The Biggest Challenge of Food Pantries
I live in a relatively small town.
I regularly see a familiar face at the grocery store, the bank, picking up a pizza for dinner. My kids joke we can’t go anywhere quickly because I’m bound to bump into someone and chit chat too long. Guilty as charged. It’s one of my favorite perks of Small Town, USA life.
For 40 plus weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic, I have greeted and welcomed hundreds of now familiar faces to our food pantry each week. I know their names, their families, their knitting projects, their online schoolwork struggles, even their dogs’ names. They’re not just random cars in line, they’re now friends.
As the weeks drag on, I’ve noticed I see a lot more of my “food pantry friends” out in “real life” – not just at our weekly distribution. Many are happy to see me and chat for more than the 60 seconds we get in our weekly long line. But I have noticed – in enough instances to now be keenly aware – some of those familiar faces are not as eager to see me out and about. There are even those who go out of their way to avoid me.
At first, I thought it was just me. Maybe they honestly didn’t recognize me. I am wearing a mask, hat, and sunglasses most days. But the more times it happened, the more I began to suspect it was a direct avoidance. My curiosity often gets the best of me. I needed to know. I decided to casually, yet inconspicuously, dig a little deeper.
“I thought I saw you at the grocery store the other day…” I said to a guest I knowingly saw out earlier in the week. I was ready to playfully pounce on him for not recognizing me. We’ve become friends after all. How could he not recognize me!
He looked at me with soft and sullen eyes and confessed: “I saw you, but I was with my wife and she doesn’t know…” His voice trailed off, and then it sadly all made perfect sense to me.
His wife doesn’t know he comes to a food pantry.
I casually played it off but I couldn’t help but feel his shame. The shame of associated with asking for help.
I get it now.
I see the husbands too proud to let their families know the ship is on unsteady waters.
I see the mothers’ cars with stacks of reusable grocery bags ready to inconspicuously repackage their food to look like a weekly grocery store haul.
I get it.
No one wants to be a regular at the food pantry.
No one wants to admit they could use a hand feeding their families.
No one wants to ask for help.
The fear of asking for food assistance is one of the biggest threats to fighting food insecurity. But here’s the catch: asking for help is so much easier than being out of options.
And that is why our team of volunteers shows up every week. Our food pantry doesn’t just give out food, we provide options. We provide a little bit of breathing room for those who feel like they’re constantly gasping for air.
We are not a hand out – we are a helping hand. Collectively, we need to do better to recognize the difference.
As for having so many new familiar faces in this small town, I have learned to take pause and follow their lead. For most, they greet me with open arms, but for others the food pantry line will continue to be our secret clubhouse, and as long as they continue to show up and see us as an option, their secret will be safe with me.