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.