Ten Things You Can’t Buy With SNAP (Food Stamps)



I was terrible in Home Ec (8th grade) because I had little appreciation for how practical the skills would be some day. I regret not being able to sew for sure – how much money can we save if we could even do basic sewing? I also regret not learning more about cooking. I can cook just fine, but I again wish I could be creative to stretch our dollars without spending 3 hours on the Internet looking at recipes I don’t understand. I wish I had learned to shop more efficiently, to read food labels, and so forth. Because when I had to enter the big bad world on my own, it was harsh.

Instead of discussing the horror of someone buying soda pop or a steak with food stamps (SNAP), it would be great to turn the conversation to the things that can’t be purchased and think for a minute how we could find a workaround – even with a great Home Economics teacher, it would be a challenge. SNAPlogo

Ten Things You Can’t Buy With SNAP (Food Stamps)

1. Toilet Paper. Nope, in fact no paper products. They aren’t food after all. No paper towels, no tissue, no napkins, no nothing. So while you can possibly use rags in lieu of paper towels, you have to wash them. Same with handkerchiefs. Or cloth napkins. What about toilet paper? Could you use rags and wash them? What if you don’t have a washer or dryer in your home? That brings us to the next item …

2. Laundry Detergent. Again, this is not food. But buying decent detergent isn’t cheap. It is definitely something that is more cost efficient if you buy the largest sizes, but then you have to lug it – not just home from the store, but back and forth to the laundromat. And when it does go on sale, it is often a BOGO which is terrific but means more lugging or a special trip which means more bus fare or gas in the car. But how do you live without laundry detergent?

3. Tooth Paste, Tooth Brush, Dental Floss. Don’t tell your dentist that dental floss is a luxury item, but the fact is – people without dental insurance are often the ones least likely to be able to afford these items. I know people who won’t replace a toothbrush until they can find a freebie because money is that tight. Yes, each time I visit my dentist, they offer me a new toothbrush because they want them changed often. But if you don’t have dental insurance, you don’t get that offer. Toothpaste is another challenge. How fast does a family of four go through a tube, especially when kids won’t remember to squeeze from the bottom and only used a pea sized amount? But you need clean teeth to be successful in school and work and society. Not just because of bad breath but because dental health is critical to our well-being.

4. Soap. How do you survive without soap? If pushed, you could forego shampoo and just wash yourself entirely with soap. You could wash clothes with soap (not a good idea) and you could wash dishes with soap (also not a good idea.) But how do you function must less flourish without access to soap? The least pricey soap is often the worst – filled with chemicals, scents and sudsing agents and not so filled with cleaning agents.

5. Diapers. Even under the best conditions, cloth diapers are expensive and time-consuming. And most daycares will not use them so that’s a viable alternative for most families. My friend Karen used to go to one grocery store, purchase some food and get a little cash back (back in the day) and then go to another store and do the same and then go a third and then finally have enough to purchase a package of diapers. She did this walking. With the baby in a a stroller. Year round. Her husband worked. She worked when the kids were in school (before the baby came along.) They just didn’t have enough cash to always buy diapers. She used handmade wipes. She potty trained early. She did all the things you could possibly do and still spent hours of her day to get diapers.

6.Tampons and Pads. This one often shocks people, especially women. I was 25 when I first learned that it was a reality – the women who came to the thrift store I ran asked for rags which they washed and used in lieu of disposable items. They then burned them or buried them because they didn’t have the laundry detergent to get them clean again. Have you ever had a day when you didn’t have $5 on hand? What would you do if you got your period? What would you do if your 14-year-old got her period and it was a school night and you did not have any cash for another 2 days?

7. Deodorant. Luxury? Ask the person who works next to someone who doesn’t use deodorant. And then ask the person if they made a conscious choice or just didn’t have it. No, don’t ask them because that’s shaming them. I remember being in the 9th grade locker room and girls were very interested in what deodorants the others used. One girl didn’t use any and some of the other girls teased her as being too physically immature to need it. In hindsight, I wonder if they missed the mark? Maybe it just wasn’t in the budget?

8. Hair Care Products. In spite of what I wrote earlier, I don’t really think anyone should be forced to use soap to wash their hair. When you donate hair care products, do you stop to think about including items that can be used on different types of hair? I mean, again, to function and flourish in our society – you need to have presentable hair in the sense that its clean and maintained. Not in the sense that it should be styled or kept in a certain way that makes other people feel comfortable – I’m talking about each person having access to the fundamental tools they need to maintain it the way they desire to function in society. Like shampoo and conditioner.

9. Cleaning products. You can’t buy these with food stamps. No matter where you live, you need some variation on these products. What do you so? Again, consider how they are transported – how many bags of cleaning supplies could you carry on the bus at one time? I used to buy cleaner at the Dollar Store and it took twice as much or more to clean as thoroughly as store brands. Yes, you can use rags but there are some things that really require a sponge. Or a mop or replacement mop head.

10. Lotion, powder, sunscreen, chapstick, etc. These might be considered luxuries. What if you work outside in the weather all day – sunscreen isn’t so much a luxury as a health concern. Foot powder can extend the life of your shoes and socks as well as keep your feet healthy. What about a jar of vaseline to use to protect your lips and other spots? Rough chapped hands can make it really hard to type all day or clean yet another bathroom at work.

I’m asking you to think through some of the items you take for granted. And I hope you’ll do two things. First, step back from the temptation to judge what someone else is doing in the grocery store – you don’t know their story and they don’t owe you or anyone an explanation. You don’t need to carry around that resentment.

Second, you can do something proactive to help. I’m running a fundraiser to establish a personal care closet at Pittsburgh’s LGBTQ Community Center – the GLCC. This will make some of these items available to the LGBTQ community – all ages, all identities, all treated with respect and dignity. You can make a modest donation now to help with the project launch. You can organize a product drive either now or schedule ahead to help ensure the sustainability of the project.

I didn’t take advantage of Home Ec, but what a great project to add to a Home Ec class or a scout troop or youth group. What a great opportunity to talk about the pragmatic realities of life in the adult world AND give back. Maybe your women’s group might take on a “sister supplies” drive. Or your book club.  You can also volunteer – the closet will need someone to monitor inventory and go shopping for supplies. The opportunities to get involved are really endless.

In the end it boils down to helping our neighbors – LGBTQ and allies – have the tools they need to function and to flourish. You can make that happen.


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