“Mom, I’m Hungry.”
After the New York Times published an article last month questioning what grocery items were being purchased with SNAP benefits, we spoke with a local Northwest North Carolina mother currently relying on SNAP about what she put in her family’s grocery cart. Here is what she said.
“Mom, I’m hungry.”
The voice is my five year old daughter and I have to bite my tongue before I say “Really? Again?” After all, it’s not her fault that coming up with another snack can be a seemingly Herculean task. She didn’t choose to be born into poverty, she didn’t choose any of this.
It can be a hard line to walk, finding some middle ground between allowing a kid to be a kid and the actual fact that there sometimes isn’t enough food in our pantry and I cannot pretend that there is. I don’t want her to feel judged, insecure. I want to protect her from the dark looks I receive–more often than not–when I break out my EBT card to pay for our groceries.
I cringe when she asks for cookies at the grocery store and the honest answer to her “why?” when I say “no” is simply that I don’t feel like being judged today because, like it or not, there are an awful lot of people out there who truly believe they have a right to say what should go into your grocery cart if the government is helping with the bill. There are an awful lot of people who will look past the fresh veggies and fruits, whole grains and pantry staples that make up the bulk of my shopping list, who will only see the box of Oreos hidden near the bottom of the pile of healthy, whole foods. But why shouldn’t my kids be allowed to have the same treats as other more fortunate kids? I keep going back to that thought: they didn’t choose this. No kid would choose this. No parent would choose this.
I have heard every argument against public assistance in the book. “Don’t have kids if you can’t afford them.” “Suck it up and get a job.” “Why should my tax dollars pay to feed your child?” Every single argument falls flat when faced with the simple reality that, regardless of the circumstances of their birth, ignoring even the fact that most people who receive public assistance do work and that every child has the right to a healthy, nourishing diet. Every child has the right to thrive and it is our duty, as members of our local and global community, to do everything we can to make sure that happens.
Would I personally feel a little bit better if I wasn’t relying on the government to feed my family? Absolutely. But I am also absolutely willing to take on that burden of blind judgement and assumed shame in order to give my children the healthy start they deserve while my family gets on our feet. Their health and wellbeing are far more important than my ego, or the opinions of others. They didn’t choose this.
My family hasn’t always been in this position. There was a time when we owned a house and when we made plenty of money to feed our children, but our circumstances changed. The unforeseeable can happen to anyone and the truth is that there are a growing number of families in America who are one financial blow away from being on government assistance. All kids deserve to eat regardless of income bracket; this is a fundamental truth.
So what does our diet look like? I already admitted to the Oreos but for the most part we stick to whole foods and things we must make from scratch. I feel fortunate to have both the time and the knowledge to eat this way and I freely admit that I am lucky to have these things.
Assuming there is at least one parent who consistently has the time to prepare whole food based meals it can be significantly cheaper to eat that way. But as the saying goes, time is money and when the time doesn’t exist to prepare meals from scratch, it can be truly daunting to feed a family on a SNAP (food stamps) budget. I usually find myself making sacrifices to convenience: frozen pizza for dinner on food shopping days (when our entire day is often spent riding the bus), mac and cheese and hot dogs for that day when I just don’t have the energy to cut vegetables and start some rice. But those two days a week of convenience cost us. We can usually only afford to eat meat a couple days a week; I want my kids to understand the complex relationship we have with the animals that provide us food, so I make sure to buy only meat that comes from animals who have been raised humanely and sacrifices must be made in order to budget for that. Lentils and brown rice are a staple in our house and very often the bulk of the vegetables are reserved for the kids.
The grownups are done growing, after all, we can make do.
But the kids? Well, they deserve to have the healthiest start I am capable of giving them. If there is any way to mitigate the hardships of poverty for them you can be sure I will because they certainly did not choose to live in a situation where food insecurity is an undeniable fact of life.
They are here, they are our future, and they must be fed.