The Humble Market

The coupons were concealed carefully inside my purse, but I had to keep peeking at the list to see what was approved for me to purchase. A dozen eggs, four gallons of milk, some breakfast cereal of specific brand, cheese- all carefully lined out on the coupons the nice lady at the WIC center had given me.

It was explained that WIC (Women, Infants and Children) is a federally funded program to provide nutritional food to families of limited means. I was encouraged by the Nice Lady to spend all the coupons each month, as WIC’s annual funding was predicated by the previous year’s grant being spent. She was kind, soft spoken and I left the office in tears anyway.

Never had I imagined needing something like a WIC coupon. I was the person who helped others. I was the one working in the soup kitchens, the one cooking at the Bishop’s Storehouse, the one who donates to help others. Not me. Not me.

And so the coupons remained concealed from casual observation. Though I had waited until very late to go the market, I still felt the sting of shame as I carefully chose the approved brick of cheese and large tin can of apple juice.

In an empty aisle, I tallied my groceries, making sure I had used the coupons to the full and honest extent. When another woman turned her cart onto my aisle, I quickly stuffed the papers back in my purse, and pretended to study the label on a can of soup, my cheeks coloring with humility.

At the front of the store, I looked for a register with no line, and settled my basket in behind a woman with only a few items. As I began unloading my cart, I realized I had been in this line before. I had been in line behind women with these very same items, with small children, and my thoughts had not, I was ashamed to admit, always been charitable.

Looking at me, so many would not be charitable either. For the world to see; a nice car, a designer handbag, a big house in a nice neighborhood, a flashy cell phone and an large diamond wedding ring. I could practically hear the catty voices: Why would that woman need WIC food? She must be one of those. One of those people who use and abuse the system.

And there I stood. Tears sprang to my eyes. My cheeks stung with shame. On the outside, what, indeed, did I lack? Hidden from the world: the unemployment going on six months, a health crisis for my husband, the reserves of savings dwindling as the prices of staples rose, the food storage being used up, and the quiet desperation creeping up in our family.

Maybe there was another way for me to learn that lesson. Maybe not. What I do know is, I will never, ever stand in line at the grocery store the same way again.

Matthew 7:1-2 has surely been written in my heart:

Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.

26 thoughts on “The Humble Market

  1. So sorry you had to learn that lesson that way! We had several very lean years and I’ve never lost the deep feeling of joy and gratitude when I look in the pantry and it’s full.

  2. WIC is hard to swallow sometimes. We’ve been on it for a couple years while my husband is in school and we are living the very leanest we can. I still hid those coupons because I don’t want people to look at me any different then they look at anyone else….hang in there!

  3. Oh honey, I’ve been there. Right now I’m driving a 92 Buick Century – w/a mismatched bumper. I’ve had nice cars all my life until a chain of events (we weren’t financially prepared for) reduced us to this.. When I’m stopped at a red light I want to roll down the window and scream at the lady with the big sunglasses, driving the shiny, new SUV: “This is just temporary! It’s not really who I am!!!”

    We like to refer to this as our ‘humble’ period..and humble pie (as I’ve found out) is hard, hard, hard to swallow. I try to remind myself of all the humbling and embarrassing things my great-grandmothers had to do to get by during the depression and suck it up.. I was complaining about this to my grandma once and she said “you’d feel worse if your children were hungry” …it kind of pulled me out of that place.

  4. I appreciate your willingness to share. We learn through our own experiences, and we learn through the experience of others. You’ve touched my heart and taught me a valuable lesson today.

    My heart and prayers go out to you and your family, oh total stranger. Hope things get better soon.

  5. I’ve done WIC, too. Humility can be a hard and bitter pill to swallow, but it has taught me a lot. And while it’s still hard not to worry about what others might be thinking of me, every time I show someone that kind of compassion I know that someone else is doing the same for me.

  6. God bless you Tracy. My eyes are welling up with tears thinking about your courage at the grocery store today.

    A hard and humbling lesson. Beautifully written and shared. Thank you!

  7. Amen, sista. I’ve recently learned the same lesson about government health care…and felt so ashamed of what my past feelings have been, now that I’m there myself. Like Dory sings, “Keep on swimming, keep on swimming…”

  8. I was on WIC & other assistance for 3 long years. I’d gone thru a divorce, and had a 13 month old to care for, and my mom rescued us 3 states away. I never hid it, I was so thanful that such things existed. But then again- I’d never had much before that either. Maybe that’s why it wasn’t so hard?

    Tracy & others don’t hold your head down– anyone who looks down on you for using it are fools. Hold your head up, and know that you are doing what you need to take care of your family.

    To all the dingbats who stare, whisper, or are just plain rude. I hope they never have to walk in the shoes we’ve walked in. It’s not pretty, it’s not fun, it’s not easy- but we do it because we “need” it, and aren’t too proud to know it, and accept those blessings that are provided for us.

  9. And now you know why I always dress down to go to the grocery store. Somehow I feel like if I can make myself look more like I “need it”, I won’t get as many *looks*. Although honestly, after 4 years of being a broke student’s wife/mama…. I think I’ll stop caring if anybody’s thinking uncharitable things. I’m just doing what I have to do to take care of my family. And it sucks.

  10. Tracy, you are an amazing writer. This is so well-worded and so expressive. Even more, you are an amazing woman. You are learning some of the lessons that come from this experience, and you are learning them well – even if you can‘t see it clearly yet.

    You will find that there will be those who look to you as the example of how to handle their challenges in life.

    I don’t say that lightly. I have been there in these depths of humiliation and struggle, and have worked hard to rise above circumstances that are beyond my control – at least to emotionally and mentally better control how I handle life’s curve balls. I am a better person for knowing you through the experiences, such as this, that you dare to share in your writing. Your example of dealing with the highs and lows of your situation helps me as I wade through my own challenges.

    Hold your head up and, as one of my sons says, keep on keepin’ on.

  11. Tracy, I love you.

    The older I get the more I have learned to understand that we NEVER know what is going on in other people lives. Never, ever. I have enough on my plate to deal with, without judging others at this point.

    Frankly, that is what my Part 2 is going to cover over at Segullah. Compassion. Kindness. We are all women, we all have our stuff. We all should just give ourselves and each other a break. I wish that this situation that you are struggling though would resolve itself and soon. I wish a lot of things for your family. I am sorry it is a tough pill to swallow. I am sorry that you find yourself on the other side of the helping table. I know how hard that is.

    I can echo what the others have said by telling you how wonderfullly you write and how much I know your words will help others..

    BTW..I have an e mail coming your way…. it involves blogging and Top Chef…

  12. I cannot tell you how much I respect you for this piece. I’ve been there and it is beyond hard. That you could take your discomfort and learning and share it to ease others’ discomfort a little bit says so many wonderful things about you. Thank you.

  13. So understand where you’re coming from. So we figured out with Kevin finally getting a pay check we no longer qualified for WIC, by $100 after 5 years. Yep we’d graduated… then I went to sign Spence up for pre-k, WIC changed it’s salary req in June. Gotta love it husband with an MD and we are on WIC again. I’m mortified to start the process over agian…. with nice house included. sigh. I wish I could say I got used to the stared and “the looks” but I never really did. I like to think I did but they just bothered me less.

  14. Tracy, Thanks for feeling comfortable enough with all of us to share. We’re all better for it, a good reminder of the lean times we’ve all had.

    For me, now, the humility is coming through physical trials- they remind me of the financial trials we’ve had before. Feeling in control of life, doing well only to have the rug pulled out from under, then you keep falling, falling and you’re sure you’re just about at the bottom and you fall more.

    Misery loves company, so know I’m being humbled too and we can take comfort in each other.

  15. De-lurking to say- FWIW- I was a checker for a while. WIC checks (and the people who had them) never inspired me to judge or speculate on why they were using them. I saw all kinds of women (including well–dressed young mamas) and I only ever felt grateful that there were programs like that to help people in need.

    Like Bek said- we never know what is going on in other’s life, even if we *think* we do. Everyone has their own bag of “stuff”- sometimes it is just more obvious than others. Hang in there- you are in our prayers (even though I’m a lurker :))

  16. I positively looooove it when someone de-lurks. I know there are a lot of people who read who never comment, and that’s just fine too, but it’s so nice hearing from someone who feels inspired to comment for the first time.

    Thanks, Mak.

  17. Hey Tracy, I’m on WIC. Workin’ on the 2nd year. I was raised in an upper middle class home, my husband raised in a middle middle class home, and he’s now working on his PhD. We don’t expect to be “poor” forever, and to be honest, I think we could get by fine without WIC, but I am glad it’s there for us to use! I figure, if we qualify, then HECK! I’m using it! Free food! Maybe that attitude comes from the graduate student family lifestyle… But for some reason when I got on WIC, I wasn’t really ashamed of using the checks. Maybe at first, but I just got over it. That is not to de-value your feelings or to say, “Just buck up, missy!” I can definitely see where you’re coming from. Whenever I go shopping with the checks, I never have noticed anyone giving me funny looks when I whip out the food list or the checks. And the checkers don’t treat me any different than the trips I make without the WIC checks. And if people do give you funny looks, then just give them a kick in the pants.

  18. When I was growing up, my mom had to be on WIC for a long time. And food stamps at one point. And asking the church for help with more than just food. She had a VERY hard time asking for it. I remember thinking, “You need the help. Just ask for it.” But… using the WIC coupons for the first time… And the second and third, etc. … Man, that is hard! Although, I got to the point that I just didn’t care anymore – something that comes pretty easy about most things since I was a teenager dealing with judgmental ward members. And, luckily, we got to a point where we didn’t need it anymore quickly. I’m still keeping you and your family in my thoughts and prayers.

  19. I understand how your mom felt, Erin Marie. Humbling yourself enough to ask for help – from the bishop, from family, from the WIC office – is such a DIFFICULT step. But I found that the RELIEF afterwards was tremendous. Just knowing you have done everything you can and that there is a safety net to catch you when everything else is falling past rock bottom – that was amazingly comforting to me. It is a blessing that the systems are there to help those who need it!

  20. I’m so glad you shared this. It’s hard sometimes, and I feel the looks I get when I go to the medicaid office. “You’re a happily married white girl with a pretty baby. What makes you think you belong here.” It can be so humbling.

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