The Circle

I’ll risk sounding like another idiotic white liberal with the posting of this entry. Guilty as charged.  Last winter I began volunteering  at a food pantry in Trenton, NJ, after a friend invited me along to see if I’d like to join him when he volunteers each Thursday helping shoppers at the pantry. The organization that runs the pantry also runs housing and job support programs from the same location, as well as an urban vegetable garden a few doors down the street. Some of the people assisting at the food pantry are themselves part of a jobs program, others are volunteers. There’s also a very dedicated paid staff and a cast of characters who drive and unload the trucks that pull up to the curb, unloading the heavy skids of food cartons from the front to the back of the store where the freezers, walk-ins, and freight elevators are.

The pantry building is a busy place in the morning, with shoppers often lined up outside waiting for the doors to open when we get there at 8:45 a.m. in even the coldest of temperatures. Once we open, they must show identification and await their turns to be processed and receive cards identifying how many points they have to shop with in the food pantry. The number of points depends on family size. They wait for an available shopping cart and one of the volunteers to guide them through the store as they make selections, and once done, we pack the bags and help them outside if they need help.

There are times when the pantry is well stocked, and other times when the staff juggles mightily to keep enough on the shelves, especially enough frozen chicken and eggs. Sometimes there is frozen fish and fresh fruit and vegetables or donated bread from a local bakery. The number of shoppers increases when there are big holidays coming and as the month progresses and families’ money reserves get depleted. The pantry directors are constantly worrying about cuts in food donations, decreased budgets to purchase food, using up the fresh food on shelves before it goes bad, and keeping the shelves stocked in the face of rising numbers of patrons and increasing food insecurity in the very depressed capital city of New Jersey. I don’t say “worry” lightly, either. The hunger prevention coordinator loses sleep over the food supply and comes in on days off and weekends to deal with all sorts of problems with refrigerators and elevators. The pantry is not far from the gold-domed State House and the courts, where thousands of people work in state offices each day, and where funding decisions for food insecurity are being made.

The volunteers are a varied group. Some are retired or empty-nesters, but one is a graduate student, another has a son in middle school. We come from all over the county in which the pantry is located and are occasionally joined by groups of volunteers from a Quaker school or local businesses.

It’s hard to explain what I’ve learned in my months at the pantry. It may sound trite to ask and answer the question, “What does food insecurity look like?” that is, just “who” are our shoppers, because food insecurity affects so many people who didn’t expect to need help. Shoppers sometimes tell us a little about themselves. Last week one of the shoppers was a former Atlantic City police officer. There are veterans of the war in Iraq, veterans of the Vietnam war, many elderly people, and people who worked steadily for decades in businesses in the area but found themselves jobless, overnight in some cases, in their late 50s and early 60s–cut adrift a few years from retirement and now unable to find work. Some shoppers are missing limbs; others have hardly any teeth and must choose only the softest foods to eat. (I’m controlling myself here and saving a tirade about dentistry for another blog post.)  Some are now caring for grandchildren. Some folks come in a group van because they are autistic or have emotional problems. Quite a few shoppers have chronic health conditions, which they tell us about by way of explanation for why they don’t want any pasta or rice or even slightly sweetened Corn Flakes. Some come in wheelchairs or use walkers. There are some people who clearly have problems with drugs and alcohol, though it isn’t always immediately obvious. There are a few people who are demanding, but they are in the minority. Most shoppers are grateful for the food, and some are apologetic that they need to use a pantry at all. They may share their history because it matters to them to have you know they haven’t always needed assistance. Others just share their history because they badly need to talk to someone. Shoppers come alone, or with their kids and grandkids; they come on bikes, on foot, by bus, in cars. Some are dressed well, others have duct tape holding together the seams in their coats. They speak English, Spanish, French, and Polish.

Some, like me, are cooking-challenged, going for the microwavable foods and simple-to-heat soups and pastas. But others shop the way my husband does, with meals in mind, viewing ingredients and thinking about potential dishes. In fact, we have one shopper who cooks amazing meals and arranges them in beautiful presentations that he catalogues through pictures. He posts them on Facebook with links to the organization website to demonstrate how you can make healthy and delicious meals with only ingredients from the pantry and a little imagination: pineapple chicken, chicken with spinach, chicken tacos, grilled tuna steaks, rice balls, desserts made from frozen fruit. He’s telegenic and practical. We tell him, “You’re better than Rachel Ray.” He replies, “That’s what my wife says!”

I can no longer count how many times shoppers say, “Thank you. Thank all of you. It is a blessing that you are here.”  At first all the talk of God was a little jarring for me, especially when a lay minister grabbed my hand and launched into an impromptu group prayer to give thanks for the Pantry volunteers, but now I’ve learned to take it in stride and am glad for the comfort their faith gives them in this harsh world.

Over the last month, I’ve been bringing used books from my mother-in-law’s apartment as we clean it out after she died. The pantry has a few small shelves in the waiting area with books that shoppers can take home or look at while waiting. I left a number of dictionaries, thesauruses, and many children’s books. An elderly man came through the pantry with a Webster’s Ninth edition dictionary already in his cart. I asked him about the books and he said, “I’ve always wanted a dictionary!” I can’t stop thinking about that. I used to read dictionaries and encyclopedias for fun when I was kid. My house was filled with them. I’ve checked back on those shelves and there is not one dictionary or thesaurus left. The Klutz-series of books with built-in watercolors and nice paper are gone too.

One of the volunteers noticed that some people hesitated to take cans that didn’t have pull tops and she brought in a few can openers for what is called the Extras shelf. They were gone within an hour. Today I brought in 10 more and they too flew off the shelves. No one thinks about these low-tech analogue products anymore, but there is a tremendous need for the simplest of things: soap, shampoo, toothpaste and toothbrushes, and women’s sanitary napkins, all expensive items that are necessities if you’re job hunting.

Today we were asked to stop all activities for 5 minutes and join with shoppers, other volunteers, and employees for a small gathering in the front hall mid-morning.  The YWCA has for some years chosen April 27th to pledge to stand against racism, and the Pantry decided to join in that effort. I admit that I thought this was going to be pretty hokey and uncomfortable. I felt very privileged and inauthentic standing there with my pledge paper. I tend toward the cynical, am not a joiner, certainly not a believer, and I have trouble with kumbaya moments. But “my” shopper and I stopped what we were doing and joined the circle. We were given papers with the pledge printed out, and we stood in a circle—shoppers, volunteers, and staff–reciting the pledge together, which begins, “I take this pledge, fully aware that the struggle to overcome and eliminate racism will not end with a mere pledge, but calls for an ongoing transformation within myself and society.”

After we finished reading the entire pledge, we were asked if anyone wished to say anything. There was silence for a few seconds. Then a pantry customer spoke. “Well,” he said, “we all need to care for each other. That’s what it’s about. We just need to take care of each other.”  Another shopper nodded and said, “We have to remember: there are more good people out there than bad.” The shopper I had been taking through the store said, “We have to speak up when we see something wrong. Not just take our phones out and take pictures. We have to speak up right then!”

I was near tears by this point. Fortunately we all headed back to what we had been doing before the Pledge was read. Those with the least reason to have faith in humanity had the most faith. That restored some of my lost faith in America in 2016.

4 thoughts on “The Circle

  1. Poignant avoiding cliché. Bravo! We all need to remember to acknowledge acts of justice and of caring, acts of love.

  2. So fragile, the seat we perch upon. None foresee the bottom dropping out, and being left, with nothing. My beliefs are abstract, and I share them with few. But I gladly say, God bless those who lend the helping hand, to those whose place has vanished. Hunger has no place in a world as rich as ours. But there it is, in every corner of our county. We should all be required to spend a moment in the shoes of the pantry, for others, and for our own. Thank you for a lens through which to see. Keep your hands on the keyboard, and on your heart.

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