Wednesday, April 11, 2012

On Food Stamps

I wrote this a while ago and didn't realize I saved it instead of published it... Oops!

As VISTAs, we're recommended to apply for SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, more commonly refered to as food stamps) before we enter our service year. That's just part of the experience of a VISTA's poverty level salary. At first, I wasn't going to do it because I didn't really think I would need it, but my ever wise Mother mentioned that maybe it was less about the funds of SNAP and more about the process of applying for them, receiving them, and using them for groceries. I knew she was right, so I went ahead and applied.

Man am I glad I did! The amount given to me every month makes it possible for me to continue paying the bills that I still have from college. And mind you, these are not frill bills either. We're talking basic cell phone, car, power, rent... the only bill I have that I could probably live without is internet, but I don't have cable/tv of any kind so I figured that would be my substitute (and I also worked with the company to get a really good deal this year). Those are just bills. That doesn't cover other expenses, like gas. As I'm sure you can imagine, the roughly $800 a month VISTA stipend goes pretty quick.

But then there's SNAP. Ooohhhhh SNAP. How lovely you are. You allow me to buy fruit and veggies and whole grains instead of ramen noodles and preservative-filled artificial imitation food products. I now see why programs like this are so important, and how they can really make a potential difference for struggling families. Of course there are restrictions (no hot prepared food, no alcohol, and no paper goods) but overall, the benefits from SNAP are easy to feel.

I had some extra SNAP funds around Christmas time so I made cookie plates for all of my coworkers and neighbors. Otherwise, I wouldn't have been able to afford to do anything special for them.

Paying with SNAP has become MUCH less noticeable than traditional food stamps. Where before there was a book of literal stamps that needed to be torn out to pay for groceries, that could be lost or misplaced, or whathaveyou, now it is a small discrete card that is automatically refilled when the new month begins. No one but you and the cashier has to now you are paying with SNAP. Pretty sweet right?

Accept for it's really easy to spot when someone is treating you differently because you are paying with SNAP. I usually go grocery shopping after work. I'm well-dressed since I work in an office, and Ethel is along as my trusty stead. To the naked eye, I am not what people normally think of when imagining someone on public assistance. Also I smile a lot, which is always confusing to people no matter what the situation. I get up to the counter with my cart full of whatever. I chat up the cashier (I'm one of those people) and when it's time for me to pay I swipe my card. Except the cashier has to enter a code, so I have to make sure I flash them my card before I swipe it. More than one time, I have witnessed a person completely change from pre to post card reveal. Sometimes they become quiet or get a little less reciprocally chatty. Sometimes they straight up give me the face. Maybe not all grocery stores require a code, but ours does. Or the other one in town is much smaller and the cashier actually has to swipe the card for me. One time, a cashier was flirting with me hardcore until he saw my plastic badge of government assistance. **Note to self, try to scare creepers away with SNAP card**

The point is, I don't think any of these cashiers had that reaction on purpose but it seemed almost involuntary. I'm not sensitive about it, because I know this is part of my year of experience and that after I finish serving as a VISTA, I won't need them. But I'm sure to those barely squeaking by, any little sideways glance could make them really self-conscious. It might even be enough to prevent people from using them who really need them.

And I'm one of the lucky ones who have wonderful people working in the public assistance office. They are always super friendly, and extremely helpful. Even before I worked in the same building as them, they went out of their way to make sure I was set up before I arrived in Montana. Some VISTAs have had nothing but trouble with their public assistance workers, making the experience all the more embarrassing and potentially humiliating.

I make a lot of jokes about my groceries being "courtesy of the taxpayers" but the truth is, I have no idea how I would've been able to stay afloat without using SNAP. We have a stigma as a culture believing that the use of public assistance means a weakness. I believe a misuse or manipulation of the system is weakness, but using resources available to you to get ahead is smart. If you need them, or think you might qualify, don't feel the need to choose between pride and groceries.

Do you have any experiences with SNAP or food stamps? Did it bother you to have to be on them? Did you ever refuse to allow yourself to utilize this program because you thought it was for a different type of person? I'm curious to know...

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