Updated on 09.17.14

Putting Food on the Table in Tough Times

Trent Hamm

Tony writes in:

About two weeks ago, I lost my job. I was being paid cash to do some maintenance work but the guy hiring me couldn’t afford it. A few days after that I tried to use my credit card to buy groceries and I was over my credit limit. Right now I have $20 in my wallet and that’s all the money I have. I have a five year old kid and we don’t have much food in the cupboard. What do I do? I’m sending this from the library. I hope you’ll answer me soon.

I did send Tony an email as soon as I received his message, but I figured that the information that I had collected for him might be useful to more people than just Tony.

Tony’s immediate problem, obviously, is to make sure that there is actually food on the table for his children. That’s an immediate need, and compared to that, most of his other concerns are secondary. Here are some steps to take to keep food on the table for the moment.

Options to Keep Food on the Table


SNAP refers to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which is the official name of the program often referred to as “food stamps.” Of course, today, such benefits aren’t delivered with paper coupons like they used to – there aren’t paper “food stamps” any more. Instead, they’re delivered by EBT – you essentially get a debit card, which you then use in the checkout line like any other debit card.

This program exists to help people like Tony who are attempting just to keep food on the table during trying financial times. They’ve also gone to great lengths to minimize the “food stamp” social stigma by moving the program to debit cards, so you don’t have to feel self-conscious going into a grocery store and slapping down the old-style paper coupons.

You can actually apply online for SNAP benefits, so it’s pretty straightforward.

Food pantries

At the same time, you can also check in on your neighborhood’s food pantry, where people can get food that has been set aside for people in situations like this. Food pantries are a great service, one that I would absolutely use if I were in a situation where I was struggling to get food on the table for my children.

You can find your local food pantry at this useful site.

Local churches and other religious organizations

Most local houses of worship have leaders that are always willing to extend a helping hand to people in genuine need. At my own church, for example, the pastor actually has a small fund just for that purpose – to put a $20 bill or a $50 bill in the pocket of someone who really needs a break in life.

If you’re really in this kind of situation, visit a local house of worship and ask for help. As much as organized religion is criticized, it is often a very effective charitable organization on the local level.

Once the problem of having food on the table is addressed, Tony needs to look at secondary concerns, such as housing and preparing to return to the job market.

Addressing Secondary Concerns

Look at the Office of Family Assistance (OFA).

This government program offers short-term assistance to individuals who are attempting to return to the workforce, helping them to keep basic bills paid while they seek work. This is helpful for those like Tony who are out of work without unemployment insurance.

Look for low-cost housing

Don’t be afraid to go to a very minimal situation, such as a one or two-room apartment. The key is to keep the rent as low as possible. You may also want to look into local low income housing programs.

Contact your utility providers

Explain your situation and see if they have programs available for you. You may want to visit the website of your utility providers before contacting them so you’re aware of the specifics of their programs.

Start looking for work

Look for anything and everything. I would suggest starting at entry-level positions with high turnover, such as positions at chain stores and chain restaurants. The key isn’t to find a great job immediately, but simply to find work that brings home an income.

Recognize this isn’t the end

You have a child and a future that are well worth fighting for, and if you’re willing to stand up and put in some hard work for that child and that future, you can make many positive things happen. You cannot give up on yourself or on that child of yours. During this process, you’re probably going to get knocked down by life a few times. Don’t succumb to that. Stand up, brush yourself off, and keep fighting. You will find a better tomorrow.

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  1. Rebecca says:

    If his son is 5 and in Kindergarten or preschool, I would contact the administration at school. Kids who live under the poverty line usually can receive free school lunches and sometimes breakfast also. If you qualify for WIC, which you also didn’t mention, it is different program than FoodShare, you also qualify for free school lunches. Some areas also have programs to get kids lunches during the summer time, when kids who rely on school meals for their main meals of the day can be very underfed.

  2. Jessica says:

    I think Tony has more problems than he was letting on. Working for cash under the table for someone who then didn’t pay him? Not smart on many levels. Had Tony been on unemployment and then ran out? No friends or family to give him a bag of food? What about laundry soap, toilet paper and tissues?

    And right now, they have a food emergency. But what about everything else? What happens when his son needs school supplies or summer clothes? Or he gets hurt playing and needs medical care? How is Tony getting around (transportation)? Do they have a safe housing situation?

    I’ve personally helped people in Tony’s situation. In one case, a friend was returning from living overseas with her two teenage children. They qualified for medical and food assistance but it would be a while before they would receive their first benefits. Meanwhile, they needed items like detergent, soap, toothpaste, feminine stuff and tp that foodstamps do not cover. I told my friend I could supply them with two weeks of dry foods plus a month’s supply of sundries to get them started. I also donate to my community’s food pantry.

  3. Rebecca says:

    I know when we were in that situation we had 2 kids under the age of 1 and had only eggs and one box of cereal in the house. I called our ped’s office and they gave me the number for our local social worker. Normally it can take over a month for a Foodshare application to go through, but because of our income, or no income as it was, she could push through the app in a week. We had EBT for food in 8 days, and a couple of food pantry bags to tie us over.

    The local school social worker can be a big help getting you son the school supplies he needs, and may even have connections for school clothes and the like.

    When you typically apply for Foodshare, you also apply at the same time for medicare and other programs. More than likely given his income level, the son should qualify for free medical assistance from the state. The father may as well depending on how long he has been out of work.

  4. Johanna says:

    @fellow commenters: Tony says he has a five-year-old “kid” – not necessarily a son. I’m not pointing this out to be critical – I’ve made the same mistake too.

  5. Rebecca says:

    Good call Johanna, could be a girl or boy. Also, I forgot, but kids age out of WIC at 5 yrs.

  6. Des says:

    Huh, weird, I assumed it was a son as well. I wonder why that is.

  7. lurker carl says:

    This emergency is best handled by his local network rather than an internet blog. His local Dept of Social Services will assign a social worker to guide him through the beaurocratic maze for resolving looming problems.

    There is a high probability that low income housing has a long waiting list, renting another apartment requires an outlay of cash that is not currently available.

  8. Jessica says:

    @Johanna- If you’ve ever studied a foreign language, you will see that when a person’s sex is unknown, or even if there is 1 male and 10 billion females, the male pronoun is used. Would you rather people call the child “it”?

  9. Anne says:

    If I $20 bucks and needed to make it stretch I would buy 2 or 3 pounds of pinto beans (.99/lb), a 15-lb bag of potatoes (on sale for $3.99), a 2 pound bag of carrots ($1.99), 18 count eggs $2.79, oatmeal (.99), 1 loaf of whole wheat bread ($1.79), 1 small jar peanut butter ($1.99), bananas ($2 or so), and some apples ($3 or so). Assuming you don’t pay sales tax on groceries, you should come in at around $20. These staples can feed two people for a week. I’m assuming they have basic seasonings and some kind of oil. Soak the pinto beans and cook overnight in the crock pot. Add spices during the last hour of cooking. Potatoes can be mashed, baked, fried, roasted, grated and turned into hash browns. Eggs are good for protein and go great with potatoes and beans. Peanut butter and banana sandwich(s) for lunch along with some raw carrots and an apple. It’s not creative but it will keep you going and then some.

    This is actually what my shopping list looks like, along with some brown rice and fresh veggies. It’s easy to eat on the cheap if you’re willing to do some cooking.

  10. Johanna says:

    @Jessica: I don’t really care which pronoun you use. Personally, I’m a fan of the gender-neutral pronouns “zie” (for he/she) and “hir” (for him/his/her), but I have a hard time bringing myself to use them in public. Sometimes, when I feel like being provocative, I use “she” for a person of unknown gender. Lately, I usually just use the slightly ungrammatical “they.”

    My comment though, was not about pronouns, but about the fact that the first three comments all refer to the child as a “son,” when we don’t actually know that. This is not a big deal, and as I said, I’ve made the same mistake before myself, but I do think it’s worth pointing out.

  11. cynthia says:

    He may want to contact his City Councilman or other official who may be able to help him as there may also be local governmental resources that can help him. In Indiana there are townships (in addition to the city and county government) and they can and will give monetary assistance. Good luck to him and his family.

  12. sjw says:

    When I was with a parish, I was in a program where a bunch of families would be assigned a family at risk for a week, and we’d fill their pantry (with foods and toiletries they requested from a list).

    There was also an affiliated faith-based drop-in center with a pantry (but they’d help anyone in need with no proselytizing) which was used if the secular foodbank was a challenge for some reason.

  13. Jane says:

    Unfortunately, I don’t think many churches hand out money to whoever calls them in need. This is a difficult issue. I know my church doesn’t give money directly to people who call. Usually they direct them to a local charity organization where they go through the process of verifying their situation. Then the church might give them money through the organization. But they certainly don’t hand out cash to whoever calls. This is just asking for abuse. It’s sad, but many people are not honest.

    I also know some communities have a program for needy children in the schools. They fill a backpack full of food on Fridays – usually enough to get them fed through the week-end.

  14. Cheryl says:

    We once attended a church that had dinner meals twice a week, free or donation. Also in the same time a soup kitchen lunch.

  15. Rebecca C says:

    While it is true that churches can’t generally just hand out money to whoever calls, they can pass on information about local charities (including their own). The pastor may even occasionally take someone grocery shopping or the like out of his own pocket. I know my dad used to do that every now and then when a needy family came calling (especially over the weekend, when a lot of charities are closed).

  16. David says:

    I’ll make a bet on which I won’t live long enough either to collect if I’m right or pay off if I’m wrong:

    There will in time be a universally accepted gender-neutral pronoun in English, sanctioned by the grammar police and, more important, by the legislature and the judiciary. That pronoun will be “they” and its inflections.

    After all, this is almost the case nowadays – just as it was the case long ago when no less an exponent of English than William Shakespeare wrote:

    There’s not a man I meet but doth salute me
    As if I were their well-acquainted friend.

    Meanwhile, I hope very much that Tony and his family can find a way through their present difficulties with the help of Trent’s advice and that of the commentators here. If so, even though this blog is not always written in language that would pass muster with classical scholars, it will have made a difference – and more power to it.

  17. Interested Reader says:

    I’d also suggest contacting your local United Way they have a lot of programs under their umbrella and if they don’t have something they probably know of resources.

  18. Bill says:

    There is a lot of good advice here, short term is the problem #9 Anne had a great response, I could live on that for two weeks.

  19. Debbie M says:

    I’m with Anne – I was about to make almost the exact same recommendations (but not as many and not as well). You could also go on foraging hikes–google foraging or urban foraging. You can almost always at least find some edible greens.

    Another strategy is to offer to cook for some friends if they buy the ingredients and let you share, though this would be quite tricky to ask for with most people. Still, lots of people hate to cook, don’t like to cook, or don’t know how to cook and would love to have some home-made food and good company (plus cute 5-year-old company).

  20. AnnJo says:

    @David, as a badge-carrying member of the grammar police, I contend your Shakespearean example does not support your point since the first line, though it uses the singular ‘man’, is a plural construction referring, through the negative form, to ALL men. It is the equivalent of saying, “All men I meet salute me as if I were their friend.”

    But I wouldn’t take you up on your bet.

    As for Tony’s problem, why separate the job-search from the search for charitable help? He says he’s been working in maintenance. If that means home repairs and clean-up or the like, why not ask the churches he visits to hook him up with people who need that kind of work done?

  21. Susan says:

    Check out the site The Prudent Homemaker. She feeds her family of 8 on less than $.70 per day. (She is Mormon – I am not, and have never met her but her blog is neat.)

  22. deRuiter says:

    Dumpster diving behind the local Oriental green grocer in our area is a good place to get free food in exchange for very little effort. I was collecting packing boxes (apple crates are really strong, the two piece ones with cutouts for handles at the ends) and came upon one filled to the top with huge, beautiful red apples, each with some sort of blemish or bad spot. You can bet I took them home, cut them up for pie, applesauce, and regular eating. The peels and cores went to the horses and chickens. Same experience with same market and a case of magnificent huge red peppers, most of which are sitting, cut up in small slices, in the freezer in bags, sme went into a stir fry the night I found them. These scraps leftover only went to chickens. Americans throw out an enormous amount of useable food because of tiny flaws. It may not be salable, but it’s edible. Look up “freegan”, “freeganism”, “thrifty lifestyle” and dumpster diving” with google. Eat for free. The fish department at the chain grocery or the local fish market will give me fish heads which can be boiled for the bit of meat on the cheeks and the fish broth, instead of throwing them in the trash. By the way, I now pick up the boxes of bruised apples which the market culls when they are putting out apples. The market owner is happy because he doesn’t have to pay to have them hauled away by the dumpster company. I buy my produce there so he makes money from my purchases, I’m a regular customer.

  23. Amy says:

    For anyone in this situation, I would definitely advise calling your local Social Services office first as they will have a list of resources available, even if they can’t help directly or immediately. While I agree that most churches won’t hand anyone money, many churches do offer free meals– to anyone who walks in the door (no questions/few questions asked) and may also offer food pantry items. At least this is true of my neighborhood church — they do a free meal at least once a month for anyone who walks in & give them a bag of groceries to take home. Salvation Army also offers a number of services.

  24. Connie says:

    An observation on the pronoun debate–While in undergrad all my professors taught us to use gender neutral or masculine pronouns where gender was unknown, since I’ve started law school I’ve noticed ALL of my professors and textbooks either use feminine pronouns for unknown gender or they alternate using both masculine and feminine. This includes professors who are in their sixties or seventies and male. At first I found it rather jarring, but I’ve since come to like it. If a profession as conservative as the law can make the switch away from all-masculine pronoun use, everyday speech should be able to do so as well.

  25. Jen says:

    #2 – Who cares what his situation is? I am sure there is more to the story, most people who can’t afford to feed their families have lots of other problems. Maybe he is an ex-felon who has a hard time getting regular employment? Maybe he is here illegally? Who knows, really? It sounds to me though like he just has an immediate concern that he needs to feed his family and is looking for suggestions. My heart goes out to him, it is not easy and bad times can happen to anyone. I pray he has some success applying for benefits and eventually getting work.

  26. Monica says:

    Wal-Mart has their Great Value brand mac-n-cheese for about $0.39 box.

    Also, pasta is inexpensive and a large can of Hunt’s spaghetti sauce will run you less than a dollar. A box of pasta and a thing of sauce will last two people for several days.

    A dozen eggs, a thing of tortillas and some American cheese can be turned into quite a few filling burritos.

    Are there any day-old bakeries in your area that you would have access to? That’s a great way to get bread cheap, and you can store it in the freezer to keep it fresh.

    Not sure of your religion, but the season of Lenten fish fries has begun. Perhaps a local Catholic church would provide dinner to you and your child in exchange for helping to set up or clean up.

  27. Evangeline says:

    Okay, let’s give the pronoun police a rest and look at the problem at hand. You have very little money, a small, hungry child and you are overwhelmed, scared—and in charge. What do you do first? Well, you have to feed everyone. Nothing gets solved on an empty stomach. #9 Anne got it just right, as so many others did. Think protein (eggs, beans, peanut butter), fresh foods with a decent shelf life (carrots, apples), multi-purpose (all the above) and items you will actually eat. Once everyone is fed and there’s enough food for tomorrow, people like Tony can work on the excellent ideas everyone posted. I have been there, done that and you would be surprised at what you can achieve when you are faced with this kind of problem.

  28. Marie says:

    He should also check any “day-labor” places nearby. We have several in our city. My husband & I have used their workers on several occasions when we needed assistance around the house. If a worker is sent on a job, they get paid for a minimum of four hours and get paid in cash each day. Not the ritz, but a way to make money. If I were in that situation, rather than sitting around trying to figure out how to get a hand-out, I’d be out looking for ANY kind of work – no matter how menial or low pay.

  29. Marie says:

    Perhaps I should clarify – legal and legitimate work. Knock on doors, see if anyone needs help cleaning, moving stuff, walking dogs, etc. With spring coming, people are going to need help clearing the debris from their yards, plowing gardens, etc.

    Look on Freecycle.org. I recently posted several metal items out to be given away and a young man who was out of work came by to get them to sell. Or post what you are looking for on Freecycle or Craigs list – metals, etc.

    There are a lot of unconvential but legal ways to make extra cash.

  30. littlepitcher says:

    @Anne and Marie–Attay’all! I would have left off the apples and purchased milk for the child. Taters have plenty of vitamin C, but kids need calcium for the bones. I might note that 3 lbs of pintos will last a week, if you stretch it with cornbread, but not otherwise.
    I have, literally, walked into a flea market at 6AM and offered to help unload produce trucks in exchange for veggies.
    Trent has published a book on unconventional ways to earn money. Perhaps Tony’s library has it.

  31. Nicole H. says:

    If you’re in general good health you may want to consider donating blood plasma if donation is available in your area and you qualify. Usually that will net you $20-$30 right away and that will help your immediate problem of buying food.

  32. Allison says:

    @Marie –
    Knocking on doors might be a waste of time, depending on where Tony lives. If I am home alone, (mom of small kids)I absolutely don’t answer my door. When the hubby is home, we don’t “hire” anybody who knocks — we’ve been ripped off way too many times. If someone comes knocking on our door, they get a bottle of water and an apple. But, as posted by many, there are lots of community resources without knocking on strangers doors. From Tony’s end, you don’t know who’s on the inside of that door, either. Instead of knocking on doors, go for the networking style. Tell all your friends you need any kind of work to bring in money quick and ask them to tell THEIR friends. Good luck. Been there, too.

  33. Erin says:

    Thanks for such an immediate reply to an immediate need.

  34. Louise says:

    Your final paragraph in this post is excellent – very encouraging and I salute you for it!

  35. Susanne says:

    It’s not much, but we’d be happy to send Tony a cash card for his local grocery store. Feel free to contact me via e-mail. It’s important to share when you can and ask for help when you need it. Most of us are going to face hard times at some point.

  36. kaukale says:

    Trent, you keep me coming back to your writing because of the range of not only your knowledge but your wisdom & compassion. I think that’s awesome esp. in a young person.
    Keep up the great job!

  37. JuliB says:

    I’m with Susanne… I would donate a cash card too.

    Also – if there’s a local Catholic Church nearby, many have food pantries they run right from the Church. I’m put away the food donations at mine, and we turn no one away. In addition, our deacon will give some ‘manna’ cards that can be used at local grocery stores. There’s no restriction on what can be purchased – so it’s good for toiletries, etc.

    Also – he might want to check out modestneeds.org.

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