Gaming the System

old Food “Stamp”

Way back in the 1980s I was teaching and my wife was working. We’d just had our son and bought a house, both of which added to the bills. So I took a part time job at a local Convenience Store to help ends meet. It was a standard convenience store that most of you are familiar with in your hometowns and travels. We sold lots of gas, a ton of soda, more than our share of beer. My job was to keep the shelves stocked, clean up the place, take money from the clients, and make change. It’s the last of those that makes the heart of this little tale.

If you’re an American you have at least a passing knowledge of “Food Stamps.” They were originally stamps, but by the 1980s had evolved into “coupons” that looked a lot like dollar bills (see the picture above). Now they’re a piece of plastic. Their job was to help those down on their luck for whatever reason get a decent meal. You went to a store, picked up your items (a lot of things were excluded–like the beer at our place), presented the coupons with the item and you could get groceries to feed either yourself or your family.

The system was prone to corruption because people make bad decisions all the time (Why, even I have made a couple of them over time; but only a couple.). But a second problem, and the one at the heart of this story, was that they were all in “dollars.” There was no “change” in them. So if you bought $1.50 worth of goods, you handed the clerk $2.00 worth of coupons and you got fifty cents in change handed to you. This was legal tender coins we’re talking about. The kind of thing that, if you had enough coins, could buy you something like a beer.

One of the more common things that people did if they patronized our little store and had kids was to hand the kid a couple of dollars (or just one dollar) and send them to the store. The kid was free to use the dollar to buy some sort of treat for himself (It’s a boy involved in this tale.). If a customer was on food stamps, they frequently still did the same using the coupons in lieu of a dollar bill.

We had salesmen come in all the time trying to get the boss to add to the inventory and one of them brought in a box of Topps baseball cards. intrigued, the boss took a box and set it on the counter right by the cash register. It was a slow seller and after a few boxes the store discontinued the item, but it got the attention of one of the kids who came in regularly to purchase candy, soda, or to pick up something Mom needed for the meal that evening. The family used food stamps for their purchases. Baseball cards didn’t come under the rules for food stamps (apparently the gum didn’t count), so you couldn’t buy them with food stamps.

But this kid was a genius (my guess is he’s in the Oklahoma Legislature now). He walked over to the candy and picked out one piece of two-cent candy (it was a flavored jawbreaker and you don’t see them much anymore). He walked up, handed me the candy and a dollar food coupon. He got back 98 cents. Then he reached over to the packets of baseball cards and picked up one (or maybe two, I forget both the number of packets or the price of a packet) and handed me back the 98 cents. I remember giving him change. He thanked me and left.

A couple of days later he was back and we repeated the same little monetary dance. This went on until one day he came in and there were no cards. I told him we were out and the boss said we weren’t getting more. He was deeply disappointed, but took it manfully. He used the food coupon to buy a candy bar.


5 Responses to “Gaming the System”

  1. Precious Sanders Says:

    Brilliant. 🙂

  2. William Miller Says:

    Great story, V. Personally, I think this is a good use of that “food stamp” money. Imagine how much money that kid has probably spent on all things baseball-related since he grew up! Good for baseball, and good for the U.S. economy.

  3. glenrussellslater Says:

    V, good story. What subject did you teach, and at what grade level? It doesn’t say a lot about how society values teachers in that they need to take an extra job. Meanwhile, baseball players nowadays make millions of dollars per year to hit a ball and screw around with broads on the road! What a joke! What PRIORITIES in this society! My father taught social studies in the New York Public Schools, and my mother taught special education, but my father still had to supplement with an extra job. He took an extra assignment teaching at Rikers Island, which is a NYC jail (he already worked for the city of New York for the NYC Board of Education, of course.) I think that it was the great relief pitcher Mike Marshall, who had a doctorate in kinesiology (did I spell that right?), who wouldn’t give out autographs, and for the RIGHT reasons, not because he thought it was below him to sign autographs. He used to tell to kids to get their TEACHER’S autographs.

    Here’s a great routine from 1973 by comedian Robert Klein, and he really nails this subject well……


  4. Gary Trujillo Says:

    My parents were insanely cheap. My cousin and I had to mow neighbor’s lawns or rake leaves to buy our baseball cards!

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