I was at a community gathering when I heard someone speak out in criticism of using food stamps—aka Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits—to buy healthful food. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the first time, and it won’t be the last.
“My wife used to work at the health food store,” I overheard a police officer saying. “She used to tell me about all the people who used food stamps there.” His tone was dismissive; clearly, he did not consider that I or anyone else in the room might be a SNAP recipient. But I was. I am.
He continued, “There’s a problem with the system when we’re supporting people to buy expensive food.”
Of course, exactly how SNAP recipients choose to—and are permitted to—use the safety net that food stamps provide has been a source of contention for decades. Back in the 1980s, for example, food stamps could not be used to purchase any imported foods—a list that included such incredibly common household food items as bananas, coffee, and tea. Although it is now possible to buy bananas and coffee with food stamps, SNAP does not allow recipients to buy many other essential non-food household items, such as medicine, diapers, or menstrual products. SNAP cannot be used to purchase hot food, either, and many states are trying to place further restrictions on what food stamps can be used for.
In 2019, Texas legislators proposed a bill to prevent people from using EBT cards to purchase energy drinks, soda, and candy. In 2016, New York legislators proposed a bill that would prevent SNAP recipients from buying “luxury” food items like seafood and steak. Although these types of bills have not passed (due largely to pressure from industries that don’t want to lose SNAP dollars), the stigma around what low-income people “should” or “shouldn’t” buy is pervasive and often presents a double-bind.
This double-bind has followed me my whole life. I was born in 1981—the year Ronald Reagan took office. In the early 1980s, my parents relied on food stamps to feed our family. My mom recalls one particularly upsetting incident while she was grocery shopping, me and my sister in tow. She’d just handed her booklet of food stamps to the cashier. “Ronald Reagan was right about you people,” the cashier screamed at her.
President Reagan, in an effort to crack down on what he called “welfare fraud” (the shaky concept that people could game the system by collecting too many welfare dollars by using multiple identities/addresses) helped create the myth of the “welfare queen” —single mothers who drove expensive cars, wore expensive clothing, and purchased steaks with their food stamps. This view became pervasive, and low-income mothers—especially Black mothers—were characterized by the American privileged public as low-life moochers, living off tax dollars provided by hard-working Americans.
But actual incidences of “welfare fraud” were minuscule, and usually came down to clerical error. Meanwhile, the New Republic reports, the poor were being blocked from using the meager welfare dollars actually available to them. An investigation of the SNAP predecessor, the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program, uncovered immense “hostility to this most disadvantaged segment of our population” in the 1960s; a decade later, the Associated Press discovered evidence of “illegally denying the poor either due process or deserved relief benefits” in nearly every US state.
In those days, my mom worked as an EMT and my dad bartended. No matter how hard they worked, their combined income was not enough to pay the bills and feed my family.
As an adult, I am now once again reliant on food stamps. I am a single mom to two kids, and we live below the poverty line. I have not been able to secure full-time employment, so I juggle multiple jobs to make ends meet. Although my family also receives Medicaid, it does not cover all health care costs. Prioritizing nutrition so we can stay healthy and avoid out-of-pocket health expenses is imperative. I purchase fresh fruits and vegetables for myself and my kids at the health food store regularly—fruits and vegetables that police officer and many others think I should not be allowed to buy.
At the farmers market in the summer of 2019, I was delighted to spot a stand selling roasted green chile. My current home state of Montana is not known for chile, and it reminded me of my New Mexico childhood. The man at the booth urged me to try a sample. Although the chile didn’t quite taste the same, I decided to buy some anyway. I reached into my pocket and felt for the wooden SNAP tokens I use at every farmers market. The chile farmer scowled when he saw the wooden tokens, each marked with “$2” in blue ink.
“What am I going to do with those?” he said. The woman beside him assured him it was the same as “real” money. He wouldn’t listen. She handed me the bag of chile and took my tokens. As I walked away, I heard the man ranting: “I can’t do anything with these!”
With his angry words I could hear the all echoes of all the messages I’ve read and heard before: “Get a job,” “I don’t want to have to pay taxes to support you,” “People on welfare scam the system,” “If poor people weren’t so lazy, they could get where I am,” “I worked hard for what I have, and so should they.” The list goes on and on.
Monitoring what and how SNAP recipients eat only reinforces the myth that people who use safety nets are lazy and undeserving—and perpetuates a perhaps even more toxic assumption that fresh, local produce and other healthful foods are only for rich people.
Food deserts—also characterized by terms such as food oppression—are at-risk areas in which access to fresh and nutritious food is cut off or limited. And according to the USDA, 2.3 million people in the US neither own a car nor live within walking distance to an actual grocery store. This leads to many parents in poverty relying on prepackaged gas station or bodega food offerings to feed their families, and the nutritional content is just not there.
This is why getting accessible, affordable, fresh and nutritious foods to underserved families and allowing them to purchase it with SNAP dollars is crucial. But when even purveyors of that food—such as my local farmer’s market—shame food stamp users for making a healthy choice, how many would prefer to just take that SNAP card down to the gas station for chips and white bread instead?
My kids and I—and every single family on food stamps—deserve to eat fresh, nutritious food. We deserve to use the safety net that SNAP provides to access that food—not just the cheapest pre-packaged food that privilege people assume we should live off of. And we deserve to be empowered to make our own decisions about how food shopping and budgeting makes sense for our families. Because my family eats a lot of beans, for example, I am able to budget for that fresh fruit at the grocery store or the green chile at the farmer’s market.
At the end of the day, food stamps are the reason I can make my kids stir fry, big salads, cherry pie, and so much more. I am doing my best to untangle the toxic messages I’ve internalized about my poverty’s relationship to my worth and what I and my kids deserve. Because what we deserve is to thrive.
This story was supported by Community Change.