By Jessica Hopper
At the stroke of midnight, a growing number of Americans are lining up at Walmart not to cash in on a holiday sale, but because they’re hungry.
The increasing number of Americans relying on food stamps to survive the sluggish economic recovery has changed the way the largest retailer in the United States does business.
Carol Johnston, Walmart’s senior vice president of store development, said that store managers have seen an “enormous spike” in the number of consumers shopping at midnight on the first of the month. That’s typically when those receiving federal food assistance have their accounts refilled each month.
“We’ll bring in more staff to stock. We’ll also make sure all of our registers…are open…Some people may think at 12:01, Walmart’s very quiet, but in a lot of our areas of the country, 12:01 is a big day or a big night for us, actually,” Johnston said.
Becca Reeder and her husband, T.J. Fowler, are one of the families shopping before the sun rises.
When NBC News visited their home six days before the first of the month, they had no milk in their refrigerator. Among the few things left were water, bacon grease for the dog’s food, a little bit of apple juice, cheese and tortillas.
The couple and their 2-year-old son, Miles, live in Nampa, Idaho, about a 30-minute drive from Boise. Reeder and Fowler married in September. She recently had to pawn her wedding ring to help support the family.
“As long as I got my family, I’m good,” she said.
The newlyweds are both certified nursing assistants but have been unable to find work in their field. Fowler is commuting an hour and a half round trip to a part-time job flipping burgers at a fast-food restaurant and Reeder is not working.
They never imagined they would need food stamps to get by.
“It’s kind of a pride thing,” said Reeder. “We are going [to] get out of this. One day we will and we aren’t going to need food stamps forever.”
Reeder is one of the nearly 46 million Americans who depend on federal assistance for food, according to Department of Agriculture. Nearly 15 percent of the U.S. population is part of the food stamp program, now called SNAP.
Reeder knows that her family’s government assistance is deposited at exactly 4:12 a.m. on the first of the month. Using the debit card that holds their government assistance feels embarrassing at times, she said.
“I actually have my little technique I use. I take my palm of my hand and I kind of cover the card with the palm of my hand so that you can’t see the top of it when I’m swiping it, so the person behind me in line doesn’t, they don’t see food stamps,” Reeder said.
The family’s home state, Idaho, has seen a rapid rise in food stamp use over the last two years.
“Two years ago, we were at just over 2 percent unemployment,” said Kathy Gardner, director of Idaho Hunger Relief Task Force. “Our food stamp participation rate was one of the lowest in the nation…because only 55 percent, a little over half of the Idahoans that were eligible and needed food stamps were participating.”
Now, Idaho’s unemployment rate is 9.1 percent and its food stamp participation has increased by 15 percent. Gardner said that it’s not the chronically poor turning increasingly to food stamps, but professionals down on their luck.
“We know that Idahoans are in a desperate situation. They are watering down baby formula. Parents are cutting back on what they’re eating so that their children can have food,” Gardner said. “We know that families are getting up in the middle of the night to get to the store.”
Jessica Postma and fiancé James Dougherty often go without food or just eat rice toward the end of the month, so that the five children in their blended family of seven can have more balanced meals.
When NBC News first met the couple, Postma was working as a supervisor at a call center making $13.50 an hour. She recently lost that job. She has found a new job where she will make less money. Dougherty has a background in banking and sales training. He’d been out of work for two months when he recently found a job taking customer service calls from home for a tech company. That job pays him $8.50 an hour.
“We’re not the habitual abusers of the system. We don’t, you know, we don’t use this as a crutch by any stretch of the imagination. This is to stabilize our family and to help give us a platform to launch ourselves into being able to do it ourselves,” Dougherty said.
The couple turned to government food assistance when they realized they might lose their home.
NBC News went shopping with them at the local Walmart when $691 was deposited in their account at midnight on the first of the month. The couple said they choose to shop in the middle of the night because it gets even busier during the day on the first of the month.
“It’s like, put your battle gear on and go grocery shopping and it’s just too crazy,” Postma said.
In an event akin to Black Friday, shoppers filled the store stocking up on basics like pasta, rice and meats.
“It’s like the Super Bowl of grocery stores,” Dougherty said. “And you show up and there’s just troves and troves and troves of people and it’s chaotic. I mean, it really is. If you’re claustrophobic, don’t go into an Idaho grocery store on the first.”
The couple budget closely and try and save for important milestones like their kids’ birthdays, but surprise requests can be heartbreaking.
“We had gone to parent/teacher conferences at the middle school for my oldest and he mentioned that the book fair was going on and there was a book he wanted,” Postma said. “It was between paydays, you know? Right smack dab in the middle between paydays and there was no way. We were already struggling to make it through the week and I had to tell him no.”
The book cost $10.
“I told him, ‘You know, when we’re back on our feet, we’ll definitely get you that book,’” Postma said.