Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Food Stamp Memories

Since I am "chronologically advantaged" (i.e., OLD) I actually remember the early days of the food stamp program. Currently, as you probably all know, food stamps are provided on a debit card. Some types of food cannot be purchased with food stamps- hot foods and prepared foods are generally not allowed, for instance. In the early days, there were many more restrictions.
( For those interested in a more objective history of the Food Stamp Program, Wikipedia has a nice article. )
I applied for food stamps in 1968, when I was a 17 year old single parent (in those days, we were called "unwed mothers." ) Although the current application process is quite intrusive (I hope you will all have a look at the online application) in those days it was much more so. My living situation was quite unstable- my daughter and I lived in tent her first summer and slept on various floors when it got cold- so the first challenge was finding someone who was willing to let me use their address and, worse, to allow a caseworker in to check to see that there were cooking facilities. (In those days, certification for most social welfare programs required at least bi-annual home visits.) Also, since I was not related to anyone in the household, I had to prove that I was paying "rent" for a "room with cooking privileges." Eventually, one of the families for whom I occasionally babysat agreed to do this.
There were more challenges to come. First, foodstamps had to be purchased at one of two banks in town at a special, and clearly labeled, "food stamp window" that was open only once a month for a few hours. Food stamps in those days were not free. You paid a small amount dtermined by your income and received a larger amount of stampts, which was, again, determined by your income.
A second challenge was findnig stores that took food stamps. The town where I was living had 2 big locally-owned grocery chains with multiple branches. One of these supermarkets was locatd in the black community: That was the only one that took foodstamps.
Food stamps were actually paper coupons in those days. They came in books. Each book and each coupon had to be signed before it could be used. "Loose" coupons - coupons detached from the book- were not accepted. Cash change was given only up to 50 cents. A food stamp identification card had to be presented and checked each time.
Since this slowed the shopping process and required additional cashier training, the supermarket that took food stamps had a special-clearly marked- lane for food stamp shoppers. However, at busy times "ordinary" customers also used these lanes. I was living in quite a conservative community, so my visits to the store with food stamps were often marked by individuals behind me critiquing my purchases, commenting on "food stamp people" and so forth.
Because food stamps were part of an agricultural subsidy program, they could not be used to buy imported food. Unfortunately, my purchases tended to include things like brown rice. Some cashers regarded this as "imported" food; some didn't. Early on, I tried pointing out the US origins on the labels of foods that I was purchasing- ths usually set off calls to the manager, and comlaints from angry shoppers behind me in line. Eventually, I found ways to get cash to pay for questionable items.
Food stamps could also be used in those days to buy vegetable seeds. Eventually, I found a trailer on a commune out in the country, saved my food stamps to buy seeds. and grew a garden. Eventually, the garden enabled me to get off food stamps.


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