By Finola Rodriguez, APIFM Health Educator

Freshly graduated from UC Irvine, I was recruited by Americorps to be an academic interventionist for 11 middle schoolers in South LA. Knowing I would survive on a modest bi-weekly stipend, I was encouraged to sign up for food stamps, which in the end taught me a ton about the level of food access the community I was serving had earning a similar monthly income. I am not a medical professional, so please take the following Do’s and Don’t tips just as suggestions and recommendations! Enjoy.

1. Do know what type of food stamps you have.

There are two kinds: EBT SNAP and EBT cash. Once after my long 10-hour day of service with Americorps, I saw a local Wendy’s with a banner that read “Accepts EBT.” I rolled through the drive-thru to discover I only had EBT SNAP, meaning I could only use my card to buy room-temp or cold food and beverages from the grocery store. Immediately my plans to use my food stamps to buy hot chicken, burgers, fries and a coffee went down the drain. Nonetheless it was a great opportunity to challenge my cooking capabilities, not settle for drive-thru meals, and better plan my nourishment for the future.

2. Don’t try to use most of your monthly food stamps on pre-packaged meals.

As tempting as it is to buy already made salads, wraps, soups, and snacks (trust me I am guilty as charged), it is not as sustainable as you think. Those were made to only last you one meal, not the whole week. Try to limit the packaged lunches to 1-2 a week max. You will get a much higher yield when you mimic some of those favorite meals while buying your own ingredients and dedicating one day of the week to make at least 3 portions for the days to come.  Not only is that more cost-efficient, but it turns out to be fun when you can dedicate time to cooking.

3. Do take your lifestyle into consideration.

Be more compassionate with yourself when planning your next meals. In a culture where it is so easy to be wrapped up in the next fad diet and the pressure to eat as fresh/organic possible, we also have to consider shelf-life and who we are providing for. Sometimes I had to buy flash-frozen fruits and vegetables because I overbought fresh produce previously. When I got too ambitious about my nourishment, my eyes would get too big at the grocery store. This unfortunately led to wasted benefits, a smelly fridge, extra money spent on meals outside, and a hungry belly. Do some research online on ‘minimal waste’ recipes and see how you can optimize your meals and time while still getting your daily nutrients. I use a lot of my leftover vegetables to make broth or sometimes freeze fruits and vegetables to make smoothies for breakfast the next morning.

4. Don’t overcomplicate when and where you buy your groceries.

Simple is better. When I first moved to Alhambra it took a couple weeks of driving around to find out which stores were around me, their opening and closing times, and when the less busy hours were to go. As much as I wanted to go to Whole Foods with my roommates I also had to keep in mind I had very limited funds in my account and I could not afford the freshly pressed juice and pre-made sushi 24/7. That being said, I did enjoy seeking advice from members of my family of their practices they utilized when they immigrated to the U.S. There can be affordable, fresh fruits and vegetables at your local 99 Cents Store, Food For Less, and 99 Ranch. It’s also helpful to look for catalogs featuring special coupons and deals in the grocery stores, consider the seasonal fruits and vegetables (they will be most likely cheaper), and dedicate time each week to make future meals for yourself. Your wellness is worth it.

5. Do take time to understand the expiration and application dates your card has.

You will get letters in the mail regarding the status of your benefits and when to reapply. Be very punctual as they need to update documentation every 6 months. So after about 5 months you will get instructions on how to do so, as well as the dates your benefits will cancel if you do not yield to their procedures. Luckily they do have the number of your social worker and they list all the documents you need to submit. If you have smartphone, consider downloading a free scanning app to ease your submission process. I would take pictures of the documents they needed (i.e. monthly rent amounts, income documents, utility bills etc.). And if you are confused just give them a call to confirm the status or check online every couple days. Do not wait last minute!

6. Don’t assume that your food stamps refill on the first of every month.

I spent my monthly amount prematurely and waltzed into a local Ralphs the first of the month. I slid my EBT card and found out that there was no balance. I was so embarrassed at the checkout and took out my debit card to pay for my groceries. After doing more research I found out that the last number of my card was the date in which they stamps refilled. For example, if the last number on your card says 6 then you will get your monthly benefit amount on the 6th of that month.

Closing thoughts…

I am sure there are many other things I learned during my year on food stamps, but if I were going to leave you with anything…. It is to not compare your food journey with anyone else’s! We all need assistance from time to time and having CalFresh can be used as an opportunity to learn proper budgeting, nourishing, and timing for your specific lifestyle. You are allowed to love yourself through feeding your body with the nutrients it needs. Listen to how your body responds to certain foods and be mindful that we all come from different cultures, backgrounds, stages of life and body types so of course your meals will look a little different.