The first time I used food stamps

August 10, 2011

In a few hours, I will be standing in line at the nearby free clinic to see if there is something they can do to help me get knee surgery.

I’ve been told that I need my right knee replaced. The surgeon who made this pronouncement, however, doesn’t accept Medicare patients. As I began calling orthopedic surgeons in my city, I found that to be one of two regular refrains (the other being “the doctor is not accepting new patients at this time”).

I won’t lie: being in this situation is humiliating to me. I feel much as I did when I applied for food stamps – sick to my stomach that my life was so in the toilet that I needed help with basic needs.

The application for food stamps was easy and online. Then the letter came. “You must come to DHS headquarters and finish your application process in person.” I sucked it up and went in.

What a madhouse! People were everywhere. Babies were crying. People were trying to talk to the clerk in broken English. Old people, teens, disabled people, people with friends along to help them.


(Courtesy of Stephen Rhymer)

After finding a seat, I started seeing them … people just like me. We didn’t look like most of the people waiting to apply for food stamps. Somehow, even in our poverty and desperation, you could tell, just by looking, where – and what – we had been and how far we’d fallen.

You could practically smell our embarrassment, our “deer in the headlights” gaze and our desperate wish that we could be someplace, anyplace, else at that moment.

Finally, a young woman greeted me and, in an act of sheer gentleness and kindness, touched my arm and said, “Don’t worry, I’m here to make this as painless as possible.”

I could have cried.

Within minutes the woman verified my information, handed me a food stamp credit card, said it would buy me $200 of food each month and showed me how to check my balance online. Then came the talk about what I couldn’t use the card for – everything from beer and cigarettes to deli and prepared food – and a movie with more warnings.

Later that day, I steeled myself and went grocery shopping. I purposely picked a locally owned store that had self-checkout. I wanted as few people as possible to know I was using a food stamp card. But when at the self-checkout register, after scanning the items and swiping my card, I watched in horror as a red light started flashing over the register.

A store clerk came to the register, took my bag of food and announced in a loud voice (I thought she was screaming but perhaps I was over sensitive) that food stamp purchases in self-checkout lines had to be “verified” at the store security counter.

While I’m sure this was hardly noticed by store patrons, I felt every eye on me. The security clerk took my receipt and my card, did something on a computer and then handed both back to me, saying, “Thanks for shopping at Crest. Have a great day.”

Mortified and for some reason ashamed, I sneaked out of the store, never to return.

That was just over a year ago. Since then things have changed. Oklahoma’s state budget took a hit and I didn’t make the cut under the new food stamp eligibility requirements.

When I called the DHS office to see if I could appeal, I was told to “go ahead but you’ll be turned down.”

Maybe I’ll have better luck at the free clinic.

Stephen Rhymer, a 59-year-old former public relations official from Edmond, Okla., has been unemployed for two and a half years. Read more about him here. Read about the “Help Wanted” project here. Visit the project home page here.

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