I was at the supermarket checkout line when the cashier asked me if I wanted to make a donation for the needy.
I would have liked to, but instead, I flashed my food stamps card and shook my head, saying: “I can’t. This time, I’m the needy.”
The poor guy blushed and mumbled an apology. I suppose he must have felt bad for me.
“It’s okay,” I said. “I’m glad to have the help.”
That day, almost three years ago now, I realized that I didn’t look like the type of person the cashier would have expected to be on food stamps. On other trips to the grocery store I had begun to notice that I was not alone. Well-dressed women ahead of me at the checkout would try to swipe their EBT (Electronic Benefits Transfer) card inconspicuously, but I immediately recognized it. I wanted so badly to tell them not to be embarrassed. We were among the additional 20 million Americans who have had to go on Food Stamps since the recession. And my girls were among the 17 million children in this country who could be labeled as “food insecure,” meaning they do not know when or where their next meal will come.
RECESSION HITS HOME
I was a middle class hard-working professional, until my marriage ended around the same time as the recession hit. The publications I wrote for closed down or ran out of funding. I suddenly became the unemployed single mami of two girls, ages 4 and 7.
I moved out of our 4-bedroom family home with a pool to a small rental apartment, with my kids. My ex-husband also had been out of work and we’d gone through our savings. I had little income and a lot of debt. In order to pay the bills and buy groceries while I job-hunted, I had to resort to selling my jewelry, including family heirlooms, my wedding band, and gifts that my girls received when they were born. That was difficult and emotional. I held back the tears as the jeweler appraised my belongings, while my 4-year-old entertained herself admiring the sparkly gems in the store, unaware of what was happening.
SELLING OFF PRIZED POSSESSIONS
I sold my brand-name handbags, shoes, and clothes on eBay. Then I discovered direct sales. I peddled everything from jewelry to cosmetics, but it seemed these were difficult times for many. I couldn´t make enough income to cover the basics. I kept hoping I would soon find work again as a writer and that things would get better.
But nothing changed despite my best job-seeking efforts. Newspapers, which had been my bread and butter since arriving in the U.S. in 2004, kept laying off staff. The recession was in full swing. I was forced to accept handouts from friends and family. Around that time, I noticed that my neighbor, a mom of three boys, kept inviting my kids over for dinner. One day I discovered that it was because my girls had mentioned that our fridge was always empty. I was running out of options. I needed to feed my children.
A close friend suggested I apply for food stamps. His family had used them when they arrived in the U.S. from Cuba a few years back, until they got on their feet. At first I was appalled. I always imagined food stamps were only for the poor and the homeless. I couldn’t conceive that someone like me could qualify. Then I realized: I was poor! That night, thinking of my girls, I piggybacked off of the neighbors´ wireless signal and Googled “how to apply for food stamps.”
A few weeks later, it was a huge relief to trudge up the stairs to my apartment with my happy kids, carrying bags of fresh groceries. It felt better than Christmas.
These are tough times, and I learned the hard way that pride doesn’t put a warm meal on the table, but that The United States Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) does.
WHERE TO GO FOR HELP
Following is what I found out, and how—if you need assistance—you can apply too, until you get your groove back, just as I did eventually
Where can you apply for food stamps?
Regardless of the state you live in, you can visit Government Benefits Online and input your contact information. Someone will call you back to discuss your eligibility.
You can also visit SNAP Food Stamp Help state_listwhere there are answers to FAQs and go directly to the site of your state and apply there.
How will I know if I’m eligible?
Every state has different requirements, but you can use the online Prescreening Eligibility Tool to find out within minutes if you are eligible. If so, then you can apply online
What kind of information will I need to provide?
You will need to state your income, your expenses, assets, debts, number of children in your care, whether someone is helping to pay your bills, and if you are receiving child support. Depending on what your answers are, it may take around 45 minutes to complete the application. You can save your application and come back to it later if need be.
What documents are required of me?
After your application is processed, you may get a call or an e-mail, although you may also access the status of your application online. In most cases you will need to provide proof of income for the past four weeks, a copy of your driver’s license and your children’s birth certificates. Usually, you may fax those documents.
How much assistance will I receive?
That depends on your income, your expenses, and how many children you have in your care. If you agree to cooperate with Child Support Enforcement in the event that you are separated or divorced, then you will be eligible to receive assistance too. I chose not to cooperate, for personal reasons, but each case is different. If you don´t comply with Child Support Enforcement, know that your children will still receive benefits.
What if I’m denied assistance but I really do need it?
You can reapply a month later or appeal your case. If your income fluctuates month to month, don’t hesitate to reapply. Once approved, you will receive benefits for six months, at the end of which your case will be reviewed.
What do food stamps look like and how do you pay with them?
Nowadays it’s not something conspicuous. It looks like a debit card, and you swipe it at the checkout just like you would your regular debit or credit card. When the payment options appear onscreen, you press EBT instead of Debit or Credit. The next screen will say Food or Cash. You need to press Food and input your PIN when prompted.
Once the EBT card pays for eligible items, including any food or beverage that is not prepared at the deli (it does cover candy and soda, surprisingly), the resulting balance will appear. This number will be the total cost of items you purchased that are not edible or all alcoholic drinks. You can pay this off with cash or your debit card. When you are handed your receipt, at the bottom of it you can see your remaining EBT balance.
Rest assured, nobody is going to single you out or make a fuss because you’re using food stamps to pay for your groceries. And if they do, you have every right to complain to the manager.
What grocery stores take food stamps?
Most! Even higher end organic stores such as Whole Foods. Dollar stores and gas station convenience stores are taking food stamps (you will usually see signs stating “we take EBT payments”). Some don’t, but it doesn’t hurt to ask. You would be surprised at how many people just like that you are using them.
If you think a mami you know may benefit from this information, please pass it on. There is no shame in asking for help when you need it while you find ways to pull yourself through a rough spot. Sometimes it’s harder to receive than to give, but as mamis, we need to sweep our pride under the carpet and make sure our children’s needs are covered.
IF YOU ARE IN A POSITION TO HELP
You don’t have to travel far to find hunger. For millions of people—1 in 6 Americans—in the US, hunger is real. Many are children and seniors. Learn more. Test your knowledge on hunger; take this quiz.