Our Year on Food Stamps

food stampsI never thought we’d be a family on food stamps.

We lived on a tree-lined street in a small co-op apartment. My husband had a good job, and our modest lifestyle allowed me to stay home with our five-year-old son. We were a well-educated, happy, young family. But financial troubles can befall anyone.

When my husband lost his job and couldn’t find work for months after, we qualified for SNAP, the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program. (We also qualified for Medicaid, which we desperately needed, since I was newly pregnant with our second son.)

When we got the news of his layoff, we hadn’t even told anyone about the pregnancy yet. I had that feeling of uncertainty that many pregnant mothers have during the first trimester, but now an extra layer of vulnerability was added. I felt a sense of doom, guilt, and inadequacy.

Our older son wasn’t in school full-time yet, and we couldn’t afford child care. I started training as a postpartum doula to earn some extra cash, but I was still the primary caretaker for our son. It was difficult to schedule many doula clients while my husband worked as a substitute teacher and interviewed for full-time jobs.

Nothing he or I could earn was enough, and our savings account was quickly depleting. So on a cold February morning, after we dropped our son at pre-K, we made the trek to the food stamps office.

Getting our SNAP benefit cards was a grueling, time-consuming process. We waited in a seemingly endless line. Finally, it was our turn. My husband and I began to present our bank statements, utility bills, a letter verifying that he’d lost his job. The employee behind the Plexiglas window shushed us and handed me a printed ticket with a number on it. “Take your number, go to the elevators, and wait upstairs,” she said.

Upstairs, no one could answer any questions. Everyone just kept telling us to wait. Almost two hours later, we began to worry about getting back in time to pick up our son from school. After what felt like an eternity, we were led into a small office where they snapped our photos and gave us our new IDs.

My husband had already been to the food stamps office the week before. He had found the instructions online and brought in all the documents that seemed applicable to our situation, but they told him he needed to bring a few more things — and both of us needed to appear in person.

We were told that this sort of thing was typical: They always ask for more documents, like birth certificates, marriage certificates, bank statements, paystubs, and letters from former employers. And it does no good to send by fax or email, or call on the phone. Calls and emails are not returned, and sooner or later you have to go back down to the office to make sure the documents were received.

This time commitment is a significant hardship for someone who’s trying to hold down a job or look for work.

While we were desperate for my husband to find work, I don’t know how we would have managed it if he wasn’t able to take a few days off from substitute teaching. Applying for food stamps was like a full-time job, and not everyone has the flexibility to put in the hours.

I was thankful for the benefits we were getting, but the amount allotted to us was not enough to cover our grocery bill (families receive different amounts of grocery money based on family size and earnings). Between my pregnancy and our five-year-old’s voracious appetite, we had trouble cutting down on food spending. Our SNAP benefits ended up covering only about half of our groceries.

I looked into WIC (Women, Infants, and Children) benefits as way to supplement, but the supermarket where I usually shopped did not accept WIC — in fact, it was hard for me to find many nearby supermarkets that did. It seemed like a waste of time and gas to go a different store. So although I did get some WIC coupons for our family, I never ended up using them.

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Tagged in: Family, Wendy Wisner