SCHENECTADY Hundreds of people may have exchanged their food stamps for cash at the Cheese Bakery & Grocery, but they weren’t all spending the money on drugs and alcohol.
In fact, it appears very few of them were drug addicts. While a “handful” of them are addicted to cocaine and heroin, according to the police chief, the rest had other reasons for illegally getting cash.
Twenty-one food stamp recipients were charged last week, and prosecutors said the total number of people who exchanged their food stamps for cash at Cheese Bakery & Grocery could reach into the hundreds.
In the days following those arrests, The Gazette interviewed dozens of city residents who admitted to exchanging their food stamps for cash. Each was asked what they spent their cash on.
A few fueled their addictions, from cigarettes to drugs.
But many paid overdue National Grid bills just before their lights were to be turned off. Some gave their cash to their landlord for rent.
By the book
What can you buy with food stamps? Food, including “junk” food like ice cream and birthday cakes and “luxury” food like steak and seafood; non-alcoholic drinks, including soda; prepared cold meals, such as deli subs; seeds and plants that produce food
What can’t you buy? Pots and pans for cooking, prepared hot foods, alcohol, tobacco products, vitamins, medicines, pet food, toilet paper, tampons and pads, hygiene products, cleaning products
And a few confessed that they risked losing their food stamp benefits by illegally exchanging stamps for cash so they could buy toilet paper.
Toilet paper cannot be purchased with food stamps, which are restricted to food and drink only. No alcohol or hot food can be purchased either.
But it’s toilet paper that’s the real dilemma. At the Schenectady Inner City Ministry food pantry, toilet paper is the No. 1 need — and it’s rarely available, because people usually donate food instead.
The pantry had to start locking the toilet paper in the bathroom because so many people stole it.
“We can’t keep enough in there. That’s top on their priority list,” said Director Gail Van Valkenburgh. “I try to get SICM churches to donate more personal hygiene products: laundry detergent, dish detergent, deodorant, toilet paper, shampoo, toothpaste. Those are the things I buy at the Regional Food Pantry. And every day we run out.”
District Attorney Robert Carney said his office took into account the desperation of the deeply impoverished when they decided who to charge with the crime of misusing their benefits card.
“It is also a crime, but we’re aware of what’s going on. We wanted the people who had a pattern,” he said.
The office charged those who had allegedly exchanged at least $100 of their food stamps for cash three times at Cheese Bakery & Grocery.
But every person who was believed to have exchanged their stamps for cash was reported to the Schenectady County Department of Social Services. They may lose their benefits.
Carney said he understood that some people might need money for non-food reasons.
“But the problem is, they’re engaging in a black market that defrauds the government,” he said.
Choices not made lightly
It’s not a decision that many residents made lightly.
City resident Jason, who agreed to speak on the condition that his last name not be used so that he would not lose his benefits, said he recently exchanged $100 of food stamps for $50 cash to pay National Grid.
“I had a bill. I was late. You know, they turn off the lights if you’re late,” he said.
The late bill was $100. But Jason subsists on the cash he makes from working odd jobs, and he only had $50.
“I was just short,” he said.
He and many others interviewed for this story work as day laborers through Labor Ready, and found themselves floundering when there were few days of work in June. The heavy rain postponed many of the construction jobs where they get occasional work.
Because his income is so low, Jason gets $200 in food stamps every month — the maximum allowed per person.
After selling half of his stamps for $50 in cash, he paid the National Grid bill. That resolved his immediate crisis — but now he had no money and an entire month in which he needed to eat. He decided to live on ramen noodles.
“I took the other $100, I bought mad [lots of] soups. I took ramen and mixed it with tuna and mayonnaise,” he said.
He had just enough money left over to buy a bag of Doritos. He made it through the month, he reported proudly.
“I did it!” he said. “Mad soups. I tell everybody, buy mad soups.”
Making the rent
Another city resident, Andrew, said he occasionally sold his food stamps to make up the difference between the amount of cash he had and the rent he had to pay.
“When you just need that extra little more,” he said.
He, too, eked out the month on whatever he had left in food stamps.
“When I’ve had to do that, I didn’t sell them all,” he said.
But sometimes, he’s needed cash for more than just rent.
“Toilet paper. Just the other day,” he said. “I had more than enough food stamps but I couldn’t buy toilet paper.”
Many residents said they turned to the food pantry and to free meals at churches and nonprofits to get through the months in which they had to sell their food stamps.
Unlike Jason, others said it was not possible to buy a month’s worth of food for $200, much less doing it with half that amount.
“That’s $7 a day,” said Richard, an older man who has $200 in food stamps. He buys groceries at the small corner stores near him. It’s much more expensive there, but he can’t afford to spend his precious cash on bus fare.
“I can’t go to Wal-Mart or Price Chopper. Who has $4?” he said. “If the poor just had a way to get around, I could go to the grocery store instead of those corner stores that rip you off.”
Instead, he buys at the corner stores and conserves his cash for essentials.
“Laundry. Hair cuts. Toiletries. Not every food pantry has those. You gotta get toilet paper somewhere,” he said.
How does he make ends meet?
“I don’t. I suffer,” he said.
Drug abusers decried
He and many others complained that the few people who buy drugs have encouraged the federal government to become more restrictive in how it doles out assistance. They questioned why there was no legal way to exchange the food stamps for cash in genuine emergencies.
“Not everybody’s a criminal,” Richard said. “There’s daily supplies you need.”
Many residents also said it was simple to sell food stamps. They claim they could go to corner stores and swipe their card for cash, always with the understanding that the store would keep 50 percent.
Van Valkenburgh said residents waiting in line at the food pantry have told her the same thing.
“It’s just a way of life,” she said.
Price Chopper has programmed its cash registers to make it impossible for cashiers to hand out cash for food stamps.
The computer will only accept a food stamp card after eligible purchases have been rung up, spokeswoman Mona Golub said.
Circumventing the rules
Some customers tried to outsmart that system by trying to return expensive items for cash at the customer service desk. So Price Chopper requires a receipt for a cash return, and will refund the food stamp card if the receipt shows that the item was purchased with food stamps.
If the customer shows up without a receipt, a manager is called to discuss the matter, Golub said.
Some food stamp recipients are also trying to circumvent the system by offering to buy other customers’ groceries for them, in exchange for cash. That one is harder to catch, Golub said, but it requires a customer to agree to it and to have the cash needed for the exchange.
At Cheese Bakery & Grocery, Elvin Singh said he could not comment on the allegations that he, his father and most of the store’s employees would commonly swipe food stamp cards for cash.
But he defended his store’s reputation.
“We try to help the community,” he said. “We’re good people.”