By Jeanine DeHoney
As a mother who once received food stamps for a short period of time, I shopped for healthy food items for my family but still treated my children to chocolate chip cookies.
Chocolate chip cookies. When my children were little I hate to admit it was my saving grace. For those harrowing days when they just felt like falling out in the middle of a store, to get them to put their other shoe on so we wouldn’t be late for a doctor’s appointment, and just doggone it because I wanted to see their smile and chocolate chip cookies had that effect on them. Maybe it would help if I told you they brushed their teeth at least four times a day. But really that’s not my point.
I was sitting at my computer desk one evening, finishing a story I was working on and listening to the news when the newscaster mentioned that a bill was being introduced by Republican State Representative Rick Brattin, that would prohibit a recipient of SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) from using the funds for “Cookies, chips, energy drinks, soft drinks, seafood or steak.”
Digging a bit deeper on the internet, I read that Representative Brattin stated in The Daily Signal; a multimedia news organization that covers policy and political news, as well as commentary and analysis; “that his intention was to make sure that those in need have access to healthy food in a fiscally responsible way. He stated that the United States is “the most obese nation on the planet,” and his bill encourages a return to “healthy basics, just like the first lady’s healthy school lunch initiative, for which she was heralded.”
When my children were young and my husband was in the Army, we struggled financially on his income. We often relied on the care packages of my parents and in-laws to get us through the end of the month and when I couldn’t find a job, eventually we applied for food stamps, which neither myself or my husband wanted to do.
Growing up, I remember my father getting laid off one year. The odd jobs he got covered our rent but not much more and my mother who refused to get on public assistance would take my sister and I to a food pantry to get a block of cheese that would fix a months’ worth of grilled cheese sandwiches and powdered milk for our morning cereal. Although I’d beg my mother to take a different route so the neighborhood children wouldn’t see me holding that bag most knew where it came from, she’d refuse and tell me to walk with my head up.
When I was alone though, walking to the bus stop for school or playing in the park, I’d be teased mercilessly about eating, “Welfare cheese.” I vowed I’d never put my children through that if I had a choice.
When my husband and I applied for food stamps I had to get rid of that painful memory of those childhood jokes by children who didn’t know any better. I also had to remove that veil of shame I felt from receiving them.
I was not surprised but was angered over how judgmental not just of me but of my children people were when they saw me using food stamps. I overheard nasty comments from supermarket customers standing behind me at the checkout register. Some people even proclaimed themselves overseer of my grocery cart, seeing whether there were things in it that were on the “You don’t have a right to buy that on government assistance list,” even if it was a package of chocolate chip cookies.
Receiving food stamps was short lived for my husband and I but for many mothers and families whose circumstances are even more dire than ours; who may be living in a shelter after leaving an abusive relationship, who are trying to get back on their feet after losing a job, a spouse, etc., I can’t help but breathe dragon fire when I hear that someone thinks the majority of mothers, who most likely nurtured their babies with healthy foods from the moment of conception, needed to be monitored by the food police just because they received supplemental nutrition assistance. It makes me livid thinking that although there are definite health disparities among different ethnic and economic groups that there is a sanction of people who feel we’d choose junk food to sustain our children’s diet.
And for those who’d make that choice, isn’t education and nutrition initiatives worthier than a House Bill telling them what they don’t have the right to purchase? Do they recognize that even minorities want to buy organically but often it’s like searching for a needle in a haystack when it comes to finding organic products in our neighborhoods? Did they google to see that the nearest Farmer’s Market where we can buy a bounty of colorful and nutritious garden-fresh vegetables and fruits requires us to do commuter backflips to get to and the thought of doing it with a busy bee toddler is just overwhelming? Do they know that we wish we had a natural food co-op we could frequent so that our children could eat foods organically grown, produced with minimal processing and little to no preservatives or additives and some super mothers are starting a grass roots food co-op of their own?
Social welfare programs have always been a hot point in politics. The debate, both political and private, will continue far beyond this political season. As a mother who has been on food stamps, I will always combat the public shaming of other mothers who are walking in my shoes.
Let’s shame poverty and the fact that their children have to go to bed hungry, not them. They have the right to buy steak, seafood, even an energy drink if they choose to. And they definitely have the right as a mother to buy their child chocolate chip cookies like I did, even the ones that aren’t organic and gluten free.
Jeanine DeHoney has been published in Chicken Soup for the African American Woman’s Soul, Literary Mama, Mutha Magazine, The Mom Egg, Wow: Woman on Writing- The Muffin’s Friday Speak-out, Scary Mommy.com and Parent co., and in several other blogs, anthologies and magazines.