SNAP snafu

 Middleincomepoverty often mentions food and food insecurity. Lack of nutritious food causes anxiety and reduces the ability to move out of poverty. Here is a story from awhile ago: 

Outside the community services building, I bumped into my friend Rachel. I  stared at the ground, hoping  she wouldn’t see my red puffed eyes and wet cheeks.

“Oh Theresa, you look horrible. Here, take this tissue. What is the matter?”.

“I am here to get help. I went grocery shopping, and my EBT card failed.”

“So tell me what happened” Rachel was sincerely concerned.

“I was too embarrassed to tell the cashier I had no other money. And I could not be humilated in front of the other people in line. Just minutes before I had a casual chat with the lady behind me about what I use coconut oil for.”

Rachel laughed, “ I bet she said, “Oh, its so expensive” and meanwhile, she had several cake mixes in her cart, right? Probably spending the same amount of money and who would be baking the healthier cake?” Rachel and I have an ongoing conversation about people’s ignorance of healthy eating. 

“Yeah, I told her I am allergic to dairy so it works great in baking. And then I thought, am I allowed to bake for Christmas, celebrate the holiday with my family? Or is that a misuse of government funds? Are government funds only so I can stay alive?”

Rachel, who is a social worker, playfully butted my shoulder,

“Of course you are allowed to buy baking goods with food stamps. You aren’t a troll.”

I blew my nose, grateful she took time to listen, “Well, gotta go inside and see if I can get this straightened out.” 

 “I’m sure it will all work out. Don’t forget that you can get food at the food pantry, you know.”

“Yup”, I replied, then mutter under my breath, “corn syrup sweetened canned fruit, white wheat flour, butter - all make me sick. Maybe I should tell my children no Christmas cake this year.” 

I slumped into a chair in the social worker’s office and burst out, “I just bought groceries with my credit card”.  I held my breath and somehow managed not to burst into tears.

“Oh Theresa, what happened?” she said while reaching for a box of tissue.

I described swiping the EBT card, punching in my ID, watching the cash register screen type in - NO FUNDS AVAILABLE.

“Let’s try that again,” the cashier says, “The machine’s been acting up all day.”

Frustrated, I drag the card through again. NO FUNDS AVAILABLE flashed across the screen.

My heart sank.

The cashier stared at me. I looked away while slipping the EBT card back into my wallet, and fumbled with the other cards inside. My mind raced. Do I use the last $70 on the debit card, or  the interest bearing credit card? I could just admit that I have no cash. Do I really need to buy these groceries?  I scanned the pile at the end of the conveyor belt - two boxes of greens, dozen eggs, almond milk, scotch tape, bananas, coconut oil, raspberries - and I can’t see what’s already in the grocery bag. I try really hard to swallow my pride, but the bile is so thick, I give up. I  swipe the credit card and hope the mounting explosion of anger for not being able to find a job can stay stuffed down, again. 

Sale authorized, blinks the machine. Yeah, and let’s add 10% interest to that, I think with disgust.

An audible sigh shutters out of me. I stare out the window and wish I could be anywhere but in a social worker’s office.

“Let’s call DHHS (department of health and human services) together” says Sue as she types  the number into her phone. Her kindness and prompt call to action cause my composure to melt  - tears, snot, shaky shoulders, a mumbled thank you, utter embarrassment, humiliation and gratitude mashed together into a sticky mess.

After being on hold for 40 minutes, the first DHHS clerk claimed I didn’t fill out my annual review and would need to report to the Portland office to fill one out. I told him I never received an annual review in the mail. Sue asked if we could speak to a supervisor. 

After another 10 minutes, a woman answered the phone, and politely asked us if she could put us on hold. It was painful to say yes.  Not only did we have to be tortured with Muzak, there was always the possibility of being disconnected. And that would mean we would have to be on hold for another half hour.

Finally, a voice pops onto the phone, “Here it is, I found your account”, the supervisor sounded pleased.

 “Looks like when someone was trying to process your account, they duplicated it by mistake. That is why you never received your annual review.”

Sue jumped right in, “So I heard you say that DHHS made a mistake, and you are now asking the client to travel to Portland (a 45 minute commute one way) to fix your mistake”.

The supervisor placed us on hold again, another 10 minutes,  then returned and said, “I have figured out how you can reapply online. After you fill out the paperwork, give us a call back and we will reinstate your food stamps.”

Without hesitation, while reaching for her phone book, Sue said, “I am calling our attorney. You’ll hear from us again this afternoon.” I winced as she hung up the phone, shocked that we would give up a connection that was finally made. 

Sue left a message with an attorney and said “that nudge should encourage DHHS”, and helped me get online to reapply for food stamps. We called back DHHS, with only a 20 minute wait this time, gave my name (which now had a lawyer behind it), and was immediately assisted, food stamps returned. I hugged Sue

“I know this is your job, but I have to thank you. Knowing you are here as a backup resource makes life so much easier.”

Sue gave me a squeeze back. “I’d help you anytime”.

I left the office with food stamps back on track, grateful for a town social worker with a lawyer in her back pocket. 


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