Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Hunger in the Heartland: Reflections from Our Food Pantry

The US Department of Ag's figures in May broke a record: 34.4 million people used the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program of aid to low-income people. Now one out of every nine Americans qualifies for "food stamps." That's an increase of over 2 percent from the previous month. And it's a staggering increase of 6 million new qualifiers over the past year.

Our central city neighborhood runs a small food pantry that provides a food supplement to anyone who lives nearby. Once every 60 days a household can receive a box of food, whether or not they receive food stamps. One simply shows a photo ID to receive the free supplement of food. I volunteer at the pantry six hours a week; I see the face of hunger close to home.

From my "ringside seat" on the need in the heart of this nation, I know that the USDA figures are right. But they don't go far enough. They don't reveal the human degradation of being down so far that you must ask for food.

When I started working here a few years ago, I suspected that I'd be scammed or taken advantage of by people who were "working the system." There's some of that from time to time, but I am far more often impressed by the opposite phenomenon. Viewing the records as I check people in, I might comment to them: "We haven't seen you here since last year." And they respond: "I try not to come here unless I'm really in need." or "I don't like to come here too often. But I got laid off..."

Our numbers more than tripled last month, compared to last year. In August 2008 we served 23 households; August 2009 we served 81. We don't have a sponsoring organization, relying on free-will donations to provide funding for food that we can purchase for less than $.20 a pound at the River Bend Food Bank. Everyone who works at the pantry is a volunteer, as are the few women who head it up. We're just people helping other people.

Our patrons often share their stories with us, explaining their family's situation. We try to listen as best we can. When it's possible, we stretch the rules to provide for exceptional needs. Occasionally we encounter people who live in a tent or a car. We help families with kids, lots of single parents, the elderly and people who are challenged--mentally and physically. Sometimes I choke back tears. Sometimes I let them show.

Watching the news and volunteering in our neighborhood, I know that all is not well in our nation. You can read statistics. Or you can observe the reality at a local food pantry. I bet you'll benefit more from the latter. I know I do.


susan said...

This summer in downtown Portland has been the worst I've ever seen of people who are obviously either very poor or homeless. I can't even imagine what things must be looking like in the heartland where so many have lost jobs or where you are either.

We can only do our best. I hope you and your husband are well.

Liberality said...

Unemployed people coming to the library are getting angry and desperate. We see more and more of them. They need to use computers to file unemployment and some don't know how to use the computers. We do a lot of teaching of simple computer skills like how to use the mouse, get an email address, etc.

We had a food drive around Christmas last year and we will probably do another one. The food we accepted had to be in good shape, boxed or canned, and not out of date. We deducted library fines to encourage people to give food. The food went to a food bank in town.

I wish more people would get more directly involved with their community. You are a good role model!

thepoetryman said...

Oh Border Explorer,
You've a good soul my friend. A soul wrapped in giving. Thank you.

Mary Ellen said...

I know in our area, even though some would think it's affluent, there are more people in need of help from the food pantry and other local help centers. In fact, I was just reading the church bulletin last Sunday and they have been asking for extra donations for the food pantry because they've already begun to run out of food which should have lasted them until November. I've also noticed that those who do have jobs and managing to keep their heads above water are holding back on charitable donations for fear that they may be laid off from their jobs. The good thing, however, is that there seems to be an increase in volunteerism.

Mary Ellen said...

Oh..and what poetryman just said, you have a very good soul. ;-)

Dianne said...

if more people did what you did there would be more understanding and less posturing

Border Explorer said...

It is great to hear from all of you. Thank you so much for your good wishes and for the comments you shared. What a wonderful collection of people commented here! I am blessed!

Dom Helder Camera said something like: "When I give bread to the poor they call me a saint, but when I ask why they are poor they call me a communist." Now you people would not get upset by my questioning of "the system" but others do. Too bad for them, I say.

Anyway, thanks again. I'm finally getting my blogging organized and hope to once again blog systematically, being more participative as I used to be.
Thanks for bearing with me through this lifestyle of mine. Our semi-annual uprooting (N/S journey) disrupts things more than I'd like.