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On Growing Up Poor & Why We Should Save the SNAP Program

I grew up on Food Stamps.  As a child that’s all I knew.  Well, that, and the long lines we waited in for cheese, butter and powered milk  at the end of the month when food ran out.  Or the glare looks from men and women in the grocery lines as my mother reached for her book of Food Stamps.  As I got older, I learned to be embarrassed about our situation.  I dreaded those eyes…all the people watching, and the comments my mom got for being a mother to four children and poor.  I’ve talked before about how these types of situations created self-doubt in me.

I remember the nights when we went to bed hungry.  I remember going to school and having to wait in a separate lunch line than the rest of the kids.  Watching other kids eating those fancy snacks I saw on the commercials, but had never tasted myself…things like Twinkies or Lays potato chips.  I never had those growing up.  We didn’t have money for snacks, because we barely had money for food.

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I don’t know how to describe this to someone who’s never lived on Food Stamps, what’s now called SNAP.  People don’t understand what it’s like to grow up with a “survival” mentality.  They don’t know how poor families form community around food and why obesity is such a problem for the poor.  They probably think it’s because we have too much, but in fact, it’s because we have too little.  We probably emphasize food in our families to a level that some might call “unhealthy”.  But then, they don’t know what it’s like to go without for so long.  I’m betting that they’ve never thought about the 5th grade kid who gets their first taste of a hot pizza from Pizza Hut thanks to the “Book It” Program.  Or the kid who runs the supermarket aisles for free samples to fill their empty belly.  I was that kid.

To say that the poor are a leech on society and that SNAP should be cut, is to say that kids like me should go hungry.  I could not bear to see my daughter ever go hungry.  I could not stand by if my nieces and nephews went hungry.  How can our elected officials even consider this as an option?

That photo above is me in a hotel room, right before my parents got divorced.  It was one of my fondest memories growing up.  I remember having air conditioning (for the first time) and getting popsicles (a rare treat) everyday that week while I was sick.  I loved having my mom and dad in the same room with me and having my mom take care of me.

Later on I asked my mom why we were in that hotel and how we could afford it.  I found out that we had to use our rent money to stay in the hotel and a month’s rent did not cover the cost.  I didn’t realize why we left at that time, but I remember crying and asking mom if we could stay there.  It was the nicest place I’d ever lived.

As I asked my mom in later years, she told me about how our landlord had sold our house out from under us, which we were paying for on a “Land Contract”…a common practice in low-income communities.  She had signed an agreement, it was all official, but ultimately, when the landlord decided to sell the house to someone else in spite of our agreement, we did not have the financial means to take him to court in order to keep our home.

These types of situations are why families like mine continue to rent.  Many of us never buy homes.  My mother still doesn’t own her own home…and neither do I.

All this just to say, people who have wealth, and even those who are middle class, do not understand what it’s like to live in poverty…unless they’ve been there.

That’s the point that Congresswoman Jackie Speier makes in the video below, as she pleads with our elected officials to prevent cuts to the SNAP program.  I applaud her.

One of the things I knew growing up is that the wealthy receive more benefits than anyone in this country – both socially and financially.  And it’s not that way by accident.  The wealthy find plenty of opportunities to lobby for themselves, for laws that benefit them, for bigger tax breaks and more community enrichment programs on the government’s dime.

But who will lobby for the poor?  Who will look out for the kids growing up poor in America?  I worry about that a lot…especially in a nation that is increasingly polarized and where businessmen and congressmen don’t find value in those who don’t “contribute their share”.  Is money really the only thing that matters?  What about humanity?

I’m glad there is someone out there defending humanity.  In the video below, you can watch Congresswoman Jackie Speier’s comments on saving the SNAP program below.  Click here to learn more about the SNAP Challenge.

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  • Collleen G.
    September 20, 2013 at 9:38 am

    When I was a kid one winter we had rice, some kind of vegetable and the ground venison my dad had gotten during hunting season. When my kids ere smaller I asked my mom about what we ate for lunch when I was their age. She couldn't remember. I can't either. I honestly think other than crackers and cheese we didn't have lunch unless we were blessed with enough leftovers from the night before. Yeah we are on SNAP right now. My husband in only three months into his new job. This is the first time in years that he has made enough for us to adequately supplement. During the no-income times I really learned how to clean with food items such as baking soda and vinegar. it wasn't out of wanting to be "green" but out of desperation of how to really live on food assistance. Birthday's were very food oriented because presents were usually out except the ones coming from grandparents. It's amazing how creative you can get when the cupboards are dwindling because benefits aren't there because of a paperwork snafu.
    I cringe every time some politician, who have never needed food assistance, get all budget conscience and push some cutback bill. How much crud is in our government's "budget" and you yahoos want to cut out food for poor people?

    • Chantilly Patiño
      Chantilly Pati&ntild
      September 20, 2013 at 3:08 pm

      Creative is right! That's a good point about the cleaning supplies and making meals out of nothing. We never had what most would consider the "bare necessities" either. We've never really had steady income in our home until this past year or two. Minimum wage will do that to you. Not to mention that sometimes there are reasons why not everyone in the family can work, such as disabilities. It's sad that the government does so little to help everyone to make a living. They need to raise the minimum wage and put more money into education.

      I feel very lucky, because two years ago I had the courage to start my own online business, albeit small. My husband lost his job last year and now we rely completely on my business for our income. It was something I was always afraid to do, especially when you grow up in a family wearing taking risks can be hazardous to your financial survival, but so far my business income has tripled since I started.

      If you're ever thinking about starting your own online business or making money blogging, let me know. I would be happy to help. I started with zero skills and created a full-time income in two years, so it is possible.

      Wishing you and your hubby the best!! I know how it is to start a new job and going through all of those government paperwork mess ups. I used to work at Social Security…LOL…so I know how bad it is.

  • Vanessa, DeSuMama
    September 24, 2013 at 6:24 am

    This is a beautiful post, amiga. Your story is valuable to help others understand. I applaud YOU!

    • Chantilly Pati&ntild
      September 26, 2013 at 3:33 am

      Thank you Vanessa. There was a time not long ago where I didn't want to talk about poverty at all. It's something I am very sensitive too. This year I finally feel like I can be open about it and not have a bit of concern about what people think or how they react, because it's an extremely important conversation. ♥

  • Angelica Perez
    September 25, 2013 at 8:52 pm

    Powerful and touching story, Chantilly. I remember my mom using food stamps too, for a while. Thank you for sharing your story and advocating for those who need and should have the SNAP program.

    • Chantilly Patiño
      September 26, 2013 at 8:41 am

      I’m glad to have you as a friend Angelica and thank you for stopping by to add your thoughts.

      The SNAP Program is so important to many families across the country and it’s sad that the majority of those who benefit are children, and that we…collectively as a country…are literally taking food off of their tables. That is unacceptable.

  • Kylie
    October 10, 2013 at 11:57 am

    Thank you so much for writing this and sharing! I also grew up in a family with 4 children)on foodstamps, and remember the separate cafeteria line at school, cheese lines, and having to get *welfare glasses* instead of being able to choose our own. Needless to say, it’s an issue very close to my heart. I never thought of our relationships with food being so shaped by being on public assistance. Thank you a deeper understanding! <3

    • Chantilly Patiño
      Chantilly Pati&ntild
      October 16, 2013 at 8:34 am

      Yes! I remember how much I cried about those glasses! I've worn glasses since I was 4 and was picked on relentlessly throughout school for wearing those thick, plastic frames.

      About welfare and food, I've always wondered…because the majority of America's poor are obese and yet we are the ones with the least food security. I think the kinds of food you can afford when you're poor (mostly heavy starches and high calorie foods that can fill bellies) + the human need to somehow "treat" ourselves to something good once in a while (which poor families can often only afford $1 at a time) is much of the cause.

      Thanks so much for stopping by to comment Kylie! I had totally blocked out my experience with welfare glasses. ;)