Tiffani Chacon doesn’t want to be on food stamps.
But the 21-year-old single mother and food service worker from Wichita – one of about 316,000 Kansans enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program – says she’s grateful for the program, without which she says her children likely would go hungry.
“It has helped me out,” she said. “I’ve been alone all this time, doing it all myself.
“I’ve been trying to look for a full-time job, because I don’t plan on being on assistance for a whole bunch longer.”
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Chacon works about 20 hours a week as a cook at the Wichita Children’s Home, where she makes minimum wage. She tries to pick up extra hours whenever possible, subbing for co-workers when they’re sick or on vacation.
Not so long ago, she was a resident in the home’s Bridges program, which helps runaways and homeless teens learn to live independently. Chacon’s mother died when she was 14. She left home when she was 17, pregnant with her first child, to avoid some difficult family circumstances, she said.
Chacon uses the money she receives on her Vision Card – about $390 a month – to buy baby food for her 6-month-old son, Alexander, and basic groceries for herself and her 3-year-old daughter, Isabella. An older daughter lives with her father.
During a recent shopping trip at a south Wichita grocery store, Chacon put Alexander in the front of her shopping basket, lifted Isabella into the back and rushed toward the produce department, where she picked out onions and tomatoes for the night’s meal: chicken enchiladas.
It was nearly 8 p.m. Chacon normally tries to prepare dinner earlier, she said, but this Friday she had to work late, then pick up the kids from separate family-member babysitters and head straight to the store.
Isabella looked tired but still cheerful, holding up three fingers to show her age. She smiled when her mother placed a bunch of bananas in the cart, one of Isabella’s favorite snacks.
“I try to shop once a week,” Chacon said. “I get the basics at the beginning of the month. But sometimes I forget one or two things I need.”
She used to buy frozen foods and other convenience items, then learned those were more expensive and not as healthy as home-cooked meals. She frequently fixes Mexican food but also likes lasagna, which she learned to make in the Children’s Home kitchen.
Chacon graduated from high school in 2011, but college was difficult with a young baby at home and few affordable child care options, she said, so she looked for a job. She plans to go back to school in January in hopes of becoming a nurse or therapist.
Counselors with the Bridges program taught her how to cook, shop for groceries and keep a budget. But once on her own, she learned some difficult lessons.
“At first, I’d buy a whole bunch of food, and it would all expire because I wouldn’t use it up by a certain time,” she said. “And I would be left with no food at the end of the month. So I learned from that.”
Chacon said she understands why some might rage against fraud in the food stamp system. She does, too.
“You hear about people using food stamps at smoke shops or trading them for alcohol, and that’s not right,” she said. “It makes me mad, because some of us really need it and appreciate it.”
After the fresh produce, Chacon picks up a package of chicken breasts, cheese and a can of enchilada sauce. She reads the recipe on the sauce label, making sure she has everything. Then she looks at the top of the can – a traditional can, not one with a pop top – and shrugs.
“I don’t have a can opener,” she says, “but I make it work.”
In the cereal aisle, Isabella points to Apple Jacks. Chacon says, “OK, sweetie,” but grabs the brand across the aisle that comes in a bag instead of a box.
“She can never tell,” she says. “This is so much cheaper.”
At the register, Chacon adds up the items in her head and estimates “about $50.” The total turns out to be $43, but she forgot Alex’s baby food.
She swipes her Vision Card to pay this bill, then swings back into the store to get the rest. The second bill, totaled and bagged in the self-checkout line, is another $8.
Chacon said she understands why lawmakers and others might criticize some people on food stamps. But she thinks most, like her, are working as much as they can or going to school, trying to find work that will pay the bills.
“I understand if people are just constantly on it all the time and they never get off it and basically live off of it” for years, she said. “But I think just to get up on your feet, it helps a lot.
“When you’re young and you’re single and you don’t really have help, it’s a struggle.”