Camille Landry is a writer, activist, and social justice advocate who lives in Oklahoma City. This post is part of our “Neglected Oklahoma” series, which tells the stories of Oklahomans in situations where the basic necessities of life are hard to come by. These are real people and their stories are true (names have been changed to protect privacy).
“Come on over and let’s talk,” she said.
I had asked Marisha Wiggins to talk with me about her experiences with the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps, so I joined the Wiggins’ for dinner. I arrive as the family gets home from work and school. Marisha sweeps through the living room like a whirlwind, picking up toys and whipping up a meal while issuing orders to her two kids (ages 6 and 7).
“Three hundred and forty-seven dollars. That’s my monthly SNAP benefit,” Marisha reports. “I work full-time, when my job will give me the hours. I make $8 an hour. The way DHS figures the money, I’m supposed to add $120 of my own money to the $347 they give us for groceries.”
How does that work out, I ask her. “Ha! It doesn’t work out at all. Food isn’t the only thing I have to pay for.”
The family clasps hands to give thanks before the meal. Tonight it’s macaroni and cheese from a box (“store brand” she points out), a drumstick and green beans. I turn down a second helping of macaroni and the kids eagerly spoon it up then wash it down with sweet tea. Tonight’s dinner cost almost $10.00 and there were no leftovers.
I congratulate Marisha on putting a tasty, balanced meal on the table with little money to work with. “Tonight is special because we have company.” As a special treat we’d enjoyed canned fruit and cookies for dessert. Fruit – even canned fruit – is rarely on this family’s menu.
This family is better off than many. Marisha was raised by her grandmother, who taught her to cook and make even a pot of beans taste good. Still, her kids beg for the foods they see on TV. The answer is usually no. The family doesn’t order (relatively) expensive treats like pizza. Fast food is out of the question. Their mom even has to thumbs down requests for second glasses of milk.
“We eat breakfast for dinner a lot. Sometimes when I get home from work, I’m just tired. Pancakes or eggs are fast and they don’t cost much.” Sometimes they just eat cold cereal. “Not often, though,” Marisha says. “Cereal costs a lot.” When a special occasion requires a rare splurge – ice cream on a birthday or a holiday meal – the family has to cut back someplace else.
Marisha worries about her children’s health. She describes her 7-year-old daughter as “thick.” She knows that her kids need more fresh fruits and vegetables, fewer starches, more milk. “They seem like they’re always hungry. We eat a lot of potatoes, rice, noodles and bread. And it seems like the cost of food has really gone up this year.”
Both kids qualify for free lunches and breakfasts at school and Marisha counts on these meals to feed her children. When school is not in session, keeping enough food on the table is a struggle.
Last month Marisha sold part of her food stamp allowance for cash to buy toilet paper, cleaning supplies and feminine hygiene products (which you cannot purchase with food stamps). The going rate is 50 cents on a dollar, so she gave up forty dollars worth of food to get $20 in cash. “I guess that’s what they mean when they talk about food stamp fraud on TV,” she tells me. “But how do you get along without toilet paper or tampons?”
It’s always a battle. “I have to choose: Pay my electric or gas bill, or eat. Buy my daughter some shoes, or have enough food for dinner. Buy my bus card to get to work, or feed my babies.” The family ate nothing but potatoes for dinner for three days last month.
Getting to a grocery store to shop is a battle in itself because Marisha doesn’t have a car. She rides the bus or asks for rides to the closest major grocery store, which is more than 5 miles away. If she goes to the (price-inflated) corner store to buy food, her SNAP benefits run out much faster. I ask her how she will cope if Congress cuts SNAP benefits. “I guess we’ll eat a lot more potatoes.”
I thank the family for their hospitality and hand Marisha a gift card for pizza and another one for a local grocery store. The kids are ecstatic. “Pizza!!” It’s something they almost never get unless it’s on the lunch menu at school.
Marisha hugs me as I leave. “Does the government think I’m not trying? I work hard every day. I’d work more hours but who would take care of my kids?”
The Wiggins’ are not alone. More people are enrolled in SNAP now than at any other time in Oklahoma’s history, over 600,000. One in four children in the state does not get enough to eat. The highest rates of food insecurity are in Okfuskee, Choctaw and McCurtain counties; rural Oklahomans are at a greater risk for hunger. Click here to ‘map the meal gap’ and learn more about food insecurity in your community.