Editor's Note: You can stop by the Amazing Grace Food Pantry with donations. Click here to find out how to help.
Last Wednesday, my friend Jessica and I went back to the Amazing Grace food pantry where we started to volunteer, except this time we actually had to work. It's always scary showing up at a new job where you don't know anybody and you don't know what to do. We were crazy nervous.
We quickly got to stocking food. This food bank used to be tucked into a place the size of a shoe box. Volunteers gave each other bruises on their elbows from working in such close proximity. But thankfully, a couple of years ago, they were able to find a new location that offers a lot more space.
The back of the building houses a drop off area where people can bring their donations and houses huge storage shelves much like the kind you'd find at Sam's Club, only with much less food. Most of these shelves are bare and begging to be used. When Jess and I came in the first time we donated 66 pounds of food and after having carried it for quite a distance, our biceps aflame with pain, we thought 66 pounds seemed like quite a lot. We were proud of ourselves. But then we got to see how small a distance 66 pounds goes and our excitement weaned. We could have brought 6,666 pounds and it wouldn't have made a dent. It may have meant that each family was able to take home an extra can of soup that week.
The back of the building also houses four large freezers generously donated by a restaurant in town. This is a huge blessing to the families who use the food bank because this means for the first time ever, they have the opportunity to take home fresh meat and vegetables, eggs and even cheese. There is never enough for them to get some every month but sometimes the donations go up and they can.
The volunteers are all seasoned, most having worked for five or more years. They are like a family. They are just as quick to argue as they are to love on each other. And having been there only one day we could tell which ones to approach and which ones to leave be. They have a great system going so it kind of felt like we were throwing a wrench into their groove although they were definitely glad to have us there. Each has a special job. There are some who prefer to stock shelves. Others clean. Still some, work in the office area and greet families.
Jessica and I were assigned to a woman named Janet. Janet is in her 40's; a strong woman who is matter-of-fact, bankrupt on patience and unwilling to tolerate any sort of shenanigans. We were reprimanded a few times which I guess is to be expected when you're still learning the ropes. Another volunteer, Irwin has eyes in the back of his head and knows what everyone is doing at all times and while he doesn't smile much, he has dry sense of humor. When Jessica asked him where she could find the bathroom he pointed her in the right direction but conveniently (and with a smirk on his face) forgot to tell her she needed a key to get in. It's safe to say there was some definite hazing going on.
Then there's John, a 29-year-old man who has deep pockets full of terribly corny jokes and has a penchant for flirtation. John was a serviceman who went on leave just before he was scheduled to be shipped off to Korea and got into a terrible car accident. He was in a coma for nine months. He also suffered multiple broken bones and permanent brain damage. John was honorably discharged and now gives all of his time and energy to the food bank where there is always a captive audience to hear his jokes and now that Jessica and I are there; someone to flirt with.
After our staff meeting, the doors to the food pantry were opened and we got started on distributing food. Each volunteer accompanies a client and takes them through the shopping process. The clients are allowed a certain amount of food based on the number of people in their household. A family of four gets:
1 loaf of bread
2 rice products
1 box of cereal
Only if available at the time: 1 milk, 1 dozen eggs, a handful of fresh vegetables, 1 frozen meat product
2 cans of fruit
3 cans of vegetables
2 cans of soup (which was restricted to one can when we were there because of a shortage)
1 can of tomatoes
2 cans of tuna
1 peanut butter
3 pasta products
1 pasta sauce
3 small miscellaneous items like a freezer bag of sugar or flour and snacks
And after Jessica and I saw this we thought, "well, that isn't so bad!" Until we were told to tell the clients that they were eligible to come back in 30 days! And when I remembered that my kids can eat a box of cereal in one day, my heart sank. How was that little amount of food supposed to last a full month?
After I found this out I may have put a few extra handfuls of potatoes in the cart. Just don't tell Janet because I will probably get fired. Or whatever they do to dismiss volunteers. Most likely get relegated to sweeping bathrooms!
The majority of clients were not what you'd expect. They looked like my friends, my neighbors. Except some of them had surgeries that made them unable to work and were therefore unable to eat. Some were disabled, some were veterans. Some of them lost everything they've ever had due to the economy. In essence, they were me in an alternate universe.
I tried to treat them just as I would want to be treated if I were in their shoes. Like I was happy to see them, wanted to help them and would try my best to get to know them as people, not a client number.
Most of them were friendly; happy even. They were grateful for the slim pickings and I was humbled by that. Because there are so many times when I lament what I don't have. But now I'm surrounded by people who are trying to figure out how to stretch a box of cereal over the course of a month; people who are not eating because they want to feed their children; people who are deciding whether to buy their heart medication or a day's worth of food.
The putting myself in the position of volunteering is an important one not only for the work but for the fact that it keeps me in check, a constant reminder of both my blessings and the incredible responsibility to give back and share what I've been given. Because if everyone of us who has a lot, stopped being selfish and made a small sacrifice to give up something unnecessary in our lives, whether it's time or money, there would be a whole lot less hungry people in our country.
"But they are probably lazy, welfare people who just mooch off of the government and don't try to make their lives better!" Have you ever heard that before? Chances are, that person has never worked in line at a food pantry because otherwise they would know the truth: that usually isn't the case! Does it happen, sure. But that isn't an excuse to turn our backs on the problem entirely.
Here's the thing. It's easy to avoid responsibility when the poor and hungry are out of sight and out of mind. It's also easy to blame them for their problems. But when you put yourself in a position where you must face it head on, look it in the eyes and explain that there isn't an extra can of soup this month, it somehow becomes personal and all the excuses somehow fall away.
Lets put aside the issue of homelessness for a moment, the issue of having warm clothes or a clean place to sleep and focus just on the food. We live in a country of great wealth, a country that screams it's greatness from the rooftops. We are "proud to be an American!" We think we're great because we live in a land of opportunity, where every person has rights and freedoms. We pride ourselves in being good and democratic. Except for when it comes to the poor. A country who has 46.2 million people who live below the poverty line and one in four children that are hungry doesn't sound like something to be proud about!
We're not talking about a third world country. We're talking about OUR country. One in four of OUR kids is hungry! Are we seriously going to focus our energy on education and health care when our kids are starving? Yes, those things are important but our children will never be healthy and never be able to learn if they have no food.
We Americans, we see images of African children lined up with food bowls and our hearts ache to do something, yet we drive by our food pantries everyday without making any effort to help. The kids may look different but our kids are lined up exactly the same way, waiting for food.
Are we really a country of greatness? A country that pools together and helps one another get through the hard times? Then why aren't more of us working to help the poor?
For me, going to the food pantry makes hunger MY problem. I can't un-ring the bell. Which is why I think the volunteers are so committed. They know the enormity of the problem. They know that without their generous time and efforts, people would literally starve.
After we left the food pantry, Jessica stopped by Stop N Shop to pick up some balloons for the school picnic and when I walked in and saw piles upon piles of food, my stomach turned and I thought I was going to be sick. Because shoppers were going about their business, picking up whatever it is they needed and completely out of their minds was the fact that not but a few streets down, hidden under the bridge, hundreds of families will have a completely different shopping experience.
I wanted to scream: "If you all just bought an extra $10 of food every time you come here, children would not go hungry in your town!"
What can you do? First, stop thinking it's not your problem. It is! Do something about it. Make a commitment to your local food bank, volunteer, encourage others to do the same, rally your church, club or organization to have a food drive. Most importantly, take some time, just an hour and go to your local food bank. See for yourself the reality of the need and let your heart lead you from there.
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