What I learned (and am still learning) from time spent at the food bank ….

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After the sweet, sunny chaos of summer, fall signals the return of many things. School. Regular schedules. Healthy eating and fitness routines. People being around instead of away. Much-loved sweaters, scarves and boots. And, for me this year, volunteering at our local food bank. I volunteered there last fall, winter and spring, taking a break for summer because my children are with me on my days off when school’s out – and because we’re hardly home for more than four days in a row in July and August anyway. Though I love summer, I found myself missing my Friday food bank shifts and looking forward to getting back into them. Not only did I make a few friends there, I also learned some things:

Hunger has many faces. When people think of the food bank, maybe they think of weary single mothers or the elderly. The truth is that the people who rely on the food bank are as varied as the rest of the community. Sure, we see plenty of single mothers, but we see single fathers, too. There are also traditional families who are food-insecure, as well as couples with no children. The elderly are well-represented, but so are the young and strong. My heart is particularly squeezed by the single men. Many of them shuffle from foot to foot and look at the floor alot, and I suspect it’s because they think they have no right to be there – they don’t fit the stereotype of a food bank client, and they fear that they are being judged. You don’t have to spend much time at the food bank before you realize that there is only one thing you can predict about anybody in the queue: that they need help.

Poor people have food issues and preferences, too. When you talk about the food bank, and poverty in general, there is the assumption that hungry people will take anything they can get – and the majority of them will. However, as I’ve already said, there is as much variety among food bank clients as there is among the general population. Intolerances, allergies, diabetes. There’s one regular who asks to read the labels of everything so he can choose the items with the lowest sugar content. Many parents will only take baby foods their little one is used to, partly because it’s easier to feed the baby familiar things – and partly because they don’t want any of the food they take to be wasted. Some children have sensory processing issues, and their parents advocate for them by asking about the texture of this food or that. Many of our clients want halal meat, and to make sure there’s no pork in any of the items we’ve given them. Sometimes, it’s a simple matter of liking one food more than another – or turning down packages that have been opened, or warped cans. When this happens, there’s almost always someone muttering about how they should just take what they can get and be glad they’ve got it. This is true – and they know that. But if they can get something they prefer, or something that serves their needs a little better than other things, why not ask for it? I would, and I’ll bet you would, too.

Having things doesn’t mean you don’t have needs. “Oh, yeah, they go to the food bank – but go to their house and look at their big-screen TV.” “If she needs food so badly, why doesn’t she sell her jewellery and buy some?” “He can’t afford food, but he can afford a cell phone, of course.” I don’t know how many times I’ve heard things like this, and watched as the speaker mentally patted him or herself on the back for figuring it all out, then sank back into their comfortable, monochrome existence. Know what? These trappings don’t mean a thing. Life is unpredictable, and can play rough. People who are able to buy themselves a comfortable life one year can fall on hard times the next. Expensive items can be acquired at Value Village, St. Vincent de Paul, and the Sally Ann for a fraction of their value. And some things are worth more than money. You feel better about giving someone a few cans of tuna and soup if they’ve already pawned their grandmother’s diamond bracelet, and they’ve dropped out of society by surrendering their electronics – you feel that makes them more worthy of charity? Here’s hoping that you are not at the mercy of “help” like yourself if you ever need anything.

There, but for the grace of God, goes you. There are alot of people who believe that people who need handouts are somehow inferior. They’re not as smart as the segment of the population that can pay their bills without assistance They squander their resources. They should have organized their lives better. As I said before, though, life can kick your ass in any number of ways, from any number of directions. Some people live paycheque-to-paycheque, and don’t have sick days or severance. They are one bad bout of pneumonia or one pissy boss away from hard times. Some people become disabled and can no longer support their family or even themselves. Some people have a stable situation until the breadwinner dies – and then they need help.  Sure, some people end up being food bank clients because they’ve made stupid decisions. They’ve smoked, drank or gambled away all their money – or they never bothered to try making money in the first place. Here’s the thing, though: their reason for being at the food bank doesn’t diminish their need. What kind of society would condemn people to starvation for having made financial mistakes or bad calls? Not one I’d want to be a part of.

If you’re volunteering at the food bank for a warm-fuzzy, you might be disappointed. Some days, there’s lots of everything, and all the clients are happy with what I’ve given them – and I feel good when I leave. Some days, though …. not so much. One day, an eight-months-pregnant woman came in, toddler in tow. She said that she usually tries to avoid coming to the food bank because it’s tough for her to get there, but that she and her son had literally run out of food. She had dragged her weary near-due self, her two-year-old and a trolley on two buses. She was about to take the same two buses back, this time with the same now-grizzling boy and a full trolley. On top of all this, it was thirty below. I drove her home. Then, I cried all the way back to my own house. I havn’t seen her since. Another day, we ran out of damn near everything. Diapers, milk, cereal, bread, ground beef, spaghetti. Even tuna. Yes, that’s right – the food bank ran out of canned tuna. Every week some old dear asks hopefully if there’s any jam to go with the bread. There’s never any jam, ever. And not everyone is grateful – or even nice. Some people are fighting mighty battles in their head or their heart, and it takes everything they’ve got to keep existing – never mind manners or other people’s feelings. Some people are beaten down by their problems, and feeling sorry for themselves. Some people are just plain angry that they have to come to the food bank, stand in a long line and bring home a load of stuff other people didn’t want – or maybe they’re just having a bad day. I can’t say for certain that I’d accept their circumstances with grace at all times, if I were them – so I don’t judge them. On the low days, I have to remind myself that I’m doing something, and that’s better than doing nothing.

I love it. I enjoy the camaraderie with the other volunteers. I love chatting with the regulars and getting to know them. I love filling empty bags with food for people who might not otherwise have anything to eat. I like the bin of treats where I can choose a few goodies to dole out – little surprises, like a tin of salted cashews or a handful of candy or some packets of hot chocolate mix. It gives me a thrill when I finally get a smile out of someone who’s been responding to my warm greeting with a curt nod week after week. This happened the last time I was there, and it made my day. I may be handing them a few days’ worth of groceries, but what they’re giving me is something that will last a lifetime.

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2 thoughts on “What I learned (and am still learning) from time spent at the food bank ….

  1. Pingback: Something’s gotta give …. why not let it? | BethBlog

  2. Pingback: My inspiration: old hamsters and lame goldfish. | BethBlog

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