I stare down at the shiny new card in my hand and try to memorize the number at the end. It’s the PIN for our new food stamp card from the state. Washington Quest is stamped across the top in big red letters, and George Washington’s face looks solemnly out. He’d by horrified by the whole idea of food stamps. But he was wealthy. And he had slaves. So I ignore him. The other shoppers and the cashier are another matter.
I now have over six hundred dollars per month to spend on food after three years of losing money and no income. Three years of watching our savings and plans dwindle despite our best efforts. Three years of no heat in the winter, no eating out, no extras. Of coupons and generic everything and hardly any meat. Three years with no vacations. Three years in which my husband had to lay off employee after employee from his business and knowing that any extra dollar we spent meant one less day or hour for one of them.
Our hope is that by applying for the Basic Food program, we can slow the slide enough to save the company and the jobs of the last two employees. According to the government, some 46 million Americans have done the same thing and now receive some food assistance. But that doesn’t make it any easier.
A weird euphoria rises as I eye the groceries on the shelves. Some early, rosy pomegranates sit in a pyramid near the doors, each one a hefty four dollars. I could buy one, I think. I could buy five of them. And the expensive trail mix studded with dark chocolate.
I put some apples on sale into the cart and move on past the fish counter. I could buy shrimp. Or salmon. But it’s at the meat counter where I linger. I haven’t even looked at beef in years. But now I study the prices and the cuts of meat; New York steak is eight dollars a pound. Sirloin is six. And hamburger! I could buy hamburger. I know it’s supposed to be healthier not to eat beef. Vegetarians would rightly argue we don’t need it. But now I’m gleeful I could buy it. I don’t. Some habits are too hard to break. I can’t spend that much money.
But I do select some chicken on sale and a big block of cheese and coffee and orange juice and finally a bag of Oreos for my kids. To them, that’s the pinnacle of decadence. I can’t quit thinking that I could purchase the giant tortes in the bakery section, or a block of goat cheese or the imported Brie. And it would be essentially free. There’s nothing to make me spend this money responsibly.
But then I approach the counter. The cashier asks me how my day is going, and I tell her okay. Never mind that my heart pounds, or that I feel like a criminal as I load my groceries onto the belt. Finally, I palm the card so the gray-haired lady behind me won’t see it, and I swipe it through the reader. A comment I read on another blog runs through my mind: “If you can’t afford food, don’t eat.” I punch in the memorized number. All my parents’ admonitions haunt me, and my face grows warm as I realize the transaction shows on the big screen behind the cashier. I feel as if there might as well be a flashing L for loser up there.
It’s hard to decide which is stronger—relief that I can buy this cart of food or shame that I need help to do it. I sigh and slip the card back into my wallet. For now, at least, I’ll take it.