My Family Can Buy Whatever We Want with Food Stamps.
My child deserves to grow up happy and secure, even though we rely on government assistance.
My 4-year-old’s first dance recital is this weekend, and I’m reflecting on why I quit dance class, at her age. It was because of money. Because I knew dance classes cost money, and I didn’t want to be a financial burden on my family.
At the time, I didn’t explain my reasoning to my parents, and now they wish I would’ve talked to them about it, because they would’ve told me not to worry.
But worry I did.
Here’s what I remember:
At 3 years old, I danced on-stage in my first and only recital. We wore beautiful pink and white lacy dresses and sang,
“I am a little pink cloud,
floating in the sky.
I like to watch the sun and moon
and the twinkling stars go by.
All the other clouds up here
look at me and say,
“Why are you so different?
Why don’t you go away?”
I tell them, “I’m a dancing cloud.”
“How strange!” they say to me.
And the rest is a blur, leading to me ecstatically holding a bouquet of flowers on that bench in the photo.
Classes continued, leading up to the next recital.
One day after dance class, I heard some parents venting:
“And I’m supposed to buy another recital dress? Really? These things aren’t cheap!”
And that was it. I realized my dance classes were a burden on my family. I imagined all the things we might be giving up for me to attend them. Were we going to lose our house? Not be able to eat? I loved dancing, but already, I knew I probably wasn’t going to be a professional ballet dancer, so it was wrong to get my parents to pay.
The truth is, my family could definitely afford it. But I didn’t know that.
I told my mother that I wanted to quit dance. I gave her no explanation.
My mom described our firmly middle-class lifestyle as, “We may not have a fancy house, but we can always buy whatever food we want.”
Mostly that meant McDonald’s and groceries, but it brought me a lot of peace as a child, knowing I would never have to give up ice cream or Oreos the way I’d given up dance, even if I ever heard other parents discussing how expensive it was. Because my mom clearly told me we could always buy whatever food we wanted, it wasn’t my burden to bear.
Now we — my husband, my daughter, and I — are on food stamps. And WIC.
WIC — or Women, Infants and Children — serves low-income adults who are pregnant, and children under 5, providing connections to resources and free food each month. More than half of infants in the US are on WIC.
The way WIC works is you get checks or a card with specific foods and amounts on them. We’re a vegan family, so we ignore the eggs and cheese and yogurt and canned fish. But each month we get soy milk and tortillas and peanut butter and cereal and tofu and $8 of produce. (Yes, $8 of produce a month.)
I’m an expert on WIC now — what brands we’re allowed to get, and all the random limitations. (We can get organic whole wheat tortillas, but not organic peanut butter, for instance.) But I still run into problems every few months.
I’ve cried multiple times at the grocery store, as checkers discuss whether I should be allowed my WIC products. Disgruntled customers pile up behind the checkout stand, peering to figure out what’s holding up the line.
It’s mortifying. I know it shouldn’t be, but it is.
One of those crying times, a grocery manager told me I couldn’t have my WIC-approved tofu because it had the word premium on it.
“We may not have a fancy house, but we can always buy whatever food we want.”
“You can’t get premium items on WIC,” he insisted, even though the word was just marketing, and there was literally a photo of this package of tofu in the WIC option booklet I held in my hand.
With food stamps, on the other hand, you can get whatever food you want.
Food stamps, rebranded as SNAP, is a swipeable EBT card with money on it for whatever grocery store (or farmers’ market) food you want. Exceptions are hot food, pet food, alcohol, and vitamin supplements.
Food stamps are hard to stay on, because if you make almost any money at all — it doesn’t have to be enough to live on — your food benefits drop. And, in most states, if you somehow manage to save up a couple thousand dollars — for first, last, deposit on an apartment, for instance — your benefits go away completely. Many states also have work requirements.
We’re very lucky our state, Washington, loosened many requirements to make it easier for families to spend time with their young children and still keep their food benefits.
It’s time-consuming to apply for food benefits, and can include degrading moments like when the Seattle SNAP office told me — after I waited for over an hour —they couldn’t help me, because they needed to speak to “the head of household,” meaning my (at-the-time) fiance. I was the one dealing with all of it, but I’d put his name first on our application, so they refused to help me. I was applying for the two of us. What exactly made him the “head of household”?
My family currently receives $504 per month of SNAP food benefits, the maximum amount for three people. We get our benefits on the 2nd of each month. By the 25th, we’ve usually spent all our food stamps for the month.
You’ve probably heard people complain about what families get with their food stamps. How dare someone use food stamps to buy a birthday cake! Poor people don’t deserve cake! Why will they ever work hard if they get birthday cake?
I call bullshit.
Everyone deserves cake on their birthdays, and if families on food stamps manage to budget a treat every now and then, it’s because of their frugality in the rest of their food purchases. I would love to buy all organic, but I have to be choosy about which organic foods we can afford. I always have my stack of coupons, and I buy a ton of dried lentils and bulk brown rice.
So if my kid wants to pick out something special at the grocery store, she can have whatever she wants. Sometimes this means finding out what dragonfruit looks like inside! Sometimes it means Trolls gummies, complete with a lesson from me on the powers of marketing.
Haters might want to tell me these treats aren’t the best uses of our food stamps, but I know how vital it is for her to feel she has food security and a sense of choice.
This feeling of safety, that our needs are met, that our life is not constant struggle, allows her to chill enough to move on to empathy. When people are suffering from lack of empathy, isn’t it usually because they’re terrified their own needs won’t be met?
She knows we don’t have as much money as some families. She also knows we are so lucky, because we do have a lot. She knows we have a home, and many people do not. She knows we will never go hungry. And she knows Mama and Dada are able to pursue our artistic ventures and spend a lot of time with her, because we do less work outside the home than many other grownups.
In parenting, we’re always trying to save our children from the hurts we suffered. And there’s a big risk there of over-correcting and causing a new problem.
I can’t be alone in asking, “Which of my parenting decisions is my kid going to be talking about in therapy someday?”
I don’t know if I’m doing any of this right, when it comes to matters of money and work and how I explain it all to her. Capitalism is a faulty, unfair system, so there’s no easy way to explain it. And the old narrative about just getting a full-time job and living a comfortable, normal life feels outdated. Sure, it’s an option for some people, but it doesn’t reflect our family’s experience, or that of most of the families we know.
As a young child, I worried about money after hearing random grownups worrying about it. So with my own child, I strive for more openness. She knows we pay for our food with government food stamps and WIC. She knows we believe everyone deserves healthy food (and treats sometimes too). She knows we don’t have the money to travel to another country right now, but we do have money for her to get an unlimited-ride wristband at the carnival, and for cotton candy too.
I don’t try to hide from her that, yes, her dance classes cost money. She knows her Nana is paying for them, that she can afford them, that she is totally happy to pay for them. And for our family, we are lucky that the dance class decision in no way affects whether we’ll have food or a home or anything else.
We are so lucky.
My daughter is already saying she might want to quit dance class after this recital. I believe her that it’s not because of money. That was my issue, not hers. She’s very excited to perform on stage, but says she’s just tired of practicing the same routine over and over.
I’m so glad she can talk to us about her feelings. My biggest parenting goal is to keep that communication open.
Financial security is an incomplete puzzle right now. We’re piecing it together as best we can, and counting on love to fill in the gaps.
When I cried at the grocery store for a different reason: