This Saturday I went to the food bank. I’ve never done that before and I was a little nervous. I’m not one of those people who needs to go to the food bank. I’m part of the demographic that gives to food banks. I’m one of those people who brings in a couple of cans of soup and a box of cereal whenever my workplace or college is having a food drive and forgets about things like poverty the rest of the year. I’m not living in ‘poverty,’ whatever that is. Or so I’ve told myself.
I’m very lucky there is a food bank in my neighborhood – God Provides Ministry. (I googled it.) It’s even closer than my local grocery store, though located on a back street in a small warehouse district. I rode my bicycle slowly down the cracked and pitted street, looking at the signs on the buildings. A family with two little kids was walking on the sidewalk, each person carrying at least two sacks. I recognized a few of the homeless people who roam the neighborhood. Then I was there. I locked my bicycle to the gate all of the businesses and most of the houses in this town seem to have. No turning back now.
There was a man at a makeshift desk just inside the open door, speaking to a Latina woman who was filling out a form. The bulletin board next to him was full of church flyers for prayer services and faith healing. I waited a little nervously. I didn’t know how this worked. Would I have to fill out a form? Get ‘approved’ as ‘in need’ or something? Lots of welfare programs and charities won’t help college students on the belief that we’re part of the voluntary poor. We could drop out and get a job if we wanted to. Would they ask my religion? Would they try to convert me when they found out I’m not a Christian? Then the man looked up and greeted me.
“Hello. How are you today?”
“Hi. Okay, I guess.” How am I? I’m at a food bank, literally hat in hand, so things can’t be that good, right? But, other than that, yeah, I’m okay. “Um, I’ve never been here before,” I told him, for lack of anything better to say.
“Well let me tell you a little about how things work. We provide a one-week family pack, which is one-hundred pounds of food,” he gestured to a line of already packed carts. “There’s fruits and vegetables and staples. The milk, dairy, and meat we freeze before the expiration date, so when you get it, the sell-by date may have already passed, but it’s still good,” he assured me.
“Um, well, it’s just me. I don’t have a family. I’m just a college student and things with my financial aid haven’t worked out, so I just need enough to get me by until I get my aid check.” Maybe they don’t help single folks?
“How long do you think that’ll be?”
“Okay. Well, let me get one of the guys here,” he looked at the men walking in and out of the warehouse’s loading door, carting the family packs out to people’s cars. He spoke to a thin Latino guy in a blue flannel shirt. “Hey, you busy? Can you take her back and help her pick some things out? You rode your bicycle?” he asked me, looking at the helmet dangling from my bag.
“Yeah, but I have a basket.”
I held my hands out. “About so. It can hold a few bags.”
“Okay, well, this guy here will take you back and help you get enough for a few days. Then you can come back and get some more if you need it.”
“Hi,” the guy in question said, holding out his hand and smiling. “I’m James.”
“Hi, James. I’m Monica.” I smiled self-conciously.
“So, let’s get you some bags and pick some stuff out.”
I followed him back into the warehouse, smiling and nodding at other guys I passed. One sign said “Do not tip the staff. They are on work rehabilitation.” James grabbed a half dozen plastic grocery sacks and headed for some stacked boxes full of produce. Some of it was on the verge of going bad, but most of it looked okay. James was eager to help me fill the bags.
“You like these?” he asked, holding out some onions. “How about mushrooms? You like broccoli? How about corn?”
I said yes and no, nodded, and put some carrots, potatoes, onions, corn, tomatoes, and the broccoli in the bag, forgoing the mushrooms. I also found a couple of apples that weren’t too bruised. Then we moved on the dairy section. They only had whole gallons of milk, which wouldn’t really fit on my bicycle. I also declined the eggs when James asked (eggs on a bike isn’t usually a good idea), but my eyes lit up at the orange juice. Something sweet would sure be a change from the rice and peanut butter sandwiches I’d been subsisting on.
“Okay, now, maybe just some bread. I really don’t need much.” I kept repeating that. I don’t need much. There are so many people who need help more than I do. I didn’t want to take too much. Someone else would need it. James kept asking if I needed this or that, but I managed to get out of there with just the produce, orange juice, and a full loaf of bread. The two bags just fit in my basket. It was more than I had hoped for but perhaps less than I needed. I gave a final thanks and handshake to James as he smiled and waved me out.
As I unlocked and loaded my bike, I wasn’t sure if the relief I felt was because I wouldn’t starve or because I had managed to get out of an uncomfortable situation. I peddalled home feeling considerable better than when I had left the house. That night I cut up the apples and cooked them on the stove to go with the last of my pancake mix and a couple of eggs stolen from my roommate. Since I started working out a couple of weeks ago, I’ve had a real craving for eggs and Harry hasn’t begrudged me. Nor has he pestered me about the rent, which I advised would be late. I have a good roommate.
Yesterday, I went with my classmate, Chris, to do his weekly grocery shopping at Wal-Mart. In addition to his frozen dinners, protein shakes, and licorice to share with his National Gaurd unit on drill this weekend, he also bought food for my cat. My cat thanks him, as do I. It’s very generous considering we’re both in the same boat of waiting for our checks.
I’m still nervous. They might have our checks by Friday, but “no promises.” I could ask to borrow a little money from friends and family, but I feel like I’ve been doing that too often. I keep applying for jobs, but without much hope. But I’m also grateful. I’m grateful to Harry and Chris and James and God Provides Ministry. Whether ‘He’ provides or not, people certainly do, and I’m thankful enough for that to even send a quick prayer, just in case.