By Laura Trapletti
Standing in the open, gloomy lobby of the Department of Health and Human Services, I was most notably the youngest woman in line, standing alone without children or a green card. I clutched my purse to my chest and found that looking someone else in the eye was more difficult than writing my senior thesis in college. Shame burned my cheeks a bright apple red, but the clerk at the counter took my application without a blink or even a nod. She handed me the list of next steps without hesitation. She is a woman of the world and has seen its dregs walk by her desk every day.
When, three weeks later, I received my brand new card in the mail, the first thing I did was run to my local grocery store. I finally had money for food. I almost cried when the cashier ran my card successfully and I proudly left with bread (store brand wheat), peanut butter (also store brand), and jelly (Smuckers Raspberry, to splurge). I made myself three sandwiches when I got home. The next day I went back to get cheese, milk, yogurt, fruit, and cereal, elated to finally have the ability to purchase food. I was a 23-year-old college grad suffering from hunger.
After graduation, I took a national service job to be an AmeriCorps VISTA. I wanted to make a difference by helping people, and with the bright-eyed pep of someone with a new degree, I left college with a grand plan. Needless to say, SNAP, or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Plan, was nowhere to be found in said plan. I wanted to be successful, independent, and live up to the exaggerated Millennial ideal. Not rich, but not so poor I needed assistance. I never was too concerned with money, but now I definitely was. AmeriCorps said a firm “no” to other jobs besides my service work. I knew immediately I was stuck, but I loved what I did, making a difference at the nonprofit where I was placed, and I didn’t want to give that up. It was surviving outside of that which quickly became a problem. I was still trying to grasp the financial situation and how it dwindled to this within the span of two months. The meager amount of savings I had at the end of graduation had somehow manage to vanish. I tried to find where the money went; I didn’t party or shop excessively. I didn’t go on any vacations. Soon it didn’t matter where it went. Not enough was coming in to support myself. I was bound by the AmeriCorps contract and that was that.
At the start, help for food never crossed my mind. I didn’t want to be seen as that person who needed help, who was so unsuccessful after college, who had failed so miserably, that she needed public assistance. It was embarrassing to need to help. I made it through college working three jobs. Why was I having problems now? AmeriCorps encouraged SNAP, but it was really too much to think about. What would be family think? What would my friends think of me? My roommates?
Although I moved in with friends, my student loans, rent, transportation costs, and other bills took their toll on my meager pay. But I was still determined! I could make it on one job and perseverance alone. The taste of Ramen couldn’t be that bad. Until it was. Until even finding change for that was difficult. Until breakfast was a distant memory and dinner became a special event, saved for Friday nights and Saturdays when I could not scavenge leftovers from my job. I lost weight, and all I could think about was food because the hunger headaches lasted through the night and left me exhausted during the day. I was never full, even when I did have something to eat, and I drank so much water I worried I might sprout gills. (I didn’t, thankfully.) I became too tired to even go out and meet people, not that I had the money for that either. I slept my weekends away, and still woke up too fatigued to even think. This is the side of hunger you don’t read about, how productivity all but stops, how you sleep too much but don’t feel relieved when you wake up, how your stomach constantly feel empty. Finally, it became too much. I was unable to do anything because being hungry started to take over my whole life. I was grumpy to my roommates, I didn’t socialize, and I could barely struggle through my work day. I began volunteering where I could on weekends just for the food. I was crazed. Something needed to change. I finally admitted I needed help in the middle of October, now two months since my big move to Maine and start of my AmeriCorps position.
I was aghast at the thought. Me? On food stamps? I graduated with honors! I have a fulfilling job! But when the hunger kicks in at 10 p.m. because you cannot afford food for dinner, suddenly your plans change drastically. Unfortunately, your diploma doesn’t do much at that point. I needed food. It’s one of those things you never think about until you walk into the grocery store and discover you have $3 and can’t even buy bread. Because food is expensive. So where to go?
I took the leap and went for SNAP. It took me three arduous days to discern and complete the application. I felt guilty handing it in, I didn’t want to take away funds that might have gone to someone with children or maybe veterans. When I went in for the interview, the caseworker looked at me and then at my application. She asked me the last time I had a full meal, and I told her I really couldn’t remember. She wanted to expedite me through the process, and then calmly reassured me that the government had the money, that I shouldn’t be afraid to help myself, that I deserved to eat and feel good as much as the next person did. I thanked her so much she asked me to stop. I told her at the end of my interview that I felt better already. She just smiled.
Accepting help can be hard and sometimes the feelings that come along with it are new and difficult to deal with. I learned to never feel guilty for needing help, because we all reach points in our lives when that little boost can go a long way. But I also discovered that pride can be overrated. I suffered from hunger for more than a month because I wanted to be independent. It so wasn’t worth the struggle. But accepting help can be half the battle.
I’ve also come to realize how important eating right is in my life, that it doesn’t affect me just physically but emotionally and mentally as well. Having ready access to food is important because, well, eating every day is important, and that’s something we forget about. You don’t worry about food until its not there. Every time I walk into a grocery store, I feel grateful that I can buy apples or instant rice. It is not always easy to eat.
I saw many of my previous fears assuaged. To many people I knew, they were shocked this was even happening and proclaimed often that they had no idea, because I hid it so well. This is often the case with hunger, that many of those who suffer from it do their utmost best to hide it. Because like myself, many are ashamed. Of course, many of those I come across are skeptical and at worst, critical. Even strangers can be judgmental. This is case with any sort of assistance, and I grew accustomed to this quickly. But in the end, it was my choice, something that needed to be done to care for my body and well-being. I’m glad I made the step towards helping myself get better.
Now several months have passed, and even when I get those looks at the grocery store and random shoppers ask me how many kids I have that I would need food stamps, I still think I made the right decision. I even volunteer to assist others to apply. It sounds a bit silly looking back, the hesitancy to accept help, especially for something so simple as food. But the worry, the mental and physical stress from where my next meal might come from is no longer there. I can focus on life again, with a happily full stomach. I can volunteer out of my desire to help, not because I hope there might be free edibles. I can afford good, fresh food and feed myself healthily. I can eat fresh seasonal fruit, have a steady stream of pasta instead of ramen, and easy access to the everyday needs like bread, milk, and peanut butter. So maybe this is an option more should look into. Actually, I encourage others to investigate this. It’s a program to help, not shame. With so many struggles facing college grads today, access to food shouldn’t be one of them.
Laura is a self-proclaimed book snob who spends too much time reading classics, poetry, and Captain Marvel comics on the side. She eats grilled cheese too often and watches lots of Disney. She is a new native to Portland, Maine, the most beautiful city on the East Coast, in her fine opinion. Although she is originally from New York (and if you listen to her speak, you’ll definitely know it), she has come to love Maine and all its coastlines. She hikes on the weekend and works at a nonprofit during the week, where she spends more time with volunteers than she is willing to admit. She also is the frequent but determined blogger who rants plenty and offers solutions not so much. Laura really enjoys museums and lavender tea, and wishes to travel Europe sometime soon.