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Our Military Family Was on Food Stamps

Photograph by Twenty20

Growing up, I was told that people who used government assistance programs like welfare (TANF) or food stamps were lazy and irresponsible. I was taught that people who worked hard could provide for themselves. That stigma made asking for help so difficult, especially since my husband was serving in the military.

When we first applied for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), my husband was a Lance Corporal in the Marine Corps with a monthly take-home pay of about $1,200 after taxes. Like so many young military families, I was unable to work and raise our children while my husband was away for months at a time during training or deployments. Since we were stationed thousands of miles from home, we didn’t have a support network of family and friends to rely on. Two kids and one income meant our budget was beyond shoestring; it was hanging by a thread.

People often believe that military members are well-compensated for their hard work and sacrifice. While there are many upsides to being in a military family, few would argue that an enlisted paycheck is anything to brag about. At the time we applied for SNAP, we were living on an annual income of just over $14,000—well below the poverty line for our size family ($16,895) in 1999.

My husband prided himself on working hard to provide for his family. The day we had to walk through the door with copies of his pay stub and our lease, I had to promise him I wouldn’t tell anyone we knew. His ego was on the floor.

The month before we signed up for SNAP, we struggled with groceries. I remember having to feed our oldest, then just 18 months old, daily dinners of ramen noodles with reheated mixed vegetables from the freezer. Hot dogs were our main protein source, along with eggs.

After being approved for assistance, our family thrived. Suddenly, I could feed my family a healthy, nourishing meal without having to skip paying other bills. Previously forbidden items like fish, chicken and beef were now readily available. Fresh fruit and vegetables were a standard part of our daily fare.

While having help paying for our food was an enormous burden lifted off our shoulders, it was also humiliating.

Back then, you had to notify the cashier before swiping an EBT card or it wouldn’t work. This meant anyone behind me in line knew that I was paying for my groceries with “food stamps.” I heard the voices of judgment from my childhood, telling me I was lazy and leeching off the government. Like my husband, my pride was at an all time low.

That shame drove us to end our assistance as soon as my husband picked up rank. While his pay increase was nominal, I was finally able to work nights and weekends once he returned from deployment, adding a little more financial security. We were still struggling, but we could make it and didn’t feel embarrassed checking out at the grocery line.

Years later, while my husband was on recruiting duty in Colorado, we were too far away from the military grocery stores (called commissaries) where our dollars went a little further than the regular civilian markets. Once again, we needed help.

The first time I stood in line outside of an old warehouse waiting for free food, I cried. I didn’t want my sons to suffer or go without food, but it was hard to accept a handout. We just needed a little help to get us through the week before our next paycheck.

For so long, I believed that our food struggle was a secret shame. I believed that we were unique among military members, and somehow unable to manage our finances effectively. I was wrong.

I held our sons’ hands and kept my head high as, one by one, we moved closer in line, waiting to be given a box of wilted produce, donated canned goods and day-old bread. The community food bank became my family’s lifeline during difficult times.

During the holidays or when we had emergency expenses like a blown tire or vet bills, we visited the food bank more often. No matter how much I wanted to deny it, my family needed more than what either of us could provide on our own.

Eventually, things got better. I was able to finish my education and work in my career field and my husband’s pay increased with each rank he was promoted. Sadly, it took 10 years of active duty service before we were truly financially stable.

For so long, I believed that our food struggle was a secret shame. I believed that we were unique among military members, and somehow unable to manage our finances effectively. I was wrong.

While the military and the USDA do not keep tabs on service members using SNAP, in 2014 an estimated $84 million in supplemental assistance benefits were spent at commissaries on military bases.

On our base, there are weekly giveaways of expired, damaged or otherwise undesirable food, donated by a local big-name grocery store to our military families.

Every week, the line to receive this food is long enough to wrap around an entire parking lot. The need is excruciatingly real and while military families like mine may be too proud to tell you, it doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.

The truth is, enlisted military families aren’t faring so well. The high cost of living coupled with frequent moves, the low rate of pay raises that don’t match inflation, and the difficulty non-military spouses have finding employment while also raising their families amidst frequent separations all too often lead to a disparity between expenses and income.

Like our family, the men and women who sacrifice so much for our country also have to sacrifice food security. They should never feel ashamed of needing help and we owe it to them to remove the stigma of government assistance. What I was taught as a child was wrong. Not all people receiving support are lazy.

Some of the people are families just like mine, who go to work each day, and face the possibility of death in order to keep our country safe. If they need help, they deserve it, without feeling humiliated in the process.

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