My SNAP Story

Photo credit: Los viajes del Cangrejo, CC BY 2.0.

I am a middle-aged white woman living in Washington, D.C. I’m a college-educated writer who edits on the side. I have a cat.

I also get food stamps.

Surprised? To some degree, so am I. I’ve been on food assistance for a couple of years, and though I’m inarguably underemployed now, back when I first applied I had two relatively steady gigs that brought in a respectable amount of money — maybe not for D.C., but respectable in general. Housing costs in the area are sky-high, however, and my old first-floor, one-bedroom apartment in a modest garden-style building was sinking me. No amenities besides coin-operated laundry (four machines total); the Metro was a 20-minute walk. Not exactly luxury accommodations. It was the cheapest place I could find, but it was still busting my budget. So I qualified.

And I’ll be honest: I’ve loved every time I’ve slid my EBT card through a grocery store’s credit machine. The daughter of parents who grew up during the Depression, I have always been able to budget within an inch of my life, so feeling free to spend $2 on something that would have given me pause had I been paying cash was wonderful. That’s not to say I was wasteful. I still bought generic and loaded digital coupons to my store cards. I still comparison shopped. I still checked out the floor-pie rack. (That’s the rack where they put the discounted goods.) I was still thrifty.

But I also bought healthier food. Into my cart went cod fillets from Trader Joe’s and salad greens from Wegmans. Asparagus? Yes. Grass-fed beef? Please. My local farmers’ market not only accepts food stamps, it matches them up to $10. Finally, I felt like I was no longer putting dangerous substances or ill-advised ingredients into my body. (Marked-down bagels excepted.) I suffer from chronic migraines and depression, and following a healthy diet is often recommended as a way to help manage symptoms. Now I can afford to.

I started feeling better — maybe not consistently, but more often. Last year, I ended up in a psych ward during a nasty depressive episode, and when I got out, I applied for disability. Working had been a miserable cycle: in order to do my jobs well, I had to take medication. Taking medication often, at least for migraines, meant that I got more migraines, aka the rebound effect. Migraines exacerbate depression; it’s not that the pain makes you depressed, it’s an actual chemical change. When the headache lifts, so does the black cloud. Migraines also make it difficult to recall words — not the best thing for a writer/editor. If I didn’t medicate, I was useless. It wasn’t even the pain, which only hits the “terrible” level a few times a month. It was the neurological symptoms that felled me.  

I was denied disability, but my diet improvements served as natural meds, and both my illnesses became milder. I’m still looking for a job to replace the one I quit (hire me!), so I need my food assistance more than ever. And, thanks to the nutritive choices my EBT card grants me, I have the energy and pain-free presence of mind to send out those resumes.

Tricia Olszewski is a film critic living in Washington, D.C. She’s hoping to add another title soon so she can afford good food on her own.

This story is part of The Billfold’s Food Series.

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