10 Things You Can't Buy With Food Stamps

Instead of discussing the horror of someone buying soda pop or a steak with SNAP (food stamps), it would be great to turn the conversation to the things that can't be purchased and think for a minute how we could find a workaround.
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In eighth grade I was terrible in home-economics class because I had little appreciation for how practical the skills would be some day. I regret not being able to sew; how much money would we all save if we could do even basic sewing? I also regret not learning more about cooking. I can cook the basics just fine, but I wish I could be creative so that I could stretch our dollars without spending three hours on the Internet looking at recipes I don't understand. I wish I had learned to shop more efficiently, to read food labels, and so forth, because when I had to enter the big, bad world on my own, it was harsh. And I'm not alone.

A February report from the Williams Institute revealed that in the last year, 2.4 million LGBT adults (29 percent) experienced a time when they did not have enough money to feed themselves or their family. This is known as being food-insecure -- or hungry.

Findings released in June 2013 (Pride Month!) were also dismaying:

  • Some 14.1 percent of lesbian couples and 7.7 percent of gay male couples receive food stamps, compared with 6.5 percent of different-sex married couples. Moreover, 2.2 percent of women in same-sex couples receive government cash assistance, compared with 0.8 percent of women in different-sex couples; meanwhile, 1.2 percent of men in same-sex couples, compared with 0.6 percent of men in different-sex couples, receive cash assistance.
  • Almost 25 percent of children living with a male same-sex couple, and 19.2 percent of children living with a female same-sex couple, are living in poverty, compared with 12.1 percent of children living with married different-sex couples. African-American children in gay male households have the highest poverty rate (52.3 percent) of any children in any household type.
  • Add to this the reality that the trans community faces unemployment rates nearly double that of the typical community and it is clear that the myth of gay affluence is obfuscating the real story of how poverty impacts the entire LGBTQ community.

    Instead of discussing the horror of someone buying soda pop or a steak with SNAP (food stamps), it would be great to turn the conversation to the things that can't be purchased and think for a minute how we could find a workaround. Even with a great home-ec teacher, it would be a challenge.

    10 Things You Can't Buy With Food Stamps

    1. Toilet paper. Nope. In fact, no paper products at all. They aren't food, after all. No paper towels, no tissues, no napkins, no nothing. Though you can possibly use rags in lieu of paper towels, you have to wash them. Same with handkerchiefs and cloth napkins. What about toilet paper? Could you use rags and wash them? What if you don't have a washer or dryer in your home? That brings us to the next item...

  • Laundry detergent. Again, this is not food. But buying decent detergent isn't cheap. It is definitely something that is more cost-efficient if you buy the largest sizes, but then you have to lug it, not just home from the store but back and forth between home and the laundromat. And when it does go on sale, it is often a buy-one-get-one-free deal, which is terrific but means more lugging, or a special trip, which means more bus fare or gas in the car. But how do you live without laundry detergent?
  • Toothpaste, toothbrush, dental floss. Don't tell your dentist that dental floss is a luxury item, but the fact is that people without dental insurance are often the ones least likely to be able to afford these items. I know people who won't replace a toothbrush until they can find a freebie, because money is that tight. Yes, each time I visit my dentist, they offer me a new toothbrush, because they want them changed often. But if you don't have dental insurance, you don't get that offer. Toothpaste is another challenge. How fast does a family of four go through a tube, especially when kids don't remember to squeeze from the bottom and use only a pea-sized amount? But you need clean teeth to be successful in school and work and society, not just because of bad breath but because dental health is critical to our well-being.
  • Soap. How do you survive without soap? If pushed, you could forego shampoo and just wash yourself entirely with soap. You could wash clothes with soap (not a good idea), and you could wash dishes with soap (also not a good idea). But how do you function, must less flourish, without access to soap? The least-pricey soap is often the worst -- filled with chemicals, scents and sudsing agents, and not-so-filled with cleaning agents.
  • Diapers. Even under the best conditions, cloth diapers are expensive and time-consuming. And most daycares will not use them, so that's not a viable alternative for most families. My friend Karen used to go to one grocery store, purchase some food and get a little cash back (back in the day), and then go to another store and do the same, and then go a third, and then finally have enough to purchase a package of diapers. She did this walking, with the baby in a stroller, year-round. Her husband worked. She worked when the kids were in school (before the baby came along). They just didn't have enough cash to always buy diapers. She used handmade wipes. She potty-trained early. She did all the things you could possibly do and still spent hours of her day getting diapers.
  • Tampons and pads. This one often shocks people, especially women. I was 25 when I first learned that it was a reality: The women who came to the thrift store that I ran asked for rags, which they washed and used in lieu of disposable items. They then burned them or buried them, because they didn't have the laundry detergent to get them clean again. Have you ever had a day when you didn't have five on hand? What would you do if you got your period? What would you do if your 14-year-old got her period and it was a school night and you did not have any cash for another two days? I was a little older when I learned that for people who identify as genderfluid, genderqueer or trans, this can be an even more stigmatizing experience.
  • Deodorant. Luxury? Ask the person who works next to someone who doesn't use deodorant. And then ask the person if they made a conscious choice or just didn't have it. No, don't ask them, because that's shaming them. I remember being in the ninth-grade locker room and girls were very interested in what deodorants the others used. One girl didn't use any, and some of the other girls teased her for being too physically immature to need it. In hindsight, I wonder if they missed the mark; maybe it just wasn't in her family's budget.
  • Hair-care products. In spite of what I wrote earlier, I don't really think anyone should be forced to use soap to wash their hair. When you donate hair-care products, do you stop to think about including items that can be used on different types of hair? I mean, again, to function and flourish in our society, you need to have clean and well-maintained hair. It doesn't have to be styled or kept in a certain way that makes other people feel comfortable; I'm just talking about each person having access to the fundamental tools they need to maintain their hair in the way that they desire in order to function in society, like shampoo and conditioner.
  • Cleaning products. You can't buy these items with food stamps. But no matter where you live, you need some variation on these products. What do you do? Again, consider how they are transported. How many bags of cleaning supplies could you carry on the bus at one time? I used to buy cleaner at the dollar store, and it took twice as much if not more to clean as thoroughly as store brands would. Yes, you can use rags, but there are some things that really require a sponge, or a mop, not to mention replacement mop heads.
  • Lotion, powder, sunscreen, lip balm, etc. These might be considered luxuries. But what if you work outside all day? Then sunscreen isn't so much a luxury as a health necessity. Foot powder can extend the life of your shoes and socks in addition to keeping your feet healthy. What about a jar of petroleum jelly to protect your lips and other spots? Rough, chapped hands can make it really hard to type all day or clean yet another bathroom at work.
  • This is all sobering, but I'm asking you to think through some of the items you take for granted. And then I hope you'll do two things.

    First, step back from the temptation to judge what someone else is doing in the grocery store. You don't know their story, and they don't owe you or anyone an explanation. You don't need to carry around that resentment.

    Second, you can do something proactive to help. In my case, I've organized a fundraiser to establish a personal-care closet at the Gay and Lesbian Community Center of Pittsburgh. This will make some of these items available to the local LGBTQ community -- all ages and all identities treated with respect and dignity.

    You can start a similar project in your community. Google "personal care closet" with the name of your community to see which organizations are accepting these items. Food pantries will often accept them, as will programs serving homeless people of all ages. A project here in Pittsburgh collects "sister supplies" for public schools to support girls.

    I didn't take advantage of home ec, but what a great project to add to a home-ec class or a scout troop or youth group! What a great opportunity to talk about the pragmatic realities of life in the adult world and give back! Maybe your women's group will take on a "sister supplies" drive. Or your book club. You can also volunteer; the closet will need someone to monitor inventory and go shopping for supplies. The opportunities to get involved are really endless.

    In the end it boils down to helping our neighbors -- LGBTQ and allies -- have the tools they need to function and flourish. You can make that happen by starting a dialogue around the realities of poverty in our community and taking action. To be proud, we need to be honest with ourselves.

    You can learn more about the personal-care closet I'm organizing here. You can also organize a product drive now or schedule ahead to help ensure the sustainability of the project.

    This post first appeared on the Pittsburgh Lesbian Correspondents blog.

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