By Leah Richard
“Why are you using your Food Stamps to buy wine?!”
This was shouted at me while I was in line at the local Piggly Wiggly in my small Louisiana town. I didn’t personally know this woman, she didn’t personally know me, but we’d seen each other around and now she felt entitled to comment on my grocery items — once I timidly took out my WIC vouchers.
This was maybe the third or fourth time I had used the vouchers, I was still new to the Women’s, Infants and Children’s program (WIC) and was unsure how to navigate the ins and outs. The items constantly change and the program is very strict about what can be purchased. Newsflash: Wine is not on the approved items list and I was clearly paying for that separately. Normally I would just ignore the loudmouth behind me but she continued to question my purchase choice.
I, less than kindly, explained that the wine was for me and the WIC vouchers were for my foster (now adopted, whoop!) children. This woman had no less than 17 bags of Cheetos in her cart and she was questioning my purchases! She thought my WIC vouchers entitled her to a say. This was my first lesson using the program—first of many.
Everyone Has A “Silent” Opinion
Just like the woman with the cart full of Cheetos, everyone glances at what items I put on the belt. Unlike her, the vast majority keep the comments to themselves, but you can see the raised eyebrows and quick glances. No doubt, many people reading this now have silently questioned the frozen pizzas and cake in the cart of the woman in front of them paying with an EBT card. As if her kids don’t deserve a pizza and cake pig out like the rest of us, every now and then. I used to sit in silent judgement myself, so I get it.
There’s the myth of the “welfare queen” that contributes to the nosey grocery neighbors, and believe me, their judgment practically reaches out and smacks the Kool-Aid out of my hand as I place it on the conveyer belt.
I am a taxpayer. I’ve had a steady job since I was 14 years old—those are my tax dollars at work. I do not feel as if I’m taking a handout, but the silent opinion of those in line with me is that clearly, I’m taking their money grocery shopping while “texting on my iPhone.”
It’s Complicated to Navigate
This was my hardest lesson to learn during my public assistance journey. The system is complicated and not set up for people with 9-5 jobs. Every 3 months I would have to take 3 hours off of work, get my kids out of daycare and wait with toddlers in a stark and unfriendly room. Then, I have to fill out paperwork while my kids wreck the office of a less than helpful worker. After that, my then 1-year-old and 2-year-old get poked, prodded, weighed and measured. Then we wait some more. As any parent who’s waited with a child anywhere can tell you, it’s not even remotely easy.
Once you have the vouchers in hand the shopping system is also difficult. You can only buy certain brands and stores don’t always have WIC items labeled. More than once I discovered that I grabbed the wrong gallons of 2% milk, after waiting in a checkout line for 15 mins with two screaming children. And it’s not as simple as swapping out – everything has to be voided and rang up again. Imagine those stares in the grocery line.
Sometimes the items you qualify for change monthly, leading to confusion over which brands are WIC brands.
Sometimes they are simply not available, and you can’t redeem a single item on the voucher, that’s right, if the store is out of that WIC brand of bread, your kids do not get the bread, milk, beans, juice or whatever else is on that voucher.
Sometimes the cashier insists your signature does not match the one on your folder and refuses to accept your items—even though you shop there every week and she knows your family—and you have to abandon your cart.
Sometimes you lose track of time and a voucher expires and you want to have a toddler size meltdown in the grocery store aisle because you’ve basically thrown away food that your kids could have eaten.
WIC is a Solid Program
All of that being said, perhaps the best lesson I learned from using WIC was how useful and necessary the program is. Thousands of women and children depend on it. It offers healthy food options for people in real need. Almost all of the food is non-perishable and will happily sit on your shelf waiting for a meal.
The beans and rice alone are worth their weight in gold in our house.
In my case, it came with my foster children. The program is theirs, and they need it. We go through gallons of milk and bags of brown rice each week. Without the program, I may not have been able to afford to have them in my home.
People YOU KNOW Use Social Assistance
Once I was actually in the waiting rooms and could recognize a WIC voucher I was able to notice just how many people I knew were on the program. My town is less that 5000 people, most of them middle class or below, many of them my friends and acquaintances – and I had no idea just how many used WIC.
Some of them still drive nice cars that were paid off before they became pregnant, and in need.
Some of them live in very nice houses that were planned and constructed before the oil field took a tumble.
Some of them have next to nothing and are entirely dependent on WIC and Food Stamps.
But I knew all of them and they knew me—that’s small-town life on social assistance. We shouldn’t judge our friends and neighbors—but inevitability, we do.
With all of the ups and downs I experienced with the program I can say without a doubt I’m proud my tax dollars support it and you should be too. Just give the woman with the vouchers in line a break, she has enough to deal with – without the added condemnation of nosey grocery store patrons.
Leah Richard was raised in south Louisiana and worked as a journalist for 13 years. She now makes her living as a professional writer, which could mean anything from speech writer to content creator to interviewer. Some of her content, which can show up just about anywhere, can also be seen here: Twitter: @lreeshard and Tumblr: lreeshard.tumblr.com/