Thanksgiving on food stamps

It's still a holiday—but it's also even more of a struggle than usual for Sacramento's low-income families

by Dave Kempa
November 11, 2012
News & Review

As Desaray Smith prepares for the holidays, she admits that her family’s Thanksgiving Day feast will not be much different from any other dinner they eat throughout the year.

“We really can’t afford to put that much [aside], because then the other days we really don’t have food,” she says.

Desaray, 32, lives with her husband, five children and mother in Del Paso Heights, struggling daily to get by. Whenever the month’s supply of food stamps runs out, she turns to Sacramento’s food banks to keep her family fed.

“If we didn’t have those, I don’t know what we would really do. I think that we would starve.”

“Or we would go shopping,” chimes in Tiffanie, her 6-year-old girl.

Desaray smiles and turns to her daughter. “When you ain’t got money, you ain’t got money. You notice we only go shopping on the first [of the month], when we get our food stamps.”

A Sacramento native, Desaray’s life was once like many of those living in Northern California. Her husband worked as a tire technician—“Well, that’s what they call it. He’s just a tire guy to me”—and she took care of the home as they began to grow their family.

Then, six years ago, Desaray’s husband hurt his back and was unable to continue working.

Soon after, she entered the job market to help keep the family afloat, but work is sparse and never steady. She’s found temp jobs. A catering gig here. A thrift-store shift there. She’s filled out numerous applications at the local Walmart.

But, inevitably, Desaray always finds herself without a source of income for the family.

Today, she and Tiffanie wait in line at Sacramento’s River City Food Bank on 28th and R streets in Midtown. Last year, the food bank helped keep food on the table for 23,633 households, including 13,362 children and 4,625 seniors.

Desaray says that her family of eight receives $800 per month in CalFresh food stamps, providing the family with about $3.33 per day for each mouth to feed.

The Smiths, of course, will not be able to afford a turkey or a ham this Thanksgiving. If they do find a way to top their holiday meal with a meat fixture, it will perhaps be because of the Sacramento City Food Bank & Family Services, which last year collected more than 8,000 birds from its annual turkey drive; or from California Emergency Foodlink, which this year collected upward of 10,000 hams to give out to local families throughout the holiday season.

It is clear that Desaray enjoys the Thanksgiving holiday, but her voice strains when she discusses what the season will bring.

“I would like to give my kids a big turkey dinner. And when you don’t have it, you feel bad. So, it’s like, we just wait for it to be done and over with.

“It’s really hard when your kids are like, ’How come we don’t have turkey? It’s Thanksgiving!’ You know what I mean? What are you going to tell them? ’Oh, we just can’t afford it.’ They don’t understand that.”

Still, the Smiths celebrate. They sit together and pray before their Thanksgiving meal. They have never gone around the table taking turns to tell one another what it is they are thankful for each year, but as Desaray thinks about it, she begins to warm to the idea.

“I don’t know why we don’t do that,” she muses, turning again to Tiffanie. “I think we should do that.”

She feels that there is much to be thankful for.

“What I’m thankful for is just having my family with us and having us all together and no one being sick, and us being healthy. I think that’s what I’m really glad for. We don’t have money, but it could always be worse. You know what I mean?”

She pauses.

“There are people out there that have it worse.”