Please Sir, I Want Some More

Some half dozen years ago I spent the better part of a day volunteering at a local soup kitchen/food pantry on the weekend before Thanksgiving.  There’s something about the holiday season that heightens my desire to care for strangers and this was a perfect opportunity for a busy single mom of 2.  A friend who admired my initiative but didn’t share the same commitment was happy to take my daughters for the afternoon so I donned my work clothes – jeans and a sweatshirt – and a feeling of benevolence, and headed off to dole out charity.

The first hour or so was spent sorting food that had been donated – mostly canned goods, bags of pasta and rice, but also loaves of day old bread, and produce; heads of wilted lettuce and limp bundles of carrots.  There were dented cans, food that was past the expiration date, and foods clearly given more as a means of cleaning out the pantry than to provide a meal for the hungry.  Cans of sauerkraut, pearl onions, gravy, and surprisingly (given that Thanksgiving was still to come) cranberry sauce.  The only meat I saw that wasn’t in a can of soup, was a can of Spam.

As we packed the food into paper grocery bags, a more experienced worker gave us tips.  “Put the generic veggie cans and odd stuff on the bottom,” she said, “then rice, bread or pasta and produce.  Try to top it off with something appealing if you can – like this.”  She handed me a box of Frosted Flakes cereal.  Naturally there was no dairy, nothing that needed to be refrigerated or frozen.

Once the bags were filled we were directed to the kitchen to help prepare the ‘Thanksgiving’ Meal.  This was a lot closer to the meal I would be having the following week – it was ham instead of turkey, but the other fixings were much the same.  Mashed potatoes, peas, dinner rolls, salad, and pumpkin or apple pie for desert.  We peeled mountains of potatoes, chopped lettuce, opened industrial-sized cans of peas and heated rolls.  It was an assembly line effort and we were hurried along by bustling workers who warned us of the growing lines forming outside the doors.

Eventually the food was ready, tables were set and the doors were opened.  The people filed through and lined up cafeteria style to receive a plate filled with a hot meal.  There were older homeless men who shuffled through silently, maintaining a tight grip on their soiled backpacks.  There were migrant workers, darkly tanned and hardened by hours standing and bending and lifting in the sun.  There were families – not so many (this was before the recession) but a few.  Children so eager, eyes alight, tummies rumbling, reaching for their plates.  Parents with downcast gazes, hurrying the children through the line, hating the need to be there at all, mumbling their thanks.

We dished out over 100 meals that afternoon, and gave each adult one of the grocery sacks packed with food that we wouldn’t take home and serve to our own families because it wasn’t our brand, or was too old or unpalatable in other ways.  We were brightly cheery in the presence of the needy, proud that we had taken the time to come and serve them.  We accepted their gratitude as our due and frowned at the child who had a tantrum and refused to eat her peas, instead shoving her entire plate to the floor.  We murmured among ourselves, wondering what led people to make a life on the street instead of getting a job and living a ‘normal’ life.  Drug use?  Lack of education?  Lack of drive?  We couldn’t imagine it.

Yesterday I stood in line at the biweekly food pantry at a local church.  Ahead of me were other single adults, an elderly lady white-haired and hunched over, a man who limped along with the aid of a cane, and a woman about my age, nicely dressed in a colorful skirt and blouse.  Behind me a young mother tried to keep her toddler son entertained as the line edged slowly forward.  Most of us moved forward silently, keeping eye contact and conversation to a minimum. At the head of the line was a small card table, manned by several nicely dressed and groomed middle-aged volunteers.

They politely asked each person their circumstance and the number and ages of the people in their household before handing out a little green ticket that afforded one entrance into the part of the parking lot that housed the food.  Tables laden with sacks of paper grocery bags, bins filled with local produced rejected by the stores, and another table stacked with loaves of bread.  I handed over my green ticket and took the grocery sack I was offered.  A box of Frosted Flakes peeked over the edge, resting on a head of limp lettuce.  I declined the offer of extra cabbage and carried my bag to the car where I pushed aside the cereal and produce and reaching in, pulled out one of the cans.  Cranberry sauce.

I took the bag home, put away the food and made two tuna fish sandwiches.  These I took to the homeless man who was squatting outside in the bushes, leaning against the wall that surrounds our mobile home park.  I put the cranberry sauce aside for the next food drive at the kids’ school.

This entry was posted in compassion, Food, Hunger, poverty, recession, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

37 Responses to Please Sir, I Want Some More

  1. BB says:

    boxcarkids wrote, “Yes, studies have shown that on the average poor people tend to be more charitable than rich ones.” But we weren’t talking about rich people. We were talking about the middle class, weren’t we? On second thought, maybe we were actually talking about people who used to be middle class and now who are somewhere between middle class and living paycheck to paycheck because I’m not sure there’s much of a middle class left in this country right now.

    One thing that I think needs to be mentioned is that we’ve only been discussing food pantries, i.e., places that distribute food donated by individuals (typically). We haven’t discussed food banks and other programs that perhaps make a larger variety of foods available and perhaps better quality.

    • wondering says:

      Nearly 50% of Americans are living in poverty or are low income, according to the US census. So, no, there isn’t much of a middle class anymore.

      U.S. Poverty: Census Finds Nearly Half Of Americans Are Poor Or Low-Income

      Giving cranberry sauce to the food bank just means that not much thought went into the donation. Most food banks have lists of most desired donations (the number one item is ALWAYS money, because the food bank can get $3 worth of goods for every $1 donated) and I assure you that cranberry sauce is never one of those items. Oh sure, people should be grateful, blah, blah, blah, but it’s like being given a lovely bracelet that doesn’t fit your wrist and doesn’t suit you anyway when what you needed was a new pair of shoes.

      • wondering says:

        Whoops, hit the wrong reply button.

      • Barbara says:

        I donate cranberry sauce around Thanksgiving with deliberate thought. To me it is a delicious addition to a meal and something my family only has a couple times a year. I also take great care in selecting the quality of the items that do into my donation. Using this logic I should just give them the damn dollar and go away. Add me to the donor burnout list.

      • boxcarkids says:

        Last comment on this post – cranberry sauce is a symbol you can replace it with any sort of food that would be the food you would least like to see if you were hungry and had 4 kids to feed. The (clearly poorly articulated) goal of this post was NOT to bash cranberries but to get people to put themselves in the shoes of the poor.

  2. Brandon says:

    I get the metaphor, but I have to jump on the “I love cranberry sauce year round” bandwagon. That said, I probably only eat it a couple times outside the holiday season because my wife doesn’t feel the same way and it can be kind of expensive when it is not on sale (and to my knowledge it never is outside of Nov-Dec).

  3. cs says:

    my husband and I love a good estate sale and flea market but we learned years ago the church yard sales and auctions are where people clean out what they don’t want to put in the garbage for the neighbors to see – sorry call it like I have seen it.

  4. Barbara says:

    Oy, if that can of cranberries could talk…

  5. johnny r says:

    Well…like the ole saying goes
    “Beggers can’t be choosers.”

    If you want something else to eat besides cranberries for dinner, I would suggest hitting up the corporations because they are the only ones left with all the money.
    ‘Cause it sure ain’t the middle class any more.
    Hmmm….”donor fatigue”…not familiar with this term, but it makes perfect sense.
    Naw…don’t keep pestering or guilt-tripping the middle class – as they are too busy trying to feed their own families these days.

    Sorry bums…take a number.

    • Kelly says:

      Wow, Johnny. You’ve never been that broke, have you?

      And FYI, middle class and even poverty level people are often the most generous when they can be. Why? Because they get it.

      • boxcarkids says:

        Yes, studies have shown that on the average poor people tend to be more charitable than rich ones. See for instance:
        and

  6. BB says:

    boxcarkids, to your point made in response to my comment, I agree that donor fatigue is a problem. For me, this is due not just to the duration of the recession, but that I’m now asked (expected it seems) to provide enough for people’s ENTIRE meals or Christmas celebrations (e.g., my food pantry’s instruction to spend $170 for a family’s Christmas), not just supplement them. My local food pantry now distributes new Halloween costumes, school supplies, Valentines, and other items. I am very, very sympathic to children’s needs, but my kids have never had an expensive Halloween costume, they return to school in Sept. with the same scissors and glue sticks they brought home in May, and I buy Valentines on clearance and hold them until the following year. In my school district 50% of families are on free or reduced (greatly reduced) meals and I do not live in a high-poverty area. 180 days each year, two out of three meals each day are covered (more for kids who receive summer meals). Yet I hear we’re not doing enough to help. And then I’m conflicted when I feel like I’m feeling because contrary to your statement, “When it becomes a burden it’s not true giving,” my church teaches that it is EXACTLY when it becomes a burden that it is true giving — giving that doesn’t make you sacrifice in your own life means little. I try to live by that belief but rarely succeed.

    • SMS says:

      I’m seeing the same thing here with the expensive gift requests that I wouldn’t buy for my family. I didn’t do angel tree this year because of that. I took my money to web sites like this and used the Amazon wish list. I feel like I know you a bit VS totally anonymous. I chose a need more than a want. (Santa brought me a flour sifter and a heavy duty whisk and kitchen towels at my request.) I’m just a practical sort of person.
      When I donate to can food drives, I don’t give anything I wouldn’t eat and always check the dates. Usually it is spaghetti sauce with meat in it and pasta. This started when I was explaining to my first son that his favorite meal might be someone elses too and what should we donate. when son #2 came along we added peanut butter and cereal. Our local St. Vincent’s and Salvation Army always put peanut butter in baskets especially with children. Can you think of something you wish you would find in the baskets? Maybe everyone donates to much of the same food? I shop the sales and only buy generics I like so the cost difference likely is similar. We can’t do fresh foods here. They use $$$ donations for that.

      • Lynn says:

        Had the same experience as SMS a couple years ago with the gift requests tree. I wanted to get something for a child’s Christmas but the requests on the tree were all for things my own children didn’t have, like iPods and gaming systems. Re people donating less preferred foods, our food bank says they would prefer people donate money, as they can buy three times as much food, and get what is needed most, due to special arrangements they have with vendors and their status as a nonprofit. That makes more sense, to me, than going out and buying mac and cheese or peanut butter to donate it. I believe they have the food available on shelves for recipients to choose what they will use, also. I know they do that with Christmas gifts.

  7. docdave says:

    My wife grew up in a serially-evicted-or-displaced family back east. She got a lot of those charitable food bags for herself, her mother and her sister, ate a lot of stale bread and gently aged produce. So, she is always thankful for fresh veg, and refuses to dump our lingering cans and boxes into food drives. For these, we buy new, and usually the brand-name items if we have the money.

    This may seem silly or trivial, but it isn’t to her; the memory of the taste of institutional charity doesn’t fade.

  8. Rosa says:

    When we used to serve homeless people, we mostly were just giving out soup & hot drinks to folks who were outside all day (especially in the line to get into the overflow shelter on really cold days.) And even then, before the recession, there were lots of families with kids, with one or both parents working.

    The homeless guys used to give me tips on how I could get a job – they assumed I didn’t have one, since I was out with them during “working hours” or waiting for the bus late at night, after my my second-shift job. It kind of rankled – dude, I *got* a job, leave me be – but it also meant they liked me and didn’t think of me as one of the Charity Ladies, if that makes sense.

    But that attitude, that people should be grateful for whatever they get and the people pretending to serve them deserve a lot of praise, was there on both sides. It’s a barrier to really giving people what they need to thrive, but anyone who gives it up loses a lot of the insufficient help that is available. I hope this recession is teaching comfortable people to be a little less comfortable and offer a little more solidarity.

  9. Great article. I’ll remember this when packing food for our local food bank. I hope you find a good job soon. Praying for you and your family.
    Blessings…

  10. Count me in with the rest who really enjoy cranberry sauce. :) When I donate food, I buy things that I also enjoy. That include things like cranberry sauce, canned peas (my favorite), Skippy peanut butter, and canned fish. Most of us don’t donate food to be insulting… let’s face it, if we had it in our homes to begin with it must be something that we enjoy. By the way, off topic, but you are a good writer.

  11. Rachel says:

    I hope that everyone posting on the cranberry sauce factor isn’t missing the bigger point of your very well-written and moving post.

    I went grocery shopping yesterday with this still percolating in the back of my mind and I made sure to purchase one of the bags of food pre-packed for the food bank. I also stock up when I have great coupons to match a sale and get canned veggies, black beans, and soup and save them for the next food drive. Now I just need to stop waiting for the next drive and start making trips to my local food bank.

    • boxcarkids says:

      Thanks Rachel. It might help folks if they think of the cranberry sauce as a metaphor rather than an actual can of cranberry sauce (or pearl onions, water chestnuts, expired lunch meat, whatever). I feel I haven’t done a very good job if I have to explain the points I’m trying to make but this was about my change in perspective as I (quite literally) walked a mile in the shoes of the people on the other side of the line. It wasn’t to make people feel unappreciated and if it makes some more intentional in their giving that’s all to the good. And I do appreciate the recipe/menu ideas :-)

      • BB says:

        Nope, your cranberry sauce as metaphor wasn’t missed.

        I’m interested to know how much more intentional you think people should be in what they decide to give to food pantries. In other words, what are examples of food you would like to be given that are practical for the food pantry set-up?

        Donating to families in need is becoming more and more difficult. I try to not feel cynical or manipulated. The Angel Giving Tree at my church has taken on a new look in the past two years. Gone are the gift tags listing a reasonable (IMHO) gift someone would like to have that I can shop for with my children to help teach them the concept of giving. Now it’s mostly requests for cash ($50 many ask; yup, just go buy a Visa gift card and throw it in an envelope and we’ll call it good) or big ticket items — bicycles, the latest $120 pair of tennis shoes, an iPod, etc. Things I can’t afford for my kids or for myself. The Adopt-a-Family for Christmas drive at my local food pantry has priced me out of its event. Expect to spend at least $170, they instruct me. Hmmm…I think to myself. Guess these folks aren’t interested in the little bit of help I have to offer.

        What happens when the givers grow weary?

      • boxcarkids says:

        Donor fatigue is very real, and I think caring people (especially any who have given in the past judging from all the begging letters, phone calls and emails I received around Christmas) are being asked more often to give even more. At some point you begin to feel harrassed and annoyed, taken advantage of and put upon. Then I think you stop seeing the person at the end of your charity as an individual – it feels as though there is a big greedy machine hovering with outstretched hand. If you’ve read my blog for awhile you know that even in our state we continue to try and help those less fortunate. Even so I sometime just want to drive past Target or out of the grocery store parking lot without seeing another homeless person with an “Anything Helps” sign. I feel that way more often when I’m stretched and down to my last dollar and since so many families are making due with less it’s hard to feel you have anything left for the needy. When it becomes a burden it’s not true giving. I think it’s good if people can find a cause that speaks to them, and if possible connect personally with the recipients of their charity. Personally we had a very special relationship with our homeless friends Trisha and Ben (more about Ben in a future post) and so we never felt put upon when helping them.

        As far as food drives I think just giving decent, relatively fresh, staples is great. But truly I think both of the food pantry examples that I’m familiar with would do better to let people ‘shop’ the goods instead of providing prepacked bags/boxes. True you might not get rid of all the donations but people would be able to select foods they have the ability to cook and that they know their families would eat. Not everyone has the same cooking facilities or skills (in our old trailer we didn’t have a working oven for instance), cultural tastes or food allergies, and some might lack storage space or refrigeration. When we get a prepacked box or sack of groceries we end up with things we don’t need or want. We pass it on – to neighbors or the homeless so it doesn’t go to waste but it would be easier to just be able to go into the food pantry and get a bag of rice if that’s what we need.

      • Jynet says:

        I agree with the “shop” idea to a certain extent.

        I get a set delivery of food every week in the summer from a farmer I support (CSA). The trick was that in the beginning 1/2 the time I had NO idea what the things are, or what to do with them! Now that is down to about 1/4 of the time, lol, but he keeps growing new things and I have to figure out what I can cook with them, and how to store them (since a share is more than my daughter and I can eat per week I ‘put up’ the rest for the winter. We are still eating last year’s harvest).

        But the point is that I know everything that comes from him is nutritious, and deserves to be eaten – it CAN feed my family… if I can only figure out how to cook/prepare it.

        Learning what to do with the food that IS available is a valuable skill that will help keep food costs low even after the families are off assistance.

  12. Lynn says:

    We buy a can of cranberry sauce every time I serve fried chicken (that Albertson’s Monday meal deal). It’s good on turkey or chicken sandwiches, too. So maybe the giver didn’t intend to be insulting. No, I would not eat chicken 3 weeks past “use by” date. I got food poisoning once, undercooked chicken at a retirement banquet, and would definitely miss a meal (even several days’ worth of meals) rather than risk that again.

  13. BB says:

    We eat cranberry sauce year round. So what if someone had it left from the holidays. It’s a nice change of pace and when it’s not on sale for the holidays, it’s expensive for a can of food. Put your frugal hat on and Google different ways to use it. Here are 3 ideas that are among my favorites: 1) a caterer I once used for a meeting served ham sandwiches with cranberry sauce (can’t remember if there was mayo too or not); delicious! 2) I make a cherry jello salad that has cranberry sauce in it and Cool Whip — your kids will love it; add one chopped up apple and some diced celery if you have it and it’s even better; 3) there are some really good crock pot recipes for pork chops cooked with cranberry sauce (any cheap cut of pork will work). Why wouldn’t you take the cabbage and use it for stir-fry or cole slaw? Might there be out-of-date things sometimes? Yes, it happens. Might some people give stale candy or other useless stuff? Yup, it happens. But are there other people, like me, who give thought to what they give to food drives and pantries. I’m a single mom with two kids. We gave to a bunch of food drives, Salvation Army kettles, and Christmas gift drives in November and December. I spent a lot of my very hard earned money hoping to bring some relief to others. Maybe I didn’t donate exactly what they wanted or expected. I dunno. Maybe I should just stop giving.

  14. Barb says:

    You can take out the cranberry sauce you want and then put the rest into small containers and freeze. Take it out when you want it. Regarding expiration dates. I feel, and this has been confirmed by someone I know in the food business, that it’s just a way to move more product. Now you have to use common sense. If that meat was frozen by the date, it will be fine for aabout a year in the freezer. If it’s dry product, like cereal, it’s good for 9-12 months beyond if not opened and stored in a dry place. I buy yogurt that is past date at the salvage store and that’s good for a month beyond the date provided it’s been refrigerated. Produce you just have to look at it. I get salad mixes a couple of days past and as long as they are unopened, they are fine. Once they are opened, they need to be used within a couple of days. Again, you can tell by looking at it. They say milk is good for a week past if it’s been refrigerated all along. So overall I don’t get too excited about dates unless something is very perishable. Use your eyes and nose as a guide.

  15. Amy says:

    You’re a natural writer, with an amazing capacity for finding the right words. This was very moving. Thank you for sharing it.

  16. Jeannette says:

    What is it about cranberry sauce indeed, I collect food for our local food pantry in our office throughout the year, cranberry sauce makes its way into the collection many times, while I understand giving is giving, really cranberry sauce, its a condiment, used to enhance, or give some flavor to a meal. Its not a staple- that being said, it amazes me how many items are given to without any thought, the mindset is well that person is poor and should just be thankful for whatever I throw in there. Never would I expect someone down on their luck to enjoy a expired food product. Nor would I expect myself to be geniune giving expired, leftover, or half opened products. Yet it is done over and over. One year I got a bag of Halloween candy, not a nice bag of candy but all the junk candy the giver didn’t want their children to have.
    I love your posts, they hopefuly give someone something to think about other than themselves

    • boxcarkids says:

      Thanks. Speaking of expiration dates on food – we were given some lunch meat (chicken) yesterday. It says “use or freeze by January 5, 1012″ – would you think it is safe to eat? Unopened but 3 weeks past the use by date.

      • V's Herbie says:

        three weeks? maybe… but plan to eat it all the day you open it.

        Feel it first, if it’s slimy then don’t eat it.

        If it looks and smells ok but you are at all unsure, you can use it in a cooked dish. A casserole, or pan fry it and mix with pasta or eggs…that kind of thing.

  17. bogart says:

    Thanks (again) for writing about these experiences and issues. So important, and your writing is very compelling.

    You might enjoy (and indeed, may want to contribute to) the series being organized by Dresden (single mom by choice to one, now pursuing having another) about the experiences of being on public assistance. Her blog is creatingmotherhood.com .

  18. Sandra J says:

    Somewhere in my head there is a comment for your post – but my heart made me speechless. God bless you and your family…

  19. dd says:

    What’s wrong with cranberry sauce? I buy it. I eat it. I like it. I don’t know why people think it’s only for holidays. It’s not like a can of water chestnuts, for pete’s sake!

    • boxcarkids says:

      LOL! I do enjoy it with turkey but the kids don’t care for it and I’m not sure I could get through a can all by myself. Now water chestnuts we could put in stir fry!

      • Em says:

        Your post is really good. And a needed reminder to us when we are on the giving side of things. I think I’ll call the food bank next time and ASK what they need first. I know during the holiday’s they were begging for peanut butter and tuna fish.
        As for the lunch meat. It’s probably okay. If the color is normal, it smells okay and isn’t slimy, I would eat it. If you want to be extra safe pop it in the microwave until it steams and then I think it tastes best to make a grilled turkey sandwich with it.
        For the cranberry sauce, I use it to make a nice cranberry pork roast in the crock pot. Google that and you’ll find some good receipes out there with only a couple ingredients. My family likes it with a box of wild rice and green beans.
        Hang in there and keep posting (your doing a good service with your writing). This too shall pass. Our thoughts and prayers are with you.

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