My Year on Food Stamps

Published in Gourmet Live 05.30.12
As federal entitlement programs once again face threats of cuts, Tracie McMillan pays tribute to SNAP, which kept her fed while she was writing The American Way of Eating: Undercover at Walmart, Applebee’s, Farm Fields and the Dinner Table

One of the smaller ironies of my life is that during the lean year I spent reporting my book The American Way of Eating, I never tried applying for food stamps. There were a number of reasons for this, but the primary one was that it felt suspiciously close to cheating. The goal of my undercover reporting was to work my way through the food system: I aimed to live and eat off my wages as a farmworker ($2 an hour), a produce clerk at Walmart ($8.50), and a kitchen wretch at Applebee’s ($8) for two months at a stretch. Claiming to have achieved this while getting “free” food from the government—had I even qualified for it—seemed dubious at best.

One of the bigger ironies of my life is that, six months after I finished the reporting, I did apply for food stamps. You know, for real—out of sheer necessity.

Ending up on government assistance was never in my plans. I’d pitched a book because the magazine and newspaper industries had tanked, taking steady journalism jobs with them. By the time I signed a book contract, the economy had followed suit, and my advance was half what I’d been expecting. A smarter businessperson would have ditched the book project altogether, but I stubbornly clung to mine. I’ll figure it out later, I thought, when the numbers looked tiny.

Truthfully, I didn’t hit upon SNAP on my own; the credit for that belongs to a bartender. I had gone out with friends in Detroit, a city where I’d found free housing and office space and thus had taken up temporary residence while I worked on the manuscript. I had no income, and I typically worked 70 or 80 hours a week on my book. At the bar, I asked for a glass of water, and made up for my drink’s lack of intoxicants by tasting everyone else’s. The bartender, watching me pilfer a gulp of beer here, a sip of whiskey there, told me to buy my own.

“Dude, my cupboards are down to bare bones. I got no business buying a drink,” I said.

“Dude,” he said mockingly, “food stamps.”

“Oh, no, not me,” I said. Food stamps were for people who could prove their neediness to government officials thumbing through their bank accounts. Food stamps were for people without any other choice. Food stamps, I declared, were for people who needed help.

The bartender rolled his eyes in a way that made me stop for a moment to consider the contents of my cupboards and refrigerator: a handful of spices, some oil, rice, beans, cabbage, and onions. Oatmeal and peanut butter. A bowl of bread dough in the fridge. A couple of sticks of butter. I thought about how I’d spent 15 minutes the other day hunting for loose change at my donated office, trying to cobble together 85 cents for a candy bar from the vending machine because I had forgotten my lunch—but couldn’t bring myself to spend $4 on a BLT, the cheapest not-really-junk-food option near the office. I thought about how I’d begun strategizing about free food in all its incarnations, from corporate lunches at the office to the predatory, after-hours “liberation” of abandoned leftovers from the work kitchen.

I applied for the USDA’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, a.k.a. SNAP—today’s term for food stamps—in the bleak early days of January 2011. First I filled out a form online, and then amassed a stack of documents proving my income—or lack thereof—to the state. There was a paperwork mix-up, then a round of voice mail tag before a phone interview. In the end, I received a plastic card bearing my name and, on the back, a magnetic strip swipeable for the small-yet-helpful sum of $16 a month—the federal minimum benefit. With this, I reintroduced a modest amount of meat and leafy vegetables to my diet. By summer, my caseworker had found an error: I was actually entitled, by dint of my own poverty, to $200 a month for food. What’s more, I was entitled to this retroactively.

I have never won the lottery, but I doubt it can improve on the experience of learning, after a long winter with a monochromatic diet, that you have $1,000 to spend on summer produce. It was the dietary equivalent of opening a gray, dusty door and stepping, Dorothy-style, into Technicolor Oz.

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