Day 5 was an eye-opener. I found myself at the library when a young woman with her child approached me while I was looking for a book. She had been “eye-balling” me for a little while and I wondered if she knew me somehow or if I knew her but just couldn’t place her. Anyhow, this went on for about 15 minutes until she mustered enough courage to walk up to me and said, “Excuse me. You’re Daniel, aren’t you?” OK, mystery solved – she knew me in some way. I smiled and acknowledged that I was, indeed, the person she recognized. “I saw you in the paper last week. I’m a single parent who relies on SNAP benefits. I wanted to say thank you for calling attention to this so that people can understand what it’s like. I also wanted to ask you a couple of questions, if you don’t mind?” I, of course, agreed and suggested we find a fun book for her daughter while we sat and chatted.
Over the course af the next 20 minutes or so, I listened to her story. From this point forward in this post, I’ll refer to her as “Maggie” – this isn’t her real name and she asked that I do not reveal her name or take any pictures. Understanding the stigma attached to people who rely on help, I respected her wishes. Maggie is 28 years old and has a 4 year-old daughter. She is a widow whose husband died a little over a year ago in a horrible tractor-trailer accident – he was an over-the-road driver. Maggie works part-time in a fast-food restaurant and relies on friends to care for her daughter during those hours because she cannot afford the costs of full-time daycare. She wishes she could be a full-time Mom, but that just isn’t possible because she doesn’t like to be on full public assistance and accepts SNAP grudgingly because it’s the only way she can sustain herself and her daughter. There was no mistaking that Maggie has a love/hate relationship with SNAP. She doesn’t like to admit that she needs it, but is grateful that it’s there.
Maggie doesn’t regret marrying her high school sweetheart or bringing her daughter into the world but does have a few regrets. “I got married too young. My husband and I just weren’t ready to get married or start a family. Before our daughter was born, we both worked like dogs to make rent, buy food and pay our bills. I never really learned how to cook or handle money very well. My view on money was there was never enough to pay for things you needed to pay for so you just kept your head down and worked as hard as you could.” She went on to say that she really was clueless on how to shop sensibly and how to cook. A typical weekly menu at her place consists of Hot Pockets, oatmeal, ramen noodles, soup and cereal. My first impression was that most of these are highly processed foods with not very much nutritional value: lots of salt, refined sugars and empty calories. No fruit, no vegetables, no simple staples that could be converted into healthier dishes. She never shopped with a list or planned out a daily menu. Her SNAP benefits do not usually last her to the end of the month. “There’s always more month than there is food.”, she said.
At the end of Maggie’s tale, she asked me for help. Not monetary help, but help in the sense that she really wanted to learn how to shop better, plan better and eat healthy. I asked if she had SNAP benefits available on her card. She did. I asked the librarian for some scratch paper and a pencil and Maggie and I began to make a rough menu for the next seven days. “Let’s go shopping!”, I offered. “Really? You would take time out to do this with me?”, she asked in amazement. And off to the grocery store we went with her curly-haired daughter in tow. We had a plan, some ideas and some funds – we were armed and dangerous (well, maybe not so dangerous).
We grabbed a cart and, out of habit, Maggie made a beeline for the frozen section. I quickly re-routed her to the produce section and we started there. I could tell she rarely visited this part of the store because she was like a kid in a candy shoppe amazed at the wide variety of items there. It was a little bittersweet because although there were alot of options – the prices of fresh items is high and if you aren’t careful, you can blow your entire budget in just this one area. We learned alot, though, and carefully selected a couple of items like carrots and bananas. We got to meats and, again, found very high prices. “I never buy fresh meats. I don’t even have pots and pans.”, Maggie commented. “Well, I have a frying pan and a saucepan you can have.”, I said. She tried hard to fight back the tears. It was obvious that she was weathering all of this alone and wasn’t used to someone trying to guide her. We got a pound of ground turkey and made our way to the rest of the store. By the end of this adventure, we made it out of there spending about $48 for her and her daughter for the week. I never saw a wider smile than the one Maggie had on her face. We stopped by my house, I gave her the pans and wrote out a few easy recipes for simple meals to be made from the purchased items. Maggie was extremely grateful and we agreed to stay in touch to “talk shop” as the days and weeks progressed.
The lesson from Day 5 was that not all people on SNAP have the basic skills of knowing how to make the best use of their benefits. Simple things like planning, making lists and menu plans, or making healthier choices aren’t always inherent within a person. You have to learn them. More needs to be done to educate both children and adults on nutrition and managing money wisely.
This new face of SNAP just needed a little guidance and learned more in a couple of hours than she had in most of her young years as a single parent, working part-time and doing all she could to keep things together. The key in all of this is that SNAP is a supplement to help you afford healthy eating, but unless you have the basic skills to make the best use of it – the goals of helping families eat healthy aren’t met. Further, lack of education around this doesn’t make for the best use of funds and creates a situation whereby recipients feel frustrated that their benefits aren’t enough to keep them above water.
The truth is that the allowable benefits are, indeed, limiting but a little knowledge can go very far in alleviating a big part of this struggle. If you feel well and eat well, your head is clearer and you can make better life decisions and see hope at the end of the tunnel. SNAP is supposed to be a bridge to get you by so that you can get on a path to self-sufficiency. It’s a hard road when you go it alone without many tools in your toolbox.