So when I picked up the generous bread donation this morning from Bales Cedar Mill, I hauled it all into the pantry and weighed it. The food bank measures contributions by weight, so bread doesn't generate as much credit as, say, canned soup, but it's still significant, since a large grocery store like this one can donate 100 pounds or more on any given day. Today there was a nice bonus -- a big box full of baby food, which is not only needed, it's also heavy!
If you've never experienced a pantry, I recommend that you volunteer at one, even just one time. It's a great way to have a better understanding of what poverty looks like these days, what help is being provided, how truly appreciative recipients are. More importantly, it puts our own abundant good fortune into perspective and might nudge us to be more careful about managing waste.
Most of us have to be pretty darn close to the end of our ropes to bite the bullet and ask for help. It's embarrassing to call to find out if and where help might be available. I don't know why it feels so shameful. Maybe because, as my husband once said, "We aren't the people those programs are for." Well, we weren't. It used to be that if you were willing to work, you could, and your family's needs could be met. Now the lower-paying jobs are so far behind inflation, food stamps fill the gap for nearly 20% of Americans (40% of whom are white, by the way, in case you thought minorities were milking the system). Increasingly, recipients are retired and/or disabled.
There's a small amount of paperwork when you enter, so the pantry can report to the referring agency, etc. Then you walk around the store room with a volunteer, choosing the items you need from the shelves that are clearly marked with how much of each item you're allowed. The pantries work hard to provide nutritious food, using church or donated funds to buy meat and eggs to round out the non-perishables. As the cart fills with pasta, chili beans, canned fruit and veggies, it's encouraging to also accept a half a chicken and a pound of ground beef. Near the end there are often bonus items, such as coffee, pet food, soap, etc., things you were prepared to do without. The volunteer walks with the client out to their car, helps load the groceries, and cheerfully bids them farewell, usually accepting repeated thank-yous.
The experience is designed to feel like regular grocery shopping, to maintain the dignity of the recipient, and to promote a sense of community for all parties. It does that. It shows us that people volunteering and people receiving aren't really different. The little kids coming in with their moms are just as cute as my kids were, and just as oblivious to what is required to provide them with food, clothing, a bed, a roof, an education, and attentive parenting in spite of long work hours.
Good, decent, responsible, moral people are poor. Meeting their needs is our responsibility as a civilized society. We need to be constantly aware of both the good and the bad sides of our relationship with poverty. Handled well, it develops community, creates a sense of gratitude and loyalty in recipients, and promotes a healthy attitude toward our society, especially in young people. Handled poorly, people with desperate needs can easily resort to crime, especially when getting away with something illegal seems less humiliating than asking for legitimate help.
The community food pantry is a tremendous resource for families who just can't afford basic food, even after food stamps. But it's also of great value to the community at large. Thanks for your support of our pantries.