BY GWEN FRISBIE-FULTON
When I first got food stamps, I went to the farmer’s market and sniffed and tapped on all the cantaloupes, just like my mother taught me. A ripe cantaloupe has a deep, sweet scent—something between honeysuckle and garden soil. The feeling of finally being able to purchase healthy, fresh food again for my son is one I will never, ever forget.
I was aware that I was supposed to be ashamed to be receiving benefits—that’s how the narrative goes. But I had made a careful decision: As a single mother, in order to lift my wages into a something more sustainable for my family, I knew that I needed to return to school. The only way I could figure out how to pursue my Master’s degree was to reduce my work hours; and SNAP was how I filled in the gap. I wasn’t proud to pull out my EBT card in the check-out lane, but I was also not ashamed to be making the right choice for my family.
Every mother I know is doing everything she can for her children; it just looks different, depending on where you are from. We all triple-check car safety seats, we all cheer wildly at school concerts, we all spend hours watching YouTube videos trying to figure out 5th-grade math. We also enforce bedtimes and put healthy meals on the table, not just because it’s important today, but because we know it’s important for all our children’s tomorrows.
And no mother should ever have to struggle to do that.
Nearly two-thirds of households that receive SNAP benefits are families with children, and I have no reason to think that these families are any different than mine. Through a decade and some change of mothering, there have been hard times, and there have been easier times. There have been years where more than half of my income has been spent on childcare, and there have been years that we have been able to take long weekend road trips, sending postcards back to our friends along the way.
Nearly 80 percent of American families are living paycheck to paycheck, which means that many of us are one broken water heater away from needing a helping hand. Nobody’s situation is static: We are not either givers or receivers, but instead, move between these spaces. My neighbor is a single father and is out of work right now. He goes to a food pantry for assistance when he needs it, but he also helps me make breakfast bags for the local shelter when he can. From my grandparents who bought their house with the help of the GI Bill, to my brother who went to school on Pell grants, to my elderly neighbor trying to make ends meet on a Social Security check, nearly all Americans receive government aid at some point to help achieve their family’s dreams.
No one does this entirely alone, nor do I think we should.
Mothering has taught me a lot about love. Before having my son, there is no way I could have comprehended the intensity of the love I am capable of feeling. While most of my love is heaped upon him in the form of embarrassing kisses at the bus stop and in the tender moments of pulling the blanket up over him after he has fallen asleep reading, parenting has also helped me feel a renewed gentleness towards the world. I want the best for my family, but I do not believe that “the best” must be in short supply: I want it for the man next door and his daughter, I want it for all the children in my son’s classroom (even the bullies), I want it for all my neighbors (even the old lady who cusses if we step on her lawn).
Like most families, I only used SNAP for a few months and let it lapse when it came time to recertify. But I saved seeds from a cantaloupe I bought with food stamps and each spring plant them in my garden—a reminder of how small investments can continue to impact a family’s life well into the future.
I finished my graduate degree and now work at Second Harvest Food Bank where the staff is diverse, but our common belief is refreshingly simple: Everyone deserves to eat. The wonderful thing about planting cantaloupe, or loving a child, or caring for all the people in your community, is that each year, you keep getting more seeds.
Learn more about how Second Harvest Food Bank of Northwest NC and its local partners work together to help families experiencing food insecurity and advocate for strong federal nutrition programs, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly called Food Stamps) at HungerNWNC.org