There seems to be a pervasive stigma in this country concerning food stamps. Many people are absolutely opposed to “hand-outs” for the poor, preferring that those on the lower end of our vast economic spectrum just get a higher paying job and stick it out. There are also others who aren’t exactly opposed, but don’t hold such a high standard for those on food stamps. These folks carry an image of the average food stamp collector as jobless, uneducated, and predominantly a minority.
As a 23 year old working my way through engineering school, I didn’t exactly fit any of these complaints or stereotypes; I was putting my nose to the grindstone to advance my education and start a career, I had a job that I worked over 20 hours each week, I was getting high marks in my classes. Oh yeah, and a I’m white kid from Connecticut.
Without help, though, I would have been facing a serious dilemma my senior year in college: do I pay for food, or pay my rent? Do I buy almond milk and oatmeal, or pay the electric bill? It’s a very uncomfortable situation knowing that you can’t afford the cost of living, especially while simultaneously taking out thousands of dollars in student loans. Luckily, the government as a plan. A plan so good that it lets Mitt Romney sleep at night, not worrying about the very poor. Two years ago, I took advantage of this plan and became a food stamp vegan.
After the initial stigma of applying for food stamps wore off, I realized what a wonderful program was available to those in need. If you can show that you are employed but make less than a certain amount of money, pay rent and utilities, and have legal identification, you can start to receive the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) monthly to help with the purchase of food. Food stamps can be used to buy any type of food, but can’t be used for alcohol, toiletries, pet foods, and a few other items.
I was only on food stamps for about 5 months, at which time I began a full time engineering job and no longer met the financial requirements.
So what did I learn from my time on food stamps?
First and foremost, farmers markets across the country have begun to accept food stamps as a way of payment. This was huge for me, as I tried to do most of my shopping at local markets. It was easy to maintain a vegan diet that was not only healthy, but also inexpensive, by purchasing locally raised produce and supplementing that with rice, beans, and pasta from the supermarket.
Secondly, I learned to stick with nutrient dense meals: these would keep me full for longer and, if I made big batches, they would feed me for a few days. Leafy greens, whole grain brown rice, beans, nuts; they all began to play a much more important role in my meals.
Lastly, spice is the variety of life! That may be the reverse of the saying, but it holds true for eating the same foods day after day and not getting bored. As simple meals became the norm, spices provided the variety I needed to keep from going crazy. There are some foods I could eat day in and day out (avocado, anyone?), but there are only so many days in a row that oatmeal can be an enticing breakfast.
With a little under $140 a month in food benefits – supplemented by my tips from work – I managed to keep myself well fed throughout my use of food stamps. Whoever said being vegan is expensive? I even competed in a triathlon during this time and placed first in my age group, so I’d say that I was still being healthy, too.
If you’re having trouble making ends meet, and you meet the criteria I mentioned above, look into your states application for food stamps (or for its government program name, SNAP). Then don’t forget the three lessons I learned, and hopefully they can serve you in these hard times as well as they served me.