Of Fat Babies and Food Stamps 18


The baby had fat cheek and fat legs and fat fingers. He smiled through his chubby face with pure baby joy. His crocheted giraffe hat smashed down on his fat baby head and his blue eyes peeked out from under the giraffe’s, um, snout I guess you’d call it. His mama unpacked jar after jar of baby food from the grocery cart onto the black conveyor belt. I was content to stand behind her and smile at the baby, who smiled at me.

If you can’t smile at a baby in the grocery store, it’s time to do some soul searching. There is no easier audience than a happy baby.

The checking out of the many jars of baby food was taking forever. One woman who had been smiling at the baby already ditched the cherub for a shorter, faster line. I sniffed, once, about how long this was taking and then I realized two things. 1.) I was not in demand. Anywhere. I had time to stand and wait patiently, despite my diva-like imaginings of being swooped in my importance to the front of the line. 2.) This mama had a bigger job than I.

The baby’s mama had organized her food into neat bundles. Produce in one, with a check laid carefully on top. Meat in another bundle, check laid on top. It was like this for a whole cart full of food. The mother was organized, polite and on task. She dangled a toy in front of her baby when she got a minute, and then she was back to ordering her groceries. The checks were computer printed, official-looking documents. They were government assistance. I don’t know exactly what that’s called, because I’ve never used that particular form of government assistance.

In my mind, I carved her story. Was she single? No, she wore a wedding band. She was healthy, and so was her family, as I noted a paucity of processed foods in her basket. Her baby was happy and cared for. Perhaps she’s a graduate student. Or her husband is. Perhaps they were both laid off from well paying jobs. Perhaps one of them fell ill with something not covered by insurance. Perhaps perhaps perhaps. Who knows? Who knows why she needed those checks.

The harsh harmony sung by my mind crashed against the story I tried to tell about her, this woman. I heard the words of judgement, the raucous chorus of people who’ve never had to shove their pride in their back pocket in order to buy food for a baby. I wondered what I’d have felt if I had been the one without enough money for the very basics of human existence. I wondered how I would have managed to hide my hot shame until I reached my car.

(This presupposes, of course, that it would bother me to accept assistance. And I don’t know. Maybe she was not bothered at all. But this is America, ya’ll, where we take independent boot-strapping to new heights, ignoring all the while what assistance we got from who knows where.
But I digress.)

I watched the mama and baby. I watched the cashier who knew how to handle each form. For them, with practice and efficiency it was probably akin to my experience buying tampons. So long as you have a way to pay, cashiers don’t care what you buy.

Mama and baby finally finished and I had started loading up the belt with my own weekly groceries. Mounds of food. Mounds of non-essentials, like extra snacks for that one thing at school, and ice cream for a party, and three different kinds of cereal—in boxes, no less—for three different kids.

I was shamed by my own complicated thoughts. And I was charmed by the baby with the fat cheeks and toothless smile. I don’t know his story. I only know one thing about them, that family with the food stamps.

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18 thoughts on “Of Fat Babies and Food Stamps

  • Caris Adel

    This makes me want to cry. I don’t care that your thoughts are complicated. I’m glad you were reaching for the graceful side of them. We had to use food stamps for several months a couple of years ago and I was mortified. It was such a good lesson in humility. The nice thing was that I just had a card, that looked like a debit card so it wasn’t as obvious, but still………I finally started shopping late at night so I wouldn’t have to see the looks people gave me. I was probably imagining their thoughts and judgments, but I’m sure not always. I also cringe every time someone posts that damned picture on FB of how welfare recipients need to be drug tested. So this makes me happy. Happy that not everyone out there is judging people who need help, even if they look like they should have their shit together.

    • Jennifer Luitwieler

      Your last sentence is sitting with me. Because we all like think we “should” have our shit together, @CarisAdel:disqus, and we all like to think we do. I keep coming back to this woman. Would I have been as gracious if she was buying cheese balls and frozen dinners? Would I have been as kind if she had been dressed in pajamas (so what? It’s a pet peeve) and her kid had snot on his face? I don’t know, and that bothers me. But still, these things are in place for a reason. And no ONE KNOWS what it’s like to use them unless you use them.

      • Caris Adel

        I actually have one story about when we were on them, that I’m kind of embarrassed about and shouldn’t be, I don’t think. So what better place to share it, haha. The gov’t was a few months delayed when they gave us our food stamps, so we ended up with deferred money on the card. (and their base amount was more than I budget normally for food. Not sure how I felt about that.) but anyway, it was christmastime, and we had 0 money for presents for extended family. Really 0 money for the kids, either, but we just put it on the cc and waited for the tax return. Anyway….we had all this extra food stamp money, that could only be spent on food. So….we bought food as presents. Like, the nice, foreign jellies and crackers and tea and stuff. I was mortified that people would see me buying expensive non-essentials with food stamps. So I went late at night, and then tucked in the jars among all my normal food, hoping no one would notice. The cashier didn’t even blink an eye, and I ended up with someone in line behind me and just refused to look at them. :/

  • Amy Mitchell

    Wow. What a great story. There are people in my own family who have been or are on public assistance. Without fail, they have had people eye them in the store, monitoring what they purchase. If they buy healthy stuff (especially organic produce, which is more expensive), then they are wasting. If they buy a package of cookies, then they are wasting. There’s no way to win at that game. Thanks for posting this and giving honor to the mama and her chubby-cheeked little one.

    • Jennifer Luitwieler

      I hear the comments, too @twitter-104659795:disqus, as if it is my place to decide how others should eat or spend their money. You’re right. They can’t win, because someone is always ready to judge. Wouldn’t it be nice instead if we adopted an attitude of thanks. For what we have and for how we can bless? Maybe it’s a pipe dream, but that’s me, the stubborn optimist.

  • rayhollenbach

    First of all, well done on the post–engaging, in-the-moment, and lively writing. It was a pleasure to read for it’s own sake.

    Second: I benefited from the human aspect of your tale. Politics fade away when we get down to real people–imagine if you had helped her load her grouches and chatted her up? Who knows what you’d have discovered next?

    Finally, It must be noted that the federal government has stepped into a void left by the church. For centuries (centuries!) the church rallied to help those in need–for whatever reason. Only in the last hundred years has the American church pulled back from this aspect of God’s Kingdom.

    • Jennifer Luitwieler

      Wowie zowie! A comment from one of my favorite guys! @rayhollenbach:disqus, thanks. I kept imagining that clip from the new Tina Fey movie, where she tries to help the mom in the store with her baby, and the mom wigs out because some stranger was coming at her kid. I contented myself to be googly eyed with the baby. But I did want to know more. And not just about her.
      I wish you could come see our church. We meet in a wholesale grocery store in a disadvantaged part of town. Kids come without shoes, people come high as a kite, they are not in their Sunday clothes, if you know what I mean. And God is so so there. Would that we moved more toward this.

    • Jennifer Luitwieler

      @somuchshoutingsomuchlaughter:disqus The thing is, of course I love you. And of course I’m glad these things are in place. And I’m not perfect, and I know we are all one step away from being places where we don’t want to be. Make sense?

  • Tammy Helfrich

    Beautiful. I love that you took the time to see her. When we take time to actually see the person and not just an issue, what we often find is that our thoughts are not as clear as we thought they were. I love your honesty and willigness to talk about this.

  • Jenna Rankin Doucette

    You are such a special person with eyes wide open and a heart to go with it. Wish we were blood relatives and not just connected through a few marriages. I would be proud to call you cousin so I could brag about you to my friends. Oh wait, I think I’ll do that anyway.