Friday, October 1, 2010

More Food Pantry Thoughts

The food pantry has remained at the top of my thoughts this past week, which is unusual for me. I mean, I get a lot from my monthly shift, but typically I serve my time and then forget about it until it pops up on the calendar again next month.

But, there's a trend in the clients we are seeing that rattles me a bit. And, maybe, God is calling me to do more. I don't know.

When I started at the pantry two years ago, I was a "Shopper Assistant." Our pantry is unique in that our clients "shop" for their food. The Shopper Assistant walks alongside the client, and lets them know how many cans of veggies, for example, that they can have (based on their need and size of family). The clients choose which items they want. So, if you don't like peas, you don't take any peas. As I understand it, many pantries have set boxes of items that they provide their clients, and you pretty much take what you get. I like that our pantry allows people to choose what they get, and, I assume, it generates less waste of good food.

As a shopper assistant, I got to know many of the clients pretty well. Many were what I had expected when I signed on to volunteer at the pantry: the very poor, the unemployed, recovering drug addicts, alcoholics. Sometimes we shopped together over small talk. Often, the client needed a compassionate ear as much as a good meal. I heard about sick spouses, struggles with the emergency medical system, fears of the heat (or A/C) being shut off.

When I started doing intake and recertification interviews last fall, I got even more of the story. In order to determine the right level for each client, we need the full picture of their financial situation, and often get much more along with that. Again, many of these people need someone to hear them out. So many are ignored, unseen, or shuttled between one bureaucratic organization or another.

The disturbing trend I've watched this past year is the change in some of our clientele. We haven't lost our original clients; we've added a new segment of clients who, until recently, would have called themselves "middle class." Last week, I sat with a married couple, parents of four, who were comfortably middle class until she lost her job in June and he lost his in August. They used the last of their savings to cover their September expenses, and were facing October with no way to pay the mortgage and utilities, or to buy food. As we took their information, my co-worker spoke about resources to help them with Christmas gifts for their kids, and warned them to sign up early, preferably in October. The woman began to cry. "You mean, like the Giving Tree?" she asked. "I always adopt a family through my job, every year." She broke down. "How did this happen? I'm supposed to be the one buying the gifts, not the one receiving them."

That's why I can't let go of the pantry this month.

It's not just this couple. It's that every month brings us several couples, just like this. These people are not very much different than I am. Two years ago, my husband's company was bought by another and thousands lost their jobs. He's held on through several cutbacks, but we never know when the next one might be. I wonder how many months of unemployment it would take before I would be sitting on the other side of that desk, asking the same question.

This recession is a bad one. I've watched some of my friends dealing with job losses, incomes cut in half, some of the same worries and fears as our clients. I don't care what the media and pundits say; economic recovery is still a long way off. There are way too many people unemployed or underemployed, and lack of medical insurance is widespread among a segment of the population previously covered. As a society, we are precariously perched on a ledge.

Before she left the pantry with a cart full of food, I stopped her, and let her know I'd keep them in my prayers. She looked me in the eye and said, "I never thought this would be me." I held her gaze. "There's prayer in this, too, you know," I told her. "There's prayer in accepting help when you need it. Your turn to be on this side will come again. I know it. And, when it does, we'll be here, ready for your help."

I think that's what's haunting me this week. It takes great humility to admit that you need help, that you can't do it on your own. I think that, maybe, it's even harder to admit you need the help when you are used to being in the "helper" position. I am graced by the humility our clients show, by the trust the give to us.

I wonder, would I be so humble in their shoes? Would I be willing to accept the help offered, and to offer my humility as prayer to God?


Many food pantries are operating with shortages this year, due to an increase in need and a decrease in donations. If you are in a position to help in any way (food, money, time), please call your local pantry. And please keep those in need of food assistance in your prayers. Thank you!

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