I volunteered at the food pantry last Friday like I used to earlier in the year. Somewhere along the way I stopped working there—I'm not sure why.
In the past, I was so discouraged with the crap we were giving away, and I couldn't imagine anyone cheating the system for that stuff–there are always a few. We handed out only canned goods, and most of it was 90% salt and 0% nutrition. We filled bags with cheap soup, cheap vegetables, pasta, pasta, and more pasta. But it was all there was to give at the time.
Now the system has improved so that it almost looks likes a store. People are handed a big sack and guided down a line of tables filled with an assortment of food. The selection varies from week to week, but they can choose from cereals, canned stuff, juice, yogurt, boxed stuff, cheese, frozen meat, rice, cookies, fresh pears, onions, and sacks of potatoes.
I was excited to see huge boxes of FoodThatShouldTasteGood chips, my very favorite snack chips in the whole wide world. They're organic and gluten-free and yummy, but they're also unfamiliar, and people were passing them by. I opened up a bag and offered samples, and people started taking them after that. They took them, that is, until a little boy who was in line with his mother walked off with my sample bag and ate the chips before he even got to the potatoes. I didn't have the heart to take them away, so I opened up another bag and scolded anyone who turned their noses up at something labeled "multi-grain."
I have lived in Chicago and strolled through New York and Paris and London where homeless people beg for change, and I have seen extreme poverty in São Paulo and Rio that was like a documentary on world hunger. But on Friday I was shocked by the need in my own town. I'm sure there were people there who didn't have money for food because they had made stupid choices or because they were lazy, but you can't tell by looking at someone why they are in line at a food pantry. And like I've said before, it's not my place to ask. Our responsibility is to offer help and let the burden of proof rest on the ones on the receiving end.
Beyond the shock of being surrounded by hungry people in one of the richest countries in the world, I was struck by how friendly everyone was. The "shoppers" were gracious and grateful, quick to say thank you and careful not to take more than their share. There wasn't a scowl in the room for the three solid hours I was there. Everyone from the people picking up groceries to the people stocking the tables to the people helping to carry extra-heavy bags acted like we were all at a party instead of a food pantry for people needing emergency food.
Even the little crazy lady who whispers to herself nonstop and smells like last year's cabbage and beans seemed happy and remembered to mumble a "thank you" in that tiny voice that would make you think she was a China doll if her face weren't lined with wrinkles and her hair weren't wild with the wind. I just wanted to take her home, make her take a bath, and give her a cup of tea.
If I can remember from Friday to Friday when the pantry is open, I'd like to volunteer there more often. There's something about the experience that makes you happy even though you are saddened by what you see and makes you smile even though a part of you thinks you ought to be crying.