What I Learned After Taking a Homeless Mother Grocery Shopping

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I recently moved from suburbia to a city, and there’s one thing I’m seeing now that I didn’t see before: the homeless. There are sign-holders on street corners everywhere, men propping cardboard signs by the freeway, and, at the entrance of parking lots, mothers asking for groceries.

Driving by these women, I can’t help but see my own story in theirs. I unexpectedly found myself a single mom a few years ago, so I am keenly aware that the only thing keeping my kids off the streets is … me. If I were to lose one of my precious jobs, I would be just like these women. It’s not hard to imagine. I wish I had a nest egg, a trust fund, a wealthy parent as a safety net. But I don’t. So while today I am fortunate enough to pay the bills, that all could change in an instant.

That’s why seeing these women gave me the urge to do something. I arranged to volunteer at my local homeless shelter that Sunday and met mothers as they dropped their babies off for two precious hours of playtime. One in particular stood out.

Blonde and pretty, with sparkly eye shadow and faded jeans, Tori* lovingly tucked her daughters, ages 4 and 6, in for a hug before she left, saying, “Please remember to say thank you, girls.”

When she returned, I asked her if I could take her grocery shopping later that day. I explained I’d be taking photos and writing about the experience. She agreed matter-of-factly, arranging to meet me at the closest grocery store I could Yelp.

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Tori walked through the sliding doors of the grocery store with her canvas wagon in tow, piled high with stuff and topped with her two little girls. She pulled everything into a corner and apologized for being three minutes late.

“I’m in Crisis Housing, so no lock or key for our stuff. Everything we own is in the wagon; it has to go everywhere with us or it gets stolen.” As she spoke, she swept one daughter up into the shopping cart and tucked the other’s hair into place before grabbing her hand.

“No problem, here you go.” I opened my wallet and handed her $50, trying to keep her comfortable by being quick. But it felt wrong, too impersonal.

Now it was me apologizing: “I’m sorry. This feels weird. I just want you to get anything you need. I’ll snap a few photos, and then we’ll be done.” 

She gratefully accepted the cash, tucking it gently into her purse.

“Here’s the thing,” she explained. “We can’t have anything perishable in the shelter. So, the girls never get enough fruits or vegetables. We don’t have a stove or a fridge. I don’t want you to think I’m buying bad things. I just don’t have a way to keep the good things.”

I promised her there were no expectations. I just wanted her to have $50 without food-stamp restrictions. A spree without worry.

But the thing is, I did have expectations.

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Low-income Americans are traditionally stuck in a deeply unfortunate food cycle. With meager funds, they rely on the cheapest food sources, which are those being subsidized by the government: soy, corn, and wheat. These inexpensive crops are turned into inexpensive foods, mixed with sugars and highly processed, leading to chronic health concerns like obesity, diabetes, and cancer.

Going into this situation, I expected to see the cycle of poverty in action.

I expected to see $50 stretched, each dollar poured into inexpensive packages of processed products. Because that would be the proper thing to do, wouldn’t it? When a woman hands you $50 and tells you to go grocery shopping, you take that cash and make it stretch.

Except: That’s what this mom was always doing. So when I handed her that $50, I hadn’t handed her money for food. I handed her freedom. Fifty unbudgeted bills to spend on whatever she wanted.

And what she wanted was an $11 bag of shining apples.

A single plump bell pepper.

A big carton of blueberries.

And $6.38 for a bag of bright-red cherries.

As we shopped, we talked about how she ended up at the homeless shelter. She wasn’t angry or ungrateful. She wasn’t hopeful. She wasn’t asking for handouts.

She was just a mom.

We stopped mid-aisle after 15 minutes. She looked at the contents of her cart and stated, “This is probably about $50. Should we go check out?”

As the checker scanned the produce, I held the 4-year-old, she wrestled with the 6-year-old, and we swapped stories like old friends about how grocery shopping with kids is always an adventure.

We both saw the ticker move over the $50 mark at the same time. She frantically started removing items from the conveyor belt, but I asked her to let me buy all the groceries, no matter the cost. She was standing in the store because of me; I didn’t want her having to spend her precious food stamps to avoid the “shame” of over-shopping.

What She Bought:

  • Goldfish Crackers – $1.00
  • Quaker Instant Oatmeal, Peaches & Cream – $2.99
  • Marachaun Cup, Beef (x2) – $0.78
  • Marachaun Cup, Pork – $0.39
  • Cherries – $6.38
  • Applesauce – $2.29
  • Apples – $11.45
  • Nissin Chow Mein – $2.00
  • Tostitos Scoops – $2.50
  • Kraft Easy Mac – $3.89
  • Fruit Snacks – $1.49
  • Harmon B-T White – $1.69
  • Quaker Chewy Choc Chip Granola Bars – $5.00
  • Chef Boyardee Ravioli – $1.00
  • Western Family Spaghetti Rings – $0.89
  • Taco Bell Refried Beans – $0.69
  • Gold Bell Pepper – $1.79
  • Peaches – $1.25
  • Mission 10-Count Soft Tortillas – $2.99
  • Herdez Salsa – $2.49
  • GM Cocoa Puffs – $4.49
  • GM Bonus CTC – $2.50
  • Western Family Pear Slices – $0.99
  • Libby Vienna Sausages – $1.38
  • Blueberries – $3.98


Total: $68.68

Looking at her list, you can see two clear groups of items. Nearly every item under $5 is a shelf-stable item. Most of it processed, canned, or packaged. When you live in a crisis shelter with a dozen other families, with only a microwave for cooking and no way of storing perishables, these low-cost foods are vital.

The two grocery items over $5? Fresh produce. A few less-expensive fruits and veggies were purchased, but the amounts were snack-sized, not meal-sized. One bell pepper. A quart of blueberries.

I look at this list and can’t help but wonder how she’s supposed to do it. If $11 of apples equals two snacks but $3 in Ramen will feed her entire family for dinner, how can she possibly pick apples with her limited food stamp budget? And how will she ever afford to fill half of every mealtime plate with fruits and veggies, the amount recommended by the same government that issued her food stamps?

The fact of the matter is, this homeless mom is me. She is you.

Today, nearly one in six Americans reports running out of food at least once a year. Government food assistance requests are at an all-time high, and funding for these programs is being cut. The need for food and access to affordable fresh fruits and vegetables is no longer just something affecting the guys holding signs on the street corner. Food insecurity affects millions of suburban families. Working folks. Maybe even your neighbors.

Learning about this reality is an important part of understanding it. Remembering that statistics represent real people is a vital part of wanting to do something about it. We need to do more than stand aside and shake our heads, grateful it isn’t us.

The hungry, the homeless, the poor. These are complicated social problems. They’re big and overwhelming, hard to look at and even harder to know where to start.

But simply starting in some way is a move in the right direction. Even if it’s an action as small as sharing a bag of bright-red cherries.

*Name changed to protect privacy

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