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Food Stamps and You 

If you need them, you can endure the crushing bureaucracy and embarrassment

Shocking, totally shocking. According to a Saturday, Nov. 21, Times-Standard story by Donna Tam, "More than half of the residents in Humboldt County eligible for the federal food stamps program don't access it."

What? In these ever-more-harsh times of unemployment, school budget slashes, incremental closures of state parks, threats to shut down the Healthy Families program, this federal program helping ensure folks can eat is underutilized? I'm amazed.

Or at least I was until considering the two reasons people fail to apply: 1) lack of awareness about the program (technically, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, aka "SNAP"); and, 2) embarrassment. Both are understandable, especially when one factors in the potentially soul-crushing experience of hours spent in the Koster Street building answering nosy questions including whether or not you're harboring a felon in your home. (Always check "No.") If needing help hasn't sunk your self-confidence, sitting around in a waiting room with a "motivational" poster threatening, "You're either riding the wave -- or crushed underneath it!" while surrounded by your fellow citizens who clearly have been caught in the impact zone for years just might.

I haven't been there for a while, so the posters might have changed, but I doubt the sense of world weariness has been scrubbed from the walls. Once, about eight years ago, the d├ęcor included several umbrellas hung from the ceiling -- upside-down. "What is that about?" I remember wondering. "What does it say that I'm sitting here in a place that is supposed to act as a safety net and the dominate theme is that of a perfectly useful instrument of protection inverted into meaninglessness?" (That may not be a literal quote. More likely I thought something more like, "Huh. Weird. Some metaphor there. Jeez, I hope they get me out of here before the kids are out of school. Dang, my pen's out of ink. Do I have all my receipts? Why didn't I remember to bring a book?") Yes, take a book. The wait can be long -- but the benefits are worth the hours, the forms, the nagging feeling that only a total loser would be here doing this.

You're not a loser for opting to take advantage of a program that helps you. That's all that food stamps are: a program that expands your ability to feed yourself and your family. Ensuring people can eat is exactly what a wealthy, evolved, society should do; the facts that our society's wealth is unbalanced and we're not as evolved as we could be shouldn't preclude you from calling 441-1001 or visiting myfoodstamps.org (Note to T-S: In a story about people underutilizing the local food stamp program, you might want to include information on how to find out more.) Be warned: The form-filling parts -- the demands for proof of income, residence, expenses, children, citizenship, gender, car type, blood type, day you misplaced your virginity -- might offend your natural sense of independence and propel you to chuck it all into the recycling. Get over it. Get through it. The first part is the worst -- it's almost like they don't want people to get their share of public resources -- but the monthly reports are not so bad. (Unless you're late sending it in or they lose the one you've sent. Which, um, never happens.)

Listen, the program's come a long way. When I first delved into the world of governmental assistance -- after my husband was laid off, we lost our health insurance and had three young children to feed -- food stamps still came in the form of pseudo-dollars attached to a booklet. You couldn't tear them out until actually paying for the food, which meant you'd hold up the line while trying to separate the appropriate tens, fives and ones without ripping them. No subtlety whatsoever. Now you get a debit-like card that makes everything move much more smoothly. (The only drawback is you used to be able to get real coin change from the singles, which you could then hoard as a gas or Tampon fund.)

Not that you should be embarrassed about using food stamps! I just hate being the person holding up the line. Food stamps, price check, flour spilling out the bulk goods bag, whatever. But using food stamps makes you an economic engine! To lift from Tam's story again, " .. when people use foods stamps, local economic activity also improves. In Humboldt, residents who have enrolled in food stamps have generated more than $33 million in the last year." See, $33 million! Tell that to your economy-over-community naysayers. You and your food stamps are worth millions!

So, unless you're really bilking the system, making a hundred grand in unreported income and using food stamps you don't need, don't worry about anyone giving you snarky looks when the cashier asks, "Debit or credit?" and you reply, "EBT." People are doing far worse things than trying to get by.

And you know what? By and large, people get it. In all the years I used food stamps, the only time -- and this was a long, long time ago -- anyone tried (and unfortunately, succeeded) to embarrass me occurred at the Eureka Co-op. The since-departed cashier didn't have the right change and spent the next five minutes hollering for "FOOD STAMPS, I've got someone here with FOOD STAMPS, yes, FOOD STAMPS, I need change for FOOD STAMPS." Cringe-inducing in any case to be unwillingly thrown center ring in the grocery store circus, more so when you're accompanied by a tired toddler and full cart.

Fortunately that moment of rudeness never repeated -- in fact, recently, after 12 years in Humboldt County, I purchased a Co-op membership, seduced by membership appreciation day. If one remembers to save the shopping (and the shopping money!) for the second Wednesday of each month, the savings work out far greater than the $25 membership fee. Check it out before Dec. 9 for savings on holiday goodies -- and you won't be able to turn the food stamp application around as quickly, so start that one even sooner.

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Jennifer Savage

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