I got up at seven this morning - a beautiful, bright October Saturday - and saddled up my scooter for a trip to the food pantry. I work at the food pantry a couple of times a year; I sign up to do it on a sign-up sheet that gets passed around at my church. The pantry is housed in the basement of the Methodist church in Hillsdale, New Jersey, which is across the street from my own little Episcopal church.
The scooter ride from my house to Hillsdale is about a half an hour. I try to stay off the main roads, as my scooter tops out at only about 45 miles an hour, and I don't want to get run over by one of the local maniacs in some kind of crazy hurry. There was mist rising off the reservoir, and yellow leaves swirled around me as I rode. I stopped at 7-11 for a cup of coffee on the way.
When I arrived at the Methodist church, the families in need of food were already lined up at the door, half an hour before the pantry opened. They come early because the selection of food and other items is better before it's been picked over. They come mostly on foot, with big metal carts to help them take home their haul, but there were a few teenagers with bicycles and one woman with a battered old car. The pedestrians are mostly women with young children, and the teenagers are always boys. I parked my scooter by the curb and said "good morning" to them as I walked past them into the church.
The first thing I did on arrival was sort the donations. All of the food and other pantry items are donated, and they come in big shopping bags or boxes. The other volunteers and I have to check them for expiration dates. Food that's expired has to be thrown out. Food that's still good goes onto the shelves, sorted by type. There's also a shelf for hygiene items (toothpaste, soap, feminine items, deodorant and shampoo) as well as basic household supplies, like laundry detergent and paper towels.
When everything was sorted and we were ready to go, they let the shoppers in. Each family filled out a form, indicating how many people were in their household and the ages of the children, if any. There was no income or identity check. The shoppers ticked off items on a list of things they might need, and the list was handed to a volunteer worker like me. I took it downstairs.
In the basement pantry, I took a shopping cart and filled it according to the needy family's shopping list. I went up and down the aisles of donated food, tossing cans of tuna, boxes of pasta, rolls of toilet paper, and tubes of toothpaste into the cart. One family had a six-month-old baby; I found some stage-2 baby food and zweiback teething crackers and put them into the cart. One family had a 13-year-old girl and asked for "sanitary napkins, please." I found them behind the toothpaste and tossed them into the cart. The family with twin seven-year-olds got a couple of boxes of Girl Scout cookies tossed into their order, along with the necessities.
When I was done with each order, I bagged it and carried it back upstairs, where the families waited. I gave the completed order form to the volunteer coordinator and handed the groceries to the family. The kids who were big enough to carry bags always helped their moms. People with smaller children hung their bags on the handles of their strollers. The teenaged boy on the bicycle tied his bags to his handlebars while he strapped on his helmet. I watched them go, and then I took another order and went back downstairs.
As I threw boxes of macaroni and cheese into a shopping cart, I thought about how long those boxes would last in my house (approximately ten minutes). I thought about how hard it is to be a thirteen-year-old girl even if you can afford all the sanitary supplies you need. For the Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret crowd, buying sanitary supplies is embarrassing enough in itself. Imagine having to ask for them, please, at the food pantry. Imagine not having enough money to buy toilet paper, or telling the kids to go easy on the Cheerios because there won't be more until next month.
Regardless of where you live, where you came from and under what circumstances, what your political leanings are, how well-educated you are, or what your beliefs are, you have to eat. All living human beings have basic needs that must be met somehow, and food pantries take care of a little bit of that. There are people who believe that poor people are lazy and don't deserve handouts; in this day and age, that's a popular philosophy. But I know better. That teenaged boy, up at the crack of dawn, riding his bike to the food pantry to get a month's supply of food for his family - he is the antithesis of lazy. You don't have to be lazy to be hungry.
On October 21, I am participating in a fundraising walk to combat hunger in my neighborhood and around the world. If you have had a full meal recently, if you bought a cup of coffee at a fancy café, if you refused a doggy bag or pushed the excess food away, if you bought the things your family needed at a grocery store and pocketed the crumpled receipt without looking at it - please consider donating to the cause. You can contribute in any amount by clicking the button on the right sidebar (with the picture of me in my purple shirt). As of this writing, I am nowhere near my fundraising goal, but I know you, my dear readers, can help me get closer.
Thank you. Have a wonderful weekend.