Getting by on a Food Stamp Budget: Stories from the Friedman Community

by Rebecca Boehm

Editor’s Note: This is the third and final part in a series called “Justice On the Table.” Click here to read Part One, and here for Part Two

Part Three: My Mom’s Silver Linings Playbook

I remember the day back in the fall of 2012, when my mom called me to tell me she lost her second job in just a year’s time. My heart sank because it had taken her many months to land the second job after losing the first one at the height of the recession of 2008. In this first job, she was a warehouse supervisor at a company that does reverse logistics for various retailers. I still have no idea what reverse logistics is, but I know my mom was really good at it.  Her second job was at a small clothing manufacturer where she managed their warehouse and oversaw daily operations. She was laid off from both due to low sales in the respective retail sectors to which these companies sold their products and services.

My mom, Terry, lives in Fresno, California, which was particularly hard hit by the recession. Even now, the seasonally unadjusted unemployment rate remains high at 12% in Fresno County. After giving up on the economy in Fresno, she recently moved to Las Vegas. Here, she found a retail job relatively quickly. It pays minimum wage with potential for raises, and will offer her healthcare insurance after six months. She’s happier now that she has steady work and she can focus on spending time with her partner, Phil, a high school English Teacher, her cats Edward and Honey, and her Chihuahua, Mocha. She loves riding her bike around Las Vegas, both in the Red Rock Mountains and even on the famous Strip.

Terry participated in SNAP starting in December 2012 and was deemed ineligible due to her new job right before benefits were cut on November 1, 2013. While on SNAP she received $35 per month for food. Her unemployment checks counted as income against her SNAP eligibility, which is why she received so little. As her daughter, and knowing what I know about how SNAP eligibility works, I couldn’t believe how little she was eligible to receive. I was particularly puzzled because her unemployment checks were so small. I triple checked the calculations for her and even called a non-profit organization in Fresno to have them help her to ensure she was getting what she deserved.

Terry found the application process to be time consuming and difficult. On her first visit to apply for SNAP in person she waited for four hours. At the end of her appointment, she was asked to go home and provide additional verification of income a common and understandable complaint among SNAP participants. This was after she had already filled out an application form online.  While providing information about her monthly income from unemployment payments, rent, and bills in person, the case worker told her that it might be a good idea if she moved from her current apartment in order to reduce her monthly housing costs.

“It was really frustrating to be told that. I had no savings at the time, and was trying to focus on finding a job. Moving would have added another layer of costs and stress to my situation,” Terry told me with some frustration. Instead of moving, she tried her best to cut expenses in other places. She got rid of her cable subscription, she rarely used her air conditioning or heater, and she changed her eating habits quite dramatically.

“I didn’t buy as much meat, snacks or sodas. Frozen foods were out. I did eat more fresh fruits and vegetables because they were cheaper than frozen foods,” she explained. The Central Valley of California is aptly named the “Bread Basket of the World” and Fresno is at the heart of this very productive area. Grocery stores here stock a wide variety of fresh fruits and vegetables for prices that seem bizarrely low, at least to someone used to the cost of these foods in the Boston area. This is particularly true in discount grocery stores and supermarkets, which is where my mom typically shopped while on SNAP.

To save money on food she drove to a more distant grocery stores, clipped coupons and shopped sales. Across the street from her apartment complex at the time sat two supermarkets. She felt the prices were too high at both. She also felt a sense of humiliation going to her regular grocery store given that she would now be using her EBT card to purchase food.

“I made bulk meals and froze food. I made sure nothing, I mean nothing, got thrown away. And I only ate when I was hungry. And I drank a lot less coffee,” she told me. I gave a shocked gasp when she told me she cut out coffee, in part because I know how much she likes coffee. She also told me she never went out to eat during this time, and had very little money to spend on fun things with her friends. When I visited her in April we went to the local farmers market together, and to our delight we found out a “double bucks” kiosk for SNAP participants. “I started going to the farmers market more because of this program. At times it was difficult to work with the coupons and sometimes the staff made mistakes. But overall it was a good program,” she told me.

Terry had family and friends to help support her during this time. Nevertheless, she stressed to me how challenging this experience was for her, and that she learned a great deal from it. “I realized I could survive on a lot less food than I ever thought was possible. I drank more water. I wasted less food. I ate healthier. And it made me feel empathy for people on the program. I also realized how SNAP fraud wasn’t an issue, even though that’s what I thought before. It is so hard to get on this program with all the verifications. There is just no way that fraud is as bad as some people say it is.” She noted this particular change of heart because she knows so many people – family and friends – who, mistakenly believe there exists rampant fraud in government assistance programs like SNAP. This is a common talking point among opponents of the program. It was reassuring to hear her talk about this program with a new and different perspective.

She also admitted that swallowing one’s pride is a huge part of the challenge of being on a government assistance program. “It’s hard going to the grocery store to use your EBT card when you know others are making judgments about you,” she told me, fighting back some emotion. She didn’t want to ask her family or friends for help, either. This compelled her to do everything she could to figure out how to pay her bills and eat and do everything else she normally did without outside assistance.

Life can present some of us with challenging circumstances, which in some cases can be for unforeseen lengths of time. For whatever reason, we need to show support and compassion for those that face certain difficult situations in life – whether that’s an unexpected job loss, the birth of a child, or a short-term low-paying job situation. One way of doing this is to ensure that robust social safety net programs exist in this country to make the blow of difficult life circumstances as soft as possible.

As practitioners of public policy we Friedman students must consider how individual people experience and utilize programs like SNAP and WIC and other food assistance programs. I think it is in these personal stories that we can learn a great deal about how to best reform such programs so that they are financially sustainable, but that they also serve the public in the best way possible.

Rebecca Boehm is a PhD candidate in the Agriculture, Food, and Environment program.  To learn more about her, visit our Meet Our Writers page.

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Comments

  1. Christina says:

    Very happy to read this. We frequently don’t recognize how close to home some of these issues hit, and hearing a personal story adds a richness to our studies. Thank you for writing!

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