Meat Is the First Thing to Go

What it’s like to have your food stamps cut.

Volunteers pack bags of rice at the San Francisco Food Bank.
Volunteers pack bags of rice at the San Francisco Food Bank on Nov. 1, the same day that the largest cuts in the history of our country’s food stamp program went into effect.

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

On Nov. 1, the largest cuts in the history of our country’s food stamp program, now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, went into effect when the increase ordained by the 2009 economic stimulus package expired. The reductions, which total $5 billion, have already touched more than 47 million people—1 in 7 Americans. I spoke to one food stamps recipient, a single mother in Washington, D.C., named Debra, about how she was coping financially and emotionally with her post-cut “new normal.” Our conversation, edited and condensed, is below. 

Slate: How have the recent SNAP cuts affected your budget?

Debra: I was getting $203 dollars a month in food stamps. Now I’m down I think $60 or $70, to around $130. I’m not sure because they said they cut 30 percent, and I had $12 left in my account when I went to get food stamps. This month my account had $147.

Slate: That’s how much you’ll spend on food for the month?

Debra: Yes. It’s me and my daughter at home. She’s 21. It was bad enough before the cuts: We were eating lunchmeat all week, and we only had enough for a can of vegetables a day. Divide $203 by 30 days, and then by 3 meals, and then halve it for each person. It’s not a lot. And now it’s going to be much worse. I don’t know if we can still do the canned vegetables every day. One thing we won’t do anymore is have three-course meals on weekends. We used to buy a dinner on Saturday and Sunday that would have three courses: a vegetable, a starch and a meat. But meat is going to be a huge problem. It’s expensive for anyone. I don’t know what we’ll eat for the weekends anymore. Hopefully not lunchmeats again.

Slate: So meat is the first thing to go?

Debra: Yes, my weekend chicken, turkey wings, whatever we could afford. I used to buy a beef roast, but that’s now out of the question. At Giant in the mornings, they mark down the meats that are about to expire and I used to get those. But you have to make sure portions are small enough that you can afford them. I had some “$2 off” coupons too, which helped. The good thing is that church will give me a turkey for Thanksgiving because I can’t get my own. I don’t know what else I’ll have on the table for Thanksgiving but at least I’ll have a turkey.

Slate: It’s you and your daughter at home?

Debra: Yes. She can’t apply for her own benefits until she’s 22. I’m still supporting her. I also have a neighbor I’ve known for 13 years, who’s critically ill, and I visit her a lot. I’m a veteran: I have a nursing background in the military. I try to help where I can. I also volunteer a lot for organizations that support mental health. We developed a peer program for schools, and a pamphlet that tells people where they can get help. We have a lot of meetings to figure out better intake processes for mentally ill youth. That’s a lot of how I spend my time. I’m also disabled, so I get a VA compensation check every month along with my social security. My daughter and I live on those two checks.

Slate: Did you talk about the cuts with your daughter? What is it like supporting her through this too?

Debra: We talked about it. She wants to help and get a job, but it’s a catch-22. I’m on rent assistance, and if she gets a job, my rent goes up and my food stamp money goes down. But she’s got an interview at Target coming up and if it works out that will be an interesting challenge.

Slate: Do you feel hungry a lot?

Debra: I have hunger but I’ve gotten used to it. It’s something to adjust to. I try to cut it by drinking a lot of water, but water gets boring so I buy Kool-aid for some flavor. I have kidney stones, so my doctor says I need to drink a lot of water anyway. I also have milk and cereal for the mornings. But yeah, I’m hungry. I’m very fortunate because I have a neighbor who gets Meals on Wheels delivered, and she’ll give some of it to me and my daughter.

Slate: Do you and your daughter ever go hungry so the other one can eat?

Debra: She eats. I’m her mother. I let my daughter eat. Last night she was hungry and we had some peppers. I made her an omelet with eggs, lunch meat and peppers and I went to bed without eating. I could have made myself an omelet too, but that would have meant no eggs for the weekend. And I had been in Baltimore that day—I’d bought a corn beef sandwich for $4. I didn’t know what she had eaten all day, but I had food in my belly from lunch. So it came down to me feeding her and I went without. This morning, though, she didn’t have breakfast, and I had cereal.

Slate: How many meals do you have a day?

Debra: Usually two. Well, that’s not counting cereal in the morning sometimes. But we’re going to have to be very careful with cereal to make it through this month. I’m going to have to totally readjust my grocery list. I’m not fond of Oodles and Noodles or whatever those are called but they are easy to buy. At least it’s something in your stomach. But we normally have a canned vegetable with some pasta in it for lunch and a sandwich for dinner. Meat on weekends, though not anymore.

Slate: Do you have other ways to supplement your food supply?

Debra: Food banks. I use Martha’s Table once a month and Bread for the City once a month. Martha’s Table is extremely helpful. They give you juice and fruits and vegetables in cans. It’s two whole bags of groceries. Though the lines are awful: I’m not sure when they start but by the time I get there at 9:30 they are just terrible, which is because it is such a good and popular food bank. Martha’s Table works out better for me than Bread of the City. They’ll give you six cans of stuff, maybe once a fresh vegetable, and they usually have some old bread getting ready to go bad that someone donated. But all of it is better than nothing.

Slate: Have the reductions had any repercussions for the rest of your budget? For instance, are you cutting back elsewhere in order to afford food?

Debra: I used to do laundry twice a month. Now I can only afford once a month, $20 instead of $40. I also used to spend $40 per month on transportation. But I’m only putting half of that on my Smart Card [for D.C. bus rides] now. It’s a challenge if I don’t have enough money to go to the food bank. I forgot to tell you—I am a mental health patient and I have individual therapy twice a week. I need money to get to those appointments. If I can’t make it I have to text and let them know I can’t come, but it’s not good. I’m very fortunate because a lot of clients have it much harder than me. I get those two checks every month and they have even less money. I don’t know how they make it.

Slate: Have you considered re-entering the workforce?

Debra: Yes, I’ve thought about it, and my daughter is also considering it. But my food stamps, rent, VA compensation, and social security would be affected. I’d have to make a lot of money to overcome all the reductions, something like $15 to $20 an hour.

Slate: You don’t think you could find a job that would pay that much?

Debra: There are so many people out there looking for jobs. The jobs come and go. They’re so hard to find. It feels to me like a hopeless situation right now.

Slate: Do you see a way out of SNAP in the future?

Debra: I’ve been on food stamps for two years. It is really tight. And right now, no, I don’t see a way out. Unless I get a job that really pays a lot of money, but that’s what everyone is looking for. There’s a way to do it but I don’t know what it is.

Slate: When you’re shopping, how do you triage health, cost, and what you and your daughter like to eat?

Debra: We’ve learned to eat what we can afford. I’ve never been a picky eater but my daughter had to learn to like okra. I found it for a salad once and we had it with tomatoes. I’ve had things that we may not want to eat but we know we should: corn, beans, stuff given to us by food banks. We like the vegetables Martha’s Table lets you choose: peppers, potatoes, carrots. Sometimes they have fresh fruits too. I love oranges. I might buy a bag of oranges to last for one month. The thing is, we could eat all that in a week. But I’m very fortunate, because it’s better than nothing. When I shop, I try to buy store brand products instead of brand names like Dole. And I try to do price comparisons. It’s sometimes hard because a larger package might be a better deal than the smaller one, but it still costs more and you have to be able to afford it.

Slate: It sounds really tough.

Debra: It is hard. I can’t say it’s not. I just hope this helps people understand that just because food stamps are out there doesn’t make it easy for people to eat well. It’s still a struggle.