Monday, February 16, 2009

What I Should Have Done

Tonight, at the grocery store, I witnessed a scene straight out of Terms of Endearment. You may not be familiar with the film, so I'll fill you in: it's the scene where Debra Winger's character, Emma, is trying to check-out at the grocery store with her boys and she doesn't have enough money to pay for it all. It's uncomfortable and heartbreaking and makes you want to reach through the screen and offer her the money to make up the difference.

I tend to space out when I'm in line at the grocery store and, since there was a woman in front of me who, for whatever reason, laid out her 15 items over the entire length of the conveyor belt, I had more time to space out before I could put my bags and groceries up. I slowly became aware of a situation that was stalling the progress of our line and realized that the woman who was being rung up was unable to pay for all of her groceries. At first the cashier asked the woman to try running her card through again. I immediately felt embarrassed for the customer and thought about what a sign of the times it is that I'm hearing more and more cashiers, usually discreetly, ask a customer to try their method of payment a second time. Well, it didn't work. The cashier then kept saying "$40.30." Over and over and over again. The customer was speaking quietly and not losing her cool as the cashier became increasingly more annoyed with the situation and just kept repeating "$40.30."

Turns out the customer was paying with food stamps, which are on a debit card, and had gone over her remaining balance of $40.30...by $5.55. She, along with her young son (I guesstimated his age to be 8 or 9) had purchased $45.85 worth of groceries. The cashier just kept sniping at the woman, reminding her what the balance on her card was and the woman, who remained calm and dignified, reached into her grocery bags and began pulling out items - including her son's breakfast cereal - to remove from the bill. The cashier, all huffy, took items off until she got the bill down below the balance. To add insult to injury, the woman had pulled out far more items than needed to be removed from her bill, but the cashier did not bother telling the bagger, who began taking all of the items back and placing them in bins to be reshelved. The customer had to explain to him several times that he didn't need to take any more items, as the issue had been settled and he'd already taken back the items which had been removed. Finally, after much confusion on the bagger's part, the cashier stepped in and told him that the customer was correct and that she "could take her food home now."

Fortunately, the woman was able to keep her son's cereal. My heart broke for this woman and her son and I just wanted to give her the money to make up the difference, but was afraid she may be embarrassed if I offered. All I could think was, "the month is barely half over and she's already out of money for food." The saddest part of all, to me anyway, was that just about everything in her cart was processed and/or canned food. I didn't see any fresh vegetables or meat for her and her son. The tragic irony for people who need food stamps is that it doesn't allow them enough money to buy food that's actually good for them. In order to stretch their allotment, they are made to choose between cheap foods that are filled with chemicals and highly processed, which can get them through the month, or fresh foods that are expensive and won't last as long.

Another irony, in this case at least, is that the introduction of the food stamp debit card system was supposed to imbue the process with some sense of dignity. As the NH Department of Health and Human Services information page about the food stamp program states, "only you and the store clerk know you are using food stamps to pay for your items." Someone should tell tonight's cashier that's how it's supposed to be.

I know I'll never not be accused of being a bleeding heart liberal. After all, I'm the same chick who, at 16 and on a school trip to Washington DC, gave money to a homeless man living on one of the streets that I was walking down, with the strict caveat that he not spend the money on alcohol while the group I was with walked on and shook their heads in disbelief at me.

I know that there are people who abuse the system and I know that there are people who think that Obama is going to be the Messiah of the Masses (don't get me started, that's another blog post brewing in my head), but the woman tonight was just a mother trying to feed herself and her child and being treated like crap.

I should've offered her the money.

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On a somewhat related note, check out the generosity of this story.

1 comment:

Lorraine said...

i didnt know they switched to food stamp 'card' instead.
i remember being a cashier and having to check everything super carefully for WIC which I am sure embarrasses the people--that a 16yo has to say you cant get this, etc.
you should call the store mgr and tell him/her that that cashier needs to be nicer.
i remember being a cashier and there was one woman who was dressed so nicely and was truly embarassed that she was using the food stamps; those are the people i definitely want/wanted to help out. you could tell she was doing whatever to get her life back on track.