Slate: How many meals do you have a day?
Debra: Usually two. Well, that’s not counting cereal in the morning sometimes. But we’re going to have to be very careful with cereal to make it through this month. I’m going to have to totally readjust my grocery list. I’m not fond of Oodles and Noodles or whatever those are called but they are easy to buy. At least it’s something in your stomach. But we normally have a canned vegetable with some pasta in it for lunch and a sandwich for dinner. Meat on weekends, though not anymore.
Slate: Do you have other ways to supplement your food supply?
Debra: Food banks. I use Martha’s Table once a month and Bread for the City once a month. Martha’s Table is extremely helpful. They give you juice and fruits and vegetables in cans. It’s two whole bags of groceries. Though the lines are awful: I’m not sure when they start but by the time I get there at 9:30 they are just terrible, which is because it is such a good and popular food bank. Martha’s Table works out better for me than Bread of the City. They’ll give you six cans of stuff, maybe once a fresh vegetable, and they usually have some old bread getting ready to go bad that someone donated. But all of it is better than nothing.
Slate: Have the reductions had any repercussions for the rest of your budget? For instance, are you cutting back elsewhere in order to afford food?
Debra: I used to do laundry twice a month. Now I can only afford once a month, $20 instead of $40. I also used to spend $40 per month on transportation. But I’m only putting half of that on my Smart Card [for D.C. bus rides] now. It’s a challenge if I don’t have enough money to go to the food bank. I forgot to tell you—I am a mental health patient and I have individual therapy twice a week. I need money to get to those appointments. If I can’t make it I have to text and let them know I can’t come, but it’s not good. I’m very fortunate because a lot of clients have it much harder than me. I get those two checks every month and they have even less money. I don’t know how they make it.
Slate: Have you considered re-entering the workforce?
Debra: Yes, I’ve thought about it, and my daughter is also considering it. But my food stamps, rent, VA compensation, and social security would be affected. I’d have to make a lot of money to overcome all the reductions, something like $15 to $20 an hour.
Slate: You don’t think you could find a job that would pay that much?
Debra: There are so many people out there looking for jobs. The jobs come and go. They’re so hard to find. It feels to me like a hopeless situation right now.
Slate: Do you see a way out of SNAP in the future?
Debra: I’ve been on food stamps for two years. It is really tight. And right now, no, I don’t see a way out. Unless I get a job that really pays a lot of money, but that’s what everyone is looking for. There’s a way to do it but I don’t know what it is.
Slate: When you’re shopping, how do you triage health, cost, and what you and your daughter like to eat?
Debra: We’ve learned to eat what we can afford. I’ve never been a picky eater but my daughter had to learn to like okra. I found it for a salad once and we had it with tomatoes. I’ve had things that we may not want to eat but we know we should: corn, beans, stuff given to us by food banks. We like the vegetables Martha’s Table lets you choose: peppers, potatoes, carrots. Sometimes they have fresh fruits too. I love oranges. I might buy a bag of oranges to last for one month. The thing is, we could eat all that in a week. But I’m very fortunate, because it’s better than nothing. When I shop, I try to buy store brand products instead of brand names like Dole. And I try to do price comparisons. It’s sometimes hard because a larger package might be a better deal than the smaller one, but it still costs more and you have to be able to afford it.
Slate: It sounds really tough.
Debra: It is hard. I can’t say it’s not. I just hope this helps people understand that just because food stamps are out there doesn’t make it easy for people to eat well. It’s still a struggle.