Government Cheese

Editor’s Note: I penned this piece in January 2010, when analysts were exploring the expansion of the federal food stamp program. The running consensus  then was that more and more, Americans of all ages, races and backgrounds were increasingly depending on public assistance to feed their families. Now, three years later, that expansion is going away, leaving children vulnerable to hunger here, in one of the richest countries in the world. So I figured I’d dust this story off. It is still relevant, if not more, as rhetoric over the food stamp program reaches fever pitch.

* * *

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 this week, the federal food stamp budget will be slashed by $5 billion, leaving families already scrimping and scratching to feed themselves with even less to spend. This comes, of course, at a time when the sole source of survival for a lot of vulnerable families—and especially the children of those families—is food stamps. And despite what some heartless Republican conservative politicians say, 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 Ramen Noodles 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.

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Denene Millner

Mom. NY Times bestselling author. Pop culture ninja. Unapologetic lover of shoes, bacon and babies. Nice with the verbs. Founder of the top black parenting website, MyBrownBaby.


  1. Very sad here, my heart breaks when I see the struggle that parents go through to keep a roof over their children’s heads and some food in them. How this congress, I know not all, can look in the mirror with the cutting of safety net programs on their conscious is beyond me. Shame on them, while working less than half a year and many receiving millions in Federal Farm Subsidies, now that is a program that could use a haircut! When will this country wake up and realize that hurting the most vulnerable of people does not make you better? It had better be soon.

  2. Vashti Encarnacion

    It’s a sad day when the richest countries in the world has people that are hungry. Thank you for the reminder that many are one paycheck away from being in this same situation. My family also partook in that big block of cheese. Mom was skilled in being able to cut the most wonderful slices. I was too young to understand the “why” back then because in my eyes, we were doing “okay”. This is why it’s so crucial to share not only our victories with our children, but also our struggles. Many people look at individuals that receive subsidies as being lazy, however those that have multiple small children are often unable to find employment that will allow them to pay the bills, feed their families and let’s not even talk about childcare. My hope and prayer is that a solution comes forward soon.

  3. I wanted to leave a comment after seeing what you wrote about the mother in line using food stamps. What she actually was most likely using was not food stamps, but WIC. WIC is a program that usually goes hand in hand with food stamps to supplement the mother and infants’ diet during pregnancy and afterward. I know this because I too used WIC. It is a terrible program, as it is very difficult to remember all of the items you can and cannot buy. Each WIC voucher has different food items on it that you can purchase, usually limited by brand, size, and quantity. An example would be a 48 oz bottle of Juicy Juice, but not the larger variety. If in your hurry you accidentally pick it up and put it in the cart, you’ll be making a trip back down the aisle to pinpoint the correct one. Choices can also be limited by flavor. Such as the whole grain cereal. My favorite, Banana Nut, I could never buy, but I could buy the pecan and cinnamon variety, which I didn’t like and had a higher sugar content. My husband and I would usually go to less crowded stores, because we knew there would always be a mistake, or some kind of unknown taboo we would have to learn about on that particular visit. Eventually, we stopped using it all together, as it became much too hindering. Now, the reason why I find it a terrible program is because WIC covers foods that are actually NOT healthy for you or your baby. Juicy Juice has way too much sugar in it. A much healthier choice might be offering yourself and children a milder type of juice, or actual fruit (which isn’t on the vouchers). Cereals are also high in sugar, and they usually provide WAY too much milk that you have to purchase all at once! When I say too much milk, I mean 4 whole gallons of it! I found I was better off using the food stamps to make healthier purchases and instead utilized that and my own common sense. After my episode with WIC, I witnessed other parents attempting to use it and seeing the distress, shame, and fear on their faces as they tried to avoid eye contact with others in the checkout line, or glance at them apologetically, and sometimes outwardly apologize for taking so long! Cashiers were usually very patient, and so were others in the lines, but it doesn’t change how that mother feels, especially when well meaning mothers who want to provide healthy meals for their family and are on food stamps or wic see hateful speech online about it, where they are lumped in with freeloaders.

  4. This food stamp cuts issue is such BS. The average family is losing $36 a month. There was a woman on facebook with a family of 5 complaining about her $46 dollar cut. She receives $1180 per month in food stamps. Forgive me if I don’t feel her pain. The average working family doesn’t even spend $1100 in food. My family of 4 spends $600 a month on food.
    If children are starving on food stamps, then they have only their parents to blame.

    • I’m sorry you saw that on facebook – please don’t believe everything you read on the internet. facebook is used to dramatise and hype ordinary people so that they get attention. some don’t care about what they post beyond the “likes” they receive or the people “following” them on twitter. That was a lie that woman posted. And some people are PAID to give life to the welfare fallacies out there in order to promote a political agenda. My family of four spends a little less than 350.00 a month on food – I spend about 5 hours a month in preparation to get the best deals, the most nutritious, etc. I don’t envy people who do receive welfare; I know they paid the price in self-respect for the “free”.

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