I help to distribute food to thousands of people weekly. While giving back, I have a unique opportunity to take in a little more than I give. Volunteering gives me a chance to listen and engage with food pantry guests. But, it can be challenging when you are serving so many people in a line that winds down the street, out of sight, and just keeps coming. When safety is a priority, it’s easy to miss something, especially when conversation must be short.
For nearly a year, since COVID-19 forced a change in the way things were, I’ve been blessed to be part of an awesome crew at a mobile food pantry. For nearly a year, week after week, we load food into car trunks and hand out to those walking in amidst whatever weather the week brings – cool breezes, fair skies, torrential rains, oppressive heat, snow.
Recently, it’s been more snow. These conditions force another pivot, something we’ve become accustomed to. My normal station at the food pantry, the walk-in overflow and car line, became a walk-in only station about a block away from the regular hustle and bustle. I had loads of backup support if needed, but because I knew it would likely be slow with merely foot traffic, I decided to go it alone. My assessment of the pace was correct, and it gave me a chance to slow down, listen more, and time for extended conversation. I thought I’d share some snippets of what I heard and learned.
These people are senior citizens, one who just lost her sister and always takes an extra milk for her 96-year-old neighbor who cannot get out.
A married couple with a slew of health issues are so kind and always ask me how I am.
An 86-year-old woman, who came here from Russia, reminds me often how lucky we are to live in the USA and be free.
Another, who has Parkinson’s and cancer, has stopped his chemo treatments because the nausea is overwhelming. He only takes a little food, because he is never sure he’ll be able to eat too much of it. He talks about his daughter in Detroit who is expecting his second grandchild and hopes the baby is born into a world without COVID and masks.
These people are veterans, one who rides in on his jazzy wheelchair. In the beginning, he was often very grumpy to me because he is sick and can’t get answers. He’s limited on what foods he can eat, and his life didn’t turn out anything close to what he expected. After a few months of seeing me each week, he said, “Thank you for being kind. Everyone here is so kind. I appreciate that.” He’s much less grumpy now, and takes much more food.
Another takes an extra bag for his 80-year-old dad who can’t get out.
These people are mothers, fathers, and families with children. One mom with two young kids always picks up for her neighbor who lets her borrow a cart. She shares recipes that can be made from the food given out. There were tears this week because her Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits were cut because her husband made too much after receiving a one-time, small bonus in his paycheck.
These people are a retired pharmaceutical sales rep who was based out of New York City in the 80s when the AIDS epidemic seemed hopeless. He was one of the first to get new drug treatments into the hands of doctors. He moved to Pennsylvania from Florida, a year ago, after being a caregiver for his parents who passed. Then, the pandemic hit. He said, “I like to come here because of the workers. You have the best demeanor and dress.” Maybe it was my tie-dye “be kind” cap, but it was probably Nikki’s pineapple pants or Pam’s cupcake hat or piggy mittens. More likely, it’s the atmosphere of respect and dignity we always offer.
These people I encounter walk or ride in avoiding snow banks, or, some lucky ones push and pull their carts right through them. Having a cart is like hitting the jackpot. People take as much as they can carry. That’s not a lot for the woman with the weak arms from an unknown-to-me health issue, also affecting her balance and sight.
Last distribution, one pantry guest volunteered to shovel snow, and a passerby stopped to chat. I offered her food, but she said, “No, I’m good. I’m back to work now.” She’d been laid off from her school-based job and went months without unemployment because of the backlog in claims. She said she wished she’d known about the food pantry then. I told her that I did too; and if she finds herself in-need again, we were here every Wednesday.
I let her know, “Many working people need that extra boost because paychecks only go so far.”
She understood that well, and reassured me, “Thank you. I’ll be okay.” She pointed to the car line, “Look at all those people who really need it. We live in the richest country in the world. It shouldn’t be like this.”
But, here we are. It was this way before COVID-19 too, but it’s just more prevalent and visible now.
Those people are our neighbors, co-workers, parents, grandparents, sisters, brothers, friends, children’s classmates, and their teachers. They are sweet, kind, caring, and maybe lonely. Some have ongoing issues; others have found themselves where they never expected to be.
Those people are like us or could easily be us.
I’m always grateful for the opportunity to be part of this food pantry, but recently, I was especially grateful for an opportunity to slow down, listen, see and learn even more.