By Moxie Jean Loeffler, CFJC Health Policy Advocacy Intern
When I first heard of SNAP, I didn’t know that I had once been on it myself. The name had changed from “food stamps.” SNAP stands for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. To anyone who knows me, because I am middle class, educated and white, it might seem quite strange that I received food aid. But anyone can come upon hard times.
When I was twenty-four years old, I was a premedical student and became very ill while living in Arcata, California. By the time I dropped out of classes in 2001, I had been in severe, constant chronic pain for a year and a half and had been unable to walk without my wooden cane or crutches for eight months. I can still picture the small white rectangular piece of paper that bore the words “one wheelchair”– it was a prescription from my doctor that I was supposed to take to a medical supply store. I dragged myself up the stairs to my second floor apartment with the paper crumpled in my hand. How on earth would I get up and down the stairs with a wheelchair? I would have to move. I paid $250 for my share of the rent and utilities. When I had arrived the previous summer to take my part-time job in the Veterans Affairs office on campus at Humboldt State University, I’d had a pile of medical bills totaling thousands of dollars and $12 to my name. I had gone to the store and bought a cast iron skillet deep enough to boil pasta and good for making eggs, tofu and chicken when I could afford them. For food, I bought less than half a pound of dehydrated black beans and dehydrated split pea soup. This was the first time I recall being hungry in my life and not having enough money for food.
My head was swimming with questions, but one loomed large–where could I find rent for less than this? And would I recover and go to medical school? I was very lucky and a few days later noticed something that saved me. I was staying with my boyfriend for three days. He was working and I was in too much pain to stand up and cook, so I lived off of rice cakes and nut butter the whole time. At the end of the five hour drive back up to Humboldt, I realized that my legs hurt a lot less. I could move them. I could walk many steps without leaning so hard on my cane. Could it possibly be something I ate? Or something I didn’t eat that had been making me sick?
What I mean by sick is that I had inflammation in all my muscles, joints and bladder. I was rail thin. The pain was so intense that it made focusing on tests and homework a nearly insurmountable task. I had been losing my hair, having rashes in the sun, and had a sky-high lab called an antinuclear antibody titer (ANA, a lab associated with autoimmune disease), so out of the nine doctors I’d seen, some thought I had systemic lupus erythematosus (lupus). The general medicine doctors weren’t sure what it was. I saw one rheumatologist who thought it was lupus, and another who said that it was not but that she didn’t know what it was. Some of my labs didn’t support the diagnosis. I knew enough to say that everyone seemed confused, but I wasn’t sure what to make of the food problem.
With a mountain of medical debt from my terrible insurance policy that covered nothing until I spent $5000 (with an income of $10,000 per year this is unlikely), yet cost $300 per month, I wasn’t about to go to another doctor. So I went to a local health food store and found a flyer for a nutrition student named Kim. I called her and told her I thought I might have a food allergy but had no idea which one. She helped me plan an elimination diet, which meant living off of rice only for a week and then adding one new food every five days and keeping a pain journal to see if anything made me worse. Within three weeks, I tried drinking rice milk and within a few hours my legs hurt all over, as though I was being stung by insects. By the morning, my knees and hips were stiff and sore. I read the side of the box and I called Kim to tell the strange news –“I think it’s gluten.” The rice milk had trace amounts of gluten from contamination. Thank goodness they had labeled it.
I saw Martin Smukler, an integrative medicine physician in Eureka, California, and he was right to say I had celiac disease, as confirmed by lab testing. I cut out gluten and in a month I was pain free. But by then I had left Arcata and moved home to the Bay Area and was couch-surfing with friends and living off of the last of a small student loan, and the job market was terrible. Armed with a bachelor’s degree and 3 years of science courses, I sent out about 230 resumes and received no replies. I took a job as a restaurant hostess without tips, for eight dollars an hour and kept my biochemistry book under the reservation book so I could study when it was slow. That is when I started getting food stamps, which amounted to about $50 per month, which isn’t much for anyone and is nearly impossible with celiac disease.
Soon I started to make too much money and lost my food benefits, and went back to school for my last year of premedical courses at San Jose State University. In 2009, I graduated from osteopathic medical school at Touro University California in Vallejo, and attended an internal medicine residency at Kaiser in Oakland. I have two jobs and have had enough food since 2002.
To read more on the reflections of Moxie as she took the SNAP Challenge, view here