Notes from the Food Stamp Office

Shame-spiraling and self-doubt, your number is about to be called.

Feb 17, 2012 at 11:01am | Leave a comment

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There’s nothing like going to pack lunch for your kids and realizing that your refrigerator is almost as empty as your bank account. When you can barely cobble together a decent lunch and don’t know what you’re going to do about dinner tonight either, the pit that opens up in your stomach isn’t hunger -- it’s panic and dread and the frantic questioning of every decision that led to this moment.

After months of being too stubborn to apply for food stamps, letting bills go unpaid so I can buy groceries and hoping against hope that I’ll land a decent job, that sickening moment of clarity in my kitchen finally spurs me to swallow my pride, gather up my birth certificate, social security card and financial information and head to the food stamp office.

I know I shouldn’t feel so awful -- as a newly single mom, friends and family have been urging me to take advantage of every possible program that can help me until I get on my feet.

“You are the person these programs are meant for!” one of them said.

I swallowed the lump in my throat and tried to stop my mouth from twitching like it does when my feelings are hurt. I know it’s true -- I just don’t want it to be true. I don’t want to be a member of my new demographic.

The office is crowded and noisy. Unsmiling security guards herd people into different lines and there is a loud argument going on at one of the service windows. My head swims with “I don’t belong here,” followed closely by “Who does belong here then, you classist jerk?” I feel ashamed, and then I feel guilty for feeling ashamed.

I shuffle along, smiling lamely at everyone and no one. I wonder if I have the right forms and documentation with me. I glance at the door and think about bolting into the sunshine, where I can make my way back toward my own familiar neighborhood and forget about this place.

Then I remember how much money I have in my checking account, and the pile of bills tucked into my pretty little mail holder at home, the one I got from Anthropologie as a wedding shower gift. It’s carved with wooden birds and painted yellow. I think about my nearly-bare cupboards. I stay put and wait to be called to the window.

When I get there I’m given a number and a packet and told to go wait in the green room. I almost laugh, thinking about the green rooms of my acting days. Green rooms used to be for running lines, touching up makeup and scavenging the snack table. This one is just a fluorescent-lit room with walls painted pale green and folding chairs crammed full of people.

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Some of them are sitting on the edges of their seats gripping their numbers, a few are sleeping, and the rest have their heads bent over paperwork. I squeeze into a seat next to an old lady who is squinting at her packet and shaking her head. She points to it and asks me something, but I can't understand her. I shrug and smile. My number is 135 and the screen says 67. Ten minutes later it says 68. I finish filling out all my forms and the screen says 70.

I have to pick my daughters up from school in two hours and I wonder how they can possibly get through all these people by the end of the day. I get up to find the bathroom and while I’m there I take a picture of myself. Here I am, this day, this place.

How did I end up here anyway? In school I was the winner of our classroom’s speed multiplication tests every week and the spelling bee champion. I made endless lists of rules and goals for myself, like James Gatz aspiring to greatness. Yet after college I drifted from job to job -- actress, barista, office manager, accountant, substitute teacher -- never landing on a viable career path and lost in a fog of depression.

Not knowing what I wanted, except to be loved and to create the family I always wished for, I latched on to a boyfriend (starving artist -- not the best choice) and was pregnant and married in short order. Too insecure to pursue my own ambitions, I told myself I was content just being a mother. I championed my husband’s career while I breastfed and changed diapers and prayed for a deus ex machina as we sank deeper and deeper into debt.

But kicking myself for every poor choice that’s brought me here on this bright, sharp winter morning doesn’t change my present predicament. I have to move forward. I go back to my plastic chair and wait. The crowd is getting restless. I hear someone say she was here until nine o’clock last night and they told her to come back this morning. I look at my number again. 135. The sign says 82. I look at the time. School will let out soon. Plus I’m starving. It’s fitting, I suppose -- I’m at the food stamp office, and my stomach is actually growling.

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Gathering up my things, I toss my number in the trash on the way out.

Later on, I figure out that I can apply online and do the interview over the phone. After that, I spend three more hours in another government building, waiting to turn in my documents and have my finger imaged. I actually like this part.

The young woman who does the fingerprinting  places my finger on the imaging screen and presses it down firmly, trying to get a clear picture. The machine is glitchy and she has to do it again, but I don’t mind. It feels reassuring to have my hand squeezed.

“You’re done” she says, snapping her gum.

I go to Trader Joe’s and load up my cart. When it’s time to pay, I slide my EBT card (that’s Electronic Benefit Transfer -- no more paper stamps) through the machine just like any other debit card. The checker grins and hands me my receipt, adorably friendly as always.

And just like that, I’m heading home with plenty of food to fill up my fridge -- and I can get more whenever we need it. I am so flooded with relief that I want to cry. I make potato soup and biscuits for dinner. My girls are laughing, smearing jelly on biscuits and stuffing their mouths full. The food warms our souls as well as our stomachs, and I feel ready to keep trying tomorrow. Trying harder, trying smarter. Always trying to do the best I can.

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