Government Cheese

by — Jan 25, 2010

It’s the cheese I remember – a congealed, yellowy-orange block in non-descript paper, with, I think, blue writing. You needed the might of Solomon to cut through it, it was so thick. All I could manage were chunks – never firm slices.

No, the slices – they were for people who could afford the good stuff. Our cheese came from the food stamp program – the government-run agency for poor families who couldn’t afford to feed themselves without help.

For a short time, we were one of those families. Not because my parents were lazy or waiting around for some kind of handout, by any stretch. Rest assured, Bettye and Jimmy were hard workers. They just couldn’t find any work. At the time, jobs were scarce in Long Island, N.Y., the place my parents moved after spending five years raising my brother and me in a small south New Jersey town where they had few friends and even less familial support. They thought things would be better back in Long Island; there were factory jobs there, and they had friends there, too, and my mom missed her church – needed to be closer to her lifeline. Her people.

But her people couldn’t find work for her. Or for my Dad. And when their money got low, my Dad got desperate – got back his old job in New Jersey and commuted back and forth from BayShore, N.Y., to Trenton so that he’d have some cash coming in. It was a decision that nearly broke us; Daddy would leave us on Sunday night, stay in New Jersey until after work on Friday, spend two days with us, and then head back to work – a grueling schedule that was all-at-once scary (for us, seeing as the man of our new home wasn’t there to protect us) and lonely (for him, seeing as he had to be without us and alone for days on end, for months and months).

And then, the factory closed. And after all of that commuting, after all of that loneliness, after all of that searching for something better, after all of that holding on, our family’s only source of income was… gone. And all of a sudden, it was be proud and starve, or suck up your pride and let your babies eat.

My parents chose to let us eat.

It wasn’t a proud moment for my mom and dad, I’m sure of this. My mother is somewhere on the other side clutching her pearls and rocking back and forth and having a conniption knowing I’m putting all our family business out in the (e)street like this. But some things need to be shared, others said. Because according tothis story, we’re living in a time where the sole source of survival for a lot of vulnerable families – and especially the children of those families – is food stamps. And despite what my local congressman says (embarrassingly, he lends to the story one of the most ignorant, backward-thinking, outdated quotes I’ve ever read), our country is full of men and women – mothers and fathers – who would much rather earn their keep with a job than wait by the mailbox for the cash they desperately need to feed their babies for one more day.

This is what was going through my mind the other day at the grocery store, where my babies and I waited patiently as a mother juggled babies of her own while the cashier pored through her groceries, telling her what and what not was covered by her food stamp benefits. The particular brand of light bread she picked up was a no-go. Beans, a yes. She had to tell her older girl – she looked about Mari’s age – to put the gum back into the candy rack. “No gum, baby,” she said softly.

I recognized the look in her eyes – saw her shifting from one foot to the other, desperate for the cashier to be done with the questioning and the fumbling and the “you can” and the “you can’t” pronouncements so that she could take her milk and her bread and her no-name cereal and her beans and her chicken and her rice and go on home – far away from the cashier.

Far away from the prying eyes of the women lined up behind her, impatient and annoyed that they had to wait for the food stamp mom to finish her business so that they could pay for name-brand cereal and fruits and vegetables and fancy drinks and sliced cheese.

Far away from the reminder that people think she’s lazy and shiftless and would rather feed her babies with handouts rather than earn a decent wage so she could give her children what they need and even a little of what they want.

I guess I just want everyone reading this to remember that people are hurting, and just as easily as we make it, it could be taken away – leaving us to hurt too. Like my mom and dad did when they were struggling.

And like the lady at the grocery store.

God bless her and all of the other mothers trying to make a way out of no way.

This post was written for the MyBrownBaby page on the Parenting Post.

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  1. ::Waves EBT card (replaced those God awful Monopoly-money-like book of bills) proudly in the air::

    Denene, thank you for this. Simply, thank you. I have never once shamefully pulled out my EBT card at the store because I know who I am, the path I am on, and what it takes to get to where I want to be. I did have similar grocery store experiences where WIC is concerned though. Folks DO NOT like waiting in line, do they, lol. There are not a lot of ways to raise a child on your own, while trying to earn a degree at one of the top universities in the country full-time, or any university for that matter. Like your mom and dad, I pushed that pride aside because I knew that my baby had to eat – shoot I had to eat too! Food stamps takes care of that. I knew that we needed more income than what was left over from financial aid. CalWorks (AFDC/TANF/Welfare) took care of that. Yes, "I" am the face of the welfare mother… not the chick with the umpteen babies, sitting around waiting for the next kid to drop and next check to come in the mail. That chick is a trope!

    Thank you again for this post =).

  2. Teresha@Marlie and Me

    this is a these are the stories of real Americans trying to get back on their feet that get lost in the media portrayals of Ronald Reagan's "welfare queen" stereotype. It takes courage to ask for help. when we think of welfare programs…that should be the takeaway. tfs!

    We are on the same page sis.
    Things have to get better for us collectively. The poverty levels are astounding!

  4. 3 Boys and an Old Lady

    Confession…I used to love to spend nite at my great aunt's house because she made the best grilled cheese sandwiches. We could never understand why we never had that kind of cheese at our house or rainbow money – that's what my aunt called her food stamps. "Good stuff", you had the good stuff. Two loving parents who put the care of their children first. If only more parents would've done the same. Trust me, the slices ain't never been that good.

  5. Some people just don't know what it's like to struggle, do they?
    We would also choose to feed our babies,any parent who wouldn't, maybe shouldn't be a parent.

  6. There is no shame in that game! Hubby and I had to do it for a little while too and I was never ashamed. I looked at it as "help", and we desperately needed it.

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