County Lines

"Be Kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle" - Philo of Alexandria

Leaving the woman's home Amy Bickel and I thought we had found the perfect face to portray the food stamp series.

We were excited to tell her story  after listening for over an hour as she told us how she stretched the $236 her family of three received from SNAP all the way to the end of the month. She came across as the perfect example of someone trying to better herself in society after a few rough patches, including divorce.

This lady had big dreams to become a lawyer, get an MBA and eventually start her own non-profit.

She also had great ideas, sharing how she could prepare a meal by planning, making each dime count. Things others took for granted, she thought through. She managed by using brand and store coupons and other online coupon offers, scoping out bargains.

She could fix a meal for three spending only $2, and her kids ate it. Despite her scrimping she was able to find bargains so they had the latest technological toys and would never run out of shampoo.

It helped that she had a Pell grant, though still eight years into her studies at Hutchinson Community College, currently all online. Between Pell, SNAP, Low Economic Energy Assistance, an adjusted rent of $34 and her daughter's disability payments, she managed.

Searching for the faces of food stamps should have been easy to find in Reno County with 8,494 people locally receiving money from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

Finding people brave enough to share their stories was the hard part. Going to the soup kitchen or the Friendship Meals at the Salvation Army were places to begin. But here was a 32-year-old mother trying to make it, and she was so excited to share with us how. S

She was highly excitable as she shared how sometimes trying to make the right choices at the store gave her chest pains. Would it be cheaper to purchase this brand or that? She was always on the look out for a savings. But, that's how she survives.

"If it's not on sale, we don't buy it," she said. "I always research before I buy something. I have to figure out how to make the money last."

She even agreed to let me take her shopping so we could see how she cost compared and used the Vision card.

"Yea! Shopping," she said happily, when I called the night before to confirm what time I would pick her up at her home.

The next morning a photographer went to the store and I dropped by her town house to get her. I knocked and she didn't answer. I knocked harder thinking maybe she was asleep. Then I called her, but her cell phone was turned off.

I pounded on her door, and then called again to no avail. One more knock on the door, and I heard a nasty voice shout "Go away."

Then the door opened and a man stood there saying the woman I was looking for was gone.  "But, who did I just hear?" I asked

"That was someone else," he said. "She left with a friend. I'll tell her you were here."

Then he slammed the door.

I was stunned. She had been excited about shopping. Maybe something bad was happening in the apartment? I went to the manager of the apartment complex. She and a maintenance man went to check. The woman was indeed inside with several friends. She told the manager she wasn't going shopping with me so I could watch her spend money on her Vision card.

They were just getting ready to do something in there the manager said. She was uncomfortable about it.

I was angry. We had been duped.

In retrospect we did have doubts about her. For example, how can anyone get a Pell grant while spending eight years in junior college and why does the government allow it?

Does this coupon clipping, frugal, mom know how to play the system?  Are her big dreams real? I don't know what to believe. Some might see her as a parasite on society.  Others might feel sympathy and want to mentor her.  A friend told me that every adult in this situation has something in their background that brought them to this point in life.

 One thing is certain, while it might sound like the same story heard over and over, every one is different and there is no perfect face of food stamps.