As if by magic, I no longer had to worry about whether choosing a salad for dinner might leave me too short of funds to pay my phone bill; I now had a budgeta lavish oneexplicitly dedicated to food. I bought spinach with stems that still snapped, cherries and berries that bled juice, melons that perfumed the backseat of my Ford Escort, fleshy Michigan peaches, whole chickens grown without antibiotics. I split Persian cucumbers in half, sliced lush tomatoes into wedges, and topped them both with smears of creamy feta—what I’ve since come to think of as government cheese. For possibly the first time in my life, I ate my recommended daily allowance of fruits and vegetables nearly every day.
But not many food stamp recipients have had my experience of reveling in a sudden abundance of fresh, “free” food. Most Americans fed by the program are children and their parents, or disabled, or elderly; I am none of those. On average, SNAP clients deal with per-meal budgets of roughly $1.49; mine was $2.22. And while it’s increasingly common to find well-educated Americans, including myself, on the rolls, I’ve had the luck to see my time on SNAP turn out to be what nearly everyone wants it to be: a temporary fix (in my case, a year), not a long-term supplement for too-low wages or unemployment checks. About the only “typical” trait I had as a food stamp client was the fact that I was working: Roughly one third of SNAP recipients have jobs, while only 8 percent receive cash welfare.
I’ve heard conservatives say that food stamps lull the people who receive them into complacency and dependency. It’s a critique that tends to be used to argue for cuts to the program, or for limiting its use by, for example, disqualifying people with savings—a policy that’s become stringent enough that it would have excluded me. I can’t speak for anyone other than myself, but getting food stamps just made me work harder. All that “free” food made me feel as though I must be doing something important, and I’d better have something to show for it. And a little over a year later, I do: a best-selling book, and a taste for government cheese.
Tracie McMillan is the author of The American Way of Eating: Undercover at Walmart, Applebee’s, Farm Fields and the Dinner Table. A Senior Fellow at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism, she has been recognized by the James Beard Awards, the James Aronson Awards, and WhyHunger. McMillan, who speaks widely on food and class, appeared on The Rachel Maddow Show and other programs this spring to rebut Rush Limbaugh’s denouncement of her work.