Before being transformed and disguised to look like bank cards, Food
Stamps resembled true, paper money. Smaller than real bills, they came
crowded together in wallet-sized checkbooks, in pastel denominations of
5’s, 10’s and 20’s. We’d wander through the supermarket, my mother and
I, collecting cold slabs of beef, discounted soups, and stacks of
bleached, flavorless breads. Government rules for Food Stamps were
unflinching, and prepared or “hot” foods were strictly forbidden, so we
kept clear of the deli, the bakery, of the shimmering spits of
rotisserie chickens and pies baking fresh in roaring, steel ovens. We
could see, we could smell, but we could not touch or take home.
At the register, my mother tore the stamps from the book. The soothing
pink of a 5. The cool blue of a 10. The velvet green of a 20. In her
fingers, a rainbow of stained paper colors emerged. She’d hand the
cashiers the bright, make-believe money, and they’d give her real
money in change. I watched her shove the crumpled bills down her pocket,
an alchemy of conversion that seemed surreal and near magic. Presto!
Fake money into real money, from nothing into something.
“This is for us, for free?” The boxes were stacked at our door, dropped
off by volunteers from local food shelters. Thick chunks of mud, a gift
from our gravel swamp of a driveway, clung to these volunteers’ shoes,
leaving fossilized canyons of muck on our sagging front porch. “This is
just ours?” I’d ask. “We get all of this?”
Inside the box, an assortment of items sealed in industrialized, black
and tan cardboard. Waxy blocks of sharp cheddar cheese. Instant,
fat-free dehydrated milk. Unsalted crackers. Every box, every month, the
same foods every time, including a white, plastic package labeled in
aggressive black caps, “BROWNIE BATTER.”
“Please,” my brother and I begged, presenting the bag to our mother.
“Please, can we eat this?” Her sigh was a nonverbal surrender, and we’d
pour sweet heaps of dark chocolate dust into cracked plastic tumblers,
blend it with tap water, and drink/chew our way through clots of
generic, cake-flavored sludge.
“So good,” we’d say to each other through teeth stained black with
saccharine grit. We’d consider our privilege, our luck, that allowed us
to drink brownie mix from a cup. What other kids in the world could do
that? “So good,” we’d say. “Isn’t this good?”
The Gleaners, as they were known in our area, set up shop outside of a
different house every month. Sometimes they’d be in someone’s backyard,
other times spilling out of a cluttered garage, 4X4 parts and slick oil
stains sneaking up to their backs. Hovering behind a hodgepodge of
plastic card tables, they’d heap “past their sale date” donuts,
cupcakes, and cellophane-wrapped sandwiches into oversized, clear
plastic bags. The leftovers, the discards, of nearby mini-marts and
chain grocery outlets.
A mile of people piled ahead in a line, no matter how early or late we
arrived. Our mother, forced to endure her children’s whining and
fighting, would threaten us with spankings, with groundings, with things
we knew she lacked the strength to deliver. So we stuck to our fighting,
we leaned into our whining, water from soaking wet grass unearthing
holes in our sneakers, drowning our feet.
“Thank you so much,” she’d say when it became our turn at the tables,
hoisting the plastic bag she was handed into her arms. I’d watch her
face strain from the burden. “And, well, I guess we’ll see you next
month.” Heading home, the air candied and sick from the scent of our
haul, my brother and I plunged our hands into the bag’s sticky innards,
battling for pastries, our fingers like slight, fleshly scales that
could measure by touch the weight of each donut’s freshness.
“A sandwich first, then dessert,” our mother commanded. She’d catch our
eyes in the rearview mirror. “And the date. Make sure you check the
I pulled a half sandwich from the bag. Turkey, with cheese, on white
bread, mummified in clear cellophane. On a faint, gummy label, a series
of numbers I could barely make out. I passed the sandwich to my mother.
She squinted at the label and again, I watched her face strain from the
“Okay. I think… this… should be okay.”
On a bright Monday morning, a girl in my class raised her hand when our
teacher asked what we did over the weekend. She’d had a birthday, and
she wanted to show off the fine, silver watch she’d received. Other kids
followed suit, raising their hands, and an impromptu exhibit of watches,
bracelets, and jewelry began. No watch, no bracelets, no jewelry to
share, I kept my hands locked at my sides.
That Monday afternoon, I flashed my monthly lunch card, a gift from the
county, at a boy in line next to me inside our school cafeteria. He had
to pay for his lunch, $2.00 a day, every day, with money he received
from his parents. They all did. Wadded up singles folded into wallets or
fistfuls of coins in zipped sandwich baggies, surrendered to our
lunchroom cashier. But not me. I received a new card every month, which
I signed in my most extravagant cursive, each letter building up to a
crescendo that screamed out my name. I wanted to show off what I had.
Look at my name on the back of this card, after all. Look at how fancy,
look what it told the world about me.
“I don’t have to pay for my lunch,” I said, revealing my card. “See?
This means I don’t pay.”
The boy glanced at my card. He snorted. “You don’t have to pay because
you can’t afford to pay. That’s what that card means. You get your lunch
for free because you’re poor.”
Made out of paper, frail as it was thin, the lunch card collapsed as my
fingers wrapped around it. Somewhere inside, some frail part of me,
collapsed just the same. I looked down at my clothes, at my plain yellow
t-shirt and faded blue jeans, my grubby white sneakers squeaking on the
linoleum. They weren’t so different from the clothes of everyone else
standing near me. In the same way that food stamps gave an impression of
currency, hadn’t I given an impression of sameness? But the county was
paying my bill and my bill alone. No one else in the lunch line could
brag about that. Look at my name on this lunch card, I’d said, and my
classmates had all along. And they knew exactly what it said about me.
My turn in line, and I handed my card to the cashier. And suddenly, how
easy I could see through the eyes of my mother, handing a fistful of
food stamps to the grocery store checker.
My turn in line, and I was handed a tray of food I didn’t pay for. And
how easy it I could see through the eyes of my mother, hoisting a box of
basic foods from our porch, struggling a bag of expiring baked goods and
meats into the backseat of her car.
My turn in line, and how easy to now imagine my mother, herself as a
child, in a lunch line at school, thinking a paper lunch card made her
special, unaware it was for all the wrong reasons, unaware of what it
said of her now, of her there at that moment, and what it threatened to
say for her future.
Will McMillan was born and raised just outside of Portland, Oregon. A dedicated Pacific Northwesterner, his essays have been featured in The Sun, Hobart, Atticus Review, and Hippocampus, among others.