Today was the day I have been looking forward to for the past nine days. The day when, for just one second, I could cautiously exhale.
The 12th of each month is when my food stamp allowance is uploaded onto my card.
We’ve been avoiding the grocery store for the last nine days, since last month’s balance hit -0-. I’ve become skilled at making masterpieces out of what’s in that dusty can in the back of the cupboard–it helps that I’m a trained chef–and, besides, all one really needs is water, a can of tomatoes, and a few noodles of spaghetti to make a culinary delight. At least, that’s what I tell myself when I must place it in front of my family for dinner.
So thus, the 12th of each month almost feels like Christmas. It’s the day when I can feel like every other mom, grocery shopping with my toddler in the cart, happily gabbing about nothing as I casually walk through the aisles. I’m walking as though I can purchase what I want; I can even drop a random item in the cart with arrogant nonchalance. Silently masking the hidden reality that has already set in–how will I make this $211 feed my family for an entire month?
And so, on the morning of the 12th, I go to work, feverishly scouring through the grocery advertisements for the best deals. I carefully plan my weekly menu around what’s on sale. It’s been a while since we’ve bought groceries, so there’s a bit more to get than the last time. After a well-planned 54 minute shopping trip, I place my numerous items on the belt. I feel the familiar anxiety, but say a prayer of thanks to the Almighty for providing in spite of my situation. I offer my savings card to the cashier to scan. Better than sex is seeing a grocery bill total slowing diminish by 20, 30 or even 40 percent as a result of my deal-snatching skills. $100….$95.45….$82.37….$75.28….your total is $68.99. I look around with pride as the other customers admire my skills as well. I consider offering my deal-snatching skills as a side-hustle–I’m sure there are countless others struggling just like me–but first things first. I quickly retrieve and swipe my EBT card (I know I’ve been paying into the system with income taxes for the past 20 years, but somehow, that embarrassment is hard-wired)…..only to be told that I have no balance. This can’t be! I excuse myself to call the toll-free “customer service” number.
Jackie (or whatever the automated chick’s name is), informs: “If your name starts with M,N, or 0, your funds will be uploaded on the 11th of each month. If P,Q,or R, on the 12th. If S or T, on the 13th.…”
I’ve heard enough. Five months of getting food stamps, and I had always received them on the 12th. And now, (I assume) due to the increase of those receiving them, they changed the dates.
And that’s what poverty feels like. It feels like not being given the dignity of being told in a letter that your date of receipt had changed.
It’s the confusion as to whether you should pay with money you don’t have, or put the food back for tomorrow.
It’s the embarrassment you feel when you realize that you have no choice but to leave a cart full of food at the check out aisle.
It’s the indignation of the store manager who refuses to acknowledge you when you apologize.
It’s the sadness and guilt of coming home with no food.
It’s the tears that want to well up at seemingly having no control over your situation.
Yeah, poverty is one ugly P-word. But it’s in these moments that I remember a more beautiful W-word that I have.
The will to keep on surviving, to keep perceiving the new thing in the horizon, the will to keep laughing.
And tomorrow, I’ll go to a different Safeway.