Meet Willa Nesheim. Willa relied on SNAP (known locally as CalFresh) and other food assistance resources like food banks as a child. Her parents worked low-wage jobs and SNAP/CalFresh provided critical support during a 5-month period when her mother was laid off and looking for work. Because of this support she was able to go on to break the cycle of poverty in her own life and for her daughter. As an adult, she worked for 32-years in long-term in-home care for the elderly and disabled where she again saw how vital food assistance was to the health and well-being of her clients.
At what point in your life did you receive SNAP/CalFresh (food stamps) and why?
I was probably in the 6th or 7th grade. My mother had lost her job at Boeing. We went on food stamps and possibly also public assistance. This was in the 1960’s. It was just my mother and me receiving assistance.
How long were you/have you been on SNAP/CalFresh?
We were probably on food stamps for about 5 months or so until my mother found a job.
How did SNAP/CalFresh help you in your time of need?
It helped. That was the only income my mother had coming in, so the food stamps were a good thing. I remember her being embarrassed because my mom was always someone who had worked. We didn’t have a vehicle so we had to walk with a cart to get food. I remember we went to a different store than we normally did. I remember it being very difficult. Things were very tight.
How did receiving food assistance make you feel?
I knew something was different. My mom was embarrassed, so then I felt the same way she did. I didn’t say anything to anyone. Things had changed when we moved to Ballard, WA and my mother was working at Boeing. Things were going better for us, but then when she lost that job and things got harder. I’m sure it was stressful for her to pay the rent while trying to find another job. I remember babysitting and giving her some money to help pay the light bill. She did get her job back and things got back on track for the both of us.
How would you have (or did you) made ends meet without SNAP/CalFresh?
It would have been really difficult. I don’t know what we would have done. It would have been so hard. We barely had enough to get by on with the food stamps. After the unemployment ran out, I think we were on public assistance for a little while until my mom could get a job again. It was really hard.
Did you use any food assistance programs in addition to SNAP/CalFresh (i.e. free or reduced priced school meals, pantries, meal delivery services, etc.)? What was that like?
I also went to the food bank. That was when I was very little. I was probably in the first grade. I went with my father. We didn’t have a vehicle and we had to transfer on the bus several times to get to this warehouse. After we got off the bus we still had quite a way to walk. On the way back, we had to carry as much food as we could. We had to hurry to get back to catch the bus because of the different transfers we had to make. I remember getting canned meat from the food bank, it was very salty and not very appetizing, but I liked it because I was hungry.
I don’t think my school had free or reduced-priced meals yet. I remember many mornings where I didn’t have breakfast. I would go to school and there was no lunch offered. One time a teacher saw that I wasn’t eating lunch and she brought me a carton of milk. You just kind of blended in with the other kids. You didn’t tell people that you didn’t have breakfast. There weren’t things like that for children at school at that time.
What are you most proud of in your life?
I saw how hard it was for my mother. She worked just about every day of her life and never made much money. I saw how difficult it was for her and I didn’t want that for my life. I wanted something different for my life than what I was born into. I’m proud of the fact that I was able to break that cycle. I’m really proud of my daughter Theranne. It was very important to her father and I that she had an education because we didn’t have that. Both her father and I are very proud of who she is and the education she has received. She is a teacher and she has a Master’s Degree. Her father came from poverty too and we both broke that cycle. We’re very proud of that.
What do you want elected officials to know about food assistance programs like SNAP/CalFresh?
It helps families so much, especially the children. They are born into this, it’s out of their control. It’s so important for children to have breakfast. It’s not fun trying to go to school when you are hungry and your stomach is growling all morning. These programs are very important for children and families. My mother was able to get food stamps and financial assistance to support us so she could get her job back. I don’t know what we would have done without that help. It takes some of the stress off, not having to worry as much about being able to feed your children. These programs are very important.
Anything else you would like to add?
During my work providing long-term in-home care for 32 years, I probably took care of the poorest of the poor - the elderly and disabled. The small amount of food stamps they get gives them just a little more of the food that they need. They use the food banks too. I’ve searched for food banks for my clients. I’ve volunteered at food banks. These clients just don’t have enough to eat. It’s very challenging for them. I have wracked my brain trying to figure out things to cook for them that will stretch their food budget. Without SNAP, it would be so difficult for them. They are already living in poverty and to take that support away is a real threat. Many of the clients I worked with, worked most of their lives but never made that much money so their social security or whatever they have coming in is very little. You need food stamps and food banks, they are so important for people. They deal with all their disabilities every day and on top of that, they also have to worry about food. In 32 years, I haven’t seen things change. I know my former clients still are worried about their food stamps being taken away. It shouldn’t be like that, because they have contributed. That’s not right.