I began my life changing journey fighting hunger on a cool autumn Thursday in Woodstock, New York in 2005 where I volunteered for the first time at the local food pantry.
I was assigned a shift with Marie Duane. I drove over to the Woodstock Reformed Church, parked my car behind the buildling and cautiously walked in. I had never been to the pantry before.
I entered the empty hallway and found the pantry on the right. I walked into the room and there it was: a small space, actually, about 12′ by 16′. Each wall supported a set of metal shelving units. Each unit stood about 6′ high and 3′ deep with 4 shelves. Most of the shelves were empty. A few shelves had some food:
There was a little handwritten note in front of each display:
person: 1 item, family: 1 item.
There may have been other items on shelves but I don’t remember them.
A small table stood in the center of the room. A metal folding chair was placed in front of each window.
We sat in the chairs, Marie and I, and chatted as people trickled in. We discussed the usual: weather, gardening, knitting, decorating the alter at St. Gregory’s Episcopal Church.
“Hi. How are you? Will you please sign your name here?” Each shopper signed in and noted the number of adults, seniors, and children in the household. After signing in, the person walked around the room selecting from the cereal, peanut butter, tuna, and soup. The selected food was placed on the table and bagged to take home, wherever or whatever that was.
On this morning, not blessed with any psychic knowledge, I was totally unaware of experiences waiting for me in the pantry. Never in my wildest thoughts did I envision the hall filled with hungry people, the tiny room packed with fresh produce and jammed with shoppers.
Nor did I for 1 moment ponder the push back I would experience as the number of hungry seeking food grew. Within a few short years, this 2 dozen single homeless men – mostly Woodstock’s colorful characters – had swelled (due to a tanking economy) to over 300 people weekly. This number finally approached 500 people weekly before it was all over.
Now, in the autumn of 2015, our stock market experiences numerous “corrections”. I realize I learned some things over the years which, for me, are ground truths about the pantry.
Feeding the hungry with dignity is the most important thing.
Single homeless men are now far outnumbered by members of the Struggling Class, households of working people holding down 2 and 3 jobs just to pay the rent and buy the gas to get to work.
The 3 most hot button words in the English language are food, sex, and money. These 3 words are concerned with a person’s core beliefs, emotions, and spiritual attitudes. Food and money, or the lack thereof, loom large in pantries.
The sidewalks in our communities and cities have become wards of untreated mentally ill people. In our great nation we don’t hospitalize or otherwise treat many of our mentally ill. Instead, they they are incarcerated.
Some of these untreated mentally ill happen to be homeless. Homeless is not a category of people. It’s just a situation that happens. It can happen to anyone.
The 50+ senior population has many who lack enough $$$ for food and are largely a silent group. The bottom line is this: When our grandparents don’t get enough to eat, they often get sick.
I’m seeing a whole generation of children who have never been inside a grocery store.
Shoppers at our pantry can get a 3-day supply of food weekly. Their job is to make it last 7 days. Many share this food with a pet. Often, the only thing a person has left from a prosperous past is the dog.
The most difficult thing I see in the pantry is a Korean War vet getting food. Something I just can’t understand is how a person who served in a very brutal war, and subsequently spent an adult life working and paying taxes should have to be in a food pantry line in his old age.
Much of the food available to the hungry in food pantries is diverted from its trip to the landfill.
There is absolutely no excuse for anyone in our great nation to go hungry.
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Janet Poppendieck wrote a book entitled “Sweet Charity” about hunger in America. I found a quote of hers on the internet which inspired this post.
There’s all this food out there. Most people who know about hunger agree that there’s enough food for everyone. If we can stop the push back on this concept, and just feed the people, our lives (everyone’s lives in the whole country) will be very different. Imagine a world without hungry children and grandmothers.
Just for a moment, let’s think of all the ways we can benefit our many people and institutions by using this food.
For starters, think of pantries, soup kitchens, shelters, halfway houses as our tax dollars at work. Much of the emergency food effort is manned by volunteers diverting food headed for the landfill. For my $$$, this recycling effort works primarily to keep people from starving in the streets.
Now, consider the United States Department of Agriculture. As our country accumulates agricultural surpluses, instead of being embarrassed by the food, life will be better when the USDA proudly distributes the surplus to those in need. After all, surplus food is an uptown problem. It’s almost impossible to produce only exactly what we need. Farms just don’t work that way. Weather doesn’t always cooperate. Droughts don’t come by request. Floods have minds of their own. It’s better to produce too much than too little.
Businesses can and should ship excess food to pantries, soup kitchens, shelters, halfway houses. This is a responsible way to dispose of unwanted excess food products. When businesses donate to food banks, they avoid excessive dump fees and accrue tax savings. They reduce dumpster diving.
Universities, hospitals, caterers, restaurants, bakers, schools, can use the food banks to absorb leftovers. In metropolitan areas, the surplus food can go directly to soup kitchens, pantries. This is both a civic responsibility and community outreach.
Community colleges and Universities can recognize that there are impoverished students in their ranks. Pantries and soup kitchens on campus will make it easier for these students to stay in school.
Elementary, Middle, and High Schools will do well to recognize the poverty among the students and staff. Food pantries have a definite place in schools. Backpack programs belong in every school to ensure that students have enough food to eat over the weekends and holidays.
Churches, synagogues, and other religious institutions have opportunities to express concern for their fellow man as they include the poor at the table. Congregations refer to their feeding efforts as outreach. These necessary hunger prevention programs help feed people who otherwise would not have enough to eat and they give the congregations a local outlet for their charity and outreach programs.
Courts and penal institutions can use this concept by having people work service hours at pantries, soup kitchens, shelters, etc. to avoid or lessen incarceration.
Working at a pantry, soup kitchen or shelter provides service opportunities for people of all ages. The more people donate time, the less isolated these facilities become.
Diverting food from landfills offers communities an opportunity to improve our environment. Besides, why throw away good food?
Thank you for reading this blog.
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