How food stamps changed my diet

Of the 50 months I’ve been in Portland, I’ve lived 44 of them on food stamps.

In September 2007, at age 23, I couldn’t pick ginger out of a lineup, let alone differentiate kale from chard, yams from a sweet potato. My freezer was overrun with an array of frozen, preservative-laden, meat-heavy dishes, while my refrigerator’s crisper kept only my Pabst crisp. The list of meals I could make went something like this: pasta with canned tomato sauce, pasta with canned pesto, pasta with canned white sauce and a “breakfast scramble” consisting of potatoes, eggs and cheese. But even this meager breakfast dish could only feature scrambled eggs; I could not poach or fry and had not the faintest idea what “sunny side-up” or “over-easy” meant.

My monthly “income” from AmeriCorps forced me to continually eat at home, however, and this menagerie of processed food—fish sticks, chicken fingers, taquitos and the like—was costing me big time. Even $200 a month goes fast when you shop in the freezer aisle.

And since I could scarcely afford nights out, I was finding that, if drinks were on the agenda, they were probably happening in our apartment.

I remember cooking fajitas one night for a gathering of friends and it feeling very much like a special occasion.

Here I was, in front of the stove, sautéing chicken, onions and peppers, tossing copious amounts of Tapatio on the pan. I was the cook in the kitchen. The pièce de résistance, the ingredient that gave my fajitas their “fajita-ness,” was, of course, a small packet of fajita seasoning, Fred Meyer brand. Baby steps.

This was simply another night spent eating and drinking with friends. But, through the sepia-toned lens of retrospect, I now see that there was something about the communality, the gathering of friends around a hot stove that was—damn the sentimental schlock, here goes—life-affirming.

That fall evening was not a moment of epiphany. But as an adolescent picky-eater weaned on hot dogs and canned beans who spent his undergrad years eating Little Caesar’s and averaging 14 meals a week in the cafeteria, it did signal that food was more than food, more than sustenance, more than fuel.

It gave me joy to spend time over a stove and feed my friends.

My palette gradually broadened, and I began to find joy in discovery, something that food stamps makes exponentially more possible. With food stamps, I could bring my first tuna steak to a barbecue, and if I hated tuna steak or overcooked it, no sweat. There was more where that came from.

This probably sounds self-indulgent, lazy and gluttonous. I was living off the government’s teat, after all. One could draw a straight line from the waiting line at DHS to a checkout line at Freddy’s.

But government assistance made me a smarter, healthier eater. I have gained an appreciation for legumes and leafy greens, a heretofore unexplored segment of the food pyramid for this Midwestern canned-food child. I found that I did, in fact, like tomatoes, that zucchini in the summer always hit the spot and that sweet potatoes in autumn did the same. (Food comes in seasons? Who knew!?)

This is not to say that I didn’t indulge myself. The door of my refrigerator contained every hot sauce I could find. I once spent $30 on vitamin water. And, of course, there was always chips and salsa in the house. Slowly but surely, however, the hot sauce became fish sauce; the vitamin water, apple cider vinegar. I was learning to cook and stock a pantry.

The Portland Vanguard, 11.03.11. Link:


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