Please don't feed the animals 

A single mother of two struggles to make ends meet in Missoula while also fighting the disturbing rise in anti-poverty cruelty

Food stamps are meant to supplement the cost of groceries. When times are tough, my food stamps are almost always the only money I have for food. By logging on to a website, I can see how much money I have left and when I'll receive another deposit. A client's last name determines what day of the month the funds come in; mine means the money arrives on the 6th. My final shopping trip usually occurs around the 20th, with less than $100 to spend for more than two weeks worth of food.

This is always the grocery visit without slow walks through the produce sections. I stock up on eggs and peanut butter to go on toast. Discounted meat like hamburger or chicken is always a bonus. Fruits and vegetables are only possible if the store is offering discounts. But sometimes, when you have so little to feed your family for such a long stretch, just the staples are all you can afford.

These shopping trips are always the hardest. I'm stuck between feeling grateful we had the money to purchase food while trying not to look at food I can't afford. I once won a gift certificate to the Orange Street Food Farm, and I told my daughter we could do one trip with it and get whatever we wanted to eat. She asked for raspberries.

Before I drove the 500 miles from the Seattle area to visit, Missoula had already been wooing me for several years. I wanted to live in the place that inspired Steinbeck and David James Duncan, and nestle myself by the iconic river running through it to write. Since moving out of Alaska and missing it dearly, I'd decided Montana was my second best option, my new home, my next love.

click to enlarge 1-i42cover.jpg

I didn't have to seek out people who'd spent time in Missoula—the topic came up naturally in conversation often.

"Oh, we love it there," my landlord in Washington said. "But there's no way we could make a living."

My therapist had just moved from Missoula, and her face fell with sadness when she talked about leaving it behind. "My husband couldn't find a job," she said. But she still encouraged me to visit.

I'd been in the process of planning to move in 2006, and had even filled out applications to the University of Montana, when I found out I was pregnant with my first daughter. I put my plans on hold in an attempt to reconnect with family and make it work with my daughter's father. Five years later, all of those relationships had been tried and worn out. I had nothing to lose. I decided to move.

I arrived to visit the day before the River City Roots Festival. I'd dropped my kid off with her dad for a week, relishing my first vacation in years. The town shined. After time spent living under the umbrella of the Seattle Freeze, I nearly hugged strangers who engaged in conversations with me about why they love their hometown. "The wages are bad," one said, "but they're in Missoula."

It was no longer a matter of if I'd move; I started making plans for when.

click to enlarge The author with her two daughters, Mia and Coraline. - PHOTO COURTESY OF LOGAN CASTOR PARSON
  • photo courtesy of Logan Castor Parson
  • The author with her two daughters, Mia and Coraline.

I knew the job market was poor. I knew it'd be hard to make ends meet. I knew I'd take a cut in pay, even as a self-employed housecleaner. But the trade-off of living in a place surrounded by sun-drenched mountains, encased in endless blue skies and filled with people in love with their community was more than worth it.

The job I expected to land fell through. "It just seems like your schedule is too full," they'd said. I had a 4-year-old and planned to go to college part-time, paying out-of-state tuition, until I obtained residency and went full-time. This wasn't the greatest plan, since I took out maximum amounts of student loans to afford tuition, but after a few months of being here I realized it was close to my only option. I couldn't have worked full-time while attending school part-time. I couldn't find a day job.

My classes weren't that constrictive. I had a short one during the day two days a week, and one in the evening. It would have been easy for me to work a semi-flexible day job during daycare hours. I had several years of experience as a barista. I had glowing letters of recommendation as a legal assistant and receptionist. I sent out resumes daily to blind PO boxes.

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