Midnight Grocery Runs Capture Economic Desperation

Anne D' Innocenzio, Associated Press Writers
Dena Potter, Associated Press Writers

FREDERICKSBURG, Va. (AP) β€” Once a month, just after midnight, the beeping checkout scanners at a Wal-Mart (Stock Quote: WMT) just off Interstate 95 come alive in a chorus of financial desperation.

Here and at grocery stores across the country, the chimes come just after food stamps and other monthly government benefits drop into the accounts of shoppers who have been rationing things like milk, ground beef and toilet paper and can finally stock up again.

Shoppers mill around the store after 11 p.m., killing time until their accounts are replenished. When midnight strikes, they rush for the checkout counter.

"The kids are sleeping, so we go do what we've gotta do. Money is tight," Martin Young said as he and his wife pushed two carts piled high with ground beef, toilet paper and other items.

The couple said they need food-stamp benefits, which are electronically deposited onto debit cards, because his job as a restaurant server doesn't quite cover expenses for their five children.

"We try to get here between 10:30 and 11 because we know we've got a lot of stuff to get. That way by 12 o'clock we're at the line cashing out and done," he said.

More than a year after the technical end of the Great Recession, millions of Americans still have a hard time stretching their dollars until the first of the month, or even the next payday.

One in seven Americans lives in poverty, and more than 41 million are on food stamps, a record. Last year the figure was about 35 million.

As a result, there are more scenes like the one last week at a 24-hour Kroger in Cincinnati. As the final hours of September ticked down, about five dozen cars were in the parking lot. It's much slower on normal weeknights.

"This here is emergency bread," said Melinda Patterson, 36, who has been without a full-time job since the recession began and had started shopping 20 minutes before midnight. That's when $435 in food stamps kicked in to help feed her six children.

The same night, Shavon Smith and her four young children were loading up on meat, fruit, bread, water, tissues and cereal at Kroger's Food 4 Less store on Chicago's West Side. Those staples had begun running out more than a week earlier.

"Tonight, they were tired and hungry, so I said, 'Let's go ahead and do it now,'" said Smith, who had $600 in food stamps electronically deposited to her electronic debit card at midnight.

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