Living in this kind of poverty for years also can mean living with worsening health, exacerbating the situation.

  26. #26 SeattleGirl
    November 19, 2013

    Let’s add to that the working poor. It is, perhaps, easy to live off of dried beans, rice, and cabbage when you are home to cook. When you are working two jobs, often including a night shift, it’s very, very different than being a SAHM. The rich take this for granted, with healthy take-out and premade stuff at Whole Foods when there are two working parents. For the rest, premade foods are not necessarily a way of dealing with lack of space to cook but a way to deal with lack of TIME.

    For so many reasons, you are a gem for NOT taking on this particular challenge.

  27. #27 JustMe
    November 19, 2013

    The problems that you have described are beyond the scope of food stamps, and beyond the problems that the SUPPLEMENTAL Nutrition Assistance Program was designed to address. There was a time when food stamps could be used to purchase alcohol and tobacco products. I do not believe that people, no matter how dire their circumstances, have the right to use other people’s money to buy alcohol and cigarettes when the monies are designated for food. I agree that it is a shame that there are no programs designed to provide those non-food essentials like soap, tampons, and diapers (which is why those are the primary items I donate to food pantries). The situation you describe does not negate the fact that there are abuses in the system, and that other people’s money is being wasted and spent foolishly.

  28. #28 Workforaliving
    November 19, 2013

    Yes! Thank you Angie! Seriously, a family of 4 can qualify for over $600 a month in food stamps and they’re complaining? I feed 2 adults on and average of $60 a week. I’m so tired of hearing about people buying energy drinks, cake, lobster and shrimp, and other luxuries with tax payer money. It’s easy to be irresponsible with money when it’s handed to you. Why else would college kids buckle down in college when parents decide to stop paying the bill? I’m sure it sucks to be poor. There are also days it sucks to have to get up and go to work everyday, but I make that choice so I can pay my bills. Perhaps if people were less irresponsible with public assistance, more people would want to help them

  29. #29 Workforaliving
    November 19, 2013

    And JustMe you make a good point…it is a supplemental program. I think it’s an issue of natural selection, really. I’
    If you’re dumb enough to spend what little $$ you have on junk and beer when you KNOW you’ll run out of food at the end of the month, perhaps your genes weren’t meant to survive another generation. Perhaps that’s why so many welfare recipients have 3,4,5 or more kids despite their financial handicaps? In hopes that one might survive? And I’d really like to know how the woman with the long post above bought cake and cookie mix to “bake” if all she had was the motel microwave? If there’s a way to bake cookies in a microwave, I’d like to know

  30. #30 Sarah Smithy
    United States
    November 19, 2013

    To Joslyn who commented in #11 by lambasting the writer’s description of a teen-aged girl skipping school due to a lack of feminine supplies. You know what? Your claim that “pads at any store are very cheap” is patently false. The price of two pads in the public machine near my apartment is equal to the cost of my one-way train ride to school. If all I have is money for the train (which is the situation when you’re on food stamps) it means very simply – those pads cost too much.

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  32. #32 Suzan
    November 19, 2013

    I cannot comment on the American system as I am Australian but when i buy or give to our church’s food bank I tend choose the things that are not easily available via other food banks. Therefore I do give sanitary supplies or money for the bank leader to buy what she knows they will need. For many years I have lived on a very low income but am privileged to have a kitchen etc so I can store for times ahead. i have eaten the food bank food in desperate times and most of it was rotten or junk. No one really needs 50 plus cakes when they need fruit, veg etc.

    Thank you for raising a very important point of view.

  33. #33 Joy-Marie Arico
    United States
    November 19, 2013

    I make less than 5000.00 a year and applied for food stamps. I was given 200.00 in Food Stamps to spend while they investigated whether or not i qualified for public assistance. It was decided that as a single person without children I earned too much money.
    The truth is that during that one month- I ate like a queen on 200.00. That is a very large shopping trip. If not selling off your food stamps-a person can eat very well.

  34. #34 AJ
    Colorado
    November 20, 2013

    A fantastic article! I am often amazed at the lack of compassion so many people have toward those in need and grateful for those that do what they can to help.

    I do feel that ‘free’ handouts often lead to frivolous use. Instead of cuts, I think we should rise to the challenge and figure out how to move people beyond the sense of irresponsibility that accompanies the ‘freebee’ and evoke gratitude and responsibility for the valuable gift of high quality food.

    Community gardens are a starting point, most people lucky enough to participate in a community garden experiences both the gift and enjoyment of sustenance and connection to community. While only part of a larger solution, it is the kind of thing I would be happy to see supported by public funding.

    Who has experienced the disconnect of genuinely not knowing or unable to act on what is good for themselves in the moment and instead turning toward what tastes or feels good? In the extreme, this difficult human situation becomes addiction, violence and other dissociative behavior. People in acute stages of this need help. Period. Those that can control it should count themselves blessed, not self-righteous, or more fit.

    “Survival of the fittest’ is a fragment of a biological scientific premise, used to justify all kinds of foul social, economic and political activities to which it does not apply. Natural selection occurs at the genetic level (as was pointed out), not the level of the specific organism, so genes that produce more offspring create more of themselves to survive.

    The more accurate statement is: ‘survival of the most adaptable and procreative gene’. Also, intense stress increases the urge to reproduce as in: “I might die, I better reproduce!” You know the scene… its the end of the world, man and woman are in an elevator… what do they do? The simplest way to address overpopulation is to help people feel sheltered, safe, fed and relaxed…but that’s a different issue.

    As a nation we have 3.5 million homeless and 18.5 million empty homes. Enough food is wasted to feed everyone twice. How about connecting the dots instead of cutting the page in half? I understand and applaud the deeply self-reliant “Do it yourself.” American ethic, and yet the world is no longer a wide-open frontier. There are people everywhere, the question is: do we throw others under the bus or expand and work hard to figure out models that actually help people?

  35. #35 Angela
    Asheville
    November 20, 2013

    @workingforaliving a family of four could easily qualify for $600 a month????? How about you talk to the state of NC about that! I have three children and I get $136 a month. It’s ALL I have for the month. My income pays for basic necessities. I’m supposed to get $271 a month in child support & back support of $27 a month. I haven’t seen a dime of that so far this month. I can’t even budget for it because it’s so sporadic when I do get it. If my kids need shoes, socks, or a coat for winter I have to not pay my light bill or telephone bill just so they can have it. Fact of the matter is, benefits are determined on a state level and NC recently cut benefits. Before that cut 85% of my county residents were working poor like me. It’s gotten worse since the cuts. My kids have yet to be embarrassed about being on public assistance (a first for them and the eldest is 13) because they don’t know of ANY child whose family isn’t receiving assistance.

  36. #36 Workforaliving
    November 20, 2013

    @ Angela: http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2013/11/01/deep-cuts-to-country-food-stamp-program-start-friday/

    Also a problem: why is it that when someone chooses to have multiple kids with an irresponsible (or more often, with multiple irresponsible) men, it becomes society’s burden to step in and care for those kids? If you want big government to step in and solve your problems, then the government ought to have the option to sterilize you so you STOP perpetuating the problem.

  37. #37 Andy
    Seattle, Wa
    November 20, 2013

    Recently, the local news ran a story about food stamp fraud. Reporters interviewed people who trade cash for food stamps. One such person was asked what he THINKS people use the cash for. He said, predictably, “booze, drugs, prostitutes.” So now that’s what people in Seattle are likely to think, even thought there isn’t really a factual basis to it. Thank you for alerting people to the real circumstances of people living on food stamps.

  38. #38 Fern
    November 21, 2013

    Workforaliving – most folks on food stamps are working families. Not JUST working – but with one of more of the adults working more than one job. Hell, a significant percent of active US military families get SNAP benefits. Are you accusing the members of the US Military of not working?

  39. #39 jane
    November 21, 2013

    It seems to me that when a person working the best job she can get – whether in the military or in the Mall-Wart or a fast-food restaurant after they have wiped out all the local businesses – can’t feed her kids without SNAP, it is the rest of us who are expecting big government to solve our problems, by feeding the kids of the people who must be paid slave wages so that we can have the super-cheap consumer goods, or the endless warmongering without need of supporting tax increases, that many Americans feel entitled to. The true costs of these things include the costs of feeding and sheltering the people whose toil provides them, and their families as well, because letting it be impossible for workers to feed their kids has both short- and long-term repercussions you wouldn’t like. Some of the irresponsibility here is yours, for believing that you deserve to have things you want without paying their true costs. Or have you said or done anything to convey the message to Wal-Mart that you would willingly pay higher prices to have workers and suppliers better remunerated?

  40. #40 jane
    November 21, 2013

    Oh, and noting Fern’s comment in particular: based on historical evidence, it’s an ESPECIALLY bad idea to let soldiers’ families go hungry.

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    Vegan Tree Owl, PO Box 639, Cockatoo VIC 3781 Australia
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  42. #42 brian
    Midwest
    November 21, 2013

    I don’t get it, I worked minimum wage jobs, sometimes 2 minimum wage jobs and picked up odd jobs to make ends meet. I have always been able to put food on the table. and pay the rent. I was unemployed after I left the service and was still able to put food on the table for my children.
    I think folks could learn how to budget. Do I feel politicians are out of touch with the common, minimum wage worker? YES! Do Ifeel like folks that live on constant government are out of touch? YES!

  43. #43 Jay Melo
    United States
    November 22, 2013

    Our grandmothers were able to make their own menstrual supplies from rags or cloth. This does sound so appealing today but it was sufficient for thousands of years. A trip to the dollar store for laundry soap, toothpaste, toilet paper etc would be worthwhile instead of loosing foodstamps every month to a con store.

  44. #44 Workforaliving
    November 22, 2013

    @ Brian-_I agree!!

    And re:military families being on SNAP: there are PLENTY of military families who have more kids than is (1) beyond their means to care for and (2) than is responsible given the state of our resources. Do you know how many E-4s and E-5s are in my unit who have 4-5 kids?? Look up an E-4s salary! Jesus, people!! Grow up and live within your means! And, yes, living within your means also means not having kids you can’t afford. If you’ve never watched Idiocracy, you should. Our world is screwed as long as the irresponsible and/or unintelligent folks out-produce the responsible and/or intelligent folks.

  45. #45 Workforaliving
    November 22, 2013

    That should read “out-reproduce”

  46. […] –Why I Won’t Do the Food Stamp Challenge (via Cosma Shalizi‘s Pinboard) […]

  47. #47 Sandy
    November 23, 2013

    In 2001, I became pregnant with my son. I was 25 and had been married 5 years. My husband was a fast food manager. So was I, until my doctor told me I had to quit working or risk death for myself and my son (I had placenta previa, which carries a high risk of bleeding out before you even know something is wrong). I applied for help, and was told to go find a job. When I explained my medical issue, I was told to go apply for disability. For anyone who doesn’t understand the disability process, people are usually turned down the first time they apply and must appeal, and it usually takes at least a year or 2 to get approved, if you’re lucky. Pregnancy only lasts 9 months. I was approved for medicaid and WIC, but nothing else. We moved into a trailer with cheap rent, but it had issues with the gas lines, so for the first 3 months I had to rely on a microwave and an electric skillet to cook. Our first few electric bills were outrageous, until we figured out that the ductwork under the trailer was torn up, and had a friend crawl under there with trash bags and duct tape to “fix” it (you cannot survive in a Florida trailer without a/c, especially when half of the windows won’t open and there are no screens on the rest). The food pantries in my area allowed me to come pick up one bag of food once every 3 months. Several residents of the park got creative, and we would pool our food at least once a week for a meal-usually a soup of some sort. I ended up taking a job as a seamstress, making costumes for the local theater. My boss was also my midwife, and she paid me by the piece. She fed me healthy snacks and had a comfy couch at the warehouse where she would tell me to take naps. After my son was born, she had a playpen set up and I was able to bring him with me so that I could nurse him throughout the day. After I lost my car insurance (and my license because of it) she picked me up and brought me to work every day. She couldn’t afford to pay me much, but she gave me things like food, toiletries, transportation, and most of all, kindness. We eventually pulled out of the hole we were in, but it took time. My son was 2 when we were finally able to get insurance for the car again and straighten out my drivers license, and that chunk of money came as a disbursement from student loans, as I had gone back to college to finish my degree. My husband and I were both working as fast food managers again, 60-70 hours a week each, opposite shifts so one of us could be home with our son when our roommate had to be at work.

  48. #48 janine
    St. Paul, MN
    November 24, 2013

    Wonderful to see that you are back creating thoughtful and controversial columns, Sharon! Having the right appliances makes a huge difference in one’s ability to feel a family cheaply. Also, one argument that wasn’t aired in the comments is that states have wildly different standards concerning eligibility for assistance. Access to reasonably priced markets enables many of us to feed our families on a limited budget – another variable. I can easily understand why you have opted out of taking the “food stamp challenge.”

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  50. #50 Sibyllas Stuff
    Wisconsin
    November 25, 2013

    Many years ago when my husband got out of the military and we had 2 children – and few job prospects, we got food stamps. Coming from what I would consider an upper middle class home, this was embarrassing. But . . we managed, I got work, so did my husband, and because I grew up (one of 7) and my mother knew how to take a cut of meat, some rice,beans, potatoes etc. and make great meals (dad worked and brought in an adequate income) and we were never hungry. I never realized the issue of spices or lack of them – and yes, too often the fruits and vegetables that are healthier than just bread and mac/cheese are too expensive. I don’t regularly buy chips and soda, cookies or box mixes – because of the useless calories (and GMO’s and additives) in them. We live on a food-stamp budget – and have done so for over 40 years. But we also have the luxury of a freezer, and the knowledge and tools for canning vegetables and meat when it is on sale and a place to store it in. A vacation to Disney – what a waste of my time and money. A trip to a nature preserve – is more satisfying – at least to me and my family. Those who do buy that stuff have been misled into what is truly good – though a “treat” once in a while – is just what is needed. I remember birthdays and esp. christmas – when the kids were younger, I made do with what I bought at the local thrift store, cleaned up – or made myself. (My kids still treasure and remember those things) Also . . I have wondered about the number of vacant homes in this country and the numbers of homeless people there are. What a waste of resources. These days, we have turned our lawn into gardens and grow tomatoes, potatoes, carrots, broccoli, garlic, onions, herbs, spinach, lettuce, beans, peas, We have planted apple trees, pick berries, have a pear tree and this year I am competing with the squirrels to gather the black walnuts. I’m reading the latest Mother Earth News magazine where they always have some neat DIY stuff. Crock Pots were invented for slow cooking and in a motel with nothing but a microwave, it would allow for some good cooking while mom and the rest are at work. Urban gardens, growing herbs for healing now that antibiotics are not doing the trick. Thanks for all the great ideas that people are sharing here. I also saw somewhere that great happiness comes from sharing with others – NOT having it all to yourself.

  51. #51 mortalcity
    November 25, 2013

    Jay, women may very well have made their own menstrual supplies out of rags for thousand of years, but societal pressures and expectations were different then. If you’re at home all day, then sure, you can rinse out a rag in the sink and grab another one. Or you can throw it out and find another rag. For that matter if you’re in the kind of office with one-person bathrooms. But if you’re using a public bathroom, you can’t rinse out a rag in the sink without risking the ridicule of your peers and the panicked intervention of the school nurse, because schools freak out about bodily fluids these days. (Blood-borne pathogens are scary, etc.) I can’t imagine asking a teenage girl to do this; as a teacher, shared bathrooms are a reason I haven’t even considered the Diva cup.

    Or I guess you throw the rag in the sanitary napkin box and get a new rag, but it’s not like rags are free. Or you could stick it in a ziploc and bring it home, but ziplocs cost money too. Maybe a tupperware?

  52. #52 Nena
    Georgia
    November 26, 2013

    What if you had to live on $600 a month part of which you sold to get basic needs met and what if these children Sharon talks about were your children and you had live with their hunger, their homelessness, their worries and fears. Would people be so quick to judge if they had to live this struggle? What if you had to come up with all the answers with no one to turn to? I work with these families and every day the number grows higher of americans living in poverty current numbers are that 3 out of 4 adults with live at or below the poverty line at least once in their lives so the probability is that this could be any one of us without someone to turn to for assistance at some point in our lives. If people can’t see it, perhaps they haven’t looked beyond their own current circumstances.

  53. #53 Lee
    November 26, 2013

    I was a high school drop out, single mother with only 45 dollars a week in child support. I never ever took welfare or food stamps even though there were days I had to go with out eating so my son would have dinner. And I managed to work my ass off, put myself through college, with very little or no pell grants since I was a drop out. Get a good job, go back to school get a masters degree and then a better job! I do not want to hear excuses from anyone….Ever!

  54. #54 Isis
    November 27, 2013

    Good for you, Lee. But going hungry could have resulted in illness, leading to foster care for your kid, and either a reliance on assistance or death for you. Hope you realize that.

  55. […] Astyk wrote a post that stays with me as well: Why I Won’t Do the Food Stamp Challenge. The experience of two of her former foster sons who lived on food stamps for their family’s […]

  56. #56 Jo
    S. Florida
    December 1, 2013

    Growing up we had foster children in our home. The stories they told in many cases were haunting. Many times our home was the first home they lived in that had 3 meals a day and one could eat until full. Many of the children were malnourished, underweight and chronically ill and it took a lot of time for them to adjust to what most people would consider normal.

    My job takes me to the neighborhoods that these children are most likely to call home. To the person who said the dollar store was the answer drive to a major city, go to a poverty stricken area and find a dollar store or a true grocery store where the conditions are such that you would purchase your food. Then make sure they are a walkable distance from “home” as it is hard to do anything without a car. In our area ALL of the major chains have pulled out of the recessed areas of the city. There is no dollar store, Kroger or Publix. You have mini marts that are not brands one would find near the interstate No 7-Eleven here either.

    We talk easily of “pulling ourselves up”, of “making it on our own’ and “personal responsibility”. But how many of us who believe we have done that began with a drug addicted parent, generational poverty, no education past 10th grade, abuse in the childhood home, schools to which most Americans would be ashamed to send any children – not just their own. How many of us have lost everything due to medical bills, job loss, old age or the death of the wage earner? How many of us are forced to live on the streets, in a car or in a shelter? Losing a job when you have savings is one thing. Losing a job when you have no car, no savings and are trying you hardest to survive is something else.

    I could survive on the Food Stamp challenge- it would suck but it is doable. That, however, does not mean I now have the ability to bash everyone who uses food stamps and tell them what they can and cannot purchase.

    Just my 2 cents.

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  58. #58 Artrese Morrison
    December 2, 2013

    Good, bad ,or indifferent all of these people above are talking about hunger in America because of the food stamp challenge and I believe that is really the point. Hopefully next steps are concrete solutions…

  59. […] I came across this post, "Why I Won't Do the Food Stamp Challenge," a must-read for food advocates of all stripes. In it, the author describes the reality her foster […]

  60. […] Why I Won’t Do the Food Stamp Challenge [Casaubon's Book] (scienceblogs.com) […]

  61. #61 Margit Van Schaick
    vermont
    December 21, 2013

    Thank you for this knowledgeable essay. That and many of the comments really make one think. I was especially intrigued by #5 Aimee mentioning her idea about writing recipe ideas for making cheap nutritious food without access to a kitchen. Also, AJ talking about community gardening. Aimee, if you haven’t completed it, I’d love to work on it with you! And AJ, I totally agree that gardening, if at all possible, can be a wonderful resource for food security. Education about food growing and cooking/preserving is something we all need. When I was raising three children after divorce, we went through some very difficult times. If I had to do it over again, I would apply for Food Stamps. Instead. I worked two jobs–a night job and a day job, not getting anywhere near enough sleep. After doing this for more than a ye ar, my immune system broke down, and I almost died from a massive infection and sepsis, leaving me crippled and in great pain for 15 years. It’s only in the last year that I have finally recovered. I know that sounds like a dramatic horror story, but it truly is important to take care of oneself, and sometimes asking for help makes sense.

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