The couple standing in line in front of me on the parking lot asphalt had their two children with them. All of us were wilting in the summer heat as we waited for the truck carrying the food boxes to arrive.
Out of embarrassment, or possibly just boredom, the husband/father stared straight ahead, acknowledging no one. He was totally checked out. I could see that he’d rather have been just about anywhere else. The girls, who looked to be about ten and seven years old, began fidgeting, not knowing what to do with themselves. The older girl began poking and annoying the younger one, as the latter made a valiant effort to ignore her big sister.
The mother noticed that, about ten people ahead of her, snacks were being handed out to kids by blue-uniformed women staffing a table. She stepped over there and quickly returned with a little plastic cup containing what looked like a tiny slice off the edge of a quesadilla. “Here, eat it!” she commanded as she thrust it at her eldest daughter. “No, I don’t want it!” whined the girl. “Will you eat it?” she asked the younger girl, who immediately shook her head no. “Well, then I’m eating it,” she announced, popping the bite-sized snack into her mouth.
“First time here?” I asked the mother in an effort to start a conversation. She nodded and I took the opportunity to tell her about the USDA food distribution next week and which churches are giving out food baskets and where to get more drought relief boxes over in the next town. “I’ll have to write this all down when I get home,” she said. Having been passed this information by other people in other food lines, I was glad to be able to pay it forward.
But she really got excited when I told her about the expired bread giveaway to be held this afternoon. “You hear that, girls?” she said, “The church right by our house is giving away bread today!”
“And bagels and yogurt and bananas and cake,” I added. “Cake!” blurted out the older girl, the single syllable exploding from her mouth as if in disbelief at her good luck. “Yogurt!” exclaimed her younger sister, no less thrilled at the prospect. I’m guessing it had been quite a while since they had been able to indulge in their favorite foods.
“It’s really hard to feed everyone when you have two girls,” offered the mother, almost as an apology for her daughters’ reaction to my news. “Oh, I bet,” I responded. But the food truck had arrived and the line of hungry families began moving forward and the delivery guys began climbing up ladders and handing down twenty-five pound boxes of canned vegetables, rice, beans, spaghetti and peanut butter.
As I passed the snack table, I noticed that the SNAP ladies were working an open jar of peanut butter and had set three fresh peaches on display next to a sign announcing that the snack being handed out to the kids in line was peachy peanut butter pita pockets. Say that three times fast.
A family with four kids in tow had gotten on line behind me, and one of the blue ladies stepped out from behind the table to offer PPBPPs to their little ones. Meanwhile, my wife had pulled the car around closer to where the food truck was parked. As I passed our car, I was most grateful for the bottle of water she handed me through the window.
As I approached the sign-in table, I was accosted by an employee who carried a clipboard and asked me whether I knew about the CalFresh benefits that are available. “It’s what we call Food Stamps now,” she explained. I told her my story about how I had applied online, only to be mailed a thick packet of forms that would make an attorney’s head swim. “I can’t find half the documentation they’re asking for,” I admitted. “And anyway, isn’t it true that you can’t qualify if you have a car?”
Having a car has nothing to do with qualifying for Food Stamps, she assured me. With no income, my wife and I would likely qualify, she added. She then encouraged me to call the county Health and Human Services Department (commonly known around here as “the welfare office”) and get set up with an advocate to help me.
When I returned home with my box of canned food, I took the worker’s advice and called the county. The paperwork they had sent me had been sitting on the little table next to my laptop for a week, mocking me. I had been ready to toss it in the trash. True, we are living off our meager savings, but at least we still have some. Aren’t Food Stamps for people who are totally broke?
Not necessarily, a case worker told me over the phone. If that’s our only source of income, and we’re using our savings to pay our living expenses, then we should still qualify. My wife agreed with my sentiment that even twenty dollars a month would be a huge help.
The case worker then went on to explain that she would need copies of our driver’s licenses, Social Security cards, auto registrations, savings account statements, life insurance policies, unemployment exhaustion paperwork and proof of our residence in the county. (“What, no stool sample?” quipped my wife.) I am grateful that my wife is extremely organized and was able to rustle up copies of all the documents we needed in just a few minutes. A couple of hours later, she dropped me off at the welfare office to turn in our documentation in support of our application for Food Stamps. Uh, I mean CalFresh. Navigating bureaucracy requires the right terminology. I’m learning (slowly).
I was pleasantly surprised to find that I only had to wait about five minutes to speak to a clerk. Showing her our paperwork, I tried to explain that its appearances are deceiving. Although it indicates that we have money, in reality we have no access to it. I went on to elaborate that when I was laid off, my employer (probably illegally) took half my accrued vacation pay and stuck it in a health expenses savings account. Even claiming hardship won’t allow us to get our hands on those funds. A holding company will pay out dribs and drabs to doctors to take care of our office visit copays and lab work, but that’s it. That’s when the clerk asked whether I am able to provide proof of my assertions. “Call them,” I suggested, incredulous. Do they think I am making this stuff up?
The clerk scanned each of the documents I provided, adding them to our file on her computer system. I explained that we had to move in with my mother-in-law when I was laid off nine months ago and that I am getting exactly nowhere with my constant applying and interviewing. “I’m sorry,” she replied. Well, what else can she say? I’m sure the poor beleaguered clerk has heard it all and then some.
She explained to me that it would take at least a month for a decision to be made on our application. If further paperwork is needed, we will receive a denial letter, after which we can cure the deficiency by filing the missing documents, thereby reopening the case. I thanked her and sat down near the entrance to await my wife’s return.
To kill time, I pulled out my phone and checked my email. What I found was a coupon for $5 off dinner for two at Olive Garden. If only. I entered a wistful mood and, as I watched the people come and go at the welfare office, I began text-bombing my wife about my Olive Garden dreams.
Got an Olive Garden coupon for $5 off dinner.
I think I hear eggplant calling my name.
I thought I heard lasagna calling my name too, but I was wrong. It was actually calling your name.
Ohhhh, oh, minestrone… how I love thee, minestrone…
And the breadsticks stand up and do a little dance around the salad bowl…
And the heavenly odor of grated parmesan reggiano wafts over the table…
And the spaghetti noodles swim in garlicky pools of tomato sauce…
About this time, my wife pulled up to the curb. “We can’t go to Olive Garden!” was the first thing she said when I opened the car door.
Yeah, I know. But I can dream, right?
Oh, and I think I know a couple with two little girls who would very much like to join us.