You may have heard the ads on the radio, “What makes that man in the elevator who looks just like you different from you? He's the one out of six Americans who is hungry.” In my state of New Mexico, I've heard on the news that it is more like one out of five. I've never been hungry, unless you count missing breakfast or having to wait for a late lunch or dinner. But my mother grew up hungry. She wasn't starving, and I don't think she was even malnourished. But she was hungry. She was one of thirteen children, whose father worked in the railroad yard when he was well enough, and she once told me of standing in the doorway with the other younger children, watching the older ones eat (they had to work as well as go to school so they were fed first), hoping there would be enough left to satisfy the younger ones, to fill her own stomach. My father was successful and my mother certainly never went hungry as his wife, yet she wouldn't dream of wasting a scrap of food. Sunday evening was leftover night, when she pulled every little bit of food from the week's dinners out of the frig for finishing up. “Waste not, want not” was the motto around our house.
I happen to believe that in the richest country in the world, no one should go hungry. I also believe everyone has a right to a quality education and adequate healthcare. I believe these basic services should be provided by government and people should not have to look to charity to meet their basic needs. But I have finally had to admit that whether I like it or not, my government is not seeing to it that no one goes hungry and many people in this country are dependent on charity to eat adequately. So I bit the bullet and went off to my local food pantry to volunteer.
Every Monday morning, from 9 until we're done (usually for an hour and a half to two and a half hours) we volunteers break down bulk pinto beans, white rice and instant oats into brown paper bags ready for distribution. On Thursdays this food, along with perishables and packaged goods, is distributed by another set of volunteers (some people do both days). The Monday crew usually numbers around a dozen, but varies from week to week. We are young and old (mostly old), men, women and children (mostly women). My guess is that our economic status goes from rich (or at least upper middle class) to poor but I don't know. Sometimes the mood is convivial, almost like a party, and sometimes it is quieter, just murmured conversations at one end of the tables or another. One woman, whom I shall call M, is deferred to as having been there the longest. She is big and strong, Hispanic (my community is primarily Hispanic) and either 81 (“
going on 82”) or 82 (“going on ...”), I can't remember which. She doesn't
like to be told what to do but loves to tell the rest of us what to do and we're happy to comply. She used to be a professional baker and it's not hard to imagine her beating thousands of loaves of bread into submission. She won't allow any waste – every last bean gets put into a bag, the burlap bags that the bulk beans come in are carefully opened so as to be reusable, thought she hasn't decided yet exactly what she'll use them for. She reminds me of my mother.
Since the pantry is sponsored by the Episcopal Church, most of the volunteers are church goers. One woman asked me if I was a Christian and when I said no she said I'm not either, assuming that I was, like her, Jewish. When M asked me where I was from (I've moved around a bit) and then whether I belonged to a church (I don't) she said “Well, I guess you just never stayed any one place long enough to join up.” “No, that's not it.” I said. “I have no interest in organized religion but I do attempt to meditate on a regular basis, and I don't believe anyone in the richest country in the world should have to go hungry.” She didn't say much after that, but the next Monday she grabbed me and gave me a very warm hug, so I guess she had decided I was OK anyway.
I've occasionally mentioned that I'm volunteering at the food bank and had some interesting responses. One friend, a bit of a leftie like me, said, “You know, those people over there don't believe in government, they think everyone should have to depend on charity.” He may be right, I don't know. But my response was that I do believe in government and my government is not feeding its hungry people, so somebody has to do it. An acquaintance, who is a member of the Episcopalian Church, said “I went to that Thursday distribution and there were people driving up in brand new trucks to collect their food.” Again, he may be right. But the program supplies food to up to 2,000 people a week; and if a dozen households, say, are taking advantage of the program, that doesn't seem like a reason to deny food to the rest.
I was curious about some of the nuts and bolts of the program and received these answers to a few questions I asked of the food pantry coordinator, Marilyn Farrow.
How long has the food pantry been in existence?
In excess of 15 years - maybe as many as 20.
How much has it grown over that time? How many people does it serve now? How is that number derived?
When I began about 6 years ago if we gave away 50 bags of food in a week it was a big deal! Now we are giving 10 times that - 500-600 bags each week. On each of the last two Thursdays we saw 470 different families coming for assistance. When a person arrives, they declare the size of their family. A family of 1-3 people gets 1 bag, 4-7 gets 2 bags, and 8 or more gets 3. They then fill those bags from whatever we have to offer.
[note: I'm involved only with the breakdown of the bulk food. Perishables, and packaged foods are distributed as well. One of the volunteers told me flip-top cans are preferred because they're easier to open if you're living in your car.]
What is its connection to the Episcopal Church, either locally or nationally?
The food pantry is completely the responsibility of St James - our Episcopal faith teaches that we are the "hands of Christ" in caring for those " in sorrow, need, sickness or any other adversity…." It is our individual and collective obligation to reach out.
Is there a means test or do you distribute to anyone who shows up?
Every June we register potential recipients. We do this for two reasons - we are required to do so to receive free food (commodities) from the regional food bank, Food Depot in Santa Fe. We report quarterly to them with statistics about the ethnicity, ages, and income levels of our recipients (whether above or below poverty level as defined by the federal government), I take the information gleaned during registration to estimate those numbers. Each week we record family size of all our customers thereby determining a "number fed" each week. Our all time high was Thanksgiving week of 2011 when we put more than one meal on the table for more than 2,000 people.
[note: my entire county has a population of approximately 31,500 people]
Secondly, we give something "extra" at Easter and Thanksgiving, and need some way to control numbers of those who receive the bonus - traditionally it has been major protein (hams, turkeys) - but for financial reasons that is unlikely to continue in 2012.
While we record income, we do not have a means test, per se. We believe Jesus did not feed the qualified hungry, he fed the hungry. People's circumstances can change in an instant, and because our offerings are modest we feel confident if people come, they are in need.
How does demand change seasonally?
Not really. In previous years it did, but currently there does not seem to be much variance.
Where does the food come from?
We purchase from Food Depot, and Super Save grocery. We receive free locally grown produce from Taos Community Economic Development Council (TCEDC) garden, Bob Pedersen's Tierra Lucera community garden, and huge quantities from Food Depot. In 2011 we distributed more than 129 tons of food.
What is the budget of the program and what does the money go towards?
We spend between $79,000 and $95,000 annually.All money goes toward food and some supplies (bags, rubber bands, etc.). We are a 100% volunteer labor force. Our volunteers come from all faiths in Taos as well as a few un-churched! Many of the volunteers are former and present customers - all working together to help our friends and neighbors in need.
[note: Un-churched? Not a bad description of me, actually.]
I still have mixed feelings about what I'm doing. But I continue to show up every Monday morning (because I can see that it helps to know that a core group will always be there), continue to give a mental nod to my mother, continue to be grateful that I will probably never find myself on the receiving end of food charity. But if I do, hey, I know a lot of things you can do with a bag of pinto beans.