Thursday, October 10, 2013

Why I Buy Red Vines with my EBT Card

There are a lot of judgments made, and spread around, about people who are on food assistance. The majority of those judgments are made by people who have never relied on food assistance to feed themselves or their loved ones. Some are made by people who get food assistance, or have in the past, who want to feel that they are in some way better than "those other people" who get food assistance.

Some people are critical of people getting food assistance. Other people are critical because people on food assistance buy low quality food or junk food: why should tax payers pay for someone's potato chips?  And then there are the people who criticize people for spending it on organic food: I mean really, they could get so much more for their money buying non-organic and do they really think that poor people get to be choosy?

My family gets food assistance. I'm not going to explain the complex reasons for that, or justify it, or play for your sympathy.

Here's what I want to share with you:

I buy Redvines with my EBT card. (That's what food stamps are these days, a debit card.) I also buy ice cream, soda, chips, and pretty much anything else my kids request. Not large amounts of any of those items, but I do buy them. And there's a chance that you'll be behind me on one of those runs to the store where we are picking up milk and eggs, along with a sugary or salty treat for at least one of my kids.

But why? Why, when every penny counts, and at our house it does, do I buy what most people would consider "non-essentials" or "junk food."

Here's why:

When you have to say no to your kids ever single time they ask for anything: No, we can't buy you shoes, jeans, a coat or a bra. No, we can't go to that movie, even at the $3 theater. No, we can't buy you the next book in the series, even though the library doesn't have it. No, we can't go to that cool museum exhibit that will only be here for 2 months. As a parent you want to be able to say yes, at least once in a while.

Every year there are fewer and fewer activities and traditions that we can continue. When the kids were little we went to the fair every year. It has been 5 years since we've been able to afford the fair. The kids would love to go to the county fair. Every year the fair happens, every year we feel sad about not going.

We used to go to the local pumpkin patch to buy pumpkins. Now  it costs $9 per person to get in, take they hayride out to the field, pick out your pumpkin, pet the animals, drink hot cider and generally enjoy the festivities. It's been at least 3 years since we've been able to afford to go to the pumpkin patch, maybe more.

Our friends go to shows, musicals, exhibits, and on road trips. Our friends take classes and lessons and buy cool art supplies. My kids know we can't afford to, most of the time they don't even ask anymore. And that breaks my heart.

Recently the financial stress has been eating at all of us. My girls snap at each other if we go to the grocery store and one of them asks for something extra. I spend the entire trip adding numbers to make sure we don't go over the amount on the EBT card. And I say no to every non-essential that isn't food, because the EBT card doesn't cover any non-food items. While I haven't figured out how to explain to the cats that they don't get canned cat food anymore, my kids understand the reality of living in the land of "no."

And so, on those days when my kids ask, "May we please get candy?"  "We haven't had ice cream in a while, could we get some today?" I'm going to say Yes! I'm going to embrace that moment when a request doesn't have to end up in disappointment.

When we get to the end of the month and our EBT money is running low I have to start to say no even to the least expensive treats. But on the 3rd of the month, when our money shows up on our card, I get to say Yes! once again. And for a moment all is right in the world. We can fill up our cart, we can even go to Costco!

Once a cashier said in a confounded way, "You seem really happy to be getting food."  YES! We are thrilled to have food. It's something we can have, it's something we need that we get, unlike other things that we need that are just a hope for some day in the future.

So go ahead and judge me if that makes you feel better about you or your life, but I refuse to feel bad about buying a treat, or two! Because, it's a bright spot on those days when we are all feeling discouraged, stressed, frustrated, and in danger of losing hope. Because of all that I can't give my kids, buying treats at the store is a big deal. And while we may eat a whole lot of potatoes, cabbage, and carrots, we will also eat a small amount of Red Vines, potato chips, and chocolate. When life is hard, those little things make a big difference.


  1. I have never met anyone who's life is so much like my own. I really, really hate the word 'no'.

  2. Unfortunately, there are lots of us.

  3. F--- YES! Thank you!!!

  4. When I was a poor college student paying for all my own expenses, it bothered me to see people using food stamps to buy Pepsi and Doritos while I was buying Shasta soda and store brand chips at half the cost. I wanted to explain how much more food they could get if they did the same. I dontknow the complexities of anyone's situation so of course I never said a thing. It just seemed like theyd always be poor if they couldn't manage their money better, even food stamps.

    I do appreciate your story and am sad you have to say no so much.

  5. Anon, that judgement "it just seemed like they'd always be poor if they couldn't manage their money better, even food stamps" is a common misconception. People who get food assistance often are incredibly adept and making the little money they have go a very long way. Poor people, truly poor people, are not people who have money but mismanage it. People who often complain about not having money may be people who have money but mismanage it, but they are not the truly poor.

    No matter how carefully we spend our food assistance money, it doesn't help us pay our bills. That's because food assistance money can only ever buy us food. And as long as that's all the money we spend each month on food, spending more or less isn't going to help us pay the bills.

    Not having an adequate income is what makes people living in poverty poor. No matter how well we manage our money, we're still not going to have enough money to pay all of our bills.

    But that wasn't the point of the post. In keeping with the post: maybe that person was buying Pepsi and Doritos for their child as a birthday present. Maybe that person really loves Pepsi and Doritos, and being able to buy something you want is not something poor people get to do very often. Having the ability to buy something you want is empowering and can help keep you sane when everything else in your life feels beyond your control.

  6. I have been on food stamps in one way or another for 18 years. We are lucky to be able to have a little bit for the kids now and then. It takes a lot of saying no to finally get to a yes. With 3 or in our case 4, it is hard. Hugs to you.

  7. Beautifully expressed and written! I grew up close to this, not on food assistance (that I remember) but definitely in the Land of No. (I remember being embarrassed and ashamed by/of my brother when he asked for something at the store.) My kids live in the Land of No a great deal of the time now too and it's ok. Lessons around money are so big and emotional, I'm hoping mine grow up with a healthy respect for cash, for food and for others around them that may have less of each.

  8. been there, done that. I feel for y'all and hope I never have to be there again. it is tough in this world

  9. I love this post. Well said. Keep buying those Red Vines for the kids and enjoy the little things.

  10. You don't know how close this hit home for me. You had me balling my eyes out! :) I hate having to tell my kids they can't go to a movie with friends or that we don't even have money to put enough gas in the car to go to the free museums. I do buy my kids a gallon of ice cream the 6th of each month, though.
    We went off of EBT for almost two months during the summer and it was the unhealthiest eating we've done in a while. Lots and lots of scraping together what I could for meals and lots of complaints of hunger. I'm sure I've been judged. I'm sure I was last week at Target. The huff of the lady behind me as she grabbed her things and headed to another line. One of my items didn't ring up as EBT eligible although all items were food items and I didn't even have $3 to just pay it and get out of there faster. I felt so small and embarrassed for my daughter who was with me. We don't want to be on food stamps. We need to be. My husband has a pretty good job that usually pays most of our bills each month. But not always. Not even covering all our bills makes it impossible to have money for food. I'm sure people would wonder why I don't get a job instead of staying home homeschooling our children. That is a sacrifice we made. I'm not willing to sacrifice my children for money.
    Thank you for your post. I will continue to buy that monthly gallon of ice cream and you continue to buy your Red Vines.

  11. Amy- even if you worked, you'd have expenses associated with working outside the home. So there's no guarantee that your household income would significantly improve.

    Thank you for this article. I'm tired of Facebook comments about how people wish the could get assistance too or about how someone is managing their assistance.

  12. Thank you all for commenting. Sometimes it's nice to know that we aren't alone in our situation, even if it's not a situation we'd wish on anyone else.

    And Amy, I agree with Zhay. At times the suggestion that I get a job comes up in conversations. My kids are all getting older, but they don't need me any less. Because of my health issues and my introvert tendencies, if I did get a job I'd come home exhausted and not able to be present for my family. If I did get a job that would be less time to make food from scratch, which can save us a lot of money.

    Everyone has to make their own decisions, and there is no one right answer, there is only the answer that you come up with that is best for you and your family. My values include putting my children first for the short period of time I get to live with them and share their lives on a daily basis. That means cultivating a meaningful relationship and being there for them and sharing this journey together. Money can't buy a connected family, time and unconditional love are needed to create one. :)

    1. We are currently receiving SNAP. It was hard to make the decision to stay home. It's not that I struggled with the facts, it was just that we knew that if I stayed home that we would have to get food stamps in order to make it. Basically our total income is the same that it would be if I worked which is why my staying home is a no brainer, it's just a pride issue.

      Like you I am introverted, plus at the time I was dealing with undiagnosed Celiac and was very, very ill. But ultimately when people would ask if I was going back to work and I said no, the reason was my oldest. My oldest who was almost 15, not the baby. If I were to go to work, I would pick up the kids from daycare, make dinner, give baths, read to the little ones and pass out. Having any kind of one on one time with my teen would have been impossible. I knew that if I went back to work that he would suffer.

      He went through a major depression, and I know that if I had been working he would have died. I know that I wouldn't have had the energy or the resources to help him. Even though I know this I still feel guilty about staying home and accepting benefits.

      To your original point, I buy treats with my SNAP, we don't get to do much either. We often buy yummy food from the store to take when we do something free/low cost to avoid buying food when we go out.

      Hot tip: call your local Children's Museum, many of them offer $1.00 entrance fees per person if you have an EBT card.

      So sorry that this is all over the place:)

  13. I recently felt guilty about always saying, "We can't afford that." We have had ups, but mostly downs over money for the last four years. It probably makes no sense to others why when we have $40 extra dollars we would all hop in the car and see the latest movie. If they would read your post, perhaps they would understand. The thrill of FINALLY saying, "Yes...I think we can do that," is a wonderful feeling.
    Thanks for speaking from your heart.

  14. I have been there. Your post made me teary. I remember too well the 5 years we spent of having to always say no. Don't loose hope. Things will get better. And keep saying yes to those red vines :-)

  15. As someone who accepted WIC and food stamps during a difficult period in my life, I understand the point of this post. However, during the time I was using others' money (taxes) to buy my family's food, I wouldn't have felt right about owning a pet. If I could have afforded cat food (even dry) and litter, I wouldn't have taken public assistance.

    1. I have pets and am on EBT but I had my pets before I went on EBT. I am not giving them up because I am having a hard time right now - I refuse to send them to a shelter where they may end up dead (our local shelter is a kill shelter and most rescue groups and non kill shelters are always full)..My pets give me comfort in a time where I am having enough issues and don't need to deal with losing my family too. Also I don't look at it as "using others money" I work and I have worked and I PAY TAXES... So I don't feel guilty about needing help at this point in my life. I get tired of the judgments . I have had people say I shouldn't have a cell phone .. Well i need a phone to work yes it's a smart phone but again it's used for personal and work. Not easy to work (or if unemployed to find a job) without a phone as most employers want to be able to get a hold of you if they need to) without a phone and it private clients can also get a hold me with a phone. I use the GPS to find my way to clients etc and I don't have a landline in my home. Since I travel (drive)(somewhat locally) for work i need it if I break down etc (I can't walk well so it would be hard to walk for help if that happened and I live in a very rural/mountain area). My mom helps me out some with my pets and she pays my internet/cable bill for me so I have something at home besides 4 walls (so nice of her!!!) Also being able to get online helps me find clients for work. yes I buy diet soda and I have had people huff at me at the store but I dare them so say something..yes most comments on my FB about EBT are from people who never needed them and never had real "hard times" (I have lived on the street so I KNOW hard times!! ) and sometimes their comments make me feel ashamed to need them ... but only sometimes.. I struggle and yes I am going to 'treat" myself when i can and say yes to my son who is trying to get his GED because he wants to go to college and was too sick to attend school . I want his focus on education. So hopefully he doesn't have to live like we do now. He still gets sick but is working hard to finish school anyway (he is 20 yrs) yes he is behind but he promised himself to finish and go to college. I am proud of him for that. We only have one car and I need it for work and am thankful he doesn't "bug me" for a car since we can't afford it and I am glad he focuses on school instead of what others his age are doing. So like the writer I buy treats sometimes because to save my mind and feel good I like to say "YES" once in a while ...and trust me we know how to squeeze a penny !! You may not have felt right about owning a pet but most people don't give up a pet unless they have no other choice. I would fight/sacrifice to keep my family together...

  16. I will admit I was one of those people that rolls their eyes at people on food stamps when I see them buy nothing but junk. Your post may have just changed all that. Thank you.

  17. I want to sympathize for some of the people posting here. But then I read things like how a mother refuses to get a job because she refuses to put money before her don't think having more money would help their quality of life? And why should I have to struggle to make ends meet when I work full time, to support people like you who want to keep having children that they can't or refuse to afford? The reality of this world is harsh. I have to wake up every day and deal with that reality as a responsible adult. What makes you think that you're above me and get to choose to cop out and live in hard working people's tax dollars? I've been on assistance before,when I lost my job suddenly and unexpectedly but it wasn't a choice that I made, where I decided that I'd rather stay home and be a mother rather than working! So much is taken out of my paycheck in taxes, and now with the Obamacare bullshit it's about to be more taken out. I could use some help paying for food but when I applied, they told me I make too much. Yet people like you who consciously decide not to help themselves get rewarded. Yes, I am judging. Because I've been there. I have less than zero sympathy for you.

    1. I often wonder how to respond to posts like this. There are so many complex issues influencing every person's life. If someone isn't a parent I don't expect them to understand the reasons people choose to homeschool over getting a job. I know that for our family, we now couldn't afford to send our kids to school. That may sound crazy, but we can't afford 3 P.E. Uniforms, 3 pairs of sneakers, 3 student ID's, 3 sets of school supplies, and that doesn't include additional fees, playing sports, year books, school pictures, fund raisers, field trips, or any of the "optional" expenses. We didn't choose to have kids we can't afford, and when we did have children we didn't know that both my husband and I would develop chronic health conditions. We didn't know how many times non-profits would lose funding and lay off my husband. We didn't know that his Master Degree, that he got in hopes of providing better financially for our kids, would only add to our debt and not result in better jobs. We didn't know If you have some way of seeing into the future that we don't, it would be nice of you to share with everyone else.

      Try to realize that if you are having trouble paying for food someone could say to you, "Well, you should get a job that pays more! Why aren't you doing more to make money? " That's the equivalent of you telling someone with out a job "get a job!" If people don't know your whole situation they don't know all the factors that lead you to work the job you work for the wages you get, or why you aren't able to pay the bills. Just as you don't know the details of someone else's life.

      Your lack of sympathy, lack of understanding or acceptance of other people's life choices, lack of compassion, does not affect my compassion for you. I'm sorry you are struggling.

    2. Nice to hide behind anonymity to spew venom.

      Very few people "choose" poverty. Assuming others are choosing something you yourself say you had no choice in is just silly. I decided at one point to stay home... and had a baby who we could afford. That baby turned out to have special needs. And a relative died. And another developed dementia. We ended up caring for her. If they had not been financially well off, it could have broken us and made us need help. But because of an inheritance, we were able to weather that storm. Not because we "chose" better than others, but because we were luckier.

      When my first child was born, I was in a long-term relationship. It fell apart. I ended up on welfare. It took me a while to work my way off, but I did. Shit happens.

      I learned from that to be less judgmental, not more. You might try it sometime, it's a more pleasant way to live.

    3. Thanks for this. I cried when I read this. I've cried a to the last couple of years since my husband was laid off and has taken odd jobs that have no benefits and don't pay well. I've cried because being a stay at home mom for over a decade doesn't give me a strong resume for a job that would help pay the bills and over the cost of child care. I've cried when my pets were hungry. I have done a lot of soul searching, have registered for school, have said no more than yes to my two amazing children, have tried only home remedies because we can't afford doctor visits, and yes, I have thoroughly enjoyed saying YES to treats and food requests when we get our monthly EBT balance. And then, I read these comments. At first, I thought how easy it must be to judge those that you can't relate to. Then I realized that its not easy. Its a sad, hard life perhaps less blessed with the love an compassion and grace that many of us have both because of and in spite of our past and current financial struggles.

    4. There was a time when I felt the same as some others did, that people misused or abused what food stamps were intended for ( healthy food versus junk food ). At the time, I had never been unemployed since high school, was married with three kids, had two cars, a mortgage and had a great job. Fast forward some years...bankruptcy, economic job loss, divorced, an apartment, one old car and living paycheck to paycheck (barely). Their mother (who is a great parent), is slightly better off but not by much. Never once in my life until my mid 30's did I ever see myself getting on food stamps or picking up food boxes or borrowing money from family just to have food for when my kids were with me. This personal agony and pride crushing turmoil is something I would never wish on anyone else. To have my children tell each other not to ask dad for anything because money is tight, was heart wrenching (they whispered it to each other and I overheard them) . I understand what being able to say "yes" a few times a month to my children can mean and how fantastic and empowering (if only for a short time) it can be. As it stands, I am back in college full time (as is their mother) completing my degree with a goal and hope for the future. So those of you on EBT, SNAP, food stamps, ect... say yes when you can.