On Foodstamps

If you were expecting some kind of well-reasoned, politically acute treatise on the merits of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), you’ll only be disappointed, as this article is about me actually being ON FOOD STAMPS.


Has FormerConformer fallen flat on his face since those headstrong, defiant, idealistic days of “The Sabbatical”?

Maybe. I’ll let you be the judge.

Earlier this year, I realized that my part-time, minimum-wage job at the local microbrewery just wasn’t going to cover the rent and other expenses. I immediately compiled my qualifications and sought out a second job to supplement my income. Of course when I say “second job,” I mean free source of government largesse.

At the Pawtucket Public Library (which has a very good reading/study room, by the way), I planned to look into the whole SNAPplication process – bureaucratic rigmarole no doubt, miles of red tape – and found instead that one can apply directly online. Though the interface was archaic (technocrats and politicians with business backgrounds who are always yammering on about government backwardness would have had a field day), I was able to complete the process in about 35 minutes, guesstimating several figures in order to finish at the library, and avoid a frustrating dig at home, through endless documents.

Several days later I received a number of phone calls (I missed the first one or two) from the Rhode Island Department of Human Services. I spoke to a pragmatic, helpful employee who confirmed some of my answers from the online application. Some days later I received a letter and an Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) card in the mail[i].

The letter requested a number of verifying documents, so it was back to the library to make copies[ii]. The letter gave a phone number for a caseworker, but was otherwise horrifically vague about just how to get the required information to the DHS. I decided the safest route was to bring in the documents by hand. The DHS was terribly crowded, and I had a very striking glimpse of the rampant poverty that courses not only through my fair town, but also through America, and the world. As I waited in line, I realized that despite my fancy education and middle-class background, I was not above it.

I turned the documents in to a tired looking man in a booth, who stamped them several times and sent me on my way. On the bicycle ride back home, and later that day, I suffered a number of small disasters that would devastate my summer, but that is another story for another day.

I did not hear back from the DHS for a while. “But the information was all there, and you saw him stamp the packet – several times,” I reassured myself. However, I had witnessed the overwhelming crush of the needy and the sheer tsunami of resulting casework that the DHS was up against, and it loomed ominously in my mind. I tried to call the DHS office on a Monday morning, but received an automatic answer indicating that the office was closed. I was miffed. “Maybe the republicans are right,” I grumbled. “Incompetent and harmful.” However, I soon remembered that it was Victory over Japan Day (VJ Day) – an Amerocentric, ungracious-winner official holiday of superfluous gloating, unique to the great state of Rhode Island.

I called back the next day and a two concerned sounding women shuffled through some records and promised to look into my case.

During my time as a non-food stamp American, I had read stories breathlessly documenting the sheer frugality imposed by the program. “Imagine feeding a family of four on $XXX.XX a month,” proclaimed leading sentences in shocking, outraged articles. “I think my liver is failing, or my kidneys. I can’t really tell,” said a gaunt, pallid Cory Booker, his eye sockets hollow in the lens of his laptop camera, his frail arm gesturing weakly toward his dwindling supplies of sweet potato and habichuelas.

But how could this be? For my award was INCREDIBLY GENEROUS. Either Americans have become far more gluttonous than I realized, or I had accidentally typed my car’s information in the spot where my children’s would have gone – if I had any (“Ah young Honda, you must eat, so you will grow big and strong”). I have been doing my own grocery shopping since about the middle of college, and I have never come close to regularly spending the amount suggested by that sheet of paper.

I will admit that in the months previous, I had fantasized about having a little SNAP in my back pocket. The Holy Grail? The big bottles of smoothie in the open cooler at Price Rite. Naked, Bolthouse Farms, Green Machine, Berry Blue, Carrot Sunrise, Mango Tango, Please Kale Me. In my imagination, I still paid for most of my cart, but the modest SNAP award allowed me to, ya know, treat myself a little.

But that humble little daydream was blown right out the window. I obviously wasn’t thinking big. When I went to Price Rite for my first EBT run, I knew – but could not truly accept – that I could have anything I desired. Granted, Price Rite’s fanciest items are roughly on the level of the store brand at Whole Foods – but there is still steak, there are live lobsters and fancy cheeses, Greek yogurts and smoked salmons.

I had to force myself to buy a third avocado. As I carted along I felt like I was committing a crime, which made me nervous, rather than triumphant. When I grabbed the big bottles of vaunted smoothie (I got one green and one blue), I felt like I would be putting them on someone else’s credit card.

And I would be. It was Newt Gingrich who called Barack Obama the “Foodstamp President.” It was the demeaning, racist inverse of one of those nicknames like “The Godfather of Soul” or “The Wizard of Menlo Park.” And yet, could I argue? I was prepared to put my whole grocery trip on Uncle Sam’s tab. I felt like calling a friend to discuss my feelings, but a quick check of my pockets revealed that I had left my Obama Phone in the car.

I bought Brazil nuts just for the hell of it. I couldn’t find any raw almonds, but I bought some walnuts, then later, a mixed canister of almonds and walnuts (I still can’t tell if they are dry roasted or not) in another aisle. I bought mid-grade steak to make burritos. I truly felt like an asshole when I finally grabbed the Roman Raspberry gelato. I had looked up Food Stamp restrictions beforehand, mostly because I did not want to be embarrassed in the checkout line. From what I gathered, if it’s edible or drinkable and it’s not prepared restaurant style to be eaten in the store, it’s fair game. I also bought a toothbrush and a bar of soap, but I made damn sure to keep them sequestered from the food.

As I headed for the checkout, fresh waves of fear crashed over me. What if the card (which I activated over the phone, also checking my balance while still on the line) failed me somehow? What if I was revealed?[iii] A line popped into my head, to use in the case of rejection: “Well, I have to seriously rethink my selections.” I imagined the confusion as I pushed the cart back into the shopping area, the hour it would take to re-shop, defeated, returning the items I had already prepared and eaten in my mind. The sheer horror of the idea paralyzed me.

“EBT,” I muttered to the cashier, in the null space after the ring up. I entered my pin and… “Approved.” The receipt curled out of the printer and I was in the clear. I did a separate cash transaction for the hygiene stuff, and I was on my way to the bagging counter (you bag your own groceries at Price Rite, which I actually prefer for the big cloth bags I use). I felt giddy, but hardly in a joyful way. I still had the slightly creepy-crawly feeling that I was getting away with something Illicit.

“Dude, you can get whatever the fuck you want,” is what I tried to tell myself on that first run. It’s what I keep telling myself as I wait for my second one – perhaps at a slightly fancier chain like Market Basket or Stop & Shop[iv]. More food! However, I don’t really eat that much. The last time I was home in Michigan, my father and I took turns at the scale and discovered that we weighed in at pretty much the same 153 pounds. This idea appeals to me greatly: Personal Economy – a sense of integrated frugality and dietary balance, passed down implicitly through generations, commingling with my fortunate genetics to promise years of healthy body weight and youthful appearance.

So for me it’s about getting better stuff, and savoring it. The expensive Tazo teas and small batch sodas, the good, lean meats, almonds and walnuts galore, luxuriantly thick Greek yogurt and sweet Midwest cherries. Basically, upper middle class grocery shopping.

It’s also about cutting expenses and getting closer to sustainability (financially at least). Ethics have not yet entered the picture. Cage free eggs and organic produce are battles that I will fight later on. For now, the idea that my food is paid for is far more comforting than shameful, and I hope to summon the generosity to pay my good fortune forward, sharing the bounty wherever I can.

I know I made my grocery trip sound quite dramatic – The Tell-Tale Gelato[v], if you will. But I felt like sharing with someone, so I told Jethro, my bandmate, about the experience. He listened, then he jokingly called me a welfare queen. I joked back that the DHS had actually mailed me a Cadillac. He then said that Ronald Reagan had made reference to “…a young buck out buying steaks” during a campaign to intermingle unpleasant racial connotations with his vociferous advocacy against the welfare state. Well… fuck you Ronald Reagan[vi]. I suppose I am a “young buck” out buying steak, and eating pretty goddamn well, and I hope it makes you turn in your stinking, rotting grave.


[i] Several of the 2016 republican presidential candidates have signed onto a plan to replace the EBT card with the beneficiary’s choice of one of several large, neon-colored sex toys, each of which will shout “Freeloader! Leech! Welfare Queen!” through a built-in speaker whenever its internal transponder is brought within 10 feet of a store cash register.

[ii] One striking aspect of yuppie life vs. poverty life is the capability and ease of the office itself. The convenient abundance of free copying, printing, scanning, collating and binding in an office environment is something that can be sorely and acutely missed in times of bumdom.

[iii] But revealed as what? A near-Ivy college grad slumming it? A former engineer doing poverty tourism? A debt-free, childless single man with a decent stock portfolio taking a handout?

[iv] I dare not breach the doorway of Whole Foods – even if they do accept EBT (I haven’t checked), the thought of all those white liberals, my former economic peers, glancing over me, shark-like electrosense informing them that I’m the object and desired manifestation of their presence at the city council meeting, their hard work at the ballot. Oh the compassionate stares, the empathetic gestures. Gluuuhh! It makes my skin crawl. I can imagine the young, bespectacled cashier saying something like “Keep your head up man,” or worse, giving me a long, awkward hug after I swipe my EBT card at the checkout.

[v] “It took me an hour to place my whole head within the cooler opening so far that I could see the flavors as they lay upon their shelf. Ha! would a madman have been so wise as this…”

[vi] And Newt Gingrich.

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