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Wendy Fontaine Headshot

My Year on Food Stamps

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I plopped my body onto a hard plastic chair inside the Department of Health and Human Services and waited for my name to be called.

The office smelled like sweat and cigarettes even though it was cold outside and my seat was near the front door. I wanted to run out, to jump into my car and drive away. Instead I pulled my two-year-old daughter, Angela, onto my lap and hugged her like a security blanket.

She and I needed help. We needed food stamps.

It was April then, and my husband of 12 years had just left me for another woman. Angela and I had moved to Maine to be closer to my parents. There were days when I wouldn't have bothered getting out of bed if not for my toddler. She needed to be taken care of. She needed to know she was loved.

She needed food.

We found ourselves an apartment and I got a job filling prescriptions in the local pharmacy. Her father was paying some child support but it wasn't enough to cover the costs of restarting our lives.

My new job was only part-time and minimum wage, but it was the only job opening in town. Angela was still in nighttime diapers, which were expensive, and she was growing like a weed. It seemed like she needed new clothes every other week.

For the first time in years, the bills were coming in my name only. Phone, rent, electricity. My military spouse's salary used to cover the bills. It paid for our house, our cars and vacations.

Those days were over.

"Fontaine."

The caseworker checked my name off her list. I scooped up Angela and followed the woman to a corner office, where she asked about my job, living situation and expenses. I showed her my lease, pay stubs and daycare receipts. Angela showed her how to sing "Itsy Bitsy Spider."

Then she told me I qualified for $300 a month in food stamps. That was more than I earned all week at the pharmacy.

I felt like crying, mostly from relief but also from embarrassment. Before Angela was born, I had worked as a newspaper reporter for more than a decade, interviewing presidential candidates and reality TV stars. I had a college degree and a retirement account. Never once had I thought I would need help with something as basic as buying food for my kid.

I felt like hugging the caseworker, but instead I simply thanked her. Then Angela and I drove straight to the market.

The next woman who finds herself in my shoes might not be so fortunate.

This month, the House Agriculture Committee voted to cut $33 billion from the federal food stamp program, known officially as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

The cut would affect nearly every family receiving food stamps in this country. In 2011, there were 46 million people getting help from SNAP. About half of them were children. Another 28 percent were elderly or disabled.

Slashing the program means 280,000 children will also lose the free lunch and breakfast they get at school, since those meals are tied to their family's eligibility for food stamps.

House Republicans support the cut as an effort to reduce the mounting federal deficit. However, those same Republicans (and some Democrats) also blocked the so-called Buffett Rule, which would have raised $47 billion by forcing the wealthiest Americans to pay a slightly higher tax rate.

Paul Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee, proposes a spending plan that cuts Medicaid, food stamps, Head Start, Pell grants and job training -- all programs that disproportionately affect kids, teens and women -- as it also reduces tax rates for the rich.

To curb spending, politicians are looking not to billionaires like Warren Buffett, who makes more money than he could spend in a lifetime. They are looking to people like me: working parents with inadequate jobs already struggling to make ends meet.

Who wins in this scenario? Who loses? And why is my country preserving tax breaks for the wealthiest citizens at the expense of the poorest and most vulnerable?

I never wanted to be on food stamps. I think few people do. During my divorce, there were days when I had to choose between buying milk for my daughter's breakfast or putting gas in the tank to get to work. Food stamps made it easier to make those decisions.

Like many Americans, I used the program not as a permanent crutch but as a way to dig myself out of a terrible situation, one that had come about because of circumstances beyond my control.

Of course, there are people who abuse the system, who put their hands out for something they don't really need. Back in high school, I worked at the supermarket as a bagger and watched customers pay for lobster and steak with their food stamps. They used paper vouchers back then, not the plastic debit cards they use now, and were much easier to spot in the checkout line.

But for every person like them, there were many others like the person I would eventually, unknowingly become -- someone who needed help to feed her family, to keep her job and to stay healthy enough to take care of her child.

Someone who needed a boost over the hump.

Angela and I went to the supermarket every Saturday with our food stamp debit card. We bought fresh fruits and vegetables, chicken and milk. Each week, I used a fistful of coupons to stretch every penny of our food allowance.

Three years have passed. Now I am a full-time graduate student working toward a master's degree in creative writing. I have a scholarship from a private foundation that helps journalists, and Angela is five-years-old. We are no longer on food stamps.

I don't presume that she and I will never again need help, but I know we don't need it right now and that's good news.

If I learned one thing during our year on food stamps, it is that everyone needs help at one time or another. No matter how smart or successful we think we are, life can turn on a dime. The walls we build to protect ourselves can be knocked down in an instant.

For me, the federal food stamp program was the safety net it was designed to be. If House Republicans get their way, that safety net won't be there to catch the next person who falls.