Fresh Gets Better: Lessons I Learned from Using Food Stamps

Food Features

Flickr/Alameda County Community Food Bank

A few years ago I offered to write a column for my hometown paper promoting our weekly farmers market. It was a nice opportunity to break down some of the myths about shopping al fresco, but a big part of the job was promoting their food stamp matching program: Customers of CalFresh (federally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP) could charge up to $15 in exchange for wooden market tokens, and they’d get $30 to spend. This was fun (who doesn’t like to double their money?) and also educational. The high prices charged at farmers markets—$12 a pound for salad mix? Mon dieu!—reflect the true cost of growing the food and hauling it out to sell, a far cry from the world of loss leaders and price rollbacks that supermarkets and big-box grocers use to lure us all in.

That true cost means a lot of people find farmers markets prohibitively expensive, and inherently elitist. Come out a few times, though, and it’s easy enough to figure out where the deals are. When tomatoes are abundant the price goes down; I’ve found heirloom varieties (the Paul Robeson! The Mortgage Lifter!) for half what the supermarket charges for waxy, anemic Romas. As winter squash come into season, you’ll find types you never saw before that were grown nearby. You get to see your region in a completely new light when you learn all the things it’s capable of producing. It was fun to try and help the column’s readers connect these dots, and it was an honest effort: The only way I could afford to be a regular at the market myself was thanks to food stamps.

As someone who really likes budget-friendly pinto beans prepared pretty much any way imaginable, my on-and-off experiences with free food credit may seem kind of ridiculous. Having the financial freedom to buy whatever I want for dinner isn’t something I’ve ever gotten used to, so even as a rational middle-aged adult who values her health, my choices haven’t consistently been the greatest when I’m off-leash. Overindulgence in the highest-quality organics somehow always ends badly for my stomach, scaring me back to Top Ramen for weeks at a time. I’ve also made some ill-advised side trips into food hoarding, the moral of which can be summed up simply by a Sylvia I once saw: “You can’t take it with you…so eat it now.” Amen to that. The more you sock away for hard times, the better your rodent population’s quality of life becomes. I loved Ratatouille, but I’m not prepared to keep him in trail mix for life.

When I lived in my own place it had a full kitchen, but I moved not long ago, assuming that renting a room in a shared house meant the courtesy of a shelf in the fridge and some cabinet space. Instead I was told, “Just put stuff anywhere,” in a kitchen that turned out not to have any where left. Packed with stale and expired foods, the sizable cabinets were overstuffed to bursting, but as a new arrival I wasn’t comfortable throwing out someone else’s food to make room for my own. The fridge was the same—five-year old condiments and other oddities overwhelmed it, leaving me little to no space to fit even a carton of yogurt. So I’ve had to cobble together something approximating nutrition with most of my food stored in my bedroom.

My menus have looked like this: Cereal with protein powder and water (pretty awful, though cereal with Slim-Fast powder was pleasant enough). Fresh fruit, which is not great at traveling in a backpack but worth the effort. Cup Noodles and Top Ramen and some terrifyingly spicy instant pho because the nearest supermarket I can walk to has a banging Asian food section. Rice with a can of beans dumped in, but all too rarely since the kitchen’s usually too busy for me to cook. Oats mixed into just about everything, from regular cold cereal to canned soup, and also eaten as oatmeal. Lots of Haw Flakes (China’s answer to both the Necco wafer and fruit roll combined into one strange and lovely tube of food), because they remind me of Nelson Muntz and cost next to nothing. Microwavable burritos, both dinner and breakfast varieties (the fridge was hopeless, but I forced my way into a corner of the freezer). Clif bars. Balance bars. Special K bars. Odwalla bars. Those radioactive orange peanut butter crackers. I don’t think I’ve done irreparable harm to myself, but at the end of most days I do feel a bit like a salt lick.

I try to think strategically, eating bananas, oranges, and the occasional microwave-baked potato to up my potassium and hopefully negate some of the sodium assault. It seems important to hydrate, too, but when you’re depressed and cold the scale sometimes tips in favor of coffee over water. Since I don’t own a car, every shopping trip is a hike out and a slog home with backpack and two shopping bags in tow, which counts as exercise. One day a man passed me as I was coming home with a particularly heavy load, white-knuckling my grip on the shopping bags. He started doing a strange shoulder-boogie that reminded me of David Byrne’s big suit dancing to “Burning Down the House.” Then it became clear that he was mocking my stiff-armed gait and trudging posture. Were I not so weighted down he’d have received some major shin-kickery, but alas. It was not to be.

This is all playing out while I search for a place to live and edge ever closer to homelessness, so the fact that I haven’t bought a seven-tier wedding cake and eaten it all at one sitting speaks volumes about my ability to remain cool in a crisis. Nevertheless, I am overdue for a salad and some homemade split pea soup and rye toast, which will be on the list of foods I make once I have a kitchen again. Powdered, reconstituted split pea soup (available in bulk at the nearby market) is just a sad reminder that I’m not there yet.

Last time I was on food stamps they were the pretty, colorful coupons. I had just graduated college and, finding only temp jobs paying $5.50 per hour, my roommate and I were eating not just poorly but scarily—the “margarine” we were buying for 58 cents a pound was lard dyed yellow, and we loaded up on ultra-cheap ramen that came packaged with an oniony slick of palm oil. Being able to buy good coffee, fresh vegetables, ingredients to attempt baking bread in her little toaster oven—we were giddy with relief. Worrying about when we’d be able to shop again and trying to stretch our food as far as possible meant constantly feeling hungry even when we had eaten well, simply because we were never not thinking about food. Suddenly having access to a whole $110 per month for the two of us was actually better than hitting the lottery; it released the pressure around shopping and let us get back to being overworked, underpaid Gen X dorks.

My current low annual income makes CalFresh benefits a crucial part of keeping body and soul together. My gratitude went from frivolous to something a little more humble each time I bought an avocado or locally-made baguette at the farmers market. Better this money should be funneled back into the local economy than frittered away on supermarket apple fritters. The CalFresh matching program at the farmers market helped me stretch my funds even further, and I often found myself with a king’s ransom in photogenic salad veg just begging to be eaten. Bulk spices from the co-op meant less money spent while getting fresher seasonings. This wasn’t just good survival strategy; it was a generally better quality of life than I was used to.

I know for many people food stamps and food banks are a necessity. For me, fortunately, they were also a luxury with some instructive value. Without them I’d have little vision for what I valued when it came to food. Having unlimited options let me finally choose with care. Whatever my food budget for the rest of my life, those lessons will endure.

At the moment I’m still between places, couch-surfing and house-searching in a situation where it’s a challenge to eat as well as I’d like. But the takeaways from a lifetime of doing this die hard, and I’ve been able to keep myself afloat so far with minimal problems. I’m looking forward to what’s next, not just in terms of life adventures, but all the meals with which I’ll consecrate my new home.

Heather Seggel writes full-time, mostly book reviews. She is currently between addresses, but based generally in Northern California, and looks forward to the day when she can look back on this whole food stamp-y time in her life and laugh and laugh.

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