The coupons were concealed carefully inside my purse, but I had to keep peeking at the list to see what was approved for me to purchase. A dozen eggs, four gallons of milk, some breakfast cereal of specific brand, cheese- all carefully lined out on the coupons the nice lady at the WIC center had given me.
It was explained that WIC (Women, Infants and Children) is a federally funded program to provide nutritional food to families of limited means. I was encouraged by the Nice Lady to spend all the coupons each month, as WIC’s annual funding was predicated by the previous year’s grant being spent. She was kind, soft spoken and I left the office in tears anyway.
Never had I imagined needing something like a WIC coupon. I was the person who helped others. I was the one working in the soup kitchens, the one cooking at the Bishop’s Storehouse, the one who donates to help others. Not me. Not me.
And so the coupons remained concealed from casual observation. Though I had waited until very late to go the market, I still felt the sting of shame as I carefully chose the approved brick of cheese and large tin can of apple juice.
In an empty aisle, I tallied my groceries, making sure I had used the coupons to the full and honest extent. When another woman turned her cart onto my aisle, I quickly stuffed the papers back in my purse, and pretended to study the label on a can of soup, my cheeks coloring with humility.
At the front of the store, I looked for a register with no line, and settled my basket in behind a woman with only a few items. As I began unloading my cart, I realized I had been in this line before. I had been in line behind women with these very same items, with small children, and my thoughts had not, I was ashamed to admit, always been charitable.
Looking at me, so many would not be charitable either. For the world to see; a nice car, a designer handbag, a big house in a nice neighborhood, a flashy cell phone and an embarrassingly large wedding ring. I could practically hear the catty voices: Why would that woman need WIC food? She must be one of those. One of those people who use and abuse the system.
And there I stood. Tears sprang to my eyes. My cheeks stung with shame. On the outside, what, indeed, did I lack? Hidden from the world: the unemployment going on four months, a health crisis for my husband, the reserves of savings dwindling as the prices of staples rose, the food storage being used up, and the quiet desperation creeping up in our family.
Maybe there was another way for me to learn that lesson. Maybe not. What I do know is, I will never, ever stand in line at the grocery store the same way again.
Matthew 7:1-2 has surely been written in my heart:
Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.